Kathy Sierra and the werewolves

I attended the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, or ETech, once again this year, and, distracted by other projects, did a very poor job of blogging about it. (You can read about the excellent EFF-sponsored debate between Mark Cuban and Fred von Lohmann, on the YouTube/Viacom lawsuit, here and here; Raph Koster spoke about magic as the underlying structure of game-play; and Danah Boyd gave a wonderful talk titled “Incantations for Muggles,” about the relationship between technologist-wizards and the rest of the human race — Koster took notes on it.)

The conference, as you may have heard, was abuzz with discussion of the Kathy Sierra saga — she’d been booked as a kickoff keynote speaker, but cancelled at the last minute, understandably spooked by threatening comments posted on her site and a couple of other blogs.

Sierra’s plight set off an immediate and vast blogstorm. There was much introspection and self-questioning about the onslaught of invective, nastiness, vicious taunts and obscene threats that sometimes emerges online, and seems especially targeted at women; there was also something of a rush to judgment to point fingers at particular bloggers whose sites and posts might (or might not) have encouraged the posts that caused Sierra such grief.

A prodigious number of people seemed to feel they had to weigh in immediately on this ugly situation, though virtually no one (yes, including myself) seemed willing or able to take the time needed to explore, in detail, what had actually happened and who had done what. I still haven’t seen any fully reported-out piece on the events — the coverage in the S.F. Chronicle seemed creditable, but it didn’t unravel the toughest questions: who was stalking Sierra, and was there in fact any relationship at all between said stalker(s) and the well-known bloggers she called out in her wounded post?

Sitting in a conference without the time or resources to do any reporting of my own, I thought, shoot, there’s no way I can know enough about what happened to add anything to the conversation. Of course comments like those Sierra encountered are, and should be considered, beyond the pale; Sierra deserved sympathy and support. But the storm of anger and the rush to judgment her post sparked represented, I thought, a failure of forethought. Running a blog provides the constant temptation to shoot off at the mouth. Sometimes, though, when you just don’t know all the facts, considered silence is golden.

The irony here is that this was supposed to be ETech’s year of fun and games.

The conference spun its program out of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous pronouncement: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” One talk proposed viewing your Web 2.0 application as a text adventure. Another speaker, named Art Benjamin, performed a “mathemagician” act of prodigious instant computation — half “A Beautiful Mind” and half Vegas.

And there was fun. I had a lot of it one evening at a pair of diversions:
“PowerPoint Karaoke” and a game called Werewolf. The former was a marvelous spoof, organized by Danny O’Brien, in which volunteer speakers from the crowd were matched with random PowerPoint presentations downloaded from the Web. Your job was to babble your way comically through this slide-set you’d never seen before. (This phenomenon apparently gestated in Berlin’s art demimonde.)

By then it was late (by the standards of a weary parent), and I was far too tired to participate in the games of Werewolf that were being organized. But I watched one — run by Boyd — work its way from a wide circle of a dozen players down to an unbearably tense endgame. It’s a sign of how long I’ve been out of the loop (or should I say loup?) that this was my first experience of the game known variously as Werewolf or Mafia; when I arrived home to tell my family all about it, my 7-year-old son Jack proceeded to instruct me in the rules.

Werewolf divides a group of players randomly into a duo of predatory werewolves and a remainder of townspeople, who spend the game trying to figure out who among them are the predators before the wolves eliminate (kill) the villagers. The game’s all about the fun of treachery; it reminded me of the marathons of Diplomacy — postal and FTF — to which I devoted far too many of my teen years.

Werewolf is all about anonymity, deception and cruelty. But it frames these volatile, dangerous behaviors in a space governed by rules and protected by the notion of play. There’s no actual malice; the fangs are feigned, for fun.

Our online conversations and communities are less formal; the boundaries are fuzzy, the rules (mostly) unwritten. And so when the equivalent of a werewolf turns up in the comments on a blog, I think that in many cases, the predators — we call them trolls for a reason — too often think of what they’re doing as a kind of game. It’s the motivation of the schoolyard bully: can I get a rise? It’s the boundary-crossing behavior of a young child who wants to see how far he can go before invoking discipline. The perpetrator, however sick, views this behavior as a kind of play. And before we can effectively block such antisocial gaming of the online space’s dynamics, we need to understand it.

All of which leads me to join the chorus of skepticism that has greeted the notion of a blogger “code of conduct.” Each person’s blog or site is going to have its own set of norms and standards and moderation philosophies. Codifying this stuff is next to hopeless. We can’t even agree on the meaning of a word like “censorship.”

Sierra herself, in her original post about her harassment, wrote: “I would never be for censoring speech — these people can say all the misogynistic, vile, tasteless things they like.” But deleting comments like those that were directed at Sierra cannot be considered “censorship” in any form. I wouldn’t hesitate to remove them from any forum I was involved in moderating.

We’re fortunate in sharing an online medium that has an effectively infinite amount of space. It’s essentially impossible to shut anyone up on the Internet. If people want to attack Kathy Sierra, they’re going to do it. (If an attack crossed the line into illegality, then it might draw the attention of the authorities — but they’d have to find the attacker.) But if you run a blog, I’d say it’s your right, and perhaps duty, just as you instantly delete the “buy cialis” spam, to remove obscene harassments, threats of violence and the like — in the same way that an even-keeled bartender sometimes has to bounce the occasional inebriated lout.

It’s not about censorship, it’s about hospitality. That’s why, in the older school of online discussion forums, we called this function “hosting.” A light hand is good; some hand, though, is necessary.

Werewolves need to be called out when we find them. But we ought also to take care that we don’t point an angry mob’s pitchforks in the wrong direction.

(Bonus soundtrack for this post: a couple of songs on The Mountain Goats’ magnificently moody Get Lonely“New Monster Avenue,” “If You See Light” — summon the old horror-movie image of torch-bearing villagers. The songs view the crowd from the thronged monster’s eyes.)
[tags]blogging, censorship, kathy sierra, etech, etech 2007[/tags]

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