In March 2007, just days before a scheduled teaching workshop at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, developer and writer Kathy Sierra withdrew from the session. A prominent blogger and speaker, Sierra’s sudden cancellation came as the result of a flurry of online abuse, including death threats and images of a violent and sexual nature. These attacks prompted her to quit publishing online entirely.
Last month, after a slight modification to the stats of three rifles in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, John Vonderhaar, the game’s design director, received an incredible number of angry replies from outraged players, documented by Andy Kelly on gamerfury.tumblr.com, threatening everything from his death to the rape of his family.
Phil Fish, developer of Fez and known to many via Indie Game: The Movie and his outspoken attitude, posted the following message in July after a verbal altercation on Twitter:
“FEZ II is cancelled.
i am done.
i take the money and i run.
this is as much as i can stomach.
this is isn’t the result of any one thing, but the end of a long, bloody campaign.
The post had more than 1,800 responses, the majority abusive.
Anita Sarkeesian, shortly after launching a Kickstarter campaign to fund her video series Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, found herself bombarded with misogynist and hateful messages, threats of rape and crudely Photoshopped images of herself. She responded by documenting and sharing the abuse on her site, resulting in significant press coverage and a surge of support for her campaign.
This week, Jim Jannard, the founder of RED Digital Cinema and a frequent participant on enthusiast discussion forums, stepped down from his public role and announced that he’d no longer be posting online, stating, “I have to say … they have gotten to me. I don’t need this. I don’t deserve this. Life is short and I am tired.”
These examples are from my own industry, but there are plenty more out there if you look around.
Hell, the local online and tech community is no stranger to harassment — pick nearly any popular Review-Journal or Las Vegas Sun article and skim through the comments. The level of vitriol and anger within, often targeting the journalist, can be staggering. The Save the Huntridge campaign discussion group, managed by well-intentioned volunteers with no personal stakes in the project (save the restoration of a ill-used venue), was besieged and nearly derailed early on by acrimonious attackers, and don’t get me started about the abuse flung toward anyone who might have a finger in the Downtown Project pool.
Spewing anonymous bile isn’t a new thing, as anyone with access to a CB radio can attest, but the online audience is greater than any before. Every one of us, at one time or another, ends up a target. We brush it off, hit the block button and move on, the grief only a temporary encounter in our streams of neutral and (hopefully) positive engagements.
But some folks, through sheer will or happenstance, become known. Maybe they’ve designed a favorite game, written interesting words or spoken at a conference. Maybe they’re a passionate local, investing themselves in the community. Maybe they’re just a kid on the sad end of a viral video or unfortunate photograph.
Suddenly, as if passing though a nebulous fame threshold, they become fair game, and the abuse directed their way skyrockets. Some, like Anita Sarkeesian and John Vonderhaar, are thick-skinned and ignore it or use it to their advantage. Others, like Kathy Sierra, Jim Jannard or even the acerbic Phil Fish, are affected personally and deeply by the malice. Sometimes they recoil and cautiously return, and sometimes we lose them forever.
It’s one thing to play with sarcasm, to confront or criticize ideas and ideologies, but the moment those words devolve from criticism into personal attacks and denigration, discourse is over, and someone is hurt.
We’re all people, folks, even on the Internet. For fuck’s sake, be good to each other.
CHRIS AINSWORTH is a Las Vegas native and a tech dilettante. Find him on Twitter (@driph) or at driph.com.