Of Death Threats and Internet Cowards

I’ve been stirred from my non-updating torpor by something that I think needs to be discussed by every single blogger on the planet:  Kathy Sierra receiving death threats via her blog comments and via 2 other blogs.

The blogosphere absolutely needs to stand up and denounce this sort of thing, loudly.  Thankfully there are many who are doing just that.  But will it be enough to get the message across to every jackass who might want to do something like this?  I’m not sure.

As deplorable as I think this is, it is not at all surprising.  Internet cowardice and bullying has been a fact of online life ever since people first started to communicate via computer.  My first online experience was with Quantum Link, and anonymous bullying was evident even then – 20 years ago.  So clearly, the problem isn’t new.  It is still pervasive, though.

Visit any message forum on the web – go on, pick one at random, I’ll wait – and click through threads at random for 15 minutes or so.  If you don’t see anyone making personal attacks on each other, you picked a real winner.  You see, although the death threats against Kathy have given the issue of online bullying a lot of attention, the fact is that abusive people act abusively toward others online every day.  The abuse does not usually rise to the level of a death threat, but the same callousness and cowardice that produces a death threat goes into abusive post you see.

Some people say you should not be offended or upset by anything anyone says on the internet because, well, “it’s just the internet.” These people are wrong.  What these people fail to understand is that when one real person posts abusive things aimed at another real person, that constitutes real bullying, real abuse.  It is no different than making death threats or other  personal attacks against someone on a telephone chat line, or shouting them at someone across a crowded room, or screaming at someone in his car next to you at a stop light.  These things are not acceptable face-to-face or over the phone, and there is no reason why they should be acceptable over the wire either.  Abuse is abuse.  Threats are threats.  What ever happened to good, old-fashioned civility when in the company of others – online or otherwise?

In addition to the “don’t get upset – it’s only the internet” folks, there are the “if you’re going to put yourself out there you should expect to be abused” folks.  I cannot think of one single reason why posting one’s thoughts in a public medium should entitle others to threaten or bully.  I’ve had my share of abusive eMails and jackasses leaving comments here (back when comments were possible), and it’s all garbage.  I have friends who have had threats of death, rape and other serious bodily harm levied at them via their blogs, eMail and/or message forums.  Is this really what we want to be doing with the impressive communicative power of the internet?  I certainly hope not.

As a great fan of Kathy’s writing, I wish her well and I hope that no ill comes of this for her.  Kathy, please don’t stop blogging.  To do so would be to hand a win to the forces of online criminals and jackasses, and they don’t deserve it.

And to the rest of the blogosphere, I say:  we need to do something to introduce civility into an online world that too easily facilitates this kind of behavior.  I’m not sure what, but we certainly need to do something.  What’s that old saying, again?  Oh, yeah:

All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing