Tag Archives: harassment

nina

Re-post: in memory of nina reiser

During the December/January slowdown, Geek Feminism is re-publishing some of our highlights from last year. This post originally appeared on September 3, 2011.

Trigger warning for lethal violence against women

I picked up Stephen Elliott’s The Adderall Diaries with trepidation, because it’s at least nominally about the Hans Reiser murder trial, and Nina Reiser’s murder fucked me up. Her kids are the same age as mine. Her career counselor is my next door neighbor and friend. And her husband and mine are both Linux kernel programmers. They worked together at a Palo Alto startup during the boom, where Hans sometimes cornered my husband to rant about the extremely acrimonious Reiser divorce.

When news of Nina’s disappearance broke, I asked my husband:

“Do you think he killed her?”

He thought about it for a minute and said:

“I am not saying no.”

Trust me, this is not a thing you ever want to hear.

Elliott’s book is gorgeously written and as a San Francisco memoir has a great deal to recommend it; and it’s not really about Nina and Hans. The trial is more or less just a backdrop to Elliott’s wandering around the Mission District and Bernal Heights and taking too many drugs. I loved it, and I do not mean to suggest that Elliott should have written a different book, or no book at all – here I am writing about Nina to exorcise my own personal bullshit, after all.

I have two – not even criticisms, let’s say two observations to make about the book. The first is that I am sad, still sad, continually endlessly sad and angry at the way everyone else’s narratives collude to obscure Nina and her life. It’s not that she was a saint or a celebrity – the hagiographies that dwell on her “movie star good looks” set my teeth on edge – but she was an extremely intelligent and tough woman, coping admirably in a horrible situation, and by every account a wonderful, playful, caring and responsible mom.

And because she was murdered she is now, in some sense, public property. Everyone, myself included, projects his or her own personal issues all over her frozen image. Hans’s supporters call her a whore. Stephen Elliott remakes her in the image of his dead mother. Her death has become a set of Meanings that overwhelm her life, which had its own meaning, and which was her own. I mourn the Nina who was alive, and really nice and clever and ordinary. It’s not fair. It’s really shitty that she’s dead, and I hate it.

My second point is a little bit harder to make, but here goes. Elliott, God love him, has the creative professional’s lofty disdain for those of us who work in cubes. A brief stint as a search engine optimization specialist at the end of the boom has qualified him to rule on the working world once for all time, apparently. We are not an interesting set of stories, he concludes. We are too simplistic, and the world we inhabit is too black and white.

I actually find this endearing (I have a whole other rant about how people who don’t work in an office can’t write about working for a living and can’t begin to imagine how intricate and interesting it really is, a multi-dimensional 15-puzzle played with and by chimpanzees), but I think it misses part of what was going on with Hans, and maybe a big part. It misses Namesys.

Joshua Davis’s brilliant article in Wired (part of the inspiration for Elliott’s book) joined the dots between Hans’ code and his character, but a company is also an expression of a person’s soul. His brilliant Russian mail-order bride was a big part of Hans’s self-image as the startup entrepreneur who could afford to date, let’s face it, way out of his league. And much of the savagery of the divorce seemed to stem from Hans’s fears that Nina would imperil or claim for herself some part of his hoped-for payout from Namesys.

Hans felt that his intelligence gave him special privileges. (Did I mention that he and my husband worked together at Rearden Steel? Yes, named for the company in Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. You can’t make this shit up.) Armed with his titanium sense of entitlement, Hans insisted on what he saw as his rights. And it seems that when Nina stood up for herself, he choked her to death in the driveway of his mother’s home while their children were playing in the basement.

He probably didn’t intend to kill her. My husband makes the macabre point that if the murder were premeditated, Hans would have been better prepared for it. Having done it, though, Hans thought he ought to get away with it. He thought he could outsmart the police. He thought that his intellect was so great that it was only reasonable that he should get away with murder.

Hard to think of a more graphic illustration of the way Silicon Valley-style technocratic capitalism can reinforce the kyriarchy.

But here I go again, indulging the temptation to make Nina’s death a metaphor, a political point, an argument, instead of what it is, which is a tragedy. Today, on the fifth anniversary of her murder, I remember Nina.

Angry woman covered in dark paint, wearing a shirt reading 'freedom'

Re-post: “Why don’t you just hit him?”

