NPR Discusses ‘Online Code of Conduct’ With Blogger That Received Death Threats

As NewsBusters has reported here and here, Kathy Sierra is a programming instructor and blogger that received death threats from some of her readers back in March.

On Wednesday, NPR’s Adam Davidson interviewed Sierra to get her take on the raging hostility on the Internet. Host Renee Montagne introduced the segment (audio available here, h/t Tim Graham):

Two leading Internet figures say that blogs and online forums have gotten way too nasty. Some online posts are not only mean, they're violent, even threatening.

After receiving the baton, Davidson had a funny exchange with Sierra that illustrated the absurdity of this entire sordid affair:

DAVIDSON: Kathy Sierra is an unlikely target of vicious hatred. She's a computer expert with a blog called Creating Passionate Users. It's not about race or religion or Middle East politics.

SIERRA: Yeah. No hot topics. Just...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIERRA: ...I think that's part of what makes this so hard to understand.

Next, Davidson addressed what Sierra apparently did at her blog to incur such wrath:

In one post, she wrote something she considered innocuous, that she thinks it's okay for Web site owners to delete offensive posts. This set off a vicious backlash of anonymous comments from some of her readers.

Amazing. Yet, what was possibly more astounding was what goes on at a culinary message board called Chowhound. Davidson spoke to one of the moderators:

Jacquelyn Schlesier is a full-time moderator for Chowhound, a food discussion Web site. She says keeping things civil is a lot of work. She spends as many as 12 hours a day reading through posts and deleting anything offensive, abusive or off-topic.

At a food website? Davidson continued:

But keeping things civil on Chowhound takes three paid moderators and 12 volunteers. They spend hundreds of hours a week getting rid of all the mean comments.

The Internet is truly a strange world when a food website needs three paid moderators and 12 volunteers to keep members in line, wouldn’t you agree?

What follows is a full transcript of this segment.

RENEE MONTAGNE, NPR HOST:

Two leading Internet figures say that blogs and online forums have gotten way too nasty. Some online posts are not only mean, they're violent, even threatening. Now, there's a proposal to create an online code of conduct that might make the Internet a friendlier place.

As NPR's Adam Davidson reports, it's not that easy.

ADAM DAVIDSON, NPR HOST: Kathy Sierra is an unlikely target of vicious hatred. She's a computer expert with a blog called Creating Passionate Users. It's not about race or religion or Middle East politics.

Ms. KATHY SIERRA (Blog Owner, Creating Passionate Users): Yeah. No hot topics. Just...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SIERRA: ...I think that's part of what makes this so hard to understand.

DAVIDSON: In one post, she wrote something she considered innocuous, that she thinks it's okay for Web site owners to delete offensive posts. This set off a vicious backlash of anonymous comments from some of her readers.

Ms. SIERRA: You know, things about you should have your throat slit, and then it went beyond that. So it was more sexual, sort of, we're going to kill you and rape you.

DAVIDSON: Someone posted Photoshopped images of Sierra in horribly violent sexual positions, and they terrified her.

Ms. SIERRA: So I have to make myself less visible, so I'm canceling all my speaking engagements now.

DAVIDSON: She's also cancelled her blog. She plans to spend most of her time at home. Her case has become a big deal in much of the online community.

Mr. TIM O'REILLY (Publisher, O'Reilly Media): It's exposed a strain of nastiness, and I think there is a kind of revulsion that's happening.

DAVIDSON: Tim O'Reilly is the publisher of O'Reilly Media, one of the biggest computer book companies. He says the awful attacks on Sierra were a natural outgrowth of a wild, wide-open online culture in which outrageous comments are seen as cool.

Mr. O'REILLY: We need to change the social norms a little bit because people see that something that they thought was acceptable. You know, it's just boys having fun, you know, is not acceptable.

DAVIDSON: O'Reilly and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales are proposing an online code of ethics - a clear list of what is not acceptable to post on Web sites, like abusive comments and personal attacks. It also calls on the people who run Web sites to police them, to get rid of mean comments. But it's not that easy.

Ms. JACQUELYN SCHLESIER(ph) (Moderator, Chowhound): No, no. Not even close.

DAVIDSON: Jacquelyn Schlesier is a full-time moderator for Chowhound, a food discussion Web site. She says keeping things civil is a lot of work. She spends as many as 12 hours a day reading through posts and deleting anything offensive, abusive or off-topic. It's a food blog. How bad can things get? Really bad, Schlesier says, especially with some topics.

Ms. SCHLESIER: Children in restaurants - children in restaurants is an issue that Chowhounds cannot discuss civilly.

DAVIDSON: People can generally say anything they want about food or restaurants, but they can't insult each other. She says she just about never gets the truly nasty kind of posts that Kathy Sierra faced. That's because long ago, Chowhound established a tone.

Ms. SCHLESIER: Kids learn what's acceptable and how to behave in the real world by how they see other people around them and how they see adults behave. People in communities learn the same way.

DAVIDSON: But keeping things civil on Chowhound takes three paid moderators and 12 volunteers. They spend hundreds of hours a week getting rid of all the mean comments. A lot of people who run Web sites don't have that kind of time.

Ira Glass hosts the public radio show "This American Life." The show hosted a Web discussion board for years until one week, his show featured a story about a troubled relationship between a woman and her two daughters.

IRA GLASS: The day after it aired, people started posting to the bulletin board, saying that the girls were sluts and that the mom was a terrible mom. And it continued, and finally, we killed it. We killed the discussion board.

DAVIDSON: Glass didn't want to feel responsible for hosting nasty comments about people who bared their souls on his radio show.

Mr. GLASS: We could actually, you know, devote staff time and look at the board and monitor it and all. But, I mean - and the truth is, you know, what we wanted to do is make a radio show.

DAVIDSON: There's surely many like Glass, people who just don't have the time or inclination to enforce civility on their Web sites. And without people enforcing it, the online code of ethics is unlikely to have much impact.

Adam Davidson, NPR News.

Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard, Associate Editor of NewsBusters, passed away in March of 2014.