If you read nothing else this week, please go read Kathy Sierra’s extensive detailing of the nightmare she’s endured since she was doxxed by weev years ago. (Sierra, if you’re not familiar with her, is the co-founder of the Head First series of programming books and a former game developer.)
In it, she gets at the root of what makes these men so angry:
From the hater’s POV, you… do not “deserve” that attention. You are “stealing” an audience. From their angry, frustrated point of view, the idea that others listen to you is insanity. From their emotion-fueled view you don’t have readers you have cult followers. That just can’t be allowed.
You must be stopped. And if they cannot stop you, they can at least ruin your quality of life. A standard goal, in troll culture, I soon learned, is to cause “personal ruin”. They aren’t alltrolls, though. Some of those who seek to stop and/or ruin you are misguided/misinformed but well-intended. They actually believe in a cause, and they believe you (or rather the Koolaid you’re serving) threatens that cause.
It’s important to note that this doesn’t just happen in the technology industry. When I read those two paragraphs, I immediately thought of Ed Champion and Emily Gould, wherein Champion’s “cause” was what he perceived to good literature and Emily did not deserve to have readers.
But sadly, it’s a dynamic that any woman who works in public is probably familiar with. As these things go, I haven’t had it too badly. And by that, I mean I’ve been on the receiving end of emails telling me to shut the fuck up or anonymous troll would make me, that I was an enormous whore or completely unfuckable (or both, despite the contradiction), and one stalker-y dude who emailed me constantly for nearly a decade, insisting that he knew the “real me” and that I was a worthless piece of shit who’d never amount to anything and oh by the way, here’s your home address, just to remind you that you don’t know who I am, but I know where you live. (That guy finally disappeared, maybe because after ten years it was clear that I was probably not going to just go kill myself.) Frankly, if you write in public for long enough without the magical protection of a penis, it’s generally not an issue of whether you’ve received threats–rape, death, or otherwise–it’s a matter of how many you’ve received, how serious they were and whether they escalated into offline contact or actual violence.
And the responses I got were payback for my having the temerity to have opinions about things like hedonic pricing and inflation or new media business models. So just imagine what happens to women who actually write about cultural politics or godforbid, their own lives. I’ve been on the receiving end of about 5% of what those women get. And let’s be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with confessional writing by women no matter how many Ed Champions believe otherwise. But the women who do it seem to get hit the hardest with threats and harassment because the implication is that what happens in their lives is not important and their stories do not deserve to be out there.
In Sierra’s case, the horrible offense that started all of this insanity was that she suggested that comment moderation on a blog might be a good idea–and that escalated to charges of censorship and outright fabrications about what she’d done. Then eventually, death and rape threats, doxxing, and a litany of things that put her life in danger. I love the Internet for many reasons, but there are pockets of it that are toxic, malice-filled cesspools full of people who apparently have no empathy for other human beings and think that women exist entirely to be silenced and put in their place, or used as sexual objects. And given the overwhelming volume and frequency with which it happens, you probably know someone who’s sending those messages secretly.
I didn’t grow up with the Internet and didn’t even have email until college, though I loved the idea of it as a kid, and some of my favorite movies then (Wargames, Jumpin’ Jack Flash) involved people having adventures with strangers they met over a network. The promise of it was exciting to me. But as a result, I only have a loose concept of how children learn about what is and isn’t acceptable behavior online.
And I wonder about the grown men who do this. How do they justify it? Are there just far more sociopaths out there than we’d like to think, and we only see it now that they have a platform? Or is it something more systemic and nebulous, rooted in the ways young men are taught to think about women? Even in households that would self-identify as being liberal and progressive, a lot of people are teaching their sons very traditional things about the role of women in the workplace and at home, that early sexual conquests are some sort of achievement (but not for their sisters who will only be damaged by them and branded sluts), and women who are hurt by malicious comments are hurt because they’re over-sensitive or not as tough as men are, and not because they’re simply hurtful.
When I was still writing Gawker in 2003, there was a blogger who decided that his site was more deserving of the media attention that Gawker was getting, and the fact that it wasn’t getting any press was somehow my fault. If I had an audience and he didn’t, that was unfair, and it meant that I was stealing attention from him. I had never even had an extended conversation with the guy, and barely knew him, but he was a giant asshole to me online and offline during that time. And it culminated in this guy taking an upskirt photo of me while I was standing on an elevated landing at a web party and threatening to put it on the Internet. (Worth noting, this guy IDs as a liberal progressive, lives in NYC, yet sees nothing wrong with this sort of behavior.) He was bragging about the idea to some other guys at the party who thankfully told him he was being creepy and abusive, and warned me about what he was up to. Apparently the criticism was enough to convince him to refrain from actually doing it, and he backed off a bit after that.
I would not have wanted this guy to go after Nick Denton, but I think it’s relevant to point out that somehow this guy’s lack of success in his own mind was perceived as being distinctly my fault. He never threatened Nick. It didn’t bother him that the media spotlight was on Nick, but it reeeeeally chapped his ass that it was on me. Why? Because in his mind, I didn’t deserve it. And I didn’t deserve it, not because he knew anything about who I was or whether I’d worked for it, but because I was younger and female and that was enough.
Thankfully, I haven’t really thought about that guy in a long time, but I still see his name occasionally here and there, and when I do, I wonder who taught him that it was okay to treat women that way. What gave him the arrogance, the hubris, to decide that he could be the arbiter of what I, a total stranger, did or didn’t deserve? I don’t know.
I imagine that at some point, probably in the near future, we might have a kid, or kids–and that specifically, we might have a son. And every time I read something like Kathy Sierra’s post, I think about conversations my husband and I will have with him about these things, especially given how early bullying starts and how social media has unfortunately abetted it. And part of that will be a conversation about what women actually do deserve–the same respect, rewards for hard work, and godforbid, attention, that men get.
p.s. A little coda: a few months ago someone pointed out to me that my wikipedia page is wildly outdated, which it is, but I didn’t create it, and am not inclined to edit it, and there’s a bio on my site if anyone wants to know what I’m up to now. But I checked it out of curiosity and found this in the “talk” section:
I laughed when I saw it, but in light of the above, it’s a tiny bit creepy. The assumption of both for the posters is that I have a wikipedia page [I don't deserve] and that I made it myself because I’m an attention whore. I can certainly live without professional validation from this guy, but it’s just more of the same bullshit.