Threats show dark side of blog world

Updated: Apr 2 2007, 05:39am hrs
Death threats against a popular tech blogger last week have ignited an online firestorm about free speech, civility and sexism on the internet. The threats against Kathy Sierra, an author who promotes the notion of emphasising the needs of the user in web site design, have sparked a webwide debate on the nature of online discourse.

The incident and its aftermath have drawn back the curtain on a computer culture in which the more outrageous the comment, the more attention it gets. In addition, many of the newest tools of the internet are coming into play. Blogs and online communities were supposed to herald an era in which the wisdom of crowds guided online behaviour to a higher plane. Instead, instances of mob rule appear to be leading the discussion into the sewer.

Some observers believe the incident eventually could serve as a warning to web communities to increase accountability and stamp out the vitriol that characterises much of online conversation.

Sierra detailed the incident on her blog, and the site has received more than 1,200 comments since then. Hundreds of bloggers have offered up their own posts in her defense, including many from women in the tech world who say theyve been the victims of similar threats and harassment. In Sierras case, no one is clear about why she would be singled out for such particularly nasty threats.

Ever since the whole blog storm erupted, a lot of people are writing about this on their own blogs in support of Kathy, said David Sifry, founder and CEO of Technorati, a San Francisco firm. He cited prominent tech bloggers like Robert Scoble, Thomas Hawk and Hugh MacLeod for linking to Kathys post and showing solidarity for her. Thats the powerful aspect of community, standing up in opposition to the kind of abusive, misogynistic comments that were posted.

The incident has its roots in a dispute that started online last month when Tara Hunt, a tech activist from San Francisco, posted on her blog about the importance of having a higher purpose in web work. A wide-ranging discussion ensued, centered on some posts by Chris Locke, who had achieved some fame in internet marketing circles as co-author of a 1999 book.

Locke, Hunt and others then engaged in a debate, which spilled over to other blogs. Hunt accused Locke and his cohorts of behaving like the mean kids in high school, and Locke then started a critical web site called meankids.org. Then Sierra defended Hunt on that web site.

According to Sierras online account, someone then posted a call for a noose around her neck. Anonymous posters put up pictures of Sierras head next to a noose and started making sexual comments about her. Sierra also received anonymous threats on her own site. Then, meankids.org went down, and a new site, unclebobism.com, went up. It featured a digitally altered photo of Sierra being strangled in womens panties and included graphic and sexually violent comments. Sierra was alarmed and notified police. She canceled plans to speak at OReillys tech conference in San Diego. She posted the news, and the blogosphere went wild.

Locke published his defence, saying that he did not make the threats, that the meankids.org site was meant to be amusing and a lot of fun. He also acknowledged that he is a critic of Sierra and stated that he would not apologise to her. He said that her singling him out for responsibility for the attacks on her amounted to character assassination.

NY Times