Dispatches from the Blog Battle Zone

Threats against a prominent female writer reflect the worst of online discourse. But is speech any more hateful on the Net than elsewhere?

When computer programmer and author Kathy Sierra began blogging about technology, she fully expected to see comments critical of her ideas. What she didn't anticipate were online posts advocating her murder or sexual assault against her.

Sierra, co-author of the Head First series of computer programming and Web design books, is hardly a polarizing figure. In addition to being a blogger, she's a frequent speaker at tech industry conferences, discussing such topics as the value of face-to-face discourse in an age of digital communication and throwing Web design parties to generate new ideas. "This is more than just random mean criticism," says Sierra. "This crossed the line."

Flaming Trolls

Certainly, negative comments about public figures—be they politicians, celebrities, or prominent business executives—are nothing new. However, the anonymity of the Web, coupled with the recent explosion of online tools that enable anyone with an Internet connection to publish opinions, has made online public attacks and threats against individuals even on the periphery of public life more common.

There's a lexicon emerging around it. Cyberbullying is what Web surfers call it when young kids, particularly teens, are harassed in Web chat rooms, ridiculed on Web sites, or made fun of in online videos posted to public sites such as Google's (GOOG) YouTube. A March article in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences found that young girls are particularly vulnerable to the practice.

When referring to deliberately hostile and insulting comments on blogs and message boards, it is called "flaming." Among bloggers, people who post comments, seemingly for the sole purpose of upsetting others, are known as "trolls." "There are a group of people who feel like it is their job to make you feel bad or attack everything that you say," says Robert Scoble, author of one of the top 25 most-read blogs on the Internet, who rose to prominence by blogging about former employer Microsoft (MSFT). Scoble promised to take a week off blogging in support of Sierra. "It kind of comes with the territory of being a blogger," Scoble says of online vitriol. "But once in a while, it goes over the line."

Gender Rage

Women, it seems, often bear the brunt of over-the-line comments, say Scoble and other bloggers. Those who opine on the Web are subject to having their intelligence insulted or being called expletives by those who disagree with their posts.

But negative comments concerning women on the Web frequently have a sexual undertone as well that can transform comments from dismissively offensive to downright intimidating. "You don't have nightmares about people saying you're an idiot," says Sierra. "You have nightmares about people saying, 'I am going to slit your throat, I'm going to kill you, and, by the way, there's sex involved.'"

The reference to sexual assault adds a level of violence that Sierra says is scarier than someone saying, "I think someone should push you off a bridge." Both are threats. However, the former involves a level of rage specifically directed at a person because of gender.

More Misogynistic?

Sierra canceled an appearance at O'Reilly Media's ETech conference in San Diego after seeing the threats. She also called the police. Punishments for death threats vary depending on the severity of the threat, how it was made, what state it was made in, and the position of the person against whom it was made. Some states consider it a misdemeanor; others would impose jail time and steep fines.

Other women bloggers say they, too, have noticed a difference between the way women and men are discussed on the Web. Elisa Camahort, co-founder of BlogHer, a community for women bloggers, says body parts and sexuality are more frequently included in criticisms aimed at women, particularly prominent women, on the Web. "I think a woman is subject to certain kinds of comments that men wouldn't get," says Camahort.

Still, Camahort says the blogosphere is no more misogynistic than the real world. It's just that the anonymity makes people feel slightly freer, in some forums, to say what they only whisper in real life. "It hasn't been eliminated in the online world, and I don't think it has been eliminated in the offline world either."

Chris Locke, an author and blogger who created a group comment site where a user posted an image of and disparaging comments about Sierra, says that he also doesn't think the blogosphere and online message boards suffer from an overall misogynistic tone. "There is a problem with misogyny in the real world and online, and it really sucks," says Locke. However, he also thinks some may overreact to comments made about women. "I don't think we should be walking on eggshells when we want to say something to a woman that is negative."

Guarded, But Encouraged

Locke is careful to draw a distinction between a negative or mean comment and one that is threatening or abusive—sexual or otherwise. "I am not a big fan of 'Let's all be real nice,'" he says. "On the other hand, I agree that these mad-dog attacks for no reason are not conducive to anything." He says he took down the site once he realized the direction it was taking.

The fact that comments on the site got so sexually charged and threatening in the first place, however, has some worried about the direction of Internet discourse, and it is sparking discussion of how to raise the bar. Common words of blogging wisdom are "Don't feed the trolls," says Camahort. The idea is that those making needlessly negative comments will go away if they are not given attention. Another is to directly call out commentators for such statements, hoping that public shaming by the community will discourage people from making hateful statements. Yet another option is to state in clear terms that threats, hate speech, and other over-the-line comments will be automatically deleted, says Scoble.

A sure way to avoid online threats is to stop sharing publicly entirely or to make a blog private. Sierra initially considered such moves. However, she's now thinking she may not withdraw from blogging. By and large, she says, the community is still positive enough that she wants to take part. "I am kind of guardedly encouraged," she says. "I never expected this level of conversation. Right now, people are saying we are not going to tolerate this."