The threats against Kathy Sierra, an author who promotes the notion of emphasizing the needs of the user in Web site design, have sparked a Webwide debate on the nature of online discourse.
The incident and its aftermath have drawn back the curtain on a computer culture in which the more outrageous the comment, the more attention it gets. It’s a world that many women in particular see as still dominated by men and where personal attacks often are defended on grounds of free speech.
In addition, many of the newest tools of the Internet are coming into play. Blogs and online communities were supposed to herald an era in which “the wisdom of crowds” guided online behavior to a higher plane. Instead, instances of mob rule appear to be leading the discussion into the sewer.
Some observers believe the incident eventually could serve as a warning to Web communities to increase accountability and stamp out the vitriol that characterizes much of online conversation.
“We need to say this is not acceptable behavior,” said Tim O’Reilly, CEO of Sebastopol’s O’Reilly Media, which publishes Sierra’s books and runs the ETech conference where Sierra was scheduled to speak this week. “If you start making offensive comments, they will be deleted from a blog. Don’t give people that platform.”
This is a sad state of affairs and not completely unexpected either…As one of the commenters quipped in one of the older posts:
Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Total Idiot
The other issue here is really, accountability…Unlike in human communities, on the Internet, its easy to avoid facing repercussions of making nasty and unhelpful comments. We really need a system across social media that addresses the issue of accountability by providing the right incentives to all users for participating positively. Such a system will ensure that the users get rewarded for positive contributions and are held accountable for disrupting community discourse.
A powerful argument about what lack of accountability does to good people is provided by Philip Zimbardo, in his interesting book called the Lucifer Effect. Through a number of experiments, Philip demonstrates how if you put good people in accountability free lawlessness, they become fairly evil. Anybody remember Abu Ghirab? (I haven’t read it yet but heard from a number of sources that this is an interesting and powerful book).
What do you think?