Friday, March 30, 2007

Stop Cyberbullying Day

Andy Carvin pronounced today as Stop Cyberbullying Day, as a result of a very public and serious online harassment of a widely read tech blogger, Katha Sierra.

One of the nice things about being such a casual blogger is not having enough visibility to be the object of online feuding and blog wars. One of the sad aspects of Kathy Sierra going public with her ordeal is, that as a result, she's gotten even more vitriolic and hateful messages directed at her. So I'm loathe to blog about that incident, as if I would even have something worthwhile to say. But it's not correct to think I'm unaffected by such awfulness, directed at Sierra and many others. One of the most direct impacts I can feel, if not measure, is the voices I don't hear online because bloggers are tired of the BS.

Of all the bad things someone might say about me, to be labeled a misogynist would cut me to the quick. That's not how I want to be identified, and the idea of hating women boggles. From my position as man, not very manly sort, but a man none the less, I don't have to endure the cruel assaults which too many women face all the time. Vile verbal attacks against women are a particular problem; a subset of the larger problem of hateful speech. All of us have some experience with the ways words wound, but it's useful for guys like me not to imagine I can truly understand the impact of sexual objectification and threats of sexual violence against women. To get a sense of how clueless men can be about this, consider the justification sworn in some cases where a man is accused of murdering a gay man: "He was coming on to me." And then to consider how often such testimony results in acquittal. Men know the power inherent in such assaults, but not a clue what it feels like to be on the receiving end.

So this disturbing aspect of misogyny is an important part of the discussions going on all over the blogosphere about cyberbullying, but there is so much more. Andy Carvin has set up a Ning site Stop Cyberbullying. Ning is Web site that allows people to create their own social network with profile pages and forums. so the turn around from Sierra's post on Tuesday to a site that up and running in response now is just remarkable. Go there look around, the discussions are thoughtful, there are numerous resources about cyberbullying; and it's a great example of "create something good" when confronted by evil.

Surely most of us have noticed how tempers can flare as the result of Internet correspondence. I have unintentionally pushed those buttons and pulled the leavers to make others livid with me. When that's happened I've wondered: What the heck did I do? That's different, of course form cyberbullying, but those instances provide a window to view how powerfully emotions can be engaged, and how difficult it can be to repair online relationships.

Any regular readers of blogs or Newsgroups are familiar with Internet trolls too. Considering my own instances of infuriating people and my own annoyance at trolls, I've poured over various list like Giveen's Guide to Internet Trolls. I've wondered: What kind of Internet troll am I? I'm not a troll! Clueless and insensitive at times, maybe, but I don't intentionally strive to sow discord. So the issue of trolls is a bit different from cyberbullying too, but it's subject that's hard to avoid when considering the broad issue.

Among my online African friends I've heard their experiences with Westerners, in particular Americans, hurling racist language in their direction. As a white guy, muzungu, and an American who's never been to Africa, how to talk about racism here in America is a subject I've never figured out the words to tell the story. It's not like it's easy to talk about with other Americans. Certainly one of the first things I discovered going online was how terribly much racist talk floats around on the Internet. One particularly frustrating situations that comes up is over advance fee frauds and being tarred with the broad brush: "You people!"

Come to think of it when the sentence begins, "You people.." it's pretty easy to predict nothing good is coming after it. Except, who isn't prone to generalities and stereotypes? We all are, it seems it's part of the way people in general create a map to navigate around in the world that's compact enough to actually be usable. It's a good thing to be aware of this tendency. In any case we can be fairly sure that "You people..." is the beginning of an expression of anger.

There are many things we can be reasonably angry about too. Nigerian Letters in my email box don't make me angry, but it's easy to see why they make some so angry; their intent is fraud after all. It seems helpful to recognize there's another perspective from just the consumer of such fraud, and in some cases the intent of the fraud isn't so very different from that of the cyberbully. The various ways of scamming people on the Internet again isn't exactly cyberbullying, but something to consider in the whole ball of wax. On the Internet scams are truly International affairs.

Dave Winer has made some very important contributions to the current discussion. He wrote:
So if we have a code of conduct, it can't just talk about how trolls behave, because truly we have no control over that. It should talk about responsible people whose names we know with reputations they care about -- what should they do when abuse happens? That is something we can do something about. There should be 18 steps before something like Kathy Sierra's post appears in the midst of the blogosphere, and it shouldn't come from teh person who has been victimized, someone else should stand up for them and explain what happened. For so many reasons this is a much better way to go, and I'm sure the victim would like it better too (I speak from experience).
This blog is hardly a piffle, but in my best imagination it belongs to the so called "bridge blogs." Like other bridge bloggers I encourage people to blog, to tell their stories. We have a special responsibility as bridge bloggers to respond to abuse in our connected communities. It's not always obvious what to do, but at least we can stand by and support our friends when they are subjected to cyberbullying. At a minimum we can take care and be mindful.

