Online Communities, Women, and Misogyny

I’ve posted already about the hateful way Kathy Sierra was treated by other bloggers. The reaction has been interesting. Yesterday Chris Locke and Kathy each posted, collaboratively, their takes on the specific incidents, and the larger issue of hate speech and threats in the blogosphere.

The core issues are neatly summarized by Ross Mayfield here:

  • Being safe is something most everyone can agree is a right.
  • Being anonymous on the web matters.
  • Being open on the web matters. Transparency is good.
  • Being free with speech is both what makes us great and makes us go too far.

Mayfield provides four assertions that pretty much anyone will agree with. There is, however, a need to juggle possibly conflicting goals—like preserving the right of anonymity, but not when anonymity is used to perpetuate hate speech, as it was in the attacks on Kathy Sierra. There’s potential conflict between speaking frankly, and the necessity of free speech, and not allowing hate speech.

We do have methods of controlling hate speech, methods that aren’t matters of censorship. There are the less than effective technical methods—banning, and moderating and deleting comments; even, disemvowelling the truly idiotic rabid hate-monger, but primarily, online communities need to enforce community standards. As MacAllister Stone puts it:

I think we have to self-police. I think, when someone says something that’s clearly horrible and inflammatory, we stuff ’em in a box. Embarrass them. Shame them into either adhering to community standards, or exile them by deletion and/or blocking.

With that context extablished, I want to look at two short quotations from Chris Locke and Kathy Sierra regarding online attacks and hate speech specifically directed towards women.

Kathy Sierra asks:

But if we dismiss every cruel, vile, sexually threatening comment as simply the work of an anonymous troll, we will no longer be able to recognize a real threat. Are we willing to stake our mother/sister/daughter’s life on a sexually and physically threatening photo or comment, simply because it appeared on the internet and therefore must be harmless?

Chris Locke observes

Misogyny is real — and vile. Violence against women is wrong. It must not be tolerated. This issue should be explored and discussed, not swept under the rug, not rationalized away.

There’s something else going on here, besides ordinary hate speech and Internet trolls. Kathy Sierra was specifically and carefully targeted. She was attacked for no real reason—but the attacks, and the language and images used in the attacks are overtly sexualized and exceedingly misogynistic.
Like many other women with online presences, Sierra was attacked because she is female. There’s a culture of harassment online, directed towards women in general, over and above the usual ‘net obsessed trolls and nutters. It’s almost impossible to find a woman who blogs or participates in discussion forums who hasn’t been subjected to sexualized attacks and unwelcome sexually explicit comments, innuendos and email.

Bill Humphries linked to these posts from Min Jung Kim an Asian woman blogger, and Gin Mar, a woman and veteran of the Iraq war.
I think Liz Henry, like MacAllister Stone, has the right response:

I’d like to make a call to action. When this kind of shit happens, we’ll call it out and document it in public. Call it in the moment. Call it in front of your coworkers. Call it if it’s major or if it’s minor, it’s all part of the same spectrum of misogynist behavior. How about just saying, once in a while, right in the moment if you can, “That’s not funny,” when it’s really not. Say it crosses your boundaries. Say it’s not acceptable to you. This takes practice, but with time, we can all do it and find strength in numbers.

We need to be very clear that this kind of attack is not accepted, and that the community, and the ‘net as a whole, object to it. At the same time, I also want to acknowledge that there’s a rise in equally sexually-directed attacks against men on the net, and more often than not, overtly sexualized comments from women that very much qualify as hate speech; that’s not cool either, nor should it be acceptable.

In a subsequent post, I want to talk about the particular difficulties faced by women in technology, on and off the net; the underlying misogny in technology by a loud minority is very much part of the reason Kathy Sierra was attacked.

Death Threats are Not OK

Blogger and UI expert, Kathy Sierra, had to cancel her talk at the Etech conference, because of really really nasty death threats, and threats of sexual assault. You can read about it here.

