The recent Internet Nastiness experienced by Kathy Sierra has started a discussion about aggression in general; is it ever OK to go on the attack, or should we try to adopt a mutual non-aggression treaty covering the whole blogosphere? On reflection, I think that, yes, it’s OK to go negative, but only if you mean it and are doing it seriously, and only if you’re prepared to deal with the consequences. It may be the case that some legislative tinkering is required to make accountability work better. [Update: Hani responds, and I’ve been Biled.]

Can’t We All Just Get Along? · At a geek gathering a couple of years ago, there was a conversation which included some pretty visible bloggers: the only two I remember for sure are Rob Scoble and me. Scoble, who seems a genuinely nice person said “Couldn’t we just all agree not to do attack blogging?” and I think he meant it, but even right there in the room, the idea didn’t fly, in some part because Rob was at that point working for Microsoft, and “Let’s agree to be nice to Microsoft” is a tough sell.

I am obviously personally involved in this issue. In this space I have criticized, with varying degrees of intensity, parties including the governments of China and the United States, Microsoft, certain Canadian politicians, some airlines, the RIAA, ECMA, and the promoters of the WS-* protocols.

I’ve learned that you should never, never launch an online attack that you’re not prepared to stand behind all the way. Because the attack lives forever online, and if it picks up a few links, can really hurt the target. So, be sure that you want to.

By and large I don’t regret what I’ve written here, but I intensely regret some poorly-considered flames I’ve written on mailing lists and forums over the years that have hurt people who didn’t deserve it.

Polemics and Flaming · I think there is a difference—a huge, crucial difference—between a considered polemic coming from a clearly-identified individual, and Internet Flaming, in particular anonymous flaming. Criticism is a necessary part of human discourse; it is an unfortunate fact that in this world, there are people and organizations that deserve it.

Flaming is a different story. Starting sometime around 1980 we have learned, to our cost, that online communication induces extremely bad behavior in a small proportion of people; language designed to hurt and designed without any thought of the consequences to the sender, the receiver, or the community they inhabit. Almost all of us have felt the pain.

We also observe that flaming, left unchecked and practiced recreationally, can spill over the edge of all the bounds of decency and (perhaps) legality and become the kind of vicious abuse that drove Kathy Sierra to retreat behind locked doors. The people who organized the “meankids” and “bobsyeruncle” sites where the abuse was launched should have bloody well learned this lesson by now. At this point, the only tenable position for those people is abject, unreserved apology. Failing that, I suspect, they’ll find that they’ve exited the Internet Conversation.

Thought Experiment · In the Java community, there’s this guy named Hani who has a blog called the bileblog that I won’t link to. Its contents are almost entirely viciously obscene rants against individuals and factions in the Java community, based on Hani’s perception of their technical or ethical failings. Hani seems to have a fixation on violent, degrading male-male sexual abuse and this constitutes the core of his attack technique.

He gets away with it—is fairly popular in fact—because he’s also funny. A couple of years ago I and another person were talking this over and proposed a scenario: suppose one of Hani’s victims were mugged by four or five random hoodlums and beaten up severely, while the hoodlums made witty and amusing remarks to entertain the passers-by and watchers. Would the violence be OK because of the leavening with humor? I don’t think so. So why is what Hani does OK?

You see, my understanding of the law is that any undesired aggressive physical contact can constitute “assault”. I think the law needs to be clear that there is some line which, when crossed by a flamer, carries similar consequences, legally. Yes, it’ll be tricky and involve judgment calls; but then most ethical/legal issues are and do. I Am Not A Lawyer; it may be the case that, in some jurisdictions anyhow, we already have a satisfactory legal framework.

Hani Responds · In the comments, Hani responded at length, and a fair number of others chimed in, arguing that my analogy between death threats, physical violence, and Hani’s flavor of slime was unreasonable and wrong. Scroll down and read ’em all.

OK, they’re entitled to their opinion, but mine differs. I also in my youth had some experience with physical violence, and I’ve been living online for decades, and there are no sharp black/white dividing lines between degrees of pain; there are word-fueled assaults that have hurt me worse than that fist in the belly did.

It’s reasonable to argue about where on the spectrum Hani falls, but I guess it’s no longer reasonable to allude to him without any linkage, especially since, shortly after this piece, he found occasion to write about me. So, judge for yourself (I confess that the sentence you are now reading has been written and erased more than a few times; earlier versions contained bile-reactions some of which were witty and mentioned Junior High and being pathetic and mojo deficits and so on, but none of them improved on “judge for yourself”).