During the December/January slowdown, Geek Feminism is re-publishing some of our highlights from earlier in the year. This post originally appeared on December 7, 2010.

Warning: this post and links from it discuss both harassment and violence, imagined and real.

Valerie has had a lot of comments and private email in response to her conference anti-harassment policy suggesting that a great deal of the problem would be solved if women were encouraged to hit their harassers: usually people suggest an open handed slap, a knee to groin, or even tasers and mace (no suggestions for tear gas or rubber bullets yet). I sent her such a lengthy email about it that we agreed that I clearly at some level wanted to post about it. What can I do but obey my muse?

OK. Folks…

This is not one of those entries I am thrilled in my soul to have to write, but here’s why “hit him!” is not a solution for everyone and definitely does not replace the need for people with authority to take a stand against harassment.

And I know some people were joking. But not everyone was, you’ll need to trust me on this. Your “jeez, guys like that are lucky they don’t get a knee in the groin more often… hey wait, maybe you should just have a Knee In Groin Policy!” joke was appearing in inboxes right alongside material seriously saying that all of this policy nonsense wouldn’t be necessary if women were just brave and defended themselves properly, if they’d just for once get it right.

Here are some samples:

  • Duncan on LWN: What I kept thinking while reading the original article, especially about the physical assaults, is that it was too bad the victims in question weren’t carrying Mace, pepper-spray, etc, and wasn’t afraid to use it. A couple incidents of that and one would think the problem would disappear…
  • NAR on LWN: I’ve read the blog about the assault – it’s absolutely [appalling] and in my opinion the guy deserved a knee to his groin and some time behind bars. (NAR then goes on to note that women should also wear skirts below the knee; which is very much making it about the victim. Dress right! Fight back!)
  • A comment on Geek Feminism that was not published: …you also need to make it known to women that they need to immediately retaliate (preferably in the form of a slap loud enough for everyone in the vicinity to hear)… Women -must- stand up for themselves and report the guy, preferably after a loud humiliating slap immediately following the incident.
  • crusoe on reddit: You need to end right then and there. Its one thing to make blog posts, its another to call a jerk out for it on the conference floor, including stomping a toe, or poking them hard in the belly… Do not stew about it, do not run home and write a blog post about it. Just call them on it right then and there. (As long as crusoe doesn’t have to hear about it…)

First up, one key thing about this and many similar responses (“just ignore him”, “just spread the word”, “just yell at him”):

Harassment is not a private matter between harasser and victim, and it’s not the victim’s job to put a stop to it.

The harasser is responsible for their actions. The surrounding culture is responsible for condemning them and making it clear those actions and expressions of attitudes that underlie them are not acceptable. (See Rape Culture 101.) The victim may choose to go to the police, yell, hit, scream, confront, go to a counsellor, tell their mother, tell their father, tell their friends, warn people. They may choose not to. Whether they do or not, we are all responsible for making harassment unacceptable where we are. Harassment, and stopping it, is not the victim’s responsibility. (See But You Have to Report It!)

Am I against hitting a harasser in all situations? No. Am I advocating against it in all situations? No.

However, here’s a lengthy and incomplete list of reasons why victims may not be able or may choose not to hit a harasser and why it is definitely not a general solution for the problem of harassment. I even have a special buzzer on hand that will sound when the reasons are related to gender discrimination. Listen for it, it goes like this: BZZZT! Got it? BZZZT!
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Wall of Spam, by freezelight on Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Linkspam as portrayed by an actress from a younger generation

Yes, that’s right, linkspams are back! Rebooted! New director! New continuity!

No, not really. Same people. Same style. We’ve just been a bit collectively discouraged by the Delicious disaster, the Google Reader implosion and the neverending freelish.us outage. Talk about making bookmarking unfun. But we’re going to try again, right now supporting pulling bookmarks from Delicious, Pinboard and Twitter. In order to not have to have 200 bookmarks, we’re just going to start afresh with some recent-ish links and go from there. Apologies to people who submitted things in the interim, post them in comments for others to catch up on.

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious or pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Multiple small broken window panes, through which greenery outside can be seen.

Quick hit: #mencallmethings

Trigger warning for quoted harassment and threats in the entry and links.

On Twitter, Sady Doyle has created a #mencallmethings tag:

The thing is, name-calling DOES have an impact. It’s a continual message that your voice is not legitimate & using it will only hurt you.

Threats are scary and all, but we’d have a field day if every woman and anti-sexist person online listed the names they were called.

