Screenshot of video player playing Kathy Sierra video

Kathy Sierra: Take back the comments: stop online harassment

Warning for quoted ableism, and harassment and malicious behaviour towards people with a disability.

Kathy Sierra has published a video about online harassment and malicious behaviour:

I haven’t seen a transcript anywhere else yet, so hopefully this is of use in making it widely accessible. I’ve altered the text of Sierra’s slides very very slightly in a couple of cases, adding punctuation for clarity where the slide layout was originally providing information about which words were in different sentences.

All spoken words here are spoken by Kathy Sierra. Unless otherwise indicated in the transcript, bold text indicates white text appearing on a plain black background, unspoken.

[Slide: "Real Names" are not the answer to bad behaviour online.

The video cuts to a head-and-shoulders shot of Kathy Sierra, who is nearly always on camera throughout the video when speaking.]

Sierra: I think probably anyone who’s been online for any period of time has had their experience with some online jerks…

[The face of an angry man fades in briefly beside Sierra.]

Sierra: … trolls, griefers, haters. What drove me to want to talk about this was not what happened to me. [Transcripter's note: see Kathy Sierra incident.]

[Slide: In March 2008 online forums at the Epilepsy Foundation were attacked.

Slide: Screenshot of an online Wired article featuring a smiling face at close range and a headline Hackers Assault Epilepsy Patients via Computer. Transcripter's note: the full article is available.

Slide: Malicious code inserted into posts generated flashing images at frequencies designed to trigger seizures.

Slide: People had seizures before they could turn away from the screen.]

Sierra: People called it hilarious.

[Screenshots of comments appear beside Sierra's head.

Posted by: lasercats. LOLOLOLOLOL
Posted by: tootles 1092 days ago. thats effin hilarious. :)
Unattributed: LULZ]

Sierra: They thought it was so funny.

[The heading Comments on Wired fade in around the above comments.

A moving screenshot of a comment appears with a wired.com URL in view. Anonymous. I had nothing to do with this. That being said, I lol'd.]

Sierra: I don’t think that there’s anything that we could do about the assholes that did something like this.

[Slide: A brief shot of a man in profile, screaming at a laptop.]

Sierra: But we can do something…

[A comment appears under Sierra's chin. Anonymous. Haha! This made me laugh out loud! I hate epileptics!]

Sierra: …for the people who may be either on the fence or otherwise good people who get sucked into this environment. Because we’ve created this environment, online. We have taught people how to behave online. The behaviour that you reinforce gets repeated.

And if we look at the behaviour that we reinforce online, through Reddit comments, through Digg comments, through Youtube comments, I mean, let’s see, the big buzzword today is gamification, and this is perfect gamification in action. It may not have an actual concrete leaderboard but it’s very clear to everyone, the escalation of I’m gonna wanna outsnark the person before me. Pretty soon it’s not just snarky, it’s actually really mean…

[The angry face of a woman grimacing appears next to Sierra briefly]

Sierra: …the next thing you know it’s really cruel, uh, the next thing you know it’s threatening, and where do you go after that?

Uh, when I looked at the comments after what happened on the epilepsy forum it was clear, the, the people didn’t actually even understand what they had done.

I have epilepsy. Maybe even just one person who joined in on the happy high-fiving comment-fest after the uh the attack on the epilepsy forum maybe just one of you is watching this and I want you to understand a little bit about what it’s really like.

[Slide: 3 million people in the U.S. have epilepsy. 50 million worldwide.

Slide: roughly 2 million of those with epilepsy have seizures triggered by flashing visuals.

Sierra appears again, beside her text reads 50,000 deaths each year in the U.S.]

Sierra: I think people don’t think about epilepsy it’s a disease that kills people.

[Slide: This year, more will die from epilepsy than breast cancer

Sierra appears again, beside her text reads SUDEP Sudden Unexplained Death in Epilepsy]

Sierra: The SUD, sudden unexplained death. I am at um a much higher risk. I lose consciousness and have convulsions.