But, to those in the Java community who say you haven’t arrived till you’ve been Biled, I say: Grow up.

The Lesson · This incident has written it in letters of fire 500 feet high on the walls of the Internet: setting up Web properties which allow recreational flaming predictably leads to bad results, and people who do it are either stupid or evil or both. Maybe, just maybe, they might have been able to claim, up to a couple of weeks ago, that they didn’t know better; but no longer.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Ben Donley (Mar 27 2007, at 15:55)

This territory has been rather well tread before. Trod. Trodden.

Penny Arcade's Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory:

http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2004/03/19

In the US, a credible threat of force can also be assault. Clearly some of the things said about Kathy already broke the law. I'm not entirely sure what you think a different legal framework could or should change about the situation.

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From: Nate (Mar 27 2007, at 16:05)

<blockquote>

At this point, the only tenable position for those people is abject, unreserved apology.

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I agree with the sentiment, and as much as I hate to be pessimistic, it seems pretty unlikely that'll happen.

It never ceases to amaze me how the extent to which we as humans are capable of good is continually equalled by our capacity for evil, especially evil for no discernable reason.

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From: Robert Sayre (Mar 27 2007, at 16:08)

I don't buy your theory, in particular the section about Hani. The conversation will never get better if we allow people to claim they've been assaulted when something obviously absurd has been written. That said, the definition of "obviously absurd" clearly does not extend to anonymous death threats and other very real concerns.

I don't buy the idea that anyone fears Hani will act on any of the vulgar things he writes. So, your comparison requires us to believe that humor has the same mitigating effect on physical violence as it does on verbal or written commentary. I think not. Probably quite the opposite. Also, the telling of the Hani mugging scenario that I know features him as the victim, which actually is a threat of real violence.

It's fine to be upset by his rude language. But I don't think it's the "humor" that lets him get away with it. Without the bite of accurate technical observations, it would be the equivalent of bathroom stall graffiti.

Let's imagine "Tom" has written a very bad database driver.

Blog entry #1: "Tom is an asshat."

OK... weird and juvenile, but hard to take seriously.

Blog entry #2: "Tom is an asshat, and his database driver is incredibly bad."

That is harder to read, because of the second half, which is the core of Hani's "attack technique" not the "violent, degrading male-male sexual abuse." If you want to change things, you have to be honest about what really gives the attacks their bite, even if you find all of the language offensive.

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From: Hani Suleiman (Mar 27 2007, at 16:47)

I think you're being hugely unfair here. What I do is very, very, clearly humour. I abhor violence and am one of the few people I know who has never, ever been in a fight or thrown a punch. I find the whole concept of physical violence revolting, and view it as a throwback to the time when we were all far less socially evolved than we are now.

The fact that it happens is undeniable, and unfortunate. However, to go on a witchhunt and merrily label all content you happen to find objectionable as inappropriate is equally evil.

Should Southpark also be banned? How about the vast majority of TV which promotes sex and violence, or are those OK because they happen to fit in your brainwashed idea of social norms?

It's very insulting and offensive to be put in that same bucket as those who made serious threats of physical violence. Perhaps you're better off running into whatever shell you'd like to live under, and stick to a world whereby everyone does socially acceptable things (by your standards) and nobody ever challenges your sense of propriety.

I dare you to find anyone who thinks the bileblog's sexual references and abusive language is anything but humour. Many people find it distasteful and not funny, and that's perfectly acceptable. You'd have to be a complete idiot and in need of professional help if you think it's serious.

Note, no link to my blog in this message either. I'll respect your prudishness even if I don't agree with it, unlike you I think the world is big enough for both of us, and in fact it's *good* that both perspectives exist.

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From: Chris Ryland (Mar 27 2007, at 20:14)

1980? I remember flames on the very first ARPAnet mailing list (about the mail protocols & clients themselves)...so how about 1973?

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From: Sawan (Mar 27 2007, at 20:18)

Hani, I agree with the sentiments you express. Moreover (as stupid as it sounds) I think you are doing the Java community a good service by exposing some of the megalomaniacs within the community as well as the abysmal code and products that proliferate.

The first reaction of anybody to whom I have shown a BileBlog entry has been laughter :)

Tim, you need to find another example, sorry.

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From: Robert Scoble (Mar 27 2007, at 20:19)

I don't totally remember that conversation, but I think I was trying to get us to stay away from ad hominem attacks.

It's perfectly acceptable, in my mind, to say "Microsoft's internet strategy sucks."

I really hate it when people attack with ad hominem attacks like: "Tim Bray is an asshat."

Our speech would be so much more interesting if we just stick to attacking the things we do, not the people behind the things. And certainly hate speech like what was aimed at Kathy and my wife are reprehensible and should be called out in no uncertain terms.

But, there are those who think it's funny to try to hurt (and words DO hurt, even when you're a so-called famous blogger) other people with what they say online. I think that's sad.

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From: Michael Neale (Mar 27 2007, at 20:31)

Tim, I don't think I agree with any parallelism drawn between verbal on physical abuse. Having seen both happen in front of my eyes (fortunately physical only once or twice) - I can't even see how they are similar (death threats are a different matter, they of course DO make you afraid).

For physical, 2 things happened: 1) I was afraid of my own life and then later on (cause I am a wimp) 2) I was afraid for their life (no one was seriously hurt in any case, but still, I seriously thought I or they would die at the time). I don't see what that has to do with verbal abuse.

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From: Aidan Kehoe (Mar 27 2007, at 22:56)

Over at sci.lang, perhaps the most regular contributor is Peter T. Daniels, a Semiticist and a scholar of writing systems. Some of what he writes is rude, insulting and occasionally insane, but the quality and excellent informational content of his other contributions, some of them delivered in the same abrupt tone, means I at least (and probably any number of others) am happy to have him there. One datum on ‘flaming.’

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From: Massimo (Mar 27 2007, at 23:54)

Even though I mostly agree with what you say, I do also believe that legal precautions are a slippery slope. Person A may be offended by a sentence, that person B might see as "funny". When we're dealing with communication that does not involve audio or vision (facial / body / voice expression), and more so when dealing with international communication (non [language involved in discussion] natives), it is extremely hard, if not impossible, to set "standards" as to where to draw the line so to speak. So many things can go wrong, and even a misplaced smiley can lead to misinterpretation.

As for taking the consequence of your actions / words, this also goes for both sides of the table ("fame" attracts idiots and one should be ready to deal with that) and in my opinion, interpersonal / cultural intuition or insight would help a lot here, which actually should be taught in school, now that we're much more "open" towards other cultures than the one we stem from. But what strikes me is the inherited ability of self-regulation in the blogosphere. As we can see from Kathy's example, people are standing up against the "attackers", which leaves me with hopes for the continuous development of internet communication.

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From: Zach (Mar 28 2007, at 00:59)

I think the line you're talking about can be drawn rather easily, and that Robert Scoble hit the nail on the head. However, he didn't state it near as explicitly as I'd like to see.

If you're going to go negative with a blog post, you should ask yourself, "Am I attacking the person, or their writing?" It should always be acceptable to attack their writing (which is really nothing more than an idea comitted to a tangible medium.) It's sometimes acceptable to attack a person, but the line where it becomes not acceptible is fuzzy.

I think as a matter of courtesy we should never attack the person, but there are times where it becomes neccesary. However, we should never tolerate any threats of violence. That's clearly over the line.

As for that fuzzy area between attacking the person and the clear point at which it's a threat of violence? I don't have a good answer. Maybe someone else does.

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From: Luis Bruno (Mar 28 2007, at 05:13)

"Abject, unreserved apology" as the only tenable position? Hell, no.

After reading the headrush post you've linked, I'd wager that "behind bars" is the only tenable position for those bastards.

You're being too nice.

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From: Stefan Tilkov (Mar 28 2007, at 06:00)

A while back, someone wrote (http://chaoseffect.com/articles/2006/09/11/tim-bray-makes-markup-wrongly):

"To conclude, if you don’t hate Tim Bray enough, you just aren’t trying hard enough, or simply aren’t programmer enough."

You found it "amusing" and even linked to it: http://www.tbray.org/ongoing/When/200x/2006/09/11/Making-Markup - so did I! It was amusing as hell, and obivously humor.

This seems very similar to what Hani is doing on the BileBlog, so I don't see why you find one kind of humor objectionable and the other kind amusing. Where do you want to draw the line?

(Re Kathy Sierra: I don't have an opinion because I don't know the details, so this implies nothing about her case.)

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From: Hani Suleiman (Mar 28 2007, at 06:08)

Regarding hurtful words, yes, they do hurt, but you know what? They're just words. The positions you're in and the fact that you put yourself out there means you can get as well as you give. George Bush for example must be very very hurt, look at all the mean things people say! None of it is illegal, yet a death threat is. Any reasonable person knows the difference, or every democrat is likely to be in Guantanamo if what you guys want happens.

