Kathy Sierra and the Mean Kids Controversy

There's more than one side to the story about threats made against technologist Kathy Sierra, as an article by Dan Fost in today's San Francisco Chronicle does a good job of explaining.

I strongly sympathize with Sierra, because it sucks to be the target of somebody's rage on the Internet. I imagine it's considerably worse for women, for whom misogynistic threats from men are depressingly common, as my Java book coauthor Laura Lemay relates.

But Sierra's weblog post made the publishers of the now-defunct Mean Kids and Unclebobism blogs look like they endorsed or even authored the odious threats against her, which appears to be an unfair and inaccurate accusation to level against Chris Locke, Frank Paynter and Jeneane Sessum. Her partner Bert Bates continues to hold them responsible as this controversy rages around the web.

I've read several dozen Mean Kids posts by poking around the caches on Google and Bloglines. From what I've seen, the site began in early February as a harmless spleen-venting exercise, as Sierra acknowledged when she suggested herself as a target:

It's about f'n time. It's always Tara Tara Tara.

Like other exercises in misanthropy on the web, Mean Kids became less playful and more malicious over time, especially in terms of the audience it attracted and new authors it took on. When one of the site's writers posted a racist and hateful post about blogger Robert Scoble's pregnant wife Maryam on March 16, describing her as an "Iranian princess" and "brown sow," Paynter responded by shutting the site down and was rebuked by another contributor as a "control freak." Locke shut down the site he created in response, Unclebobism, for similar reasons.

You can fault them for beginning rant sites that ended badly, as if there's any other way those sites turn out, but it should be pointed out that Paynter and Locke closed both blogs in rejection of offensive content before Sierra's post. Sessum's involvement in Mean Kids was a single post that quoted a John Lennon song.

The Internet's newest incarnation of mean kids -- the torch-wielding mob going after people named by Sierra -- should focus their wrath on the people who made the actual threats and the reprehensible post about Scoble's wife.


You can fault them for beginning rant sites that ended badly, as if there's any other way those sites turn out

While I agree with you that most of the anger is misdirected, it isn't completely unjustified, for exactly this reason. They should have known this was likely to happen. Putting up a site like that is like driving drunk- it doesn't guarantee hurting innocents, but reasonable people know that it seriously increases the odds. And so reasonable people don't drive drunk/start rant sites.

In other contexts we call this 'recklessness' and we punish it- usually not as harshly as we do when there is clear intent, but we still punish it. (This is one of the potential distinctions between, say, involuntary manslaughter and murder- in the one, you were stupid and did something which caused someone else to die, without intending to kill them, and in the other you actively tried to kill them with criminal intent.)

I'm not advocating criminalizing rant sites, but if you start one, and it gets you into trouble, you deserve most of the shit you get because reasonable, responsible adults know that this is what happens when you start one. Not the same level of shit as if you'd done the criminal harassment yourself (which is a mistake I think a lot of people are making here), but pretty close.

I think people are being too nice here. There's a line you can't cross or even go anywhere near. It's not like the intent of Mean Kids was to feed orphans from Africa. The intent was clear. The actions that followed were inline with the intent. Shutting down the site after the line is crossed, is like saying I'm sorry when I accidentally shoot someone with a gun, where my intent was only to scare them. MHO!

People are reading too much into the name of the site. The name was taken from an insult by Tara Hunt, who derided them as "mean kids" in a blog comment thread, and most of the posts were stuff like this Feb. 11 post describing its "Mission Statement:"

"How refreshing: a blog predicated on the inevitable certainty of its own self destruction. What it fails to accomplish is whatever you thought it was going to do; what it fails to convey is whatever you thought it might mean: autosolving for x, whatever x may be. It's like dada, like artificial intelligence. It reads your mind before you have a chance to. You're busy. We understand. The ultimate in intellectual labor saving devices, its authorship dissolves in a miasma of gratuitous irrelevancies, no fault of yours, no guilt, no cleanup. I'd never heard of Anna Nicole Smith until she died. Now it doesn't matter if it ever did. The nation mourns. How curious. We are here to celebrate the celebrated caliber of calibration, the metering of metrics, the optical illusions of our cultural ophthalmologists. Sic transit gloria mundi, babycakes. News at 11 -- feed my Frankenstein."

Where's the calculated attempt to be malicious that's so obvious in hindsight? The site was much less interesting and provocative than this controversy makes it sound.

i think it's a bit much to suggest Sierra "suggested herself as a target:" It's clear from your link that Frank Paynter suggested her as a target. The person who signed their comment "Kathy Sierra" simply agreed.

And maybe I'm misreading it, but that comment seems more like a jibe at Tara, written using Sierra's name. Could be wrong though.

Maybe there's a better word than "suggested," but the comment demonstrates to me the harmlessness of Mean Kids when it started. People are treating a catty community blog like an Al Qaeda sleeper cell.

I don't know. I didn't read either blog, but the more I read about them, the more I'm convinced the intent was there. It may not have been the original intent, but it was there.

Where's the calculated attempt to be malicious that's so obvious in hindsight?

I'm not sure if you're talking to me, Roger, but my whole point was that no calculated intent is necessary to trigger condemnation- it is sufficient to recklessly and stupidly allow it to occur when you should have known it would occur. Obviously you slag them *more* if they intended it, but you should still slag them one way or the other.

[Note that I'm only going by your description here; I have no idea of the real details of the case and may be wrong. But from what else I've read, it seems plausible that these folks (1) were not malicious but (2) were experienced enough to foresee what they were triggering. So I don't feel like I'm going too overboard in my comments. My apologies to them if my understandings are incorrect.]

