SAN JOSE, Calif. - When disagreements flare up, Nick Wilson isn’t afraid to hurl insults at his fellow bloggers.
“I’ve been unkind to people for sure,” said Wilson, who publishes ClickInfluence from Denmark. If an Internet site is “complete rubbish,” responses get highly charged, he said. “It’s easy to go just a little bit further than you would if you were face to face.”
Wilson has plenty of company. The free-for-all world of the Internet has never been constrained by the conventions of polite speech. Speaking up is part of the culture, and fiery comments won’t disappear anytime soon. But in this anything-goes environment, sharp-edged retorts are showing they can easily become threatening and filled with hate.
Such was the experience of Kathy Sierra, a blogger who received death threats, sexually explicit messages - even a threat to slit her throat - earlier this year. She traces the storm to a blog post from April 2006 titled “Angry/Negative People Can Be Bad For Your Brain,” which unleashed a slowly gathering snowball of criticism, some of it harsh. Sierra said she believes the outpouring came in part because she was perceived as too optimistic.
“I’m still afraid,” said Sierra, who spoke to the San Jose Mercury News but has commented little publicly since the online attacks. “Someone went to a lot of effort to do it.”
So far, few if any academic studies have sought to understand the phenomenon of online chatter and how the “threads” of a conversation devolve into unrestrained attacks. Bloggers say the notion of “flaming,” or criticizing, dates to the Web’s earliest days - and, just like offline communications, can take on the dynamics of mob rule or road rage. Attacks also appear more widespread than many would like to admit. When shielded by the anonymity of made-up user names and egged on by a crowd of other posters, the acceptable can quickly become unacceptable.
No one pretends to have a solution, or even agree whether a solution is necessary. Offline, public outrage brings change, such as the recent firing of radio personality Don Imus. Cyber incidents rarely attract publicity, and “trolls,” who roam from site to site hoping to inflame online communities, are viewed as an inescapable part of the landscape.
So far, the online world has rejected calls for change. A voluntary code of conduct posted by technology publisher Tim O’Reilly on his site last month in the wake of the Sierra affair was so widely condemned that O’Reilly softened it in a revision titled “Lessons Learned So Far.” It urged bloggers to encourage appropriate behavior by not permitting anonymous comments on their sites and refraining from saying things online that they wouldn’t say face to face, among other measures. It also suggested that sites voluntarily adopting the code display a badge. But the revision decided, among other things, that the sheriff’s badge, with its reference to the American West, was a bad idea.
Wilson was one of those speaking up against the code. He said he maintains a firm ethical policy online and never posts comments that are nasty or that rely on personal attacks. But that didn’t stop him from putting up two podcasts linked to his blog last month, one of which was titled, “Why The Blogger’s Code of Conduct Can Kiss My Arse.”
“I don’t think I’m under any obligation to be civil on the Internet,” said Wilson, adding that at 35 years old he is able to determine the correct way to behave. “I absolutely hate the idea.”
Bloggers say ethics and conduct online are personal issues that are sometimes at odds with the Internet’s Wild West culture. They also claim it is easy for the offline world to blow the problem with online civility out of proportion. There are an estimated 70 million blogs on the Internet, many of which are tame places for exchanging recipes, viewing family photos, finding corporate information, or uncovering tips on sailing across the Puget Sound. Only a few feature angry graffiti, or let vitriol spill from their pages.
Outsiders often make the mistake of viewing blogs as the online equivalent of newspapers or magazines with newsrooms of reporters and managing editors reviewing copy, said Jeff Jarvis, a blogger and associate professor at the City University of New York’s graduate school of journalism. They are not. “No one edits the Internet,” Jarvis said. Traditional “media are things you sanitize, control and put a bow on.” The Web is not.
Netizens agree they have no desire to see a sanitized Internet. “I’m not going to pull punches” online, said Jarvis. “I’m going to say what I think” and be “forceful without being abusive.” In a blog entry titled “No Twinkie Badges Here,” he responds to O’Reilly’s code of conduct: “I don’t need anyone lecturing me and telling me not to be disagreeable. I won’t take it from Continental clerks when flights are canceled. I won’t take it from you.”
But for people who have been the recipients of Internet nastiness, civility is more than just a principle waiting in line behind free speech. Sierra, a software programming instructor and game developer from Colorado, said she felt like a target. The violent, misogynous comments she received included a threat to suffocate her and a photo with a noose around her neck.
When the attacks began in March, she deleted some of the worst comments from her site, but more came. As the angry fireball grew, flamers posted on third-party sites that were beyond her control. Sierra counted 200 offensive postings on her site alone. (More than 3,000 e-mails and comments have since come in supporting and empathizing with her.)
“If someone wants a reaction, they will continue to escalate until they get one,” said Sierra. She has quit her blog and says she will only write online again as part of a broad community of bloggers or in a members-only site.
Other bloggers have had similar, unsettling experiences. Ed Garsten, a manager of DaimlerChrysler, helps run a Chrysler-sponsored blog that admits only automotive journalists. The exclusive policy attracted a deluge of comments when the site launched in September 2005. Some comments were thoughtful, complaining that the blog ran counter to the Internet’s open nature. Other responses were more spiteful, acerbic. They were picked up by other bloggers and spread across the Net.
The controversy followed Garsten to a BlogOn conference a month later in New York City. “I was booed as if I dropped my pants in front of all these people and mooned them,” he said. “We honestly didn’t expect the firestorm we got.” One attendee spit at him.
A blogger who posted about Garsten’s member-only site was Toby Bloomberg, who publishes the Diva Marketing Blog. “I’ve done my share of flaming,” said Bloomberg. When someone goes against the Internet culture, that will happen, she says. Bloomberg posted a blog entry after she was denied access to the Chrylser site and listed its rules moderating discussions online.
Despite the widespread opposition to O’Reilly’s code of conduct - and other codes that have come before it - some online observers say it could have an impact. Assuming only a small segment of the online audience regularly flames, a code of ethics or conduct might successfully set bounds for the vast middle ground of people who might consider it. It would reduce their temptation to stray, said Kirk Hanson, executive director at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.
“The classic ethical question is, `What will you do if no one is watching,’” said Hanson, and “the blogger’s world is a world in which no one is watching.” But with no one watching, it will be hard to know for sure.