Being a famous blogger is just like being a public personality, and a celebrity (albeit probably even more vacuous, pretentious, and undeserved). As such, you can expect the usual 'so and so is an asshat' comments and opinions. There is something more than faintly ridiculous about some random guy who hasn't done much to receive all this adulation and fame (in your case, Robert), and the world is a better place by the odd person casually, obscenely, or humorously pointing out that the emperor has no clothes.

I'm sure I've hurt a lot of people in the last few years, and I'm not too fussed about. In a few rare cases it was unwarranted and I've apologised. In others the person behaved far worse than I did, and in many I got a thanks for being honest.

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From: Seth Gordon (Mar 28 2007, at 06:41)

Insults and bad language on the Internet are like obscene gestures in Boston driving: common, irritating, and probably ineradicable. I can be amused by flames when they're well-written (I still treasure the comp.object post that referred to me as "a sleazy, sick, deranged example of humanity, someone who belongs in a cave picking fleas out of his armpits"), but most people on the Net drastically overestimate how witty they are.

But a *credible threat of violence* is not an insult; it's a crime, and should be treated as such. Yeah, you can find hair-splitty borderline cases where reasonable people would disagree about whether a certain flamboyant online statement is a credible threat. But part of a court's job is to make judgement calls in those cases. And anyone who thinks that the Internet is some kind of giant sandbox where people are entitled to do whatever they want without real-world consequences is not a reasonable person.

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From: Stan (Mar 28 2007, at 08:27)

This is a valuable conversation to have, and I'm glad to see Hani involved. I have read the Bile Blog, but the remark that many people on the web overestimate their wit rang true. Now that I've seen what Hani can do and seen him do it a few times, I don't much care any more. The "bile" is less and less humorous and the opinions he's trying to draw attention to don't do much for me. I can't buy into the cavalier attitude about hurting someone's feelings through personal attack. Being "only words" doesn't make it ok. Guess I prefer people who like humanity.

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From: Sawan (Mar 28 2007, at 17:37)

I tend to Think of Hani as a Borat-like figure in the JAVA world :) Enjoy him in that spirit.

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From: Roberto Chinnici (Mar 28 2007, at 18:29)

I was surprised to see Hani's name mentioned in this context, especially considering that the thought experiment you describe could have been performed with thousands of other examples.

Hani's blog excites a great many reactions ("funny", "tasteless", "narcissistic", "vulgar", "repetitive", "vile", etc.), but there is no doubt in my mind that it falls in the category of speech that the First Amendment protects and that we (the community) should ourselves strive to protect. Satire has a long history of exposing the powerful, no matter the fashionable or holy labels they hide behind. Thus, as much as I may disagree with the bile blog's form and contents, so different from the ones I myself choose, I'm quite glad that this type of writing has its own place in the world.

What happened to Kathy Sierra is something else altogether, which the courts are plenty equipped to handle, in this layman's opinion. Inasmuch juxtaposition induces guilt by association, the establishment of a connection between the two stories is regrettable.

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From: John Cowan (Mar 28 2007, at 22:19)

Credible threats of violence aside, there are two kinds of satire: that which attacks the powerful and that which attacks the powerless. They are both legally protected, but ethically they smell very different.

See Molly Ivins versus Rush Limbaugh back in 1995 at http://www.motherjones.com/commentary/columns/1995/05/ivins.html .

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From: masukomi (Mar 29 2007, at 10:24)

I think what makes rants like Hani's acceptable isn't that they're laced with humor. While he does rip into people, and their code, he makes very good points in the process, and I don't think that people think his degrading statemnts are totally serious. I see him more as an amplified echo of the frustrations we have all experienced. From what i've read there he generally isn't going after the people so much as berating them for the decisions they've made and things they've done.

Insulting someone is generally offensive, however when the words you use to insult are, at their core, true and / or insightful it does serve a purpose. It's just not always pleasant to be on the receiving end.

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From: Colonel Nikolai (Apr 01 2007, at 16:20)

I think Kathy has overblown the issue. The people doing what they did are idiots and I'm fairly certain they did break the law (as written, no modifications needed: It's called assault), but I think I broke the law twice last week when I ran a red light on two occasions (and I'm probably an idiot, too, but that's a separate issue).