AND THUS, I SHALL NOW DO SO. Shrieky. Screechy. Hysterical. Professional victim. Pathological victim. Hypersensitive. #mencallmethings

Feminist writers are thus tweeting some of the abuse they have received on the #mencallmethings tag. As Jill of Feministe puts it:

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to spend a day in the glamorous life of a feminist blogger? Check out #mencallmethings on Twitter… (Trigger warning for rape, violence and misogyny).

xx your favorite lesbian hambeast

Further commentary by Sady Doyle is up at Tiger Beatdown:

And yet, a sadness comes upon me. Now that I have regenerated, Whovianly, into my current form — all serious-faced and irritable and SAD TIMES ABOUT SEXISM — I find myself missing her carefree ways. Moreover, I find myself wondering how she pulled it off. How the Hell did she stay in such a good mood all the time? And I think I’ve found my answer: In 2009, I genuinely believed people were going to change their minds about being sexist, because they read my blog

I hate to tell you this, friends. But I think my plan, it had a minor flaw. Which is: Misogynists don’t like women. It doesn’t matter how uniquely charming and witty and acquainted with various fine bourbons you are. Are you a woman? Then they don’t like you. And they especially don’t like you telling them what to do. By, for example, asking them to cut it out with the misogyny.

In fourteen hours, it’s already made it to the Australian mainstream media, where I actually learned of it. I am clearly off my blogger game here.

On being harassed: a little GF history and some current events

Trigger warning for discussion of and graphic examples of threatening online harassment.

The other day Mary posted Online harassment as a daily hazard, linking to s.e. smith’s On blogging, threats, and silence. I thought I might take the opportunity to talk about my experiences since starting the Geek Feminism blog in 2009, if only as another example to add to the long list we already have.

In early 2009 I wrote a series of blog posts on my personal blog, celebrating the achievements of Dreamwidth and the Organization for Transformative Works’ Archive Of Our Own (AO3), two open source projects that launched into beta around that time, and that had large, majority-female developer communities. Someone at O’Reilly saw them, and in May ’09 I got an email from the organisers of the O’Reilly Open Source Convention (OSCON) asking if I’d like to give a keynote presentation about the subject.

At first I declined, asking whether, instead, they could find me a regular slot in the schedule. I wanted to talk about the projects and about what we could learn from them with regard to building inclusive, supportive developer communities, but I was uncomfortable with the degree of exposure I was likely to get by doing so in one of the morning keynote slots.

(I remember talking to my boss about it at work the next day, telling him I was flattered but didn’t much relish the negative attention it would get me. He was surprised, and didn’t get it. Later, he would admit that he’d read the ensuing comment threads around the web and was stunned not only by the content of them, but that such responses were expected.)

Anyway, at the end of May I went off to WisCon and talked to a bunch of supportive, inspiring feminists, and when I came back I agreed to give the OSCON keynote. I spent the next two months trying to figure out how to talk about the experiences of women in open source while keeping the message positive — something O’Reilly’s conference organisers had specifically requested.

Here’s the talk I gave. Don’t read the comments. Well, not unless you really need to raise your blood pressure. There were another 250 comments on the O’Reilly Radar post about my talk, and yet more on other tech blogs that linked to it. When I got back to work the week after OSCON, my boss had read them all and said, “Wow, I had no idea.”

What you’ll see there, if you brave the comment threads, are lots of attempts at derailing and 101 style conversations. For the most part, I deleted the particularly vile stuff, but you can bet there was some. After dealing with those comment threads, and those on subsequent related blog posts, I decided to create the GF blog. I wanted a group blog where, when I was exhausted by it all, I could get help from my co-bloggers.

Over the following six months, as my OSCON talk was linked all over the place, and as GF took off, I started to get more nasty email. In September of that year, GF became the target of a guy who goes by the name of MikeeUSA, who had previously targetted the Debian Women and LinuxChix communities. He started commenting here on GF, and sending email to GF bloggers, commenters, and people who linked to GF from their own blogs.

The women of the “geek feminism” movement will be just as effective at excising men from the movement as Nina was at systematically destroying Hans Reiser’s life untill he saw no reason, nothing left in his life, that could hold him back from striking back.

(Nina Reiser was murdered by her husband in 2006; see yatima’s post in memory of her.)

We deleted his comments here, of course. At first we did so quietly, not wanting to “feed the troll” But I was dubious of that traditional wisdom, and worried about other people getting messages from him and perhaps being less able to deal with it. I decided to write publicly about MikeeUSA so that everyone would know what was happening. In October ’09 I posted PSA: MikeeUSA’s hate speech and harassment.

As I was drafting that post — literally, I had the WordPress UI open in another tab — I got an email from a young woman in the open source community saying, “I just got a comment on my blog from this death-to-women’s-rights guy, and I’m not sure what to do about it.” I forwarded her a copy of my draft post, which included the following tips (summarised, but I do suggest you read the full post):

  • Moderate comments on your blog. Your blog is your space, and like your own living room or workplace, you have the right and the responsibility to make it a safe environment for those who gather there.
  • Save copies of all correspondence. Keep a copy of any blog comments, emails, or other correspondence you get from [anyone] who threatens or harasses you. Even if it starts out mild, it never hurts to have a paper trail.
  • Report threats to law enforcement. Threats of violence are illegal, and should be reported to law enforcement. Your first step is to contact your local police, wherever you are. You can call 911 (or local equivalent), or visit your local police station in person.

I would probably write that final point differently these days. Less prescriptively, for starters. Law enforcement is seldom willing or able to do anything about online harassment, and the process of dealing with them can, in itself, be pretty traumatic. That said, if you’re willing and able to do so, it might help, if only by contributing to aggregate data.

In any case, once we had the MikeeUSA thing out in the open, it changed the whole tone of things. The PSA got passed around various women-in-tech communities, and the GF wiki and blog became the top Google hits for his name. Soon, I started seeing him show up in people’s comments and get responses like, “Woohoo, I must have made it to the big time now Mikee’s come to visit!” Rather than each individual woman feeling singled out and alone, privately deleting blog comments or email messages, we started to work on it together. We encouraged people to send copies of their emails to a central repository, and forwarded them all to the feds (who, of course, did nothing with them — *sigh*). Eventually, the whole thing came to a head with Eric S. Raymond supporting MikeeUSA and his “right” to have his hate speech hosted on Sourceforge.net, and, after a weekend’s hacking, this lulzy, pony-filled denouement.

What you don’t see from the blog posts are the effect this had on people’s mental and physical health. I can’t speak for the other women targetted by Mikee, but I know that it affected my ability to concentrate, sleep, work, and socialise. Apologies for the TMI, but my gastro-intestinal system is also fairly sensitive to stress, so I was physically ill as well. I took several days of sick leave and went to the beach for an extended weekend, completely offline, to try and regain some equilibrium.

So far so bad, but I was at least managing to muddle through my day to day work as a technical community manager at a dotcom startup. That is, until I got a second particularly nasty stalker. This one, a Wikipedia troll, had found his way to my employer’s online database and tried to fill it with rubbish. As part of my job, I’d removed it and blocked his account, then mentioned on our public mailing list that I’d done so. The troll was annoyed, and presumably Googled my name, whereupon he found my OSCON talk.

The first I knew about this was when I got an email from a well known technologist asking whether I had any idea why a post on his blog, linking to my OSCON talk, had suddenly attracted a dozen commenters all posting abuse directed at me. I checked it out, and found comments on my professionalism, appearance, fuckability, and so forth. “Fat dyke slut” was pretty typical of the sort of language used, along with criticisms of my work and calls for me to be fired from my job. The IPs matched the guy I’d blocked at work.

The comments also linked to other blogs where similar abuse had been posted. I followed the links and found that it was spread all around the web, and all of it was on third-party sites where I had no control over the comment moderation. I had to contact each of these websites individually and ask them to remove the comments. Luckily most of them did so.

Because this was work-related, I also had to tell my boss. I was, after all, being harassed in relation to something I had done in the course of my professional duties, and my company had a responsibility to prevent that. I also informed the rest of my team, as they were likely to catch some of the side-splatter. Have you ever had to show your male colleagues a webpage that calls you a fat dyke slut? I don’t recommend it. However, my boss — the same one who’d been surprised by the comments straight after the OSCON talk — was extremely supportive, and the company did everything it should have. I spoke to lawyers and we determined a plan of action if the abuse continued. Fortunately, it didn’t. However, the negative side-effects of my “hobby” — feminist blogging — had now followed me to the office, and I could no longer keep the two separate. My chances of being able to relax and do my work without worrying about that stuff had gone out the window.

Not long after, another harasser was causing trouble for the Dreamwidth developer community (which, as I mentioned above, is predominantly female). Among other creepy behaviour, he phoned various people’s workplaces and accused them of distributing child pornography. I had to go to our office manager and tell him that if anyone called claiming to be a minister of religion and accusing me of that sort of thing, to ignore it. Awkward.

That was about nine months after my OSCON talk, and I’d had three separate cases where abuse related to it had negatively affected my professional life. Other women have talked about cutting back on their blogging out of concern for their personal safety, or to protect their children, but I wonder how many other female bloggers have had work-related problems like I did, and cut back on their blogging to avoid having abuse and harassment leak over into their professional lives?

The most recent outcome of this whole process occurred in March of this year. The startup I was working for in 2009 had been acquired by Google, and I’d submitted a talk to Google I/O (their big annual conference) to showcase our APIs. A couple of months before the event, I attended a kick-off meeting in Mountain View, where I sat in a lecture-theatre style room along with all the other presenters.

The senior exec in charge of the whole thing came to give us a pep talk. He told us how big and important the conference was, and what an honour it was to be speaking there. He told us that it was a great opportunity, because we would be speaking not only to a huge crowd in San Francisco’s Moscone Center, but our talks would also be filmed and put on Youtube, where they could potentially get hundreds of thousands of views (and, presumably, a commensurate number of comments).

I had a panic attack. My ears were ringing, my heart was beating fast, and I was shaking. I couldn’t hear what was being said from the front of the lecture theatre, and I just wanted to escape. I managed to get up and leave the room, and once I had found myself a safe corner outside, I got online and talked it through with a friend, then contacted a colleague and asked them to speak at Google I/O in my place.

I presume that most of the people in that room, including the exec who was speaking from the podium, had never had the experience of 6-12 months of very personal abuse after giving a conference talk. If they had, they might realise that the opportunity to have a video of oneself on Youtube, with hundreds of thousands of views and unmoderated comments, is not something everyone would want. (See also: Mary’s excellent series on conference recordings and harassment, accounts of people’s experiences, thoughts on ethics and policy.)

By the time this happened, I’d already decided — like many women before me — to drop out of the tech industry, so it was no big deal for me to turn down a high profile speaking opportunity. In fact, I hadn’t spoken at any major conferences in a year or so, preferring small events and unconferences where I could focus on teaching people about our technology, rather than on any potential harassment.

I’m fairly conflicted about my choice to quit the tech industry. I don’t want to be part of some statistic about retention rates, but on the other hand, I need to do something that feels rewarding and fun, and the work I was doing — which involved lots of speaking at conferences — wasn’t giving me that any more.

I didn’t quit because I couldn’t handle the technology, or because I had a baby, but because I had become fundamentally disenchanted with a “community” (please imagine me doing sarcastic air quotes) that supports the kind of abuse I’ve experienced and treats most human-related problems — from harassment to accessibility to the infinite variety of names people use (ahem ahem Google Plus) — as “too hard”.

That said, I’m still a techie at heart, and I plan to keep working with and on technology in whatever career I have ahead of me. I’m particularly interested in using open tech to preserve and promote independent music, so you’ll continue to see me around in many of my usual tech haunts.

Which brings me to a couple of weeks ago, when I got an email that read:

Hey slut, take your left wing socialist idealogy and go fuck off from ubuntu.

It came from someone calling himself “Markus G”, with email address grandrhino at hotmail, and IP address 110.174.202.115 — a static IP address with the ISP TPG, and a traceroute indicating that he’s probably in Brisbane, Australia.

Luckily, I know I’m not alone. I contacted the GF bloggers through one of our backchannels and asked if anyone else had heard of this guy. Turns out Mary had heard that “Markus” had previously sent similar filth to another woman in the Australian Linux community (she alluded to this in comments on her previous post). In that case, it was related to the Mark Pesce keynote at LCA 2010 and the subsequent discussion on the Linux Australia mailing list.

So, here’s our situation. We have a man (presumably; at any rate he appears to want to be identified as such) in the Australian Linux community, who targets women by sending them private abusive emails from a throwaway address and with a name that can’t readily be connected to any publicly known member of the community. His ISP won’t hand out information about him without a court order, his abuse doesn’t present the kind of imminent threat to physical safety that might interest law enforcement, and despite Linux Australia’s diversity statement and Linux.conf.au’s anti-harassment policies, it’s not clear that there’s any practical thing that either of those groups can do about him.

