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.