Net Nastiness

3 April 2007

The recent fracas over death threats to Kathy Sierra has been bouncing around the blogs I read. The fact that I'm writing this shows it's triggered some thoughts of my own.

My first thought is sympathy for Kathy (and also Bert). I can't say I know her terribly well, but I've met her a couple of times and really enjoyed her ideas and company. Her blog is one of my favorites. I really hope she rides through this and is able to continue her work. Her point of view is too important to lose.

The valuable thing that's come out of this fracas is that it's triggered a serious discussion of nastiness on the net. Many people have run into the kind of stuff that Kathy's faced, but by speaking out she's managed to gain some attention to the issue.

As usual we've seen varied reactions to this. Many people have offered support to Kathy, considering the words and images that frightened her to be unacceptable. Tim O'Reilly has put together some valuable thoughts on what should be in a blogger's code of conduct. Other people have criticized Kathy for speaking out, saying that she's making a fuss out of something that happens all of the time on the net. It's a point of view perhaps best summed up by a commenter on Tim's piece: "not everyone has such a thin skin. Some do revel in the blood, gore, cut and thrust of no-holds-barred verbal combat. Those who can't take the heat should get out of the blogoshphere [sic]."

The question we need to ask is what kind of net do we want to see? Do we want an internet where all sorts of nastiness is accepted and encouraged, where people with a thin skin don't contribute to the conversation because they don't want to be targeted?

There's choice to be made here and I admit to being one of these thin-skinned people who thinks there's too much nastiness on the net. (I talking here about discussions on software development, I don't read political blogs and am told they are much worse.) I worry that people who have interesting things to say and questions to ask are put off by the cut and thrust. They don't feel free to speak. The freedom enjoyed by people who are nasty does deny freedom to others - and the nasty people belittle the fears of those they have silenced.

Net nastiness may also be harming our Diversity. A FooCamp session a couple of years ago pondered why there are so few women active in open source. (We were told that roughly 12% of the software workforce is female, but only 2% of those in open source.) One reason was the nastiness of the discussions, which also was seen as a reason for putting off people from developing countries. Open source may be the canary for the software development community as a whole.

It's one thing to feel the net is too nasty, it's another to question what can be done about it. And just in case the problem isn't hard enough to consider I should point out that this isn't just about blogs. It's also about mailing lists, newsgroups, forums, IRC channels, anywhere where people hang out and exchange their views. (And yes I'm implying parallels in the "real world" too. This issue is hardly new. Just look at some pamphlets from the 17th and 18th centuries.)

It seems when many people hear things like "the net is too nasty" they immediately go the attack saying that we must have freedom of speech; they warn of the leather boots of government. So let me be clear: I'm not in favor of any government regulations here (and indeed I don't see such a call in Tim's piece). I'm talking about individual responsibility for what we write and the communities we participate in. A code of conduct can be useful as a statement of how a community wishes to behave. I'm very wary of imposing such codes, but we should remember that there are legal consequences to things we say: death threats are criminal in many places, libel leads to lawsuits.

First off we are responsible for what we say and it thus follows that we should think about the consequences of what we say. By being nasty to people we hurt them. Are we happy about that? By our nastiness we discourage people from taking part in the communities we frequent. Do we want to silence thin-skinned people?

A hard part of this is that it's often hard to understand why something you say should be upsetting to others. This is a trap I've fallen in plenty of times. I say something that I think is harmless, and someone ends up really upset. I'm sure it's often happened without me even knowing about it. I have a strong personality and can easily be overbearing without realizing it.

You may be thinking that this is taking it too far, some people will take offense at anything; following this logic leads to people who either say nothing, or speak in the bland platitudes favored by PR companies. It's true that that is the result if we take it too far, but I'm not saying that we should do that. I'm saying that we should try to be aware of who is listening and how they are likely to react. There are plenty of times when I'm happy to for people to be offended. The point is that I try to make it a conscious and thoughtful decision. One of the reasons why the law has to tread lightly here is because people have very different views of what is nasty. Nastiness is a subjective judgment and one of our responsibilities is to decide where we, as individuals and as communities, draw the line.

This responsibility in what we say gets amplified as we take a prominent role in a community. As we gain in prominence we become an example that others will follow. We play a role in setting a tone for those communities.

I said above that we have responsibility for the communities we take part in. Am I seriously implying that we are responsible for comments other people make on a mailing list we frequent? Actually I am, at least a little.

One of the key points, for me, in Kathy's original post was "I do not want to be part of a culture--the Blogosphere--where this is considered acceptable." Communities make choices about what is acceptable within them. It's usually not a very formal process, but it happens all the same. If a mailing list routinely shrugs its shoulders at nasty posts, that means the people on that list are accepting the nastiness.

Some people believe that even if you think a community is overly nasty, there's nothing you can do about it. I don't think this is true. There are things to be done, often they aren't easy, but again we have a choice.

If we see a nasty post, we can reply to the author and say we didn't like it. Explain why it upset us and why it upsets others. We can use a private email or post a reply on the group itself. If we make our voice heard then maybe others will agree.

Again this is doubly important as our prominence rises on the group. If people look up to us in our community we can have a bigger effect by making our views clear on what we think is acceptable within that group.

As many public newsgroups have found out, some people can be too persistent in their nastiness. Certainly if people don't heed a call to be reasonable then we have to turn to things like moderation. There are pros and cons to this kind of mechanism, but the point is that we don't have to let nastiness be accepted.

And if the tone of the group remains nasty what then? Leave. The net isn't short of places to hang out. If we want to reduce nastiness we shouldn't post on groups where nastiness is accepted, we shouldn't read and link to nasty blogs. By participating in a group we are supporting it and the tone it has. Again we have a choice.

This kind of advice applies to blog owners too. If bloggers allow comments (I don't out of laziness) then they have to decide when nastiness breaks out. I agree with Tim that a web site owner is a publisher who is responsible for the tone of their site. If we invite others in we have a choice as to what is acceptable. Whether we allow anonymity, or personal attacks is our choice - and we will be judged by others on that choice.

Interestingly Kathy is someone who has done something about this. She didn't like the way that forums such as treated beginners asking questions. So she set up Javaranch, an online forum that's noted for its lack of tolerance of nastiness.

None of this is really that new. Society has wrestled with the limits and consequences of free speech for several hundred years. The web has changed this dynamic far less than the printing press did. Many of those standards still apply. Laws still apply. I don't know the law, but I'd be surprised if web site owners who passively accept death threats or libelous statements don't face legal consequences. I don't think that crying "the net is free" will impress a judge.

Lots of things will be said about code of conducts, laws, and the delights of verbal combat. But what really matters is what we do. The power is in our hands to make our communities the kinds of places we want to be in.