Kathy Sierra and online abuse

Kathy Sierra has written a post about her experiences with what we (mildly) call online harassment — a post that may not stay up for long, so if you’re at all inclined, please read it while you can. I just want to say a few words.

1) Understand where I’m coming from when I talk about things like this: I wrote a book on the history of the theological doctrine of original sin that more-or-less openly endorses the claim that we are all fallen, all broken, all tempted by wickedness and all sometimes successfully tempted. As Solzhenitsyn famously wrote, “The line between good and evil runs through the middle of every human heart.” So no wickedness surprises me.

2) Wickedness has to be called by its true name.

3) The people who have abused and harassed and threatened Kathy Sierra (and Lord knows how many other women with online lives) have acted wickedly. Their behavior is not trivial: it is malicious to the highest degree.

4) Psychological and emotional abuse is no less wicked than physical abuse; in some circumstances it can be worse.

5) It does no good to say that these are the acts of “a few bad apples” in the tech world. We have no way of knowing what percentage of men in the tech world act in this way — but in total numbers, there are certainly far more than “a few.” It would be impossible for a relative handful of men using multiple user names to do as much harassing of women as gets done in forums, in comment threads, on Twitter, and elsewhere online. Regardless of the percentages, there are a great many of these cruel and malicious men, and they are very active, and virtually nothing is being done to stop them.

6) What corruption is in my heart, or yours, is not something that can be determined solely by our actions. We may restrain our darkest impulses out of fear — fear of being shamed or punished. It is when we have no fear of exposure or retribution that we act according to our desires. The men who harass women online do so because they think they are protected. For the same reason, children will torment animals when they think adults can’t see — they know they have power over the animals, and rejoice in exploiting that power. For the same reason, in Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment, people administered electrical shocks to strangers because they were protected by the authority of the scientists who assigned them that task.

7) It is impossible to overstress how outraged the mobs at Reddit were when one of their nastiest and most prominent trolls was doxxed — this threatened everything they had come to take for granted about their ability to manage their online presence. We have no way of knowing how many men started controlling their cruel impulses after this exposure; probably not very many, since it could be seen as a one-off. But if exposure were more common, we might see some changes in behavior.

8) As the Milgram experiment shows, exposure isn’t the only thing people fear: the people who administered those electrical shocks had their own willingness to inflict torture exposed, but by and large they didn’t mind: they were “happy to be of service”. Similarly, weev has been exposed as one of Kathy Sierra’s abusers, but he has paid no evident social price for being so exposed: as Sierra points out, leading figures in the tech world chat with him in a friendly manner and treat him with respect. To some he is a hero, a martyr. He doesn’t need to be protected from exposure; he is protected by the good opinion and warm bonhomie of his fellow geeks.

9) The best analogy I can think of to this cadre of misogynist trolls is the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan arose not in the era of slavery but as a response to the abolition of slavery, when white men felt that their previously undisputed social dominance was in danger of being undermined. Only a relatively small number of men participated in the the Klan’s lynchings and burnings; but almost no one spoke out against them. Though they protected their identities with masks, those identities were nonetheless widely known; yet upstanding citizens greeted them on the street every day, looked them in the eye, smiled, shook their hands. Perfunctory legal inquiries sometimes led to slaps on the wrist, but the Klansmen were willing to risk that, because they paid no social price for their actions. Indeed, they were feared, respected, and sometimes secretly admired — and they knew it.

10) This is why Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate.” Similarly, in this situation the heart of the problem is not people like weev, but the moderate, reasonable, friendly people in the tech world who enable weev. The dedicated trolls are probably beyond correction — and are certainly beyond reasoning with: they are drunk on the power they wield. But those in positions of power in the tech world who would never abuse women online or offline and yet tolerate, even sort of admire, the trolls — they may be reachable. They must be reachable. But reason may not be the only or even the best tool. They are going to have to be exposed, and shamed into action to change the structure of the technological tools and services they control. Otherwise there is no foreseeable end to the kind of abuse that Kathy Sierra and countless other women have experienced.

trolls gonna troll

Here (PDF) is some interesting — or depressing, or unsurprising, or all of the above — research on how people in online communities respond to feedback from their peers. The chief emphasis here is on how the more aggressive and hostile members of such communities respond to being called out for their bad behavior, especially when that calling-out takes the form of being modded down by other members. 

Basically, the response of such folks is twofold. First, they make a point of downvoting other people. Second, they double down on their aggression. So: in online communities aggressive and hostile people respond to criticism by intensifying their aggression and hostility. 

If such people primarily want attention from their peers, then the strategy is a reasonable one. Which is, in relation to my first sentence, why I choose “all of the above” to describe the research. 

On a low-traffic site like this one, it’s feasible for all comments to be held for moderation by me. On high-traffic sites there seems to be no workable solution — except, of course, to eliminate comments altogether

understanding comments, redux

I’ve written about the everlasting problem of blog comments before, as have many bloggers, and now I see that Virginia Heffernan has weighed in at the NYT. Why do we keep doing this? After all, it’s well-established that Americans in general are poorly-informed about just about everything, and that levels of hostility on the internet often reach pathological levels. So what more is there to say? Anger and stupidity are the order of the day, every day. I think we keep writing about these matters because we don't know what’s going on in any given case, in any given mind. When you get to know a particular blog well you're likely to come across a regular commentator who is just astonishing in his ignorance — but wait: how do we know he’s not just jerking our chain? Can someone really be that clueless? Or must there be malice involved? We ask questions like this because we have a natural, and apparently quite intense, interest in what makes other people tick. (Insert your favorite sociobiological explanation here.) But nothing is harder to understand than human motives, as a few minutes of self-examination would reveal to any of us. And none of these people who clog the internet with their anger and/or ignorance are interesting. So it’s curious that so many of us keep worrying over this issue.