What she taught me applies to the recent cyber-bullying against Java blogger Kathy Sierra. The crux of this story is that one or more people posted nasty and anonymous comments about her. The following is an example of one of those postings:
fuck off you boring slut... i hope someone slits your throat and cums down your gobThis, and the other posts, were pretty nasty, but it really is a person's choice to pay attention to such words. Kathy has chosen to take the posts seriously. Indeed, she has become a bit delusional about them. She claimed that the comments were "threats", even though they don't quite meet the definition of the word . In her delusional paranoia, she has claimed that other well-respected bloggers were part of the conspiracy to threaten her (because nasty comments appeared not only on her blog, but on forums attached to other blogs as well). She implied that those other bloggers were responsible for the anonymous comments that appeared on their sites -- that they encouraged harassment of Kathy. She has sullied the name of well-respected bloggers who now struggle to defend their reputation.
Such bullying is part of the larger problem of "forum trolls". Trolls are comments designed to provoke a reaction. They could be nasty personal comments, or political claims, or religious statements, or anything else that will provoke people to give the trollers attention. As my mommy taught to when dealing with bullies on the playground, the proper response to forum trolls is to ignore them. Getting upset over what they post is a choice you make. Responding to their posts only encourages them to post more of the same.
Unfortunately, many throughout the blogosphere have leapt to support Kathy. They have been competing amongst themselves to see who can be the most righteous in their outrage over the vileness of the trolls. The main effect of all these posts is, of course, to encourage forum trolls in general, and more bullying of Katy Sierra in particular.
The other effect is to encourage the government step in and do something. In much the same way that I wanted my mommy to fight the bullies for me, people today want the government to fight back against the forum trolls. This is a very bad thing. We already have the tools to deal with bullies. We can just ignore them. We can turn off anonymous posts from our forums. We can turn on keyword filters for offensive words. We can moderate posts, or use a community-moderation system like Slashdot. Lots of forums are essentially "troll-free" because anti-troll efforts work. Government intervention comes at a high cost removing our freedoms, such as speech and anonymity. People like Kathy Sierra should at least try to use the tools available to her before becoming a cry baby asking for the government to do something about it.
The bloggers who support Kathy have frequently made the point that the forum trolls are cowards hiding behind anonymity. I would suggest that it's the bloggers themselves who are cowards. It doesn't take much courage to post something everyone agrees with. The situation is like a lynch mob. Nobody likes the forum trolls, and therefore nobody is going to stand up for their rights. It doesn't take courage to go along with the mob and lynch them. It takes no courage to express your righteous anger against them. What would take courage is to oppose the mob and suggest that no matter how vile those posts were, that we still need to abide by solid principles, namely that we deal with immature trolls as mature adults, and that we don't discard our rights to free speech and Internet anonymity just because we don't like what they said. It's mob rule, for example, that is responsible for eroding our rights after 9/11 with the so-called "Patriot" Act, because no politician was brave enough to stand up to the mob.
Many have used this incident to promote the idea that the computer geek community is "misogynistic" (hates women). The opposite is true. Forum trolls don't use such language because it's what THEY think, but use it because it's what WE are offended by. Indeed, it's precisely the soft-misogynism of Kathy's supporters that's at fault here. They will leap to a woman's defense more readily than a man. Insults and threats are treated more seriously when a woman is involved. I can call a man a "dick" in nearly polite conversation, but the equivalent insult for a female is so offensive that I can say it here. The words are more insulting because we are treating women differently, not because the trollers are. While it is appropriate to escort a woman to a car at night (there is a physical disparity), it's inappropriate to act as if a woman is less capable of defending themselves on the Internet than a man.
See also: Penny Arcade