This week, Kathy Sierra published a long, raw and incisive blog post marking the ten years since receiving her first online threat.
If you’ve been following the sordid story of escalating misogynist harassment on the Internet, you know that Sierra was one of the first high-profile women to have her life turned upside down by a sadistic cyber mob. In her case, the mob was enraged less by anything she actually said than by her audacity at daring to build a public profile for herself. She initially came under attack for her popular tech blog, Creating Passionate Users, which had made her a sought-after speaker. The person who first threatened her “wasn’t outraged about my work,” she writes. “His rage was because, in his mind, my work didn’t deserve attention. Spoiler alert: ‘deserve’ and ‘attention’ are at the heart.”
The abuse really picked up a few years later, and got worse when she had the temerity to speak out about it. Sierra writes:
In 2007, I was the target of a several-week long escalating harassment campaign that culminated in my being doxxed (a word I didn’t even know then) with a long, detailed, explicit document, posted pretty much everyone on the internet (including multiple times to my own wikipedia entry). It was a sort of open letter with a sordid (but mostly fictional) account that included my past, my career, my family, and wrapped up with my (unfortunately NOT fictional) social security number, former home address and, worst of all—a call to action for people to send things to me. They did. I never returned to my blog, I cut out almost all speaking engagements, and rarely appeared anywhere in the tech world online or real world. Basically, that was it for me.
Looking back a decade later, Sierra sees that initial threat as the proverbial canary in the coal mine, “the first hint that if I kept on this path, it would not end well.” In a larger sense, the whole campaign against Sierra was an early warning for all women online. These days, every week seems to bring new stories of women tormented on the Internet—and, on occasion, driven from their homes and jobs—by rape and death threats, the posting of personal information including nude photos and social security numbers, malicious impersonation, obscene photoshopped images of their children and defamation campaigns. “If, as the communications philosopher Marshall McLuhan famously said, television brought the brutality of war into people’s living rooms, the Internet today is bringing violence against women out of it,” write Catherine Buni and Soraya Chemaly in a new Atlantic story, “The Unsafety Net: How Social Media Turned Against Women.”