Death threats force blogger to sidelines

Editor’s Note: This story is reprinted from Computerworld. For more Mac coverage, visit Computerworld’s Macintosh Knowledge Center.

Prominent blogger Kathy Sierra created a firestorm in the blogging world this week after detailing threats of death and violence against her in her technology blog and on meankids.org and its successor site Unclebobism. Both sites have since been taken down. In an interview with Computerworld on Tuesday, Sierra said the threats against her began escalating about a month ago and did not coincide with any controversial posts at her Creating Passionate Users blog. After a photo of her alongside a noose with a threat was posted on meankids.org, she opted to cancel her plans to speak Monday and Tuesday at O’Reilly’s Emerging Technology Conference in San Diego. Sierra is also co-creator of the Head First series of computer books and founder of the popular JavaRanch programmer site.

What started the wave of threats? Is it a reaction to a specific post or topic on your blog or were the threats made out of the blue?

That is the million-dollar question. I have had critics for a long time. Obviously the more visibility you have, the more critics you have, but it did turn much nastier the last few weeks than ever before.

For some reason [contributors to meankids.org site] really hate me. I asked one of them why. He said it is because I am just so optimistic. They are about rage, and if you are optimistic and positive you are part of the problem. It spun out of control kind of like a mob or crowd. Meankids was supposed to be a place where they could be as nasty as possible. It was like a feeding frenzy. Once they started down that path of anything goes, they weren’t going to stop. Who crosses that line and makes comments like that as an adult? These aren’t kids on MySpace. Anyone who is unstable enough to actually say these things, then I don’t want to take a chance.

Do you think that female bloggers are more susceptible to such lewd comments and threats, or is anyone expressing opinions publicly vulnerable?

[Meankids.org] was heavily sexual and almost all about women. Their intention was social commentary and satire, but that is not what happened. I had never been exposed to that. I wouldn’t have believed this would ever happen. I have never experienced that in my entire life — when you start feeling you are part of someone’s sexual fantasies that might involve death. That is very scary. It is a very easy way to intimidate a woman. Just trot out the gender.

Do you have any ideas of how this can be stopped, or do you think it is an unfortunate component of blogging?

Before this, everyone has been saying it is just an ugly side effect and that we have to preserve anonymity. I think it is about culture. I started [the JavaRanch] online community 10 years ago, and it is huge right now. It has one single policy — be nice. You can’t be mean or rude or make personal attacks. Once that culture is set up, other members will catch it. In the technology-writing world, we all know each other, so it would be pretty easy to have a no-tolerance policy.

Prominent people were linking to the people who were doing this to me. That is tacit approval. This can’t go on. It has crossed the line. I expected to wake up this morning and it would all have blown over, that no one would be talking about this. Now I am getting more threats. I haven’t gotten a single new death threat, just more nastiness than I have ever gotten in a single day.

What are your next steps? Where do you plan on going from here?

I am going to not do anything for a little while. There are still some scary things behind the scenes I am somewhat fearful about. I am not going to go anywhere publicly. Every time I speak at a conference I get a lot more nastiness. I don’t want to inflame them more. Until I find out exactly who was involved, to what degree and how stable they really are … I am not going to do anything. People are rallying around and saying, ‘We are going to look after our own.’ That has not been the culture of the technology blog world. Now a lot of people are questioning their policies. I am going to lay low no matter what just so I become less of a target.

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