Female Bloggers Face Threats: What Can Be Done?

It's the online attack that has become almost synonymous with the harassment of women in the blogosphere.

Kathy Sierra -- whose popular blog addressed the seemingly neutral topic of "creating passionate users" in the world of computer software -- reported finding threats on her life, a picture of a noose accompanied by the comment "the only thing Kathy has to offer me is that noose in her neck size," and a photo of her muzzled by what appears to be a piece of lingerie with the title "I dream of Kathy Sierra."

"I will never feel the same. I will never be the same," Sierra wrote after the threats surfaced.

She has since stopped posting to her blog, except to update readers on the attack's fallout and to openly contemplate her next move.

WHAT TO KNOW
  • Kathy Sierra said she found threats against her life posted anonymously online. Her experience has jump-started a conversation among female bloggers, who say the problem disproportionately affects them.

Sierra's experience has jump-started a conversation among female bloggers.

Jennifer Warwick, a blogger herself and one of the founders of Blogs by Women, a site that links to more than 3,300 blogs that -- as the site's title suggests -- are written by women, commented on that conversation.

"Nothing she [Sierra] had put out there was particularly controversial, so it resonated with a lot of women that it was unprovoked," unlike some high-profile bloggers who pen entries on controversial topics, such as politics, "where you put it out there knowing people are going to react."

Bloggers -- men and women -- showed their support for Sierra by standing up in opposition to the anonymous threat-posting and, in some cases, taking a self-imposed blogging hiatus in solidarity with Sierra.

While Warwick noted that most of the reaction she's observed has been sympathetic, there have been some different perspectives. "Some men and women thought that she was overreacting," she said.

Noting that she had expected "a lot more sensitivity," Warwick said "that surprised me, because it wasn't blaming the victim, but it was excusing the behavior.

"When you're reading it [a threatening post] in your pajamas at two in the morning, it feels real, like they're right there, and it's scary," she said.

'Cloak of Anonymity'

"Big blogs have a tremendous role in shaping the norms of the Internet," said Ann Bartow, a law professor at the University of South Carolina. "When they tolerate or even perpetuate harassment, others follow suit."

Noting that it's much harder to harass someone anonymously in the noncyber world, Bartow said, "the cloak of anonymity [online] gives people the freedom that our cultural norms keep them from saying in real life, where their words are attributable to them."

As Bartow points out, when posts cross the line, "the most effective approaches to date have been ad hoc responses by high-profile individuals, as we witnessed by supporters of Kathy Sierra."

She added, "Unless we're willing to move into the direction of a legal framework, that's all we have."

"Cyberspace replicates the bad stuff of real space and, in some cases, amplifies it due to anonymity and scale of audience," Bartow explained. "There's no law in real space for any of this. We don't have a great legal recourse for defamation or privacy violations in either."

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