Monday, March 19, 2007


In many ways my mother had pretty elegant tastes; that is, she liked things well-made and that announced their use and purpose forthrightly. But she was also fond of tacky little plaques with aphorisms on them. I suppose it was her way of suggesting that it would be unwise to toss out folk wisdom too quickly.

The other day I was reminded of something on a plaque that outlined "The Rules of the House:" If it cries; love it. I went to the spot where the plaque is supposed to be to check to see if there were other good rules on it. I was surprised to find the screw it once hung from, but no plaque. I fiddled with the screw a bit and realized it didn't have enough purchase to be stable and tightening it to make it so didn't allow enough of a head to hang a picture. A longer screw is in order. Apparently the darn plaque must have fallen down once too often and I'd stashed it away. And that must have been some time ago because I don't remember anything about it.

The trouble with the sort of folk sayings my mother hung about the house all through my growing up is they seem so obviously right, it hardly seems worth the trouble of reminding about them. Clearly, my taking down that plaque and not registering a blip on my memory shows how little I've paid attention.

I haven't written a blog post in over a month, I kept thinking to myself: I'll get a round to it. Oh yes, and as you can see from the picture, a part of my inheritance is a Round Tuit. A fine Round Tuit it is, no doubt purchased with care at one of America's finest souvenir shoppes.

Before Christmas last I joined is a social networking site. What makes it unique among the many social network sites is its simple purpose to help people discover that every individual has the power to make a difference. There are so many remarkable people there, many whom I'd discovered elsewhere on the Web. isn't the easiest network to be involved in; it's a "roll up your sleeves and get to work" sort of affair.

Among the many discussion threads at ONet are discussions about open space technology and social networks. The discussions are of a very high caliber; the sort of high level discussions that give even ordinarily chatty types like me pause before jumping right in. Daniel Bassill is one of the most erudite participants in these threads. I've had his blog Tutor/Mentor Connection on my Bloglines blogroll since well before joining the ONet community. Tutor/Mentor Connection is primarily concerned with matching young people in the Chicago area with adult tutors and mentors. Their approach to this and their use of the Web so impressed me I subscribed to the blog.

Recently at ONet Daniel Bassill contacted me about a blog exchange Tutor/Mentor connection is hosting in May and June. I was flattered to be contacted, but that also set off a minor crisis of confidence about this blog. I've never figured out what purpose this blog serves, except perhaps as an outlet for my babbling-on, and thus sparing some unsuspecting victim their ear and patience with me.

But truth be told, I've harbored ambitions for the blog. I've wanted more Americans in general, and more people around Pittsburgh specifically, to consider what they can do in service to people in Africa.

My sense is that people struggle everyday to provide the requisites of our survival. As hard as it seems for all of us, those of us living in the USA and other rich areas of the world have enormous advantages. One of the consequences of this state of affairs is a complacency about the enormous challenges people face. We lull ourselves into thinking that the problems aren't ours. But all people are part of the human family, whose lines, we now know, thanks to advances in science, are much closer than we ever imagined before.

My complacency astounds me. For example, yesterday I read: "World Food Programme Forced to Cut Food Rations to Northern Uganda by Half" (also here). This is quite significant news, at least one would think so for someone like me who claims an interest in Uganda. But I didn't save the links to that story in my running notes or to and I couldn't remember off hand where I'd read about it. Did I ignore the news simply thinking there's nothing I can do about it? I'm not sure really, but I am sure that I will hear news of the consequences of it through Pittsburgh's Africa Project.

Like everyone, I'm part of many implicit and explicit networks, although I hardly feel very connected, like the connected-to-many people that kept the number of hands a letter addressed to a person in Stanley Milgram's Small World experiments to about six degrees of separation. Try your own letter chain here. The point is that the suffering from hunger in Northern Uganda is something, even as unconnected as I am, I will hear about in personal terms.

Daniel Bassill does great work and has thought and experimented with social networking for many years. With all that accumulated knowledge, the idea for the blog exchange is deceptively simple: The idea is for people to tell their stories and to share ideas about how we can build better connections. We need to build better connections, our lives and the lives of many depend upon it.

What stories do you have? Will you get around to sharing them? I'm hoping you will.