Bull Session

The Digital Dark

October 9, 2014          

Episode Summary

The darker side of human nature rears its head in the digital realm more than we’d care to admit. While the promise of the open Internet brings with it wonderful opportunities for community and communication, it also has a host of problems, whether it’s called cyber bullying, harassment, or trolling. In this episode of The Digital Life, we examine the story of Kathy Sierra, a UX luminary, who for the second time has pulled back from her online life, due to horrific harassment, and her blog post explaining her side of the matter. You can also read her post at Wired online.

Jon:
Welcome to Episode 72 of The Digital Life, a show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.

Dirk:
Hey, Jon. I’m a little down today, but it’s good to be on here with you as always.

Jon:
Yeah. Why are you down?

Dirk:
Recently, just this week, Kathy Sierra who’s on Twitter as Serious Pony and blogs at seriouspony.com has left Twitter and it’s her second moment of publicly extracting herself from the front lines of Internet conversation and thought leadership over the last seven years. It’s surprising and tough. It’s sad.

Jon:
Yeah. What are some of the reasons that she has left social media and Twitter in particular?

Dirk:
Yes, so I mean the most recent, the one just happening now where she’s leaving Twitter, is really a by-product of ripple effects that happened the first time. I don’t know, maybe the best thing to do is to go back to that point. It was in 2006 when Kathy Sierra first exploded on to the UX scene. She had a blog at headrush.typepad.com called Creating Passionate Users. She started kicking out just freaking amazing content. So smart, so on point, communicated well, like the whole nine yards. She rose like a phoenix. She had a background in the tech community, but in UX, at least from my perspective, she came out of nowhere and within a year, she was main stage speaker herself by Southwest and really rose to prominence. In the process of that happening, she was harassed in a wide variety of ways to the point where there were Photoshops of her and/or family members with their heads next to dismembered corpses. She was personally threatened and her children and family were threatened with being raped and dismembered and really terrible crimes. She responded to those threats very understandably by just opting out, by stopping with her blog, by stopping her public speaking engagements and completely pulling out of the public eye. One of the primary perpetrators ended up becoming a hacker media celebrity, and as she tried to extricate herself from all of this, she was watching as this individual was being celebrated and was being seen as this misunderstood jolly rogue. I can’t think … I mean it’s got to be similar … I don’t know. I can’t put myself in any of these shoes, so anything I say down these paths in the show is with the greatest of respect. I mean it has to be, if you’re someone who’s been raped and then you’re forced into contact, into shared spaces with that person, and they’re being lauded as a really great person. I mean it has to be just a horrible disorienting experience to have to go through with that. She wrote a post yesterday called “Trouble at the Koolaid Point” on her new website, seriouspony.com, talking about leaving Twitter and this most recent time and giving some degree of back story around her situation.

It’s interesting that she talks about it was the viewing of how the world was responding to an embracing this person who had victimized her in really gnarly ways as some kind of a leader and seer that made her come back to put up her site at Serious Pony, to get on to Twitter, and try and re-engage with the community. In the process of doing that, she was pulled back into some of the same conversations and the same crap. I don’t want to cover details too much, because I don’t want to misrepresent details, but her post “Trouble at the Koolaid Point” covers things in a lot of detail and it certainly gives you a lot of places where you can spin out and read more, which I had done some previously.

Now, again, with her opting off of Twitter, I’m compelled to dig in even more deeply. I mean there’s so many aspects to this story that’s sad. I mean you have from a user experience perspective which a lot of our listeners, our user experience people, you have somebody who’s really one of the most exciting new voices in the community who was gagged within a year of emerging. Maybe a lot of our newer to the field or younger listeners haven’t heard the name Kathy Sierra. Go to her blog, go to headrush.typepad.com. It’s been orphaned for seven years now and check out that content. I mean she really had smart things to say. She was ahead of her time and she communicated in a great way.