I have a talk about a tech/music/community project I founded scheduled at Linux.conf.au in January. If I attend — and I’ll freely admit that I’ve been reconsidering it — I’m going to be attending with this on my mind. That is, of course, what “Markus G” wants: for me, and the other women he’s targetted (and I don’t doubt there are more than just the two I know about) to attend LCA in a state of fear and discomfort, knowing that there are people there who hate us and want us to fuck off out of “their” community. And this is one of the better conferences, with an anti-harassment policy and at least one known case where they’ve enforced it.

What are we going to do about it?

Multiple small broken window panes, through which greenery outside can be seen.

Online harassment as a daily hazard: when trolls feed themselves

Trigger warning for discussion of and graphic examples of threatening online harassment.

Seen s.e. smith’s post on blogging and harassment yet? You’re about to see it everywhere (on the social justice blogs) because it’s very powerful and true:

by the time I’d clocked around 20 threats, and was up to around 30 readers, I’d learned the art of triage. The quick skim to find out if there was any actually personal threatening information, like identifying details, or if it was just your garden variety threat with no teeth behind it. I kept them all in a little file in case I needed them later, and forwarded the worst to the police department, not in the belief they would actually do anything, but in the hopes that information would be there, somewhere, in case it was needed someday.

“I hope you get raped to death with a gorsebush,” one email memorably began. I gave the letter writer some style points for creativity, but quickly deducted them when I noted he’d sent it from his work email, at a progressive organisation. I helpfully forwarded it to his supervisor, since I thought she might be interested to know what he was doing on company time. “Thanks,” she wrote back, and I didn’t hear anything more about it. Several months later I attended a gala event the organisation was participating in and watched him sitting there on stage, confident and smug…

I was careful in all the ways they tell you to be, to make it difficult to find my house, for example, and most of the rape threats, and the death threats, the casual verbal abuse from people who disagreed with my stances on subjects like rape being bad and abortion being a personal matter, weren’t really that threatening in that they didn’t pose a personal danger to me, and I was rarely concerned for my safety. That wasn’t the point, though, which is what I told a friend when she got her first rape threat and called me, sobbing. I wished she’d been spared that particular blogging rite of passage, but unfortunately she hadn’t been.

“They want you to shut up,” I explained. “That’s the point of a rape threat. They want to silence you. They want you to shrink down very small inside a box where you think they can’t find you.”

And it works. I see it happening all the time; blogs go dark, or disappear entirely, or stop covering certain subjects. People hop pseudonyms and addresses, trusting that regular readers can find and follow them, trying to stay one step ahead. Very few people openly discuss it because they feel like it’s feeding the trolls, giving them the attention they want. Some prominent bloggers and members of the tech community have been bold enough; Kathy Sierra, for example, spoke out about the threats that made her afraid to leave her own home. She’s not the only blogger who’s been presented not just with vicious, hateful verbal abuse, but very real evidence that people want to physically hurt her, a double-edged silencing tactic, a sustained campaign of terrorism that is, often, highly effective.

[That is a relatively short excerpt, read the whole thing.]

I think it’s time to take a look at the reflexive “don’t feed the trolls” advice, frankly.

It was developed, I think, for Usenet (at least, the earliest known usage of the term ‘troll’ in this sense is from alt.folklore.urban in 1992, which suggests that that formulation probably originates similarly), and was adopted by email lists and blogs in due course. I’ve always been suspicious of it in the case of forums like email lists where messages can’t be recalled: some people implement it as just leaving the troll to continue sending messages into the void – except that it’s not a void. Experienced people may have blocked the troll, inexperienced people are there to be frightened either specifically by the troll or by the apparent unremarkableness of the troll’s behaviour. (This is one of the reasons I am less and less on-board with the free software community’s continued preference for public mailing lists. I like my email client a lot too, but I like spaces where harassment can be removed quickly from all reader’s view more.)

There’s certainly some wisdom in “don’t feed the trolls”. Consider for example Gavin de Becker’s advice in The Gift of Fear: if you, say, return harassing phone calls on the 50th time, you’ve only taught your harasser that they need to call 50 times to get a response. They need to learn that they cannot reach you, that there is nothing they can do to make you reply to them.