[Slide: More people have epilepsy than cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson's combined.

Slide: A still photo of a young boy almost in profile, holding a baseball cap. Words fade in: 90,000 US children have seizures that cannot be fully controlled.]

Sierra: I mean, when you know that you’re going to lose consciousness you could be anywhere. When this happens there’s obviously a a fear that you know that you might not wake up. It comes with this sense of dread, this absolutely overwhelmingly powerful sense of dread, that you feel like you’re going to die. I start saying that one thing that I want to say just in case I never get another chance. And this is a physiological um condition.

[A blue monochrome detail of a human brain appears beside Sierra.]

Sierra: We’re not able to to think our way out of this, this is part of the brain’s way of saying “something is going completely wrong”.

[Slide: That was a glimpse of what causing a seizure can mean]

Sierra: The people who do these things, I don’t think we can do anything about that. But what we can do is change the culture and practice right now for what’s reinforced. Because you might say you know “yeah OK that was kind of nasty comment” or “that was really a mean thing to say, that was really a personal attack but you know I deserved it and it was actually pretty funny” but it’s when we’re looking at comments that are against people we don’t like and we don’t support or we don’t approve of, that’s where it matters. So think about what you’re reinforcing. Think about it before you vote up that comment. And that will make a huge difference. But it has to start with all of us.

[Slide: We can do this

Slide: Just pause, think, and moderate comments

Sierra appears again, smiling broadly, with text reading Stop the Assholes beside her. The text is replaced with (keep the pseudonyms) and then If you have epilepsy TalkAboutIt.org]

7 thoughts on “Kathy Sierra: Take back the comments: stop online harassment

  1. Kimadactyl

    Whilst I agree totally with the message (seriously, I don’t even… that really happened??), I’m not quite sure what this has to do with anonymity? I mean, would those people have posted what they did if it wasn’t anonymous?

    1. Restructure!

      Well, it’s better that epileptics on forums can post pseudonymously, over forcing them to use their real names.

    2. Francesca

      Rather, it’s that trolling has nothing to do with real names, they have to do with the internet culture. This in response to various “real names” policies that people claim will prevent such things, but tend only to prevent names that are obviously false. (A person who would want to remain anonymous could easily just name himself John Smith instead, for instance.)

  2. Kathy Sierra

    I am concerned that the “real names will fix bad behavior online” meme is a dangerous one and a distraction from where we *should* be focused. And this is separate from my *other* personal reason for not wanting to be forced into using my real name, as in my pseudonyms used to discuss health issues such as epilepsy.

    I have already seen people overhear the past several weeks invoke my name as an example of why anonymity is a bad thing, and that is why I felt I needed to say something. It was not clear in the video, but my feeling is that “real names” will not fix this, and that to believe it WILL just postpones discussion around the online culture we have created.

    The “bad guys” will always find a way to subvert real names, while those who might be their targets are now even more exposed.

  3. silicon.shaman

    The problem with this, specifically in relation to the epilepsy.. is that the trolls wouldn’t care if they knew they were putting peoples lives at risk. They’d still do it and think it funny.

    We’ve all heard about suicides being egged on by the trolls after all, even when they have video and can see the person kill themselves, they don’t care.

    It’s probably a matter of statistics I think, in any given group there’s always going to be 1 in 1000 [or however many] who are basically undiagnosed sociopaths… online forums give them a chance to act out.

  4. MyNymIsMySkin

    Well said, Kathy Sierra.

    Trolls and spammers will simply use fake names that *look* real. Considering the time it takes to bust a plausible-looking fake name, a bad actor can easily re-registering under a new fake name whenever they get caught with no significant downtime. Only honest people who value their privacy are denied a voice by real names policies.

    The “real names will fix bad behavior online” meme is an invented cover story for an as-yet undisclosed purpose.

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