On Saturday, whilst working on our last minute changes to our ETech presentation, I received a frightened email from Kathy Sierra that read in the subject line: "I may just have to quit"

I quickly opened it up. It wasn't the first time Kathy had sent me an email on the content, but the subject line really jarred me. Kathy is a pretty tough cookie and has been my source of strength many times when dealing with this same group of people. So, when she indicates that the harassment has gone as far as to potentially silence her, I was saddened.

The link Kathy pointed me towards in the email led to a site that she screenshot and published on her blog. The images and language there were horrific - multiple depictions of violence against women: Kathy being suffocated by underwear (sexually violent), a fictional character who is someone's female boss being physically beaten to relieve frustration, another fictional character being compared to a garden slug when removing her legs.

Chris and I immediately investigated the background of this site and it led to the same people who had started a site called meankids.org in my honor a couple of months back. Fortunately for me, Kathy had observed all of that, emailed me and gave me enough strength to tell them to go screw themselves. Unfortunately for her, it gave them license to turn on her (again...as she has a long history of being attacked by this group). And, unlike the mean, but fairly neutral (non violent, non sexual) imagery they created for me, the images and discussion around Kathy became quickly violent and highly sexualized.

The meankids.org site was prompty removed shortly thereafter. We believe, due to an email sent by Kathy to Jeneane Sessum, who is involved with this group on some group blogging projects (and, although Jeneane isn't involved in this misogynistic, horrific swarming directly, I told her that her continued support of these activities through her friendship was akin to being accessory to a crime). Similarly, when I emailed Jeneane this Saturday about the Uncle Bobisms site in question, it didn't take too long for the site owner to take it down.

But that wasn't the worst of it. In the meantime, this type of swarming, heckling and sexually violent imagery was enough to egg on someone either within the group or on the periphery of it to send explicitly violent and terrifying death threats directly to Kathy. That was enough for her. She canceled her appearance at ETech and wondered if she should blog or otherwise publicly appear again.

...but she is an incredibly brave, unsinkable soul. Her raw and open post on this incident was one of the most amazingly brave moves I have ever witnessed. They couldn't silence her. This is why she is my source of strength and one of my heroes.

I received a phonecall from someone last night who was concerned and wondering what to do to help Kathy. He expressed his confusion over the situation, "But I like these people, they are funny. I can't understand."

I replied, "This is not a difficult decision. Whether the group of mean kid swarmers are part of the direct and awful death threats or not, they have spent energy more than once invoking this behaviour. You cannot tolerate their actions. These are not your friends. They are mean people. They weren't setting out to help the world. Be helpful. Raise an argument on a topic they disagree with. They were attacking a person. And their attacks were misogynist and sexually provocative."

THIS ISN'T THE FIRST TIME THIS GROUP'S ANTICS HAVE LED TO THIS BEHAVIOUR...so they already knew and they continued to push it. And, if they aren't directly involved in the death threats on Kathy, they certainly could be considered accessory. And I hope they get the punishment they deserve.

I'd like to believe the majority of people in this world are good. Even through this, I believe that. Even people who say awful things to other people online aren't necessarily EVIL, but products of a frustrated world where we are so disconnected from one another that they believe it is okay to personally attack someone. Especially as someone grows in popularity. I find it insane that people don't understand that there is a human being on the receiving end. But there ARE sick and evil people who see this 'bad behaviour' and can't decipher between mean joke and real threat and they will act on it. I think it's time to take responsibility for our actions.

About a year and a half ago, I didn't understand this. I was witness to a distraught Mena Trott on stage at Les Blogs 2, talking about this very subject. She put a call out for civility in the blogosphere and was called 'bullshit' on it. That was an ill-informed and incredibly irresponsible reaction. We found out later that she had been on the receiving end of many of these types of awful threats. I felt terrible for being a part of the audience who supported the 'bullshit' position, and I've learnt since then what Mena was talking about, but hadn't had taken the time to bring it up until now. I was one of the cowards who stood by and watched the bad behaviour be justified. I was as bad as the perpetrators themselves.

We cannot tolerate these attacks any longer. Sites like DIGG and Slashdot and instant chatrooms on sites are filled with awful dialogue. Sexist, racist, hateful stuff. Stuff that, I'm sure, these people wouldn't dream of saying if their identities were revealed.

When we see personal attacks, we need to speak out. We need to tell the commentors and the people in the chat rooms that these statements are NOT okay. We can disagree with ideas, but attacking people personally is NOT okay. If you have a 'friend' who is engaging in this type of activity, you have to tell that person it is NOT okay. What is not okay in 'real life' is not okay in virtual life. If the virtual space is truly that democratic, of-the-people, world changing, Read/Write wonder that we proclaim it to be, we need to clean it up.

Kathy Sierra is such an amazing person. She is a strong and brilliant voice. She brings human into development in a way that we've never seen - which is why so many people adore her and her work. She is definitely my hero. I'm sad that it came down to her being silenced for people to start getting behind this idea. I certainly hope that we can encourage Kathy to get back out there and continue to inspire us.

Thanks, Kath, for being so unsinkable.

Bonus links:

- Lisa Stone has an amazing analysis here (and indicates agreement that bad behaviour encourages worse behaviour and those involved should take responsibility for it, like Frank Paynter has has)

- Shelley almost gets it, though her 'snark' commentary in the past has led to the encouragement of 'mean kids' like behaviour. I think Shelley is smart, but she can also cross over to the side of mean at times, not knowing when to say when.

- Chris Locke fails to take any responsibility for his own actions and publishes a very 'poor-me-my character-is-being-defiled' post that a more self-reflective person (which, ironically, is what he likes to accuse others as lacking...where most of his snarky comments come into play) wouldn't.

- I don't feel the least bit sorry for the Head Lemur, whose comments on Uncle Bobisms were the ones describing a woman without legs as a slug and encouraging of 'beating the bitch'. (update: Alan claims his computer was hacked, so it is unclear as to whether this was him or not. What I do know is that the Rev. Ed. avatar appeared as far back as February on meankids.org with his face on it, so it may be that his computer was hacked for several months without his knowledge...whilst interacting with his regular group of online friends. I've also seen his comments on several other blogs calling Kathy, myself and Scoble 'idiots' for the twitter thing during the past couple of months).