So far it seems sensible, but what it doesn’t account for is having multiple harassers, who either may not be aware of each other or who may be actively encouraging each other and coordinating attacks (via hate blogs or forums or the more wildcard ‘lulz’ variants thereof). It’s not so clear there that en masse silence is a useful strategy, it varies by case, and the off-hand use of the “everyone knows that you don’t feed the trolls!” wisdom that was (arguably) effective in the case of lone trolls is in effect a message to people being targeted for harassment by a coordinated group, or who have a number of individual harassers, that no one gives a shit. Don’t talk about it, we don’t care about your problems.

It also means that we are continually surprised by the size and scope of the problem. Death threats? With your address attached? Weekly? This is a problem not only because of the continuing coziness of the “yeah right, never happens to me” crowd, but because we often aren’t sharing information among targets.

It’s not just you.

It’s not just you.

Every single time, there is someone who has been hurt by thinking it’s just them.

I by no means advocate compulsory reporting of harassment, in fact I am very strongly committed to empowering survivors by allowing them a coercion-free space to do whatever the hell they please in terms of reporting or not. But “don’t feed the trolls” isn’t any more coercion-free than “stop hir hurting someone else! report now!” The coercion is this: thirty years of Internet are saying keep this to yourself, damn you (stop hir hurting someone else)!

Thirty years of Internet, per above, don’t have the whole story.

This scale of harassment of bloggers also brings us into a realm where people without the financial resources of celebrities to, eg, pay Gavin de Becker’s people to read their mail for them and alert them only to genuine immediate threats, have to deal with the same scale of harassment. This isn’t totally new to the Internet (being, eg, the family member of someone who has either committed or been the victim of a well-publicised unusual crime, has long attracted the same kind of attacks) but it is hard enough for rich powerful people to protect themselves mentally and physically from this level of hostile attention, let alone people with the typical resources of a social justice blogger (generally relatively privileged yes, able to afford state-of-the-art personal security, no).

On that, I’m honestly not sure what to do except that it scares me. There appears to be no known effective defence against sufficiently many motivated harassers. There doesn’t even appear to be a lot of giving a toss about it.

Update: Hey folks, on reflection I realise that my last paragraph kind of invites advice, but it’s probably safe to assume that if you’ve thought of doing X in response to trolls that so have people like s.e. smith, and either X is in their arsenal, it doesn’t work, or it isn’t reasonably possible for them (that is the cost-benefit trade-offs don’t favour it).

Responses from people with unusual expertise on personal security or on community management and similar areas giving facts advice or facts might be useful, but if your expertise is “average experienced netizen” please step back and give people affected a chance to talk.

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.
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Linkspamming backwards in high heels (17th September, 2011)

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious, freelish.us or pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

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Enough of this linkspamming nonsense (7th September, 2011)

  • (Warning: stalking and threats of sexual violence.) OkCupid allowing impersonation, which allows someone to set up an account with your email address inviting, essentially, harassing replies. (In this case, someone also maliciously posted their target’s address, which is harder for OkCupid to check for automatically, but a complaint should result in a takedown.)
  • Don’t dumb girls down: The next time you want to tell a little girl how cute she is, try something else instead. (Discussed on Hacker News, ‘ware general fail.)
  • Gender Bias in Wikipedia and Britannica in International Journal of Communication, Vol 5 (2011). Is there a bias in the against women’s representation in Wikipedia biographies? Thousands of biographical subjects, from six sources, are compared against the English-language Wikipedia and the online Encyclopædia Britannica with respect to coverage, gender representation, and article length.
  • Women’s Quest for Romance Conflicts with Scientific Pursuits, Study Finds: Four new studies by researchers at the University at Buffalo have found that when a woman’s goal is to be romantically desirable, she distances herself from academic majors and activities related to science, technology, engineering and math…
  • Seriously, stop with the booth babes: On the one hand, YES! Absolutely!
    On the other hand, women have been saying this for years and been told, "You're making too much of it."
    Now, all of a sudden, the mens are up in arms. *facepalm*
  • A widely linked nymwars post by danah boyd that we may not have shared yet: “Real Names” Policies Are an Abuse of Power: She draws on Skud's survey, and adds some additional context based on her FaceBook research. boyd points out that ethnic minorities and teens have used handles on Facebook—signing up and giving the name that they were most commonly known by.
  • Felix Salmon believes Apple CEO Tim Cook’s sexuality should be publicly discussed. (Salmon discussed it in Don’t ignore Tim Cook’s sexuality and Why I’m talking about Tim Cook’s sexuality.) Ken Fisher at Ars Technica asks Does the press have an ethical duty to out powerful gays in tech? Note that Cook is not on the record about his sexuality or his private life much at all.

