The Internet and the technical community are host to a toxic culture. This culture allows and even encourages personal attacks, threats, and misogyny. This week, Kathy Sierra’s experience with death threats forced it into the public discourse. There is of course no excuse for the behavior of the individuals who harrassed and threatened her. Yet they are only part of the problem. The solution rests not in finding, stopping, and punishing them (or helping them, for surely they are sad or sick) – although that is to be hoped for, it may be unlikely here and certainly is for the majority of such cases. It rests with others who give permission to such behavior – permission to hate.
I encountered this story via Tim Bray and others, but I’m going to concentrate on Slashdot. I pick Slashdot because it is a technical community, because I often find the discussion valuable, and because I don’t frequent the other places online that I understand are far worse. So it is on Slashdot that I have encountered a pattern of public permission for hatred. On one singular topic the community consistently breaks down and reveals its ugly side; that topic is women. The comments about women on Slashdot, the reactions of readers, and indeed my own behavior (or lack thereof) illustrate what I believe are several flawed attitudes which grant permission for bad behavior.
That’s Just How It Is
The Slashdot reaction to the Kathy Sierra story captures the problem attitudes1. There’s an acceptance – even a satisfaction – that this is “just how the Internet is”. It’s a “byproduct of the culture of the Internet . . . this sort of thing happens. . . . let’s try not to make more of it than it is.” This narrative of powerlessness in the face of human nature or technology is present even among those posters who support Kathy. One such poster encourages her not to allow unpleasantness to stop her from blogging, yet repeats the same story:
While I respect anyone in the public limelight, I think Kathy is being a tad bit naive. . . . Part of being a celebrity on any level for any topic means accepting that you gain both fame and infamy in parts.
If we simply accept bad behavior as inevitable, then we will do little or nothing to prevent it. Whether this is part of an statement of support or a criticism (see “Grow a Spine or Go Away” below), the perpetrators are given implicit permisson for their actions.
The argument itself – that this kind of behavior is natural or inevitable – is demonstrably wrong. As several posters noted, and as I recall from my experiences online in the early 1990s, the degree of aggression used to be much less. It is possible to construct more civil online communities (never mind ones without death threats) – even anonymous ones. Furthermore, as I will detail when I argue about the practical implications, the Internet will change, and the reaction to this kind of abuse will influence whether that change is for the better.
Grow a Spine or Go Away
This is the most toxic attitude of the lot, perhaps best captured by one poster concludes the following:
People are dicks. Life is hard. A lot of people say a lot of shit and don’t follow through. Either grow a spine or go away. There’s no sense being a big baby about it because someone hates you.
The individual who wrote this reports having been threatened in the past. I believe this is key: coping with abuse thus becomes a sort of hazing ritual required of those who participate online. The measure of an individual is the ability to withstand the pressure; one who fails – and apparently taking action against the abuse is a form of failure – is a “baby”.
This appears to be a particularly masculine approach (though I’m sure there are women who take this attitude, just as many or most men do not). Buried within it is a sort of misogyny, for it measures everyone by their ability to live up to a standard of toughness. In practice, women may be less likely to achieve that standard (because they are targetted more, because they complain) or to be excluded because they chose not to participate in a hateful or aggressive environment2.
The argument cloaks itself in a kind of claim to objectivity – the standard is fair because it’s the same for everyone. Yet this is clearly a lie, for the effect is to exclude people, like Kathy, whose participation is valuable. A common follow-on argument is that the alternative is distasteful censorship3. In the case of death threats this should be irrelevant. It’s also a red herring for other destructive (but legal) speech: cultural norms can be just as or more effective. The argument rejects not only the censorship but any more moderate form of social influence.
I mentioned that online aggression excludes people. This is particularly relevant for women because they are targets of sexual language, and I understand of more frequent attacks in general. This is tremendously damaging to the technical community, as many within that community have been complaining for years. To give one simple illustration, many among the Slashdot community are ardent supporters of the Linux operating system: they would like to see Linux in general use. I can’t imagine this happening if half the population is alienated like this. The same applies to other technical, political, and social concerns – if the technical community wants to be listened to, it can not afford to abuse people in general or women in particular.
The assumption that bad behavior is a fact of online life has a further implication. Those who hold it exclude themselves from processes of technical and social change. The current state of the Internet strikes a particular balance between freedom of speech and civility, between anonymity and responsibility, and so on. It is obvious to me from Kathy’s case that this balance must change. It will change: legislatures are already banning schools and children from using social networking sites. A variety of proposals aim to curb spam by eliminating anonymity. Some of these have been criticized for centralizing power and granting control to certain powerful players. If the Internet doesn’t clean up its act, someone else will. Those who pretend nothing can change because “that’s just how it is” will have no part in influencing how that happens.
The Rest of Us
The barbarians on the wire are a small minority. Some of them may sad or sick and immune to social pressure, but I suspect the majority act as they do because the social environment of the Internet gives them permission to hate. The rest of us, when we are silent, grant that permission. Saying “no” is hard – it takes time, it takes effort, it’s hard to do well. It needs saying. Those like myself who haven’t said it before or enough need to say it more often4. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s the responsibility we need to take for our Internet and our society.
1 I want this to be about ideas, not an attack on individuals, so I’m not linking to specific comments. If you really need context, you can search for the comments in the article.
2 I myself have often chosen to “go away”. As a geek, I find this aggression particularly distasteful as I have been a target in the past. I hate to see my tribe inflicting its hurts on others. Unfortunately the technical culture has long shared a similar tendency to reject those who faill or choose not to cope with complexity or perversity. For example, when the complexity of certain software is criticized, there are those who reject any attempt to make it easier to use on the basis that smart people wil learn it, and the stupid or unworthy will keep away. Such aggression ghettoizes the community.
3 One thoughtful poster contrasted the need for political freedom with the prospect of censorship. By the terms of the argument, I believe it’s correct – but I don’t accept the binary choice s/he presents:
[The Internet has] ALWAYS been a war zone. . . . Anyone who thinks it used to be all nice and safe is either delusional or wasn’t paying attention. If you have a forum where governments can’t track down and kill political opponents, you have a forum where nice people can’t track down and hold liable nogoodniks who froth hate. That sucks for the nice people, but I think our need for widespread, anonymous communication outweighs their discomfort.
4 There are many issues I consider writing about. Only a few make it to the screen. It’s easy to think a thing; hard to put it into words I won’t regret. I doubt I’ll post much more about this topic, but I hope I in future that I will at least say something when it’s obvious something needs to be said.