Men and women respond differently to Kathy Sierra

I was discussing yesterday with Jay Fienberg how it bothers me that some of the ostensibly supportive comments on Kathy Sierra’s blog include thoughts along the lines of “I am a big man so I am not vulnerable to these kinds of threats.” Not only does this sort of reinforce the chauvinism, as Jay pointed out, but it’s also ludicrous. I don’t care if you’re tall and male and you work out. Someone can still shoot you, jump you, drop a safe on your head, or kidnap your children. It smacks of role-playing fantasy to believe that your macho body will avert the evil eye.
Laura Lemay wrote a particularly thoughtful piece on the Sierra situation (lauralemay :: blog :: kathy sierra, or, imminent death of the net predicted) and noticed a difference in how men and women have tended to react:
> Mostly as I read the comments on Kathy’s post and on other blogs I have noticed a kind of interesting but obvious breakdown. Men, in general, are shocked and horrified that this kind of harassment goes on at all. Women are of course shocked and horrified at Kathy’s situation, but they also kind of nod ruefully and say yeah, it happened to me, too.
> I honestly didn’t think this was a secret, that women get disproportionally picked on in the internets. I thought it was a big fat obvious fact.
> Do I get stalked and harassed and picked on on the internet? Do I get death threats? Sure. I started getting them the week I first posted to Usenet twenty years ago, and I’ve been getting them ever since. It was worse during the usenet era, and WAY worse when I was selling a lot of books. Its pretty quiet these days now that I’m mostly anonymous and I write a mostly personal journal blog. No one cares about cat posts; there are bigger targets. But it still happens.
> But even though all I’ve had is silly email and blog comments I would be lying if I said I was immune to it, that I just blithely delete it all and move on with my life, or that the barrage of it when I was a popular author wasn’t a factor in wanting to maybe not be so popular anymore. You always wonder if its THIS particular scary nutbag who’s going to be the one to go beyond recreational typing. There’s always a small nagging fear.
> Honestly until this week I thought this sort of constant harassment was so common and so obvious it wasn’t even worth mentioning. It had gone on for so long and I had gotten so used to it that it hadn’t occurred to me that this is anything other than what it means to be female on the internet. I told [my husband] about it and he asked me, aghast, why I had never mentioned that I get death threats. We’ve known each other for fifteen years. It just never came up. The shocked reactions internet-wide to Kathy’s post have made me realize that hm. maybe this isn’t normal. And maybe it shouldn’t be.
In Not looking for sympathy or anything Dave Winer deplores the mob mentality that has arisen from Kathy Sierra’s complaint and the way it tarred a range of people with varying degrees of involvement with the same brush.
He also notes a gender imbalance tilted the opposite way:
> People aren’t going to like this, but it’s true — when a woman asks for a riot she gets one, and almost no one comes to the defense of a man who is attacked. Who’s more vulnerable? Well, honestly, it’s not always a woman.
> The time to act is way before it escalates into the kind of post that Kathy Sierra posted. There should be people who are willing to provide personal support to others who are ostracized this way — and that support should be available regardless of gender, age, or other circumstances.
> I won’t support anything that only offers support to women and not men. We must help unpopular people, even people who we think are mean. It’s no crime to be unpopular, and you can measure our humanity by how good we are to people we don’t like.
Nancy White, an expert on online community, weighs in with Hate, Threats and the Culture of Love, and looks for opportunities to learn from this situation. Her thoughts don’t dwell on gender divisions but more on how the we collectively (in communities, in the blogosphere, in the human race) can engage with each other constructively.
She looks at three levels at which we can try to find a way forward:
> 1. *What I choose to take personal responsibility for* – on my blog, on websites I host, garden or facilitate and WHY. How transparently I do this so people can choose to engage or not. I delete spam. I delete hate comments. Have I made that clear? Not clear enough. So I need to get my personal online house in order.
> 2. *What I choose to negotiate with the communities and groups I participate in.* This goes to the possibility of being complicit in something that goes against my beliefs, values and promises I make to and with others. For me, the issues with MeanKids etc. fall into this one and it is worth some more conversation. I accept that we will have differing views on this. But we have choice about what we support, what we ignore and what we speak out on.
> Free speech is essential. Hate attacks and rape fantasies should not have to be policy level decisions – or only as last resort. We as a community should not tolerate them. If you want to have hateful discussions, take it to a walled garden. If you do it in public, expect impact on your reputation. (Note: this is NOT directed at anyone. I don’t know who did what and leave that to those involved to sort out. I’m talking at the general level.)
> 3. *What I choose to support from a policy level.* Death threats should be prosecuted. Privacy should be protected. Free speech should be protected.