By reacting with such craven fear on her own blog, Kathy has given these guys what they want. She's putting out fire with gasoline. I think it would have been better to hit them where they "live" by ordering a standard DMCA "take down" notice to their ISP. It would stick, too: the pinheads are using copyrighted material from Kathy's book, no less. By doing this the ISP would shut down the server and the worms would come out of the woodwork.

They you can talk about pressing the assault charges.

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From: Bob Lee (Apr 01 2007, at 21:01)

Kudos to the Bile Blog; someone needs to offset the pomposity of blog entries like this. I'm aghast that you'd belittle Kathy's situation by comparing her death threats to Hani making fun of you.

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From: Nico (Apr 02 2007, at 15:22)

Nothing new here. The law already deals with public speech that is defaming/insulting/threatening/etc. The best thing to do with trolls is not to feed them. In the days of Usenet you could use a killfile. Now you can filter flamers at your web proxy. And 'd' has become ^W.

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From: Eam (Apr 03 2007, at 07:11)

Hani never wanted to hurt anyone. He just needs a hug.

Also, his blog is a bit funnier than this one.

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From: ElCapitan (Apr 03 2007, at 07:35)

Hani's post border on the homophobic, same holds true for a lot of the people commenting in his blog, proving that the author of a blog "sets the tone" of what follows.

Some of the posts are sort of funny, most are very juvenile and many border on the personal. I'm all for having fun, cracking jokes here and there, but most of the "bile" is unjustified and not a great way to engage in dialog with our peers. That's why I'm not posting my "web address" on this comment, who the heck wants their URL or name to show up with such obscene references in a google search. No thanks. This is a great way to discourage communication, if that is Hanni's goal, then good job!

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From: Rob (Apr 03 2007, at 20:29)

Well, Hani does seem a little obsessed with rectal insertions, I wonder if he is missing something in his life.

Me, I could never take anyone seriously who insists that you put up with abusive behaviour because its all in good fun, c'mon, be one of the boys (or girls). When I see that on a school playground, its called bullying, plain and simple, and since my provincial government gives me a rather decent amount of change to do something about it on schoolyards, I suppose I would be a hypocrite if I didn't speak up when I see childish adults do the same. What we teach all the little kids to do, is be very brave, and run up and stand in a circle, pointing fingers at the bully. It's highly visible and effective on the playground, let me tell you.

In any case, there is nothing more pathetic than a bully attempting to bully someone who doesn't give a shit.

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From: Janne (Apr 04 2007, at 02:15)

Often, we do not choose our tools. They are chosen for us, by our superiours, by the existing codebase or fileformats, by the environment offered at the place of work. But sometimes we do have the luxury of choosing our own tools. This is especially when we are looking to do some personal or hobby project, or are starting a new thing from scratch, or we are the superiours above.

And today, any complex component, like a programming language, extends beyond the codebase or compiler and libraries to include the community built around it. The community is after all where you go to learn the tools, to get help and feedback, to discuss and learn. The people gathering around any complex tool are people you, for good and bad, will tend to spend a good deal of your online time with.

I've followed the commentary since the death threats and been exposed to the tone and tenor of the Java community, and I'm convinced of one thing. Regardless of technical ability of the Java language, I would not want to come near - never mind actually join - what seems a surprisingly belligerent group of people. If you "need to be Biled to arrive", well, I'll rather arrive at some other community instead, thank you.

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From: Dan Davies Brackett (Apr 04 2007, at 12:03)

You won't find a community on the Internet then, Jeanne. The *very first post* (http://www.tbray.org/ongoing/When/200x/2007/03/27/On-Aggression#c1175036151.526476) in this thread demonstrated why. There's no such thing as a community without asshattery; there's no such thing as a place on the internet where you can interact with other people but you can't get your feelings hurt.

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From: Janne (Apr 04 2007, at 16:19)

(It's Janne, not "Jeanne")

Most communitites don't actually celebrate and defend people that seem to go out of their way to insult and belittle other people.

But if you are happy and comfortable with it, enjoy. I'd rather spend my time somewhare else.

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From: Augusto (Apr 04 2007, at 23:46)

Janne;

That's a very unfair comment. You can bet that the vast majority of Java developer have *never* heard of the "Bile Blog". To judge an entire community based on that and any few fans that site has is uncalled for.

As to the comment before yours, the point wasn't acceptance of insults on the web, but pointing out that this type of behavior is unfortunately too common on the web. Which is true, and you can see it on many types of "communities".

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