There are fairly well-known “A-list” bloggers skirting the outskirts of this. And there are certainly quite a few people who know who’s responsible.

They need to go to the police. This is absolutely not acceptable, ever.

Via Chuqui, here are some blogs that talk about Kathy’s sick, vicious, criminal attackers.

On Building a User Community

Kathy Sierra, one of the Head First authors, has an extremely useful and thoughtful post on Building a User Community. This is a post from someone who gets community, and the importance of sharing with, rather than feeding from, a community. I’m going to wait until I’ve read the sequel before I post, but you really ought to go read Kathy Sierra right now.

The Influence of Individuals

I’ve been watching an interesting saga unfold; bear with me while I expound.

I’m a member of a community for writers called “Absolute Write.” It’s a combination of a resource site and an online community, with a particular emphasis on outreach and advocacy for writers. There are a lot of scams that target naive writers, including scam publishers and scam literary agents. The creator, owner, and beloved founder of AbsoluteWrite even co-wrote The Street-Smart Writer as a self-defense guide to help new writers navigate through the many scams.

Absolute Write is temporarily off the Web because one such less than professional literary agent, Barbara Bauer, took exception, as she is wont to do, to being included on a list of the Twenty Worst Agents, a list that was carefully researched, and documented, and provided as service by the Science Fiction Writers of America, a respected professional organization. Barbara Bauer bullied the somewhat naive ISP into taking down the entire site, by virtue of a phone call. You can read about the saga here.

Absolute Write will be back, and probably will be by the time you read this, but this incident is an example of the chilling effect such actions have.

But it’s also an example of the influence of individuals on the Web as a whole. I first heard about this last night, via an IM from someone who works as a moderator at Absolute Write. I knew something odd was going on because I was logged on when the site disappeared.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden, a very well known editor, and prominent blogger, posted about the takedown here. Teresa, or TNH, has posted about Bauer before, here and here, where she tried to get TNH fired. Then others picked up the story and posted.

Here are some good sources about agents and about getting an agent.

Updated: I’ve been adding links as they appear.

Technorati Tags:

On "Serious" Blogging

New Kid on the Hallway drew my attention to this article in Inside Higher Ed by Jeff Rice.

Rice has two central points, I think, in his initial article. I say “I think” because the argument is less than coherent. Rice begins by referring to the “Ivan Tribble” articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education, asserting that “Too many academic bloggers have taken Tribble and similar commentaries seriously” then makes an initial overture to his central point, his concern regarding “the general seriousness that has immediately encased a fairly novel form of writing.” He defines “seriousness” as “the over-hyped heaviness centered on this one particular type of writing.” This is his first point.

Next Rice segues to a red herring: the issue of anonymous blogging (discussed by Tribble) by academics using pseudonyms like “La Lecturess.” Rice argues that “these names re-enforce the burden of seriousness which has overtaken academic blogging. Writing a blog under a pseudonym is usually an argument that the only safe way for an academic to write publicly is to write anonymously.” He laments that “Lost in this seriousness are a number of quite amazing things blogging has provided writers”—he lists specific aspects of blogging, both those that relate to writing on the Web in general, like linking, that are easier because of blogging software, and those, like automatic archives, that are characteristic of blogs and blogging software. Rice asserts that this “seriousness” will lead to “stagnation.” He points to literary innovators Cervantes and Rousseau as models, and asserts that “finally academia has the opportunity to play with digital form, content, and genre in ways previously denied because of the difficulty of learning hypertext or setting up webspace on university servers.” This is his second point.

Rice closes by giving examples of “provocative and exciting weblogs,” like BoingBoing, or Wonderland, and then points to his own blog, Yellow Dog as a model via a disingenuous occultatio.

Rice seems unaware that blogs aren’t that novel; even the most parsimonious blog historian has to grant them a good six years of life—that’s an age on the Web. Moroever, it’s not like the weblog formats and features he finds novel exist as rhetorical oddities; blogs and blogging correspond with the traditional five divisions of rhetoric. Nor am I the only person to compare blogs and commonplace books or nineteenth century pamphlets.

