The downsides and limits of all this Web 2.0 free speech blogarama have been brought into sharp focus by the perils of prominent blogger Kathy Sierra (not for the squeamish) who has gone into hiding after having received death threats on her blog and others. Violent, ugly, woman-hating threats like “fuck off you boring slut… i hope someone slits your throat and cums down your gob”.
Anyone who’s anyone in the blogverse gets hate mail, even me. But unlike irate Shannon Noll fans, these charm-school dropouts have serious problems. This is symptomatic of what Andrew Keen calls the “rampant and uncontrollable misogyny of the blogosphere“.
But the problem is that the blogosphere has been colonized by a type of technophile male whose dialectic method is insult rather than polite argument. And this rotten culture of anonymity has spawned a contemporary Internet of social deviants, loonies, perverts and get-a-lifers (not to mention weird Second Lifers). The consequence is digital miasma.
Keen’s apt description owes much to Penny Arcade’s famous Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory: Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Total Fuckwad. (In Australian English, we would say ‘fuckwit’ or ‘Sam and the City reader’.)
It’s not just limited to the bloggerati either. You don’t have to go far on Urban Dictionary, supposedly a reflection of modern culture, or at least online culture, before you come across something stomach-turningly violent and offensive (not for the squeamish, or anyone else really).
But there are no easy answers.
Web 2.0 guru Tim O’Reilly thinks self regulation and a code of conduct are the way to go, rather than any form of government or legal restrictions. He thinks this will work because it’s only a few bad eggs giving the broader blogmunity a bad name. If we set standards, the extremists will fall into line. Yeah, cos that always happens.
The fact that there’s all these really messed-up people on the internet is not a statement about the internet. It is a statement about those people and what they do and we need to basically say that you guys are doing something unacceptable and not generalise it into a comment about this is what’s happening to the blogosphere.
Mmm, articulate. Keen cottons on to the essential vapidity of this argument, likening it to the NRA’s ‘guns don’t kill people’ sophistry. “Thus, the O’Reilly line goes, blogs don’t sexually humiliate and threaten women, male internet bloggers sexually humiliate and threaten women,” Keen explains. Like that somehow makes it OK.
Guardian blogger Timothy Garton-Ash, whom Keen also mentioned, flirts with the idea of requiring people to identify themselves on blogs, then suggests harnessing the power of the blogosphere for self regulation.
One helpful device would be to enable users to rate contributions, from one to five stars, as happens in some other discussion forums. So as a subsequent reader you could go swiftly hopping through the swamp, from marked mound to mound. In the archived version, those contributions that got fewer than, say, two stars, might appear only as a link.
Congratulations, you’ve just invented Slashdot’s meta-moderation system seven years after the people who made Slashdot invented it! Which only works if the audience is primarily made up of decent and intelligent people with a broad range of views. Unlike, say, Slashdot readers. Or Sam and the City readers. (Make up your own mind as to whether Guardian readers qualify.)
And if the intertubes are as stuffed-to-bursting with misogynists as Keen tells us, this is only going to make the woman-hating comments more prominent. But then Keen comes up with the most trollsome suggestion of all:
It’s the anti O’Reilly code; a left wing answer to the ills of digital universe (authored from my castle in the People’s Republic of Berkeley). We need to make anonymous posts illegal. Let’s devise software that forces everyone to reveal their true identity before posting anything on the Internet.
On the other hand, there is a remote possibility he was being serious.
But Keen and Garton-Ash are all missing the point that Tim O’Reilly didn’t, however badly he expressed it. Anonymity is not the problem, except in the sense that it acts as a bitter misogynist fuckwit concentrator. Regulation – self or government – aside from being impossible, is not the solution because bitter misogynist fuckwits are the problem.
When we find a cure for them, the problem will fix itself.