Coordinated Statements on the Recent Events

It's still April Fools Day as I write this, but this page is not a joke. Kathy Sierra and I (Chris Locke) agreed to publish these statements in advance of the story which will appear tomorrow (Monday 2 April 2007) on CNN, sometime between 6 and 9am on "CNN American Morning." As used in the somewhat Victorian title slug, above, "coordinated" is meant to signal our joint effort to get this stuff online, not that we co-wrote the material you see here, or had any hand in prompting or editing each other's words. We hope something new comes through in these statements, and that they will perhaps suggest more creative ways of approaching the kind of debate that has been generated around "the recent events" they relate to. For anyone who is newly arrived from another planet, and is therefore unfamiliar with those events, Kathy's initial post is here, and my initial reaction is here. It is not optimal that this page is hosted on, as my questionable nom de plume has been part of the debate, but time was short and this domain was the most available for the purpose.
Kathy Sierra Chris Locke
Less than seven days ago, the last person I wanted to meet in person was Chris Locke. And while we still disagree -- strongly -- about a few key things, we found a lot more common ground than either of us would have imagined. After hours and hours of talking over the last few days, he managed to get me laughing just when I needed it the most.

The firestorm around my post is both heartening and terrible. Chris told me himself that he believes I was right to speak out on this. However, my post led many people to the wrong conclusion about the specific levels of involvement by the people I named. That my one post touched a nerve for tens of thousands of people shows just how wide and deep this problem is. People are outraged not just because of my story, but because it's been a growing problem that's hurt the lives of so many others online. But Chris and I felt that if we -- of all people -- could demonstrate that we could see past the anger, connect with each other, and learn something together, maybe we could help encourage others to have a more calm, rational productive discussion. We should be talking about it, not reacting, over-reacting, and counter-reacting.

I do believe that Chris, Jeneane, and Frank did not make the specific posts and images that I found threatening, and I believe they were not responsible for the threatening comments on my own blog. However, Chris and I (and others) still strongly disagree about whether people who are respected and trusted in our industry (like the three of them) are giving tacit approval when they support (though ownership, authoring, and promoting) sites like meankids and unclebob. This is about trust and leadership in our community, and whether those who are looked up to have a (non-legal) responsibility to the community whose trust they've earned for the things they promote.

Unfortunately, I still do NOT know who made the unclebobism post; nobody has yet been able to tell me that the person who did this is not a real threat. We've become so desensitized to vile comments on the net that many people can't comprehend why I would feel threatened. But if we dismiss every cruel, vile, sexually threatening comment as simply the work of an anonymous troll, we will no longer be able to recognize a real threat. Are we willing to stake our mother/sister/daughter's life on a sexually and physically threatening photo or comment, simply because it appeared on the internet and therefore must be harmless?

That said, Chris and I are in complete agreement that it would be tragic if this incident were used as a weapon by those who would limit free and open exchange. My desire is for much more open debate on this issue, not legislated limits. The overwhelming, incredible support so many have given to this issue makes me very hopeful, and the positive result of all this has been the conversation that's taking place right now, between so many people. This could be a very important moment if we stop, think, and talk about the kind of future we really want online, and make certain we don't give up something more important in the process.

Thanks to Tim O'Reilly, Kathy and I began exchanging email last Wednesday. I think it's fair to say we were both surprised by the results. On neither side was there any evidence of the acrimony that has been so widely attributed to both of us. By the next day we were speaking on the phone -- for nearly two hours. If you had overheard our conversation, you would have thought us old friends. While some publications were speculating about various permutations on men who hate women on the web -- including the suggestion that anything I could possibly say was "hysterical masculine self-pity posing as righteous indignation" -- Kathy and I were swapping industry war stories... and laughing! You had to be there to believe it. We hardly believed it ourselves. We met for the first time Thursday night before CNN cameras. We're hopeful that the editing process will not reduce our efforts to raise the level of discourse surrounding these events to mere sound-bite theater. [A terrible sort of garden-path sentence, but I hope you can still catch its intended drift.]

It's true we laughed, but not at the core issues. No one was laughing about the offensive words and images that were posted to the blogs I was involved with. The material Kathy quoted on her site was hurtful and ugly. I do not excuse it or think it should be excused. Some of the things that were posted about her were admittedly frightening, and far beyond tasteless. The post about Maryam Scoble was cruel and disgusting. These postings prompted the decision to delete both blogs (and not, as has been reported, Terms of Service violations, which were assessed retroactively).

Neither were we laughing about the impact of this affair on the people who did nothing to create or promote the words and images that touched off this whole imbroglio. Careers and reputations have been seriously injured by a rush to judgement that was often sadly short on evidence of crime or culpability.

There is much more to say about this experience that can't be unpacked in such a brief statement. There is time yet for more balanced articles to be written, less heated conversations to take place. Misogyny is real -- and vile. Violence against women is wrong. It must not be tolerated. This issue should be explored and discussed, not swept under the rug, not rationalized away. At the same time, we need to look closely and carefully at the implications for free speech. The First Amendment allows and protects language that many find noxious. But there are forces in the world at present -- not least in the US -- that would leap at any opportunity to limit speech or even abolish certain forms of it. Crucial as is the current debate about hate speech directed at women, it would be tragic if this incident were used as a weapon by those who would limit free and open exchange.