In his contention that we take Tribble’s warnings too seriously, I wonder if Rice actually read the pieces in question. I’m also not sure who Rice is referring to by “we.” With respect to anonymous blogging, while I am not anonymous, it’s because I know that it’s time consuming and laborious to be truly anonymous on the ‘Net, and I’m too lazy. Familiarity with writing for the Web is part of my professional expertise in any case, and the drive for tenure is not likely to be part of my future. I’m lucky. Many of my blogging peers are less fortunate, and people have been fired for blogging. As Professor Nokes points out, there are anonymous bloggers that aren’t anonymous to me, but I take their decision to remain anonymous very seriously and consider their anonymity a matter of privacy and professional courtesy.

Regarding the “seriousness” of other bloggers, which strikes me as a slightly self-serving assertion on Rice’s part, it’s a little difficult to be sure what, exactly, he means. For instance, he refers to “academic bloggers,” but doesn’t indicate what he means by “academic.” Does he mean any professor, graduate student or faculty member who blogs? Does he mean people who blog about scholarly subjects? The blogs I read in my scholarly field, medieval studies, are often quite serious in tone and topic, but they are just as often humorous. Most of us are medievalists because we fell in love with our field, with the music, the languages, the literatures, the art, and the peoples, and that joy is an important part of our lives, our scholarships, and our blogs. I note that a fair number of medievalist bloggers do blog about our field—but we also blog about our outside interests, and our lives, to varying extents. I know several, anonymous and not, who have decidedly non-academic blogs about their hobbies, or their families. I think too that Rice misses the value of scholarly community in his dismissal of “seriousness.” Take, for example, what began as a semi-frivolous aside about an imaginary sheep DNA project on Professor Drout’s blog. But the response encouraged him to actually explore the project. That’s not anything like stagnation.

Rice exhorts us to “play” with the opportunities blogging gives us— yet he seems unaware that that’s exactly one reason many bloggers are anonymous— the anonymity gives them a safer place to engage in serio ludere. Rice even more surprisingly doesn’t seem to realize that the content and the presentation of a blog are two very different things, and that the presentation is ultimately controlled by the reader’s Web browser (Hint: if you have a blog with a style sheet that uses tiny type, or oddly colored text against a text-hostile background, I’m subverting your style sheet). Indeed, after his paragraph in praise of the features of blogs and blog software, the examples of innovative blogging Rice gives are all innovative in terms of content, not form. I also suspect he’s completely unaware of the often forgotten bastard child of blogging—the journal, perhaps best exemplified by LiveJournal; a fair number of “serious” and “academic” bloggers have a LiveJournal account for their less scholarly musings. In short, it seems to me that Rice is really saying not, “don’t take blogging so seriously,” but “why aren’t you all more like me?”

In his follow up post, Rice renders his argument even more confusing. He asks, via hypophora, if anonymity is an issue with respect to academic writing, and then answers “no.” I’d argue that he’s answering too quickly; sometimes anonymity may be an academic writing issue, especially for the non-tenured and the graduate student (both exceedingly common statuses for bloggers). Rice then asserts that anonymity isn’t so much an issue as “access” is. Rice says that “Because academic writing is just not as accessible as blogging. Google changed the interface of interaction in ways other search engines failed.” Rice argues that in order for him to “access” a fellow academic’s work he has to pay expensive journal subscription fees, or be at a school where a library has a current subscription and back issues, and possibly actually go to the library in question.

He’s introduced yet another red herring. “Access” has always been a problem, it’s part of the history of writing (you try toting all the tablets that make up Gilgamesh), a history that includes chained libraries, unwieldy manuscripts that weigh twenty pounds, and closed stacks. It’s not a matter of access (though I note that Rice would do well to explore the issue of access in terms of his own blog). But it might be an issue of Rice attempting to label bloggers, to pigeon-hole them as “academic” or “innovative,” or exhorting them to be more like him.