Kathy Sierra and Commenting Policies

For those who missed the bad drama in the blogosphere in the last week, there’s a good short summary on apophenia. The essentials are as follows:

The brief story is that three prominent bloggers got annoyed at another female blogger for not permitting mean-spirited comments in her blog. They created a site called meankids.org as well as a spin-off. These blogs encouraged people to say terrible things about others and it spun out of control.

And in the end, some statements and images that are easily read as death threats were posted about Kathy Sierra, a prominent tech blogger. She got scared, canceled a presentation, and blogged about it.

Ms. Sierra’s post wasn’t as clear as it could have been, and as a result two issues have been conflated. First, what we should think about people who make vile personal attacks against others online, or who take a step beyond that and start not one, but two websites devoted to bashing on other people. Second, what we should think about people who posts death threats against others online. Luckily, we all seem to agree on the second.

On the first, though, we are divided. Example A: The Matter of Kathy Sierra. Example B: Hating Hate Speech.

Some folks say that the best response is to ignore it. They condemn Ms. Sierra for overreacting, often pointing out that they too have experienced such incidents and didn’t freak out. I don’t see how this is relevant. Ms. Sierra is as upset as Ms. Sierra is, and how someone else felt in a different situation is not really relevant. And while I guess it would be an easier world if everyone could weather sexualized insults, threats of violence, and vicious mockery without being hurt or scared, I don’t think it is anyone’s responsibility to rewire their personality until it functions that way.

Some folks invoke the First Amendment as if that means what these folks did is beyond criticism unless it crossed into illegality. It’s not. They have a right to say it, but I have a right to think their behavior sucks and to explain why I feel that way. I don’t think it “chills disagreement” to condemn a post like this (really awful, be warned) no matter who it’s written about.

(Along with that, I have the responsibility to update my opinion as more information becomes available. In the Kathy Sierra incident, one of the site’s creators took down the site, took responsibility, and apologized for how ugly everything had gotten. Ms. Sierra accepted this in an update to her blog post.)

I strongly object to having concerns about the climate created by such speech dismissed unless the speech crosses the line into illegality. I agree with this, also from the post on apophenia:

There’s nothing illegal about what the prominent bloggers did, but i think it is unethical at every level. This is not an issue of censorship, but an issue of social responsibility. What does it mean when the most prominent bloggers are encouraging speech that divides, particularly that which divides along the lines of race and gender?

I care about what kind of world we live in, and I care how people’s actions (including speech) contribute to that world. Mean, sexist, racist garbage online makes the world worse. Period.

Elisa Camahort, in her post A Day to Think About Your Blogging House Rules, makes these comments:

I do believe that each blogger and site owner should set policies and practices in place that refuse to accommodate or tolerate cyberabuse. I believe each blog or site owner is entitled to draw their own lines and enforce them.

Coincidentally, I started thinking about these issues just the day before the Kathy Sierra post came to my attention. On Heroine Content, we have received so far three comments that have struck me as taking away from the conversation rather than adding to it.

The first (on my review of Tank Girl) said we should stop writing “feminist drivel” and go “save the spotted goat” or something worthwhile. Since I could not find any information online indicating that the spotted goat was imperiled and it was obvious that the commenter was not seriously trying to engage in dialogue, I deleted it.

The second comment disagreed strongly with Grace’s assessment of Alien, in an extremely sarcastic fashion. Grace chose to publish it and respond.

The third comment said Grace must not have been paying attention to 300 (link to her review), that she had it all wrong, and that she would end up “stereotyped as a stupid feminist who sees everything as a personal attack because of your sex” if she didn’t get with it. I don’t mind disagreement, but if someone had spoken to a guest that way at a party at my house, I would have asked them to leave.

While I didn’t want to step on Grace’s toes and delete the comment, I saw it as exactly the kind of aggression that leads me to avoid reading the comments on feminist blogs, political blogs, current events blogs, and the local newspaper’s website. This commenter had raised a substantive issue in her comment (how do you define rape?), but one that could have been raised in umpteen different ways without insulting Grace. I didn’t want to have a project that we created as a positive, fun, constructive space to turn hostile. I don’t want to put energy into a project that enables people to attack me and each other.

So I told Grace I didn’t like the comment, but she should do with it as she saw fit. I still felt bad about it. The next day, I saw the Kathy Sierra post. The comment was still not published, so I asked Grace to hold it while I thought some more and drafted a comment policy for Heroine Content. This is what we agreed on, adapted from several sources:

Heroine Content is a feminist and anti-racist space. Comments, including constructive criticism, are welcome as long as they are respectful. You do not have to agree with all of our ideas in order to comment, but we expect civility. We are not interested in creating yet another space on the internet for people to abuse each other. Please stick to debating and criticizing ideas rather than personal attacks.

All comments are reviewed by the blog’s authors before being published, and may be rejected if we don’t feel they follow these guidelines. Our blog, our discretion.

And under that policy, the third comment will not be published. I don’t feel like it’s unfair to apply it retroactively, since grace has responded to the issue raised in another post. The commenter is welcome to respond to under the new guidelines. Unlike the group of bloggers who created two sites to harsh on other bloggers, I’m not likely to start a site with the express purpose of trashing others – but I’m also not willing to accept, condone, or encourage such behavior by allowing it to be published on a site that I administer. I’m not willing to let them use me to publish that kind of content. The comments we’ve received on Heroine Content have been far from the level of the posts and comments directed at Kathy Sierra, Maryam Scoble, etc. on the “satire” sites that ran so amok. But I’d rather start with and keep a clean slate.