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I am Kathy Sierra

Have you ever had a stalker? Have you ever had someone threaten to kill you? Someone who knows what you look like and where you live? Maybe even your phone number? I have. And the whole story about the death threats against Kathy Sierra this week took me back years and years, to the time when I opened an email with a death threat in it and that ended with “I know where to find you,” and when got phone calls from a man saying what he was going to do to me when he found me.

That was a long time ago. I was a single gay man, living alone. All I’d done was go online to chat and meet men. I met the wrong one, realized it and quickly dropped him. My guess is that there are some people who would say that I “had it coming” and “brought it on myself” by going online. The death threats, that is. And some people would probably say the same thing if my stalker had found me and made good on his promises. “The faggot brought it on himself.” Sounds an awful lot like “The bitch brought it on herself.”

Look, if you blog, and blog about controversial shit, you’ll get idiotic emails. Most of the time, said “death threats” don’t even exist — evidenced by the fact that the crying bloggers and journalists always fail to produce said “death threats”.

… For my part, I’ve gotten my fair share of such vile emails. Some of them have threatened my children. One or two actually crossed the line into “death threat” territory. But so what? It’s not as if those cowards will actually act on their threats.

Initially, I started to say that maybe I’m one of few men who could relate to what Kathy Sierra experienced. (And, as man who’s endured unwanted, non-consensual sexual contact from a guy I couldn’t fight off, relate to the fear of that possibility too.) But Kos’s post clearly suggests that’s not the case. But maybe Kos and I are different, in at least a few aspects. As a gay man, I could walk out of my house any morning to a message like this, and I know enough to take it seriously, because people have been known to carry out threats like that one.

A lifelong Irving College resident believes he is the victim of a hate crime after anti-gay messages were spray painted on his home.

The messages of hate were left on Neal Anthony?s home near McMinnville last weekend.

The Warren County Sheriff’s Department said someone also threw a rock through one of his windows.

Anthony said, ?I can’t believe this has happened. I am in shock?They put vulgar language all over the house… ?Fags deserve to die,? ?gays go to hell.??

Warren County Sheriff’s Department is also looking to see if the latest incident is tied to a similar one last month.

Vandals left messages in five places, smashed the mailbox, threw a landscaper’s rock through a window and broke security locks.

Anthony lives with his partner Michael Duncan and said everyone knows he is gay. He said, ?I’m openly gay, people up here know I’m openly gay.”

How easy is it to say, “Well, if you weren’t out this wouldn’t happen. If you’re going to be openly gay, you have to expect this. It’s no big deal. Maybe he’s making it up.”?

I don’t know what criteria anyone uses to determine when a death threat is credible and when it isn’t, but I do know what it’s like to sit in my alone in my apartment not knowing if the specific threat, from someone who knew where I lived, was credible or not. In that sense, I tend to agree with Kathy.

In an interview, she dismissed the argument that cyberbullying is so common that she should overlook it. “I can’t believe how many people are saying to me, ‘Get a life, this is the Internet,'” she said. “If that’s the case, how will we ever recognize a real threat?”

We won’t, until one is carried out. And then everyone will say what a shame it was, but it was an isolated incident, and shouldn’t change how people do things online. And we’ll go right back to doing the same thing. Until the next time, at least.

And there would be a next time. The threats against Kathy, the picture of her with a noose around her neck, appeared on someone else’s site, someone who defended his decision not to remove those comments, instead putting the responsibility on the commenters, and eventually removing the sites altogether rather than remove the comments.

I don’t know what standard of integrity includes allowing people to post death threats against other people in a forum you own, any more than I can imagine leaving comments on my blog containing the kinds of threats (throat slitting, etc.) and images that were directed at Kathy Sierra. Free speech? Deleting comments is no violation of free speech. First, no one has a “right” to threaten anyone. Second, no one has “right” to do so on my blog or anyone else’s. If I delete their comments, they can start their own blogs in about five minutes. They can take it to another forum where that’s tolerated. Obviously, those forums exist.

But here, they will be removed. And the people who leave them won’t be welcome to return. I’ve done so once or twice, but not as consistently as I should have. No more. I don’t want to be part of a community that shrugs off something like that. How many progressive bloggers were outraged when Michelle Malkin posted the address of phone number of an anti-war student group, resulting in death threats, which she stated she didn’t condone but clearly facilitated by her actions? Or when Stop the ACLU revealed the address and phone number of the Dobriches, a Jewish family who’d just fled religious discrimination and harassment after objecting to Christian prayers in their son’s school?

Because any of us could be Kathy Sierra. In fact, we all are. It’s the internet, after all. Those of us who aren’t blogging anonymously are effectively public figures, and almost anything can be found out about anyone by someone who knows where and how to search online. Addresses, phone numbers, places of employment. And those of us who are anonymous can be discovered and outed just easily (as has happened to some of Kos’ own “front pagers). And when that adds up to another threat to another blogger, how many of us will say “So what?” How many of us will say “So what?” if a threat is finally carried out?

And when that happens will we still object to unreasonable — and totally voluntaryguidelines like these?

  1. Take responsibility not just for your own words, but for the comments you allow on your blog.
  2. Label your tolerance level for abusive comments.
  3. Consider eliminating anonymous comments.
  4. Ignore the trolls.
  5. Take the conversation offline, and talk directly, or find an intermediary who can do so.
  6. If you know someone who is behaving badly, tell them so.
  7. Don’t say anything online that you wouldn’t say in person.

My stalker eventually left me alone. I called the phone company, and they gave me a combination of numbers to enter the next time he called, which would automatically trace the call and send the information to the phone company. He did. I entered the numbers, and the phone company did its trace and sent the information to the police. A couple of days later, the police interviewed me at work to get my story. They could have told me that I’d brought it on myself by going online, etc. But they didn’t. Instead they told me he would not be calling me again. Fortunately, he didn’t.

My experience is that people who long for a Hobbesian “state of nature” in any environment, including the blogosphere, are those who believe they’re among the best equipped to survive in that setting. They’re almost always people who believe on some level that “might makes right; who eventually side with the bullies, believing they won’t become, can’t become a target.

The rest of us ? who aren’t invulnerable, invincible, completely anonymous, always guarded, able to magically discern which threats are real and which aren’t, and able to fight off any attack at ay time ? are Kathy Sierra. Or can be. Easily.

Crossposted from the Republic of T.

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