The Internet is an excellent source for all of the wide and varied forms of human emotion, but especially hatred.

There’s something about the anonymous medium that just makes it so easy to savage other people, whether through emails, bulletin boards, or public blog postings. This issue has been sort of loosely addressed over the years, with users suggesting guidelines for our global public community, but it has been highlighted for the world in general by the case of Kathy Sierra a high profile blogger who recently went public about hateful comments made about her. She also published excerpts from some of the emails which were sent to her…and I think her post was rather bold. I commend her for it. It’s also worth reading the comments below, because some of them are very, very interesting.

Cyberbullying is a big issue, and something that does not just impact children.

One of the things about existing on the Internet as a public presence is that you really do need a thick skin. People will say critical things about you or your work, and you need to be able to take it and roll with it. Sometimes criticism is helpful…and at other times, it’s just hurtful. I have certainly experienced hurtful and mean posts and comments, and dealt with them in my own way, but I haven’t gone through anything on the level of what Sierra has.

Vile commentary can become par for the course when you are well known, for a variety of reasons. Maybe you are vile yourself, like Ann Coulter, and people are responding to that. Maybe people are jealous of your popularity, or disagree violently with something you say. Either way it’s up there, out there, and hurtful.

It is often hard to know how hurtful it is, because many people remain silent rather than speaking out.

Where do we draw the line?

Certainly the Internet is a sort of fantasy land, and one could argue that as hurtful as vitriolic posts are emotionally, they do not pose a real threat. Obviously Sierra felt differently, indicating that some of the material she received suggested that she, personally, might be in danger. Clearly she feels badly enough that she is thinking about withdrawing altogether from online society, which is a great shame. Being pushed into abandoning something you love crosses a clear line, for me.

Turning such material over to the police is important in cases like this, especially ones where your personal safety is clearly being threatened. While law enforcement cannot play mommy and daddy and protect you from mean words, they can take action on decisive threats, especially if they include concrete information like your address and real name. When someone is pushing the line with you, most people instinctually want to push the offender away. Resist the temptation. Hang on to nasty things that people send you…because they could be evidence some day.

What can we do about it?

I suppose we can all start with ourselves. Readers may have noted that I am very careful about what I criticize, and that I generally try to keep personal opinions of people to myself, although I will not hesitate to speak out about wrong actions by public officials, or to criticize a business. Generally I speak from my own experience when I have something negative to say, and I ponder long and carefully before I post material which might be considered unfavorable to someone. I cannot imagine attacking someone directly, especially in such a hateful way. If I really did want someone to die, I certainly wouldn’t share that information with you, dear readers. And I see no reason to be mean and hateful, in a do as you would be done by kind of way. I don’t post anything about anyone if I feel like I would be uncomfortable if my name was substituted, if I thought my feelings would be hurt to read that about myself. The rules of common courtesy do, can, and should apply on the Internet.

I think that we can also act by speaking out when we see this kind of behaviour occurring. If we remain silent, we are part of the problem…and if you notice cyberbullying going on, talk about it. If you see hateful posts or photoshops about people, even people you don’t know, make it clear that you find that behaviour distasteful, and model a different mode of communicating about your issues. By not engaging in the behaviour yourself, and indicating that you will not tolerate it, you can help to eliminate it. Especially if you have a lot of public respect, or you run a forum…you owe it to everyone else. Or at least I think you do.

The Internet is never going to be a land of happy unicorns, but we can at least make it safer.

[Kathy Sierra]