That’s part of it. I mean another part of it is the horror over the kind of things that were happening to her and that those things are being accepted after the fact as okay by virtue of how her abusers are being treated by the media, by people in the user experience and other technology communities. It’s really horrifying and there isn’t a stampede against it. We should have our pitchforks out. If you don’t read this thing and go ice cold, there’s something wrong with you. The fact that these kind of things can happen is an absolute abomination.

Then we also, of course, have the more even meta layer of women. The fact that Kathy is a woman undoubtedly contributed to her being targeted in the first place and to the nature and tone and vociferousness of the attacks that she suffered. This story just hits on so many awful levels and we should be absolutely outraged and appalled and sad. I know, Jon, when you were reading the stuff today, I mean sadness was really what you came away with just really being bowled over.

Jon:
Yeah, yeah. I mean, for better or for worse, I think I probably insulate myself from horrific events. I try my best not to think about just all of the horrible things that can and do happen throughout the day. That “heads down” attitude that, like I said, that’s probably not the best way to go through existence all the time. But I think a lot of us get into that zone, where you’re looking for the next step on the projects you’re working on. And the distance that I have between really horrible and nasty events — not this in particular — but just generally speaking.

I know, for instance, on YouTube, I’m sure you could find the videos of ISIS beheading the American journalist. Like I just can’t bring myself to go and look at that.

Dirk:
No.

Jon:
In the same way, when I was a younger person, in my teens and early 20s, I actually quite enjoyed horror and darkness and whatever and was very into reading horror novels and whatever else. Then just at a certain point, as I got older, the reality of some of that started to creep in and more and more. I’ve just put up blinders, whether that was consciously or not. When I was reading the blog post today that she had written, that “Trouble at the Koolaid Point,” I realized here was someone who has just gone through a decade of suffering harassment.

It just made me feel rotten because I look at the perfect freedom of the Internet as being something good, where we can have an audience and speak to them or people can communicate across large distances and stay in touch with each other and be entertained and buy things quickly. All of those wonderful things about the Internet that I normally associated with it was immediately counter-balanced in the most despicable way by knowing that there is a large geography, that I’m probably not very well familiar with, where it’s driven by hate.

We all know that it exists, whatever you want to call it, the dark net, whatever. But that was just cold water in the face, to realize that this person had experienced that firsthand. Yeah, my immediate reaction was it made me very sad.

Dirk:
In her post, she has a call to arms at the end about, “Hey, we can make a safe community like Twitter, but not free and …” I shouldn’t put it that way because she explicitly doesn’t put it that way, but not a community that tolerates the abuse and harassment of others as she and other people have certainly suffered. She uses as an example a Java community that she, I think, she either states or it’s implied, she is or was a part of. Her point there was, “Look, this is a community with a whole bunch of people. The only rule is being nice. You know what? Everyone is nice.”

The problem is that in the Java community, you have people who’ve engaged that with a professional motive. They’re going in there because they already are interested in and engaged in their careers and they’re trying to learn, they’re trying to network, and they’re trying to build the reputation. You don’t have space literally for people who are just coming out from the corners of the wild who don’t have a reputation, who don’t have much going on in their lives, who can just rain terror on other people.

The challenge with a service like Twitter, the challenge with any kind of broad, open community is that you are inevitably going to get people in there who don’t have reputation, who have plenty of time, and oftentimes young and male and full of testosterone and is weird amalgam of stuff that allowed us to survive and propagate for millions of years or however long humanity has been around at an animal level that are really destructive at a social and civilized level that are going to go nuts.

The biggest problem of all is that these individuals, if you take one of them, and I mean I’ve certainly never done anything like what we’re talking about here, but when I was young and when I was doing asshole things, you get latched on to something. You just plow endless amounts of time into it. You’ve got these people who have all this time have all of these weird chemicals driving them to do bad stuff and they have nothing to lose. They have no reputation. They probably have low self-esteem. Each case is different, so I can’t say that for everyone. You’ve got this mix where that one person can be so destructive. On something on at the scale of Twitter, that one person is going to multiply and suddenly it’s 20.