If you read the original thread where Tara Hunt made the "mean kids" remark, it's clear she is badly misreading Chris Locke. I'd be exasperated if anyone misread a comment by me as much as Locke was here misread.

Consider what Chris Locke wrote:

"Let's recap. You wrote about a book, Purpose, by Nikos Mourkogiannis, in which the author uses Henry Ford as an example -- even going so far as to include a chapter titled "The Heroic Purpose of Henry Ford." Now it seems this book has been widely praised in the business community (I supplied a link to the publisher's page so everyone could read the glowing kudos). However, Henry Ford was not a hero, but rather a despicable racist coward who supported Hitler and supplied him with a rationale for what later became the Holocaust. I think these are salient facts that bear deeper scrutiny than this book has yet received. And they are especially relevant in light of the high-toned discussion of ethics, morality and capital-P Purpose -- all of which your author goes into in some detail."

I should have added, in case it wasn't clear, that I felt that Chris Locke was adding something to the conversation that, agree or disagree, belonged to the conversation and could reasonably be construed as relevant. Tara's took the matter personally, when she replied:

"I don't want to sound like Oprah or any of these really slimy things the guffaw brigade' is indicating below (they remind me of the mean kids in high school who used to draw pictures of me with zits all over and laugh at my expense)."

I admire Tara's writing a great deal, but I don't think she should have taken it so personally.

Intent - of a group, whose members, spread far and wide, do not all know one another, or even one another's blogs or work - a fortuitous group, intersecting, without even the foggiest notion of what the venture might be about, where it might go - intent is the silliest thing to ascribe.

Mean speech is as common on the web as in any bar, any ballfield. It's the stuff of our day, our lives.

What's missing, perhaps, is the possibility that a site making such an outre exhibition of attack modes - piling the cliches that now stoke and stuff the blogs of the righteous until they fall over from their own grandguignolicity - could be making fun of the very thing it is now pilloried for allegedly practicing.

What's missing is the possibility that the parody or representation of attack speech could lead to a very strange place in the act of its own performance - a place in which it can no longer be sure of the tenor and bearing of its own words. A place in which shock was both reflected upon and instantiated, eluding its own authors power to discern one from the other even as it forced them to register both.

"Like other exercises in misanthropy on the web, Mean Kids became less playful and more malicious over time, especially in terms of the audience it attracted and new authors it took on."

Am I correct in assuming that this statement applies to Cruel Site of the Day, and that the direction it took left you feeling burned out on the project? Because I, for one, miss the lighthearted spirit of rcade's CSotD. I've been reading Cruel for almost as long as I've been using the Internet and I have to say that the web just isn't the same without my daily fix of annoying classmate anecdotes, paranoid schizophrenics' heartfelt pleas to be taken seriously, and peeks into bizarre corners of people's lives, nonchalantly summed up in a paragraph or two.

Wow, that's way worse than I thought it would be. Cruel.com ain't nearly as cruel as that shit. I mean, they're cruel to Rogers, but I doubt anyone's threatened to sew his vagina shut with barbed wire.

"Mean speech is as common on the web as in any bar, any ballfield. It's the stuff of our day, our lives."

-- mm. I beg to differ. I don't think someone would say "f**k off you boring slut... i hope someone slits your throat and cums down your gob," to a woman in a bar or on a ball field. Maybe the "f**k off part" but get real - anonymity provides people with a real opportunity to cross the line in a way that is not and should not be part of daily life.

During the recent March 17 antiwar protests in DC, a small number of pro-war protesters spat on passing Iraq war veterans, insulted marchers carrying pictures of their children who'd been killed in combat, and screamed an unending stream of sexual insults at passing women.

I put Meankids and their ilk in the same category as them.

I've avoided comment so far because I don't know how to address this without continuing the pain and discomfort that the whole matter has brought to the surface. Still, I think it is important to begin to piece together different perspectives.

Here are some facts:

* Satire, not cruelty, was the intended content of the MeanKids site.

* I am very distressed by Kathy Sierra's suffering. She knows this, and is generally grateful for my support.

* When over-the-top cruelty showed up on MeanKids (from a single author and an anonymous commenter) I shut the site down with support from other authors.

* Kathy's perception of two Kathy-related posts as scary was influenced by horrible stuff that she had received from her own readers in email and comments on her own blog.

This last point speaks directly to Katharine's comment above. What she quotes came from Kathy Sierra's own blog. It had nothing to do with the satire coming from MeanKids.

Deconstruction of the situation should reveal that while a few close friends and I were associated with a site that published satire and parody, there was a confluence of threats in Kathy's own blog and personal challenges she herself faced that led her to bring her fears to broad attention. The MeanKids blog was not the proximate cause for her fears, but it was graphically outrageous enough to illustrate them and to permit Kathy's readers to infer culpability.

It is difficult to write anything balanced about this without appearing to blame the victim, and that is not at all what I am doing. Nevertheless, at some point people need to be able to isolate root causes of the mob mentality that has effectively silenced the people who wrote as MeanKids. What did Kathy intend when she addressed her huge online audience with a post that conflated real threats with our parody and satiric criticism?

Bringing attention to Kathy's post without unraveling the content probably doesn't help us find our way through this matter with any greater clarity.

It is doubly ironic that Bob Morris, who -- like so many bystanders and observers is entitled to an opinion -- should put the Meankids authors in the same category as pro-war protesters.

I'm afraid that we have quite a ways to go before we reach true clarity on this concern. Perhaps people like Bob and Katharine should reserve judgment or re-evaluate from time to as new information is brought to their attention.

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