Since Kathy Sierra, the developer and writer, accused anonymous commenters yesterday of death threats, bloggers have posted up their condolences, and outrage, as if this dispute were the geek equivalent of 9/11, and Techmeme some impromptu memorial wall. Her distress is real: she pulled out of a speaking engagement at this week's Etech conference, in fear for her life. And the sympathy for her plight is deeply felt, particularly among web writers familiar themselves with the sting of the online insult, and white male geeks who fear that they'll otherwise seem insensitive to women. But someone has to ask: have the blogs, in this vast outpouring of grief and recrimination, gone too far?
One of the reasons a spate of nasty adolescent name-calling became such a story is this: Sierra accuses web personalities such as Chris Locke, co-author of the Cluetrain manifesto of online marketing, of complicity in the bullying she suffered. Locke, also known as Rageboy, helped set up Bob's Yer Uncle, the site on which the most unpleasant slurs against Sierra appeared.
Locke's own career is founded on his promotion of authentic communication. And, often, especially in the comment threads on sites he's associated with, authentic has verged into the authentically unpleasant. In an interview, posted overnight, he admitted to posting himself two comments on the site. "Kathy Sierra is a hopeless dipshit," he wrote. And, in a reference to her book, Creating Passionate Users, he noted: "The only 'passionate users' I know are crack heads."
Not nice. But par for the course in a robust online discussion. And "dipshit" — while crude — is not in itself evidence of the misogynism that the hand-wringers say colors the tech industry. As for the anonymous comments, which were much crasser than his own words, Locke claims he immediately took down the entire site when he read Sierra's complaint. (Though the Wordpress notice on the suspended blog says that it was closed for terms of service violations.)
The facts won't help Locke much. A cry of misogynism pretty much shuts off debate. The marketing guru, an abrasive character by his own account, has no defenders. (Update: Dave Winer is one of the few who stands out against the chorus of cowardice.) The bloggers are behaving like a lynch mob, or a US president, looking for someone to string up, or a country to invade. Sierra is upset, traumatized, even; but it's Locke's reputation which will be, possibly quite unfairly, soiled by her accusation.
I think her response, as it pertains to anything I personally wrote, was unjustified — but highly effective — character assassination. As a result, I'm sure I'll be explaining for years to come that I'm not really an ax murderer and child molester. Nice work. [Chris Locke, in a transcript of the interview, on his own site.]