The problem is how can you police that because most of us, like I’m outraged about the Kathy Sierra thing. If there were some plan to work against those people, how much time could I commit to that? How much effort could I commit to that? The answer is I think I would commit quite a bit more than most people but it’s still would be a small fraction of if somebody goes off on a bender of trying to destroy someone else of what they would be putting in to that effort. It’s a super, super hard problem and it’s one that I don’t know if it’s solvable in open broad global communities. I don’t know.

Jon:
Yeah, I think what the blog post reveals, at least to me, is that there are aspects to our online digital life which are just as miserable as our physical lives. The difference being that there actually is it seems to be a little more transparency on the digital side. If all of these had happened to offline to her, there probably would be much less visibility into it and the level that we know of all these things is directly attributable to the fact that it’s online.

At the same time, it probably also amplified it, because this harassment happens online. And so people who otherwise would never hear about it can join in for good or ill. And in her case, it seems like there has been an awful number of people who joined in for ill.

Dirk:
Yeah. I mean it’s … I don’t know. It’s a lot like the terrorist. I mean they’re all fired up about something and they’re at a point where they don’t have anything to lose that they’re willing to give it all. It’s so hard to combat. I mean what do we need? Do we need like a Delta Force of volunteers or people who are paid who, if bad people go and start trying to destroy good people, that this force comes out and destroys those bad people first in a reactive way? I mean there’s a reason why we have national military.

There’s a reason why humanity has evolved so that there’s local police in one form or another, and essentially, every civilized society. It’s because people, all of us have some badness in us but there are some people who really do a whole lot of bad. That needs to be protected against and combated. It might be naïve of us to think that the kind of individuals who tormented Kathy and her family aren’t out there. I mean they certainly are out there and maybe what we need to be thinking about and talking about is what is our equivalent response to a national military or to a local police?

What does that look like and how do we protect people because … I mean, Kathy, I can’t give her enough credit for the voice, the freshness, the smartness, the wonderful spirit that she brought to the UX community from 2006 to 2007 that’s basically been snuffed out ever since. Just selfishly, as UX people, we should find that acceptable, but more altruistically as good people, we should find it unacceptable. I don’t know. Something has to be done. We’ve got to figure out a solution and we can’t just quietly accept it. I mean we should be mad as hell and we should be really ready not to take it anymore.

Jon:
Yeah, I think as saddening as it is, it’s worth reading “Trouble at the Koolaid Point.” It’s unclear how long she’s going to leave that up on her blog, so we’ll link to it from our transcript, but it’s definitely worth taking a look at. Yeah, it is really still the Wild West as far as the Internet is concerned. Maybe we recognize that and maybe we don’t, but if we recall in American history, the only law in the Wild West was pretty much your six shooter.

Unfortunately, that’s pretty much what we’ve got in a lot of cases as much as we’d like to believe otherwise. In our online lives, there is just not, as you pointed out, a general security apparatus to protect people because it’s so diffused, frankly, global that we’re all together in the same mix now, which makes it all that much harder once you choose to engage in a digital life. Unfortunately, that is the sad and depressing side of the digital life that we don’t touch on too much on the show but it’s definitely worth talking about, Dirk.

Dirk:
Yeah, we have to shine a light on it because if it’s left in the darkness, it will continue to fester. It will require effort and courage by those of us who aren’t willing to let that energy rule our community and our world.

Jon:
Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things we’re mentioning here in real-time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com. That’s just one “L” in the “digitalife” and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter, @jonfollett. That’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O-.com. Dirk?

Dirk:
You can follow me on Twitter, @dknemeyer. That’s @-D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R. Email me, dirk@knemeyer.com, and this week, instead of asking you to read me, I’m going to encourage you to read Kathy Sierra. Visit her old blog with wonderful UX content at headrush.typepad.com or go to seriouspony.com and particularly read as long as it’s still posted, she said she’s going to pull it at some point, “Trouble at the Koolaid Point,” but read all of her stuff. She’s brilliant and wonderful.

Jon:
That’s it for Episode 72 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.

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