Our Prized Human ‘Six Degrees of Non-Separation’ Failed IT Blogger Kathy Sierra, and the Blogosphere Now Needs a Double Dose of Sack-Cloth-and-Ashes

There is a breathtaking, cause-for-soul-searching, if also morbidly fascinating, laboratory experiment on the human brain and behavior happening at the moment on the increasingly mob-minded “bizarre bazaar” called the Blogosphere. It is available for observing and pondering to anyone who cares to click through to various blog sites.

The proximate initiator—read that “cause” and now also “cause célèbre”—is one Kathy Sierra. She has been considered a prominent Information Technology (IT) blogger on the subject of cognition and computers. Her blog was/is called Creating Passionate Users. As of 6 p.m. (PST) on March 28, her blog’s laissez-faire policy of allowing all comments to appear unedited and anonymous was suspended. In fact, she has also suspended her own comments. As she explained in her final (to now) post:

“As I type this, I am supposed to be in San Diego, delivering a workshop at the ETech conference. But I’m not. I’m at home, with the doors locked, terrified. For the last four weeks, I’ve been getting death threat comments on this blog. But that’s not what pushed me over the edge. What finally did it was some disturbing threats of violence and sex posted on two other blogs… blogs authored and/or owned by a group that includes prominent bloggers. People you’ve probably heard of. People like respected Cluetrain Manifesto co-author Chris Locke (aka Rageboy).”

Unless for whatever reason the entire blog has been taken down or at least the current content removed by the time you check, you can see for yourself why Sierra was so disturbed by clicking on the URL for her blog that I’ve provided below. There were also postings on two other blogs that have now been taken down because of the furor stirred up by Sierra’s revelations. Both involved, among others, some of them also prominent bloggers, the aforementioned Chris Locke. One was called meankids.org and the other, unclebobism.wordpress.com.

Sierra says it was a posting on meankids.org that sent her to the police. “They posted a photo of a noose next to my head, and one of their members (posting as ‘Joey’) commented “the only thing Kathy has to offer me is that noose in her neck size.” [italics hers]. She says law enforcement officers agreed with her that this posting was a violation of federal law and are investigating.

Prior to the death threats, Sierra said she tried to view the incoming anonymous, personally targeted remarks as just more of the same. That is, more of the Internet culture being the Internet culture. Simply more “flaming” by “trolls,” as Netheads might and do often style it. This despite a steady fusillade of blatantly sexist garbage one would hope to encounter only in the company of a pack of drunken male sociopaths who haven’t been fed in several days. Here’s one not-for-family-viewing example she provided in her blog finale: “fuck off you boring slut… i hope someone slits your throat and cums down your gob.”

But even after all this, the experiment gets stranger and stranger. Most interesting of all is the nature, tone and content of Sierra’s defenders—those bloggers and blog responders who are incensed at such behavior on the Net. To their credit, their anger and calls for changed behaviors in the conduct of Internet dialogue have been admirable. One well-known IT blogger—PodTech.net’s Robert Scoble—suspended his own blog for a week in sympathy and support of Sierra. Even “Cluetrain Manifesto” co-author Locke quickly took down his Sierra-bashing blog sites (although he immediately launched an anti-Sierra counterattack, claiming that he was unjustly tarred with a brush of alleged complicity in the attacks on her, of which he professed total innocence and lack of prior knowledge.)

In general, Sierra’s defenders have pointed fingers at two disturbing issues visible in all this. One is misogyny—the hatred of women—which one Salon.com writer (a woman) says “grows wild on the Web” and which, apparently, is particularly problematic among IT blog readers. The other is the danger of allowing blog readers to respond anonymously. While it would seem to be a no-brainer, it appears that many of the Blogosphere’s movers and shakers are only now beginning to own up to the insanity of letting people post things without identification.

In the opinion of your always-humble scribe, what the Kathy Sierra Episode and its ongoing aftermath cry out for is a broader, deeper, smarter context. What is really going on here? And, where to we look for answers that are more meaningful than merely eliminating (not that it will actually happen) anonymous blog postings on the Web?

What I would like to have seen more of, and in fact, have seen nothing of thus far, in this debate is a recognition that what gets violated most in vicious attacks like those on Kathy Sierra is the ability of humans to live together socially and, yes, morally. The first quality—social living—is something found deep in the annals of even nonprimate behavior. As primatologist Frans de Waal has noted (in no less than six popular books), dogs, wolves, chimps and macaques are social. And, sometimes, of course, even we humans. “Instead of empathy being an endpoint,” de Waal writes in his latest work, Primates and Philosophers, “it may be the starting point.”

Indeed!

New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade spelled it out beautifully the other day in a piece about de Waal, evolutionary biologist Marc Hauser and others investigating the origins of human morality. Sociality (or the ability to live together) is built on four kinds of behavior, the first of which is, indeed, empathy, followed by the ability to learn and follow social rules, reciprocity and peacemaking. And even though it is painfully obvious that many humans, especially those who post vicious, anonymous, vile, demeaning, anti-social blog items on IT-oriented blogs (among others) can’t muster these qualities in sufficient quantity, other primates can and do.

What the human brain adds to what the brains of chimpanzees and rhesus monkeys, for example, can do are two additional, more sophisticated behaviors. One is the ability to enforce moral codes with punishments, rewards and the enhancement of reputations. The other is bringing judgment and reason to bear.

It is only when all six of these behaviors are acknowledged and are viable in the affairs of us humans that we stand a chance of living without fear. In the absence of these six, sooner or later, we usually go to war.

Because of absence of these Six Degrees of Non-Separation in the Kathy Sierra Episode, she now lives in fear.

She writes:

“Most of all, I now fully understand the impact of death threats. It really doesn’t make much difference whether the person intends to act on the threat… it’s the threat itself that inflicts the damage. It’s the threat that makes you question whether that ‘anonymous’ person is as disturbed as their comments and pictures suggest.

“It’s the threat that causes fear.

“It’s the threat that leads you to a psychiatrist and tranquilizers just so you can sleep without repeating the endless loop of your death by:
• throat slitting
• hanging
• suffocation
and don’t forget the sexual part…

“I have cancelled all speaking engagements.

“I am afraid to leave my yard.

“I will never feel the same. I will never be the same.”

The IT bloggers community needs to quit talking about whether or at what point the trolls “crossed the line” in flaming Kathy Sierra and do some heavy soul-searching about just what lines got crossed here and how to protect certain vital boundaries and qualities of social living and human civility to begin with.

Read Kathy Sierra’s final (at least for now) blog post: Death threats against bloggers are NOT “protected speech” (why I cancelled my ETech presentations)

Go here for Chris Locke’s comments: stay tuned

Nicholas Wade’s New York Times feature: Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior [Payment is required.]

Salon.com columnist Joan Walsh’s analysis: Men who hate women on the Web

Books of possible interest by Frans de Waal:
Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (The University Center for Human Values Series
Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are

Book of possible interest by Marc Hauser: Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong

Comment from Colorado reader:
The piece on blog terrorism was quite insightful. I would add that compassion is a needed social virtue. Unfortunately, the empathy that generates compassion usually comes from suffering—and these jokers have obviously not suffered enough. Recent research indicates that bullies do not suffer from poor self-esteem; rather, they have a very high self-regard, often unfounded, and abuse their world in a way that is justified by their megalomania. It would be amusing if they were identified as enemy combatants and played a stint at Gitmo. (Does this mean that I lack compassion?)

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