Just last week I was all indignant about snark-sites like the ones that were popping up around my favorite mama boards. It’s been on my mind, the way anonymity seems to empower some people to take things way too far and then wave the Free Speech banner when called on it.
Then I read this post by Kathy Sierra of Creating Passionate Users, and I realized how big of a deal this really is.
We do not have constitutional provisions for hatred and death threats. We should have better rebuttals in our vocabulary than “if you didn’t have legs, you would leave a trail like a garden slug.” I mean, we’re adults, right? We wouldn’t say that to a person we ran into at the grocery store, would we?
Of course I believe in free speech. Of course I don’t think that we should all be tiptoeing around each other, all politically correct and timid. But it seems awfully convenient to hide behind both free speech and anonymity. “I say what I mean, I just don’t want anyone to know it’s me saying it.” Guh.
Words have power. Saying something out loud is powerful; printing it publicly is even more so. People need to be responsible for their words. If you’re going to publicly threaten someone, you’re responsible for the fallout. Not the person you’re threatening (for finding out about it). Not the community rallying in her support (for “the same oroborus circle jerking that leads to this problem in the first place,” as per Ethan Caplan’s dismissive and unsympathetic post on the subject).
So far, with the exception of one upstanding person, everyone involved with the meankids.org community has pretty much jumped all over Kathy for making “unfounded accusations” and not just chuckling indulgently when people on the internet said they wanted her dead. Mean old Kathy Sierra, pointing out that threatening to kill someone is a crime and that even people on the internet can’t just terrorize an individual they don’t like, willy-nilly. How dare she talk about it? How dare she name names? At the same time, they have all attempted to make clear that it wasn’t their posts that were threatening. They were just bystanders, and now they’re being unfairly targeted simply for their involvement with the community, etc., etc., ad nauseam.
Look. If you let something you know is wrong just happen, guess what? You’re wrong too. Not criminally liable, maybe, but morally suspect. When someone calls you out for your cowardice and inexplicable failure to moderate or discourage overtly threatening behavior? You say you’re sorry and you think twice the next time. You don’t post diatribes on your site suggesting that the victim is merely seeking to bask in the spotlight by making baseless accusations, because if you do that, you simply confirm that you’re an asshole. (I’m not linking to those posts from here, but they’re not hard to find. Also: ick.)
Brian Oberkirch has an excellent post about this on his blog. I agree with him 100%. Go read it.