Culture and Society

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.

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