Dratted timezones... unable to get to the Montreal Geek Dinner tonight
Future Now: What makes you comment? (on a blog)

"On the Internet, nobody knows you're a ____" - spewing threats while hiding behind the mask of anonymity

There are no real words to say in response to the horrible saga confronting Kathy Sierra.  In the 20+ years that I have been using the Internet I've certainly been subjected to abuse in various forms and in various forums (USENET, anyone?), but I have to say that even the worst flame war I was involved with never quite reached the level of personal attacks that she has suffered.  I do wish her all the best in coping with the situation.

Obviously her view is just one side of the story and Chris Locke has written a response to the allegations against him which takes a different view. To his credit, he was one of the people who did identify themselves in their postings.  He speaks of the YOYOW ethos - "You Own Your Own Words" (from the Well days) - and says that he stands by his words... and while I may disagree with parts of his views, I do respect that he at least identifies himself as the author.

It's pretty obvious, though, that there were others who attacked Kathy Sierra from behind the mask of anonymity.  As the old 1993 New Yorker cartoon said "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." (click the image for a larger view)  Anonymity is a double-edged sword.  It allows people who might not say things (out of fear of reprisal, for instance) to relay their information.  It allows people to be someone that they would like to be.  But it also allows the idiots to spout off and say their horrid things.  In this case, some people seem to have definitely gone too far.

Anonymity makes it easy... you can say whatever hurtful things you want and, at least in theory, no one can trace them back to you.  (And there are technologies out there that help with that.)  Anonymity frees people from the responsiblity and accountability that comes with that YOYOW concept.  They can be whomever they wish to be at that time - and if that means they want to be a mean or rude person, they can do so.  I am sure there has been a time or two when I thought about seeking refuge behind an anonymous comment to speak my true mind... but that I can recall I never did.  While I was never part of the Well, the YOYOW ethos is certainly part of my way, along with a companion mantra:

Never post or send anything online you would not want to appear on the front page of the New York Times.

I try to live by that every day.  I try my absolute best never to put in email... or in any blog posting... or any web forum posting... or even in IM conversations... anything that I wouldn't want to appear on a newspaper/website front page or on something like CNN. Odds are that it will never be an issue, but just in case....  In my opinion, you're crazy if you don't live by that.  Google (and friends) sees all -- and caches all.  Anything committed online has the potential to live on forever in the digital archives, to be found wherever it is... and to haunt you forever. I think it's a better policy just to make sure you don't write or say anything that you might regret later. 

It does seem, though, that in this case a number of folks (the prominent ones Sierra mentions) may have wound up in that situation.  Caught up in some (warped?) view of "fun", they wrote some things on a couple of web sites that seem now rather hurtful and mean-spirited.  No, they probably didn't mean many of them... or in fact any of them... it was "all just in fun"...  but it would appear that they didn't think through the consequences of their actions - and the hurt that they could cause.  It's easy enough to do... caught up in the moment... but it's a strong reminder that words can hurt.

I hope for Kathy Sierra's case that the police can soon get to the bottom of whomever was issuing the death threats and that she can soon resume her normal life activities.

I would also like to hope that the massive blog pile-on currently going on (of which this post is admittedly a part) maybe, just maybe, might make people think a tiny bit more before they hit "Publish" or "Send".   Just because you can write things that are extremely negative or hurtful doesn't mean you should.  Write it if you need to... but then step away from the computer... go for a walk... have a drink... and then come back and look at it again.  Would you want to be on the receiving end of that blog post, comment or email?  Would you find it funny?  or hurtful?  If you wouldn't like to be the recipient, can you please hit delete now?

Will this episode remind us all that a bit of civility goes a long way?  And that we need more of it?   I'd like to hope so... but I guess I'm also jaded enough to question whether it really will...