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The Threats to Kathy Sierra

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About Kathy Sierra's blog death threats, it highlights one of my problems with blogs and my overall lack of surprise about the matter.

Blogs, in and of themselves have fewer homeostatic mechanisms than forums or listservs. They are primarily a voluntary push medium with the ability to respond. I have never felt like I have been part of a conversation as part of a blog; only as a journalist or lecturer. They have never made me feel "part" of anything, they have only made me feel part of an audience, and it is this belonging that is special to networked conversation.

Conversely, while there are 10% or so active on any list, maybe more on a forum, there is usually an unspoken rule of community conduct, or at least heated debate then abuse comes about. This tends to regulate the conversation by either mandating partial moderation at times or the community pushing the abuser to the background, which I (usually) approve of to some extent. While there are some really warped people on the Net, I find that the larger component are still decent people who are eager to share.

This leads me to two or three points.

First, am I surprised that Kathy Sierra got the threats that she did? Not really. I have students in my classes who jovially muse about being homicidal maniacs who kill three people and have sex with their entrails before breakfast during class. At least in America, we have a culture in which this sort of banter is considered "funny" in many places, and that cyber-rape is no big deal, because "it's not real".

But then, the same students complain about "Super Columbine Massacre RPG" as going too far over the line. Why? Just depicting real events doesn't make it real, does it, kids? While I am most definitely no prude, I often wonder what the infoculture, of all its diversity (I prefer not to say 'good' and 'bad') is doing in shaping culture in its continual pressing of taboo and shock.

Personally, I'm not shocked, I'm bored - I think about what people like Vannevar Bush, Licklider, and Englebart were thinking about when envisioning computation as an extension of human evolution, and the result includes "Shaved Pumped Pussies" and the game "Ethnic Cleansing", as well as the millions of human-hours involved in virtual slaughter. It's not shocking, it's just inane - the sweaty-palmed 18-year old with the toilet training disorder has been lionized for too long.

I love the quote I got from a Bukkake (porn practice in which women are subjected to having semen shot all over their faces) site operator in Second Life self-righteously inform me that "Communism killed far more people than porn ever has"... I was brought there (later, I find, by a person who had been using painkillers and acting quite erratically) to resolve a harassment dispute.

Of course, I left fairly quickly.

Next, how do we regulate this sort of behavior? Shut down comments on blogs? I don't see that as a solution at all. That puts the wall up higher in the age in which enough walls are being built. It's like MySpace - delete the comments, and understand that blogging leaves you partially vulnerable to attacks. Conversely, forums and lists would punish the abuser soundly via flamewar and by community.

IMO, blogs have this particular flaw of leaving one vulnerable to attack, and I feel that regulating blogs opens up free speech issues on the Net (which actually has no real enforceable laws regarding same, as most assume the US 1st Amendment as global writ, which is not the case). Personally, I think that Ms. Sierra is probably at little risk, and that her case is merely a high-profile case of relatively common practices, but not at her level of privilege.

Should she be scared? Not enough to cancel her lecturing schedule. Should she be disturbed? Absolutely, because she sees a larger component than just her supportive community, and I, for one, am bored by the aggressive, adolescent subcultures of the Net. And if media are the collective unconscious of a society, I wonder what the "see only what I want", "do whatever I want as long as it isn't 'real'", culture's dreams of mayhem, aggression, and degradation create on larger scales are creating on a larger scale.

Sure, I exaggerate, but probably not by much. Kathy Sierra should be disturbed, but not surprised, and wary, but not scared. Welcome to the Net, Kathy. I'm sorry that you have to see this sort of thing. I hope you will use your experience to create a constructive dialogue about web conduct rather than reacting in fear. We need people like you to take up that conversation.

Patrick Lichty
- Interactive Arts & Media
Columbia College, Chicago
- Editor-In-Chief
Intelligent Agent Magazine

"It is better to die on your feet
than to live on your knees."

I remember netiquette

When everyone was doing text based bbs and early MUD an MOO RPG's there was a lot more discussion of netiquette. I think that anonymity breeds license. In the case of blogs especially you must register to comment. If you are a spammer or a flamer you will quickly get banned even if you use a fake name and email.
The larger issue is the degree of mis-communication that occurs with text that is conversational. I personally don't do chat rooms or 2nd life because I find that they alway devolve to the lowest common denominators or sex and violence. Well, in 2nd life there's another level of gamesmanship and greed but it's like being addicted to gambling, it's all in the pleasure centers of your mind.
There's so much to explore and understand in this new artificial, cyberworld it's really very interesting. On the other hand, I'm in the mountains on a warm spring day, I can turn off my computer and go outside, feel the sun on my face, dig in my garden, watch the returning Robins and chat with my neighbor over a real life physical fence.

The Hello Men & Women

"Such nihilism and anger have led her to consider hanging up her blogging software for good."

I'd never heard of Ms Sierra till you mentioned her & looking at her picture I thought she was a mid-west folk singer with ballads about amputees drinking rye at the legion in Des Moines. Death threats? Fucking luxry. What I'd give for a death threat. Hell, I'd give my plastic hip for a bit of street cred like that. Batman! Call the CIA bang up them creeps and pack em off to Guano Bay. Give em a taste of the 'kinder gentler' internet. Tired, tired revolution. Hang up yer kurosawa six guns and leave this business to the happy assassins in the marketing dept.

1925 and TS 'Billy' Eliot keeps blagging on,

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Death Threats, the FBI and flaming

When I first started doing net art I did a piece called BKPC (Barbie and Ken Politically Correct). It featured a Black Ken doll and a White Barbie doll. It was part of a larger piece called Art Direct/ Sex, Violence and Politics. Oddly enough I was stalked by the FBI who pretended to be a women looking for a recipe to build a bomb. I did receive a death threat as well. Here's some of the feedback from 1993!
Half of the visitors to my homepage get there by doing a google search for images of Barbie Dolls having sex.