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious, freelish.us or pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

nina

in memory of nina reiser

Trigger warning for lethal violence against women

I picked up Stephen Elliott’s The Adderall Diaries with trepidation, because it’s at least nominally about the Hans Reiser murder trial, and Nina Reiser’s murder fucked me up. Her kids are the same age as mine. Her career counselor is my next door neighbor and friend. And her husband and mine are both Linux kernel programmers. They worked together at a Palo Alto startup during the boom, where Hans sometimes cornered my husband to rant about the extremely acrimonious Reiser divorce.

When news of Nina’s disappearance broke, I asked my husband:

“Do you think he killed her?”

He thought about it for a minute and said:

“I am not saying no.”

Trust me, this is not a thing you ever want to hear.

Elliott’s book is gorgeously written and as a San Francisco memoir has a great deal to recommend it; and it’s not really about Nina and Hans. The trial is more or less just a backdrop to Elliott’s wandering around the Mission District and Bernal Heights and taking too many drugs. I loved it, and I do not mean to suggest that Elliott should have written a different book, or no book at all – here I am writing about Nina to exorcise my own personal bullshit, after all.

I have two – not even criticisms, let’s say two observations to make about the book. The first is that I am sad, still sad, continually endlessly sad and angry at the way everyone else’s narratives collude to obscure Nina and her life. It’s not that she was a saint or a celebrity – the hagiographies that dwell on her “movie star good looks” set my teeth on edge – but she was an extremely intelligent and tough woman, coping admirably in a horrible situation, and by every account a wonderful, playful, caring and responsible mom.

And because she was murdered she is now, in some sense, public property. Everyone, myself included, projects his or her own personal issues all over her frozen image. Hans’s supporters call her a whore. Stephen Elliott remakes her in the image of his dead mother. Her death has become a set of Meanings that overwhelm her life, which had its own meaning, and which was her own. I mourn the Nina who was alive, and really nice and clever and ordinary. It’s not fair. It’s really shitty that she’s dead, and I hate it.

My second point is a little bit harder to make, but here goes. Elliott, God love him, has the creative professional’s lofty disdain for those of us who work in cubes. A brief stint as a search engine optimization specialist at the end of the boom has qualified him to rule on the working world once for all time, apparently. We are not an interesting set of stories, he concludes. We are too simplistic, and the world we inhabit is too black and white.

I actually find this endearing (I have a whole other rant about how people who don’t work in an office can’t write about working for a living and can’t begin to imagine how intricate and interesting it really is, a multi-dimensional 15-puzzle played with and by chimpanzees), but I think it misses part of what was going on with Hans, and maybe a big part. It misses Namesys.

Joshua Davis’s brilliant article in Wired (part of the inspiration for Elliott’s book) joined the dots between Hans’ code and his character, but a company is also an expression of a person’s soul. His brilliant Russian mail-order bride was a big part of Hans’s self-image as the startup entrepreneur who could afford to date, let’s face it, way out of his league. And much of the savagery of the divorce seemed to stem from Hans’s fears that Nina would imperil or claim for herself some part of his hoped-for payout from Namesys.

Hans felt that his intelligence gave him special privileges. (Did I mention that he and my husband worked together at Rearden Steel? Yes, named for the company in Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. You can’t make this shit up.) Armed with his titanium sense of entitlement, Hans insisted on what he saw as his rights. And it seems that when Nina stood up for herself, he choked her to death in the driveway of his mother’s home while their children were playing in the basement.

He probably didn’t intend to kill her. My husband makes the macabre point that if the murder were premeditated, Hans would have been better prepared for it. Having done it, though, Hans thought he ought to get away with it. He thought he could outsmart the police. He thought that his intellect was so great that it was only reasonable that he should get away with murder.

Hard to think of a more graphic illustration of the way Silicon Valley-style technocratic capitalism can reinforce the kyriarchy.

But here I go again, indulging the temptation to make Nina’s death a metaphor, a political point, an argument, instead of what it is, which is a tragedy. Today, on the fifth anniversary of her murder, I remember Nina.