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I’m troubled by the recent controversy surrounding fantastic tech blogger Kathy Sierra of Creating Passionate Users. She’s received threats of death and sexual violence on her own blog and on other sites. I can’t for the life of me imagine why. I can see disagreeing with her, but she’s not exactly blogging about a hot-button controversial topic. She’s a techie who believes in creating the best user experience possible.

She’s planning on shutting down her blog, which would be terribly sad for a variety of reasons. First of all, it’s a great blog- good non-library required reading (she’s been listed on Infomation Wants to be Free as a favorite non-library blog and I’m sure as the meme spreads, Creating Passionate Users will show up a lot).

Sad too, because I can’t help but feel like she’s caving to their insane demands. But that’s not my call to make. I can’t blame her for being scared and it’s easy for me to play armchair blogger and say “don’t let the terrorists win, Kathy” because I’m not her and I don’t have her little girl to look out for.

I didn’t see meankids or unclebobism (both sites are down now) so I don’t know if they always attacked women. But the sexual nature of the threats do make it a gender issue. Is it just that she’s optimistic? Or is it that she’s a woman in technology? Or both? I agree that it’s not just commentary or snark or sarcasm. I read plenty of snarky sites that are funny and smart and a little mean, but there’s a difference between that and threatening someone personally. The comments and pictures Sierra posted in her final entry aren’t Television Without Pity, they’re awful.

The outrage over the terrible things said about Sierra gets blurred, though, because the people who ran the sites where many of the threats appeared feel like they’ve been tarred unfairly. I can see why they’d feel like that- they don’t like Sierra (Chris Locke happily calls her a “hopeless dipshit”) but they aren’t writing anonymous threats. Scoble and Broadsheet are both putting this whole incident squarely into the women in tech camp. The people running meankids and unclebobism don’t seem to have a problem with women in tech (I think one of them is a woman in tech) but the sites seem to have become a haven for misogyny.

This isn’t a case of a woman not being thick skinned enough. If she were upset about the hopeless dipshit comment, then yeah, she’d be overreacting. She’s not asking everyone to like her or agree, but she is asking for basic civility. Not even that, just the same consideration extended to her male colleagues be afforded to her. What’s being said about her isn’t the equivalent of someone calling a male writer an idiot or commenting that he should be punched.

Even in the female-friendly library world, I think most female techies have experienced the casual assumption from a patron that any male staff member is either in charge or “the i.t.guy” so I can imagine that being a techie in the tech world can be difficult. This level of violence is just beyond your standard-issue sexism, though. This isn’t a co-worker acting like a patronizing jerk, which is not to say that the regular sexism experienced by women in technology isn’t a problem, just that this seems beyond that.

I started writing this last night and I digressed into my own little collection of “can I see your I.T. guy? Yeah, that would be me.” stories. I didn’t post it then because I thought it somehow was trivializing what’s happening to Kathy Sierra. Reading the comments over at Scobleizer, it’s clear that for a lot of people this is all part of a continuum of bad attitudes towards women in technology.

It may all be part of the same tech-culture, but Scoble’s point that when he posts a video with a woman in it, people comment on her appearance isn’t restricted to technology. Main stream media publications do this all the time- women are always described by their appearance first, their accomplishments second. It’s a larger cultural issue- it’s a worldwide issue. The violence in the threats against Sierra aren’t just because she’s a woman in technology, they’re because she’s a woman. The UN is only just getting around to declaring that violence against woman is a human rights issue. Really? Did it take the UN until 2006 to figure out that women are people? The fact that she’s working in a male-dominated field exacerbates the issue, but threats of violence and actual violence against women crosses all fields, cultures, countries- it’s the international language.

I hope that Kathy Sierra comes back to her blog. I think she’s being prudent to lay low and try to figure out if the people threatening her are just Internet trolls or real-life crazies. It’s not going to go away, though. Even if there’s a massive online movement to create a more egalitarian environment in technology, we’re still staring down an endless list of daily atrocities committed against women worldwide.

Still, I hope she blogs again!


2 comments for “”

  1. Kathy Sierra and Ethics…

    Convicting folks in the court of public opinion is simply wrong……

    Posted by Thought Leadership | March 29, 2007, 12:21 pm
  2. Sorry for the delay in posting this comment- it got caught by my spam filter!

    I don’t disagree with you. I’m not a huge fan of the court of public opinion either. I tried not to do that here. When I read the post, I didn’t think Kathy Sierra was trying to accuse anyone, though she obviously feels that the folks who own the blogs in question have some responsibility. Fear is a big mitigating factor here.

    Ultimately, I don’t know enough about the situation to lay the blame anywhere. She’s annotated the original posting and makes it clear that she’s not accusing anyone in particular and she’s turned it over to the police.

    Just as you point out that the accused are up a creek if they respond, stay silent or try to fix the problem, she’s also caught in a bind. Should she stay silent? Should she ignore it and hope it goes away? Should she use this a springboard for social justice?

    We don’t know- we can’t know. You seem to think she’s going to use the publicity for personal gain. That may be repugnant to you or you could say that she deserves compensation for being intimidated. This is why celebrity watching gets dull- I don’t know how Jennifer Aniston feels or what she thinks or anything about her. There’s only so far speculation can take us, which of course is why trial by publicity doesn’t work.

    Clearly, people have issues with her- a comment on your post speak volumes and is not inconsistent with what other people have said. I still don’t think she was being thin-skinned given the violence of what was posted.

    Posted by kate | March 30, 2007, 7:58 pm

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