"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Is there really any doubt that women writing on the Web are subject to more abuse than men, simply because they’re women? Really? I’ve been following the Kathy Sierra blog storm, thinking I had nothing new to say, but the continued insistence that Sierra, and those who defend her, are somehow overreacting, or charging sexism where none exists, makes it hard for a mouthy woman to stay silent.
I say this as a mouthy woman who has tried for a long time to pretend otherwise: that Web misogyny isn’t especially rampant — but even if it is, it has no effect on me, or any other strong, sane woman doing her job. But I wasn’t being honest. My own reactions and those of others to the Sierra mess served to wrestle the truth out of me, and it wasn’t what I hoped.
The facts are these: Sierra, a software programmer who runs the site Creating Passionate Users — or ran it; she seems to have put it on hiatus, with no new posts since last Monday — was subjected to verbal abuse in the comments section of her own blog as well as other blogs. It ranged from banal putdowns to crude sexual garbage, and then, Sierra says, the sexual garbage turned violent, including posts like this: “fuck off you boring slut … i hope someone slits your throat and cums down your gob.” On a now-shuttered blog established at least partly to make fun of Sierra and others who complained about viciousness on another blog, someone posted a photo of a noose next to Sierra’s head, and someone else commented: “the only thing Kathy has to offer me is that noose in her neck size.”
Sierra went to the police with the posts, and went public with her complaints on her blog. When someone posted her home address in her comments thread, she shut down comments and stopped updating the blog, and friends, including PodTech.net’s Robert Scoble, began taking up her cause. “It’s this culture of attacking women that has especially got to stop,” Scoble said, noting, “Whenever I post a video of a female technologist there invariably are snide remarks about body parts and other things that simply wouldn’t happen if the interviewee were a man.” Scoble declared a weeklong blog strike in solidarity with Sierra and banned anonymous posters from his comments section.
Then came a sort of backlash. The founder of one of the blogs that hosted the vicious comments, renegade marketing guru and “Cluetrain Manifesto” co-author Chris Locke, aka “Rageboy,” said he lamented the threats to Sierra, but insisted he didn’t see them as literal threats of violence — and he seemed to lament Sierra’s criticizing his role in the attacks even more. “I’ve already been judged by the angry mob out there,” Locke complained on his blog. Nick Denton’s Valleywag took up his cause, with a post “In defense of Chris Locke,” suggesting that Locke’s critics had a problem with free speech. “The bloggers are behaving like a lynch mob, or a US president, looking for someone to string up, or a country to invade. Sierra is upset, traumatized, even; but it’s Locke’s reputation which will be, possibly quite unfairly, soiled by her accusation.” Kathy Sierra as George W. Bush? That’s really mean! And dumb. (Also, how a guy who calls himself “Rageboy” can have his reputation harmed by Sierra’s complaints kind of escapes me, but Locke is entitled to his hurt feelings.)
The busy Denton himself even went into the comments thread on the same blog post to fight it out with those who disagreed, including Robert Scoble. “So far, I haven’t read anything that proves Locke’s complicity in this incident,” Denton wrote. “And, if it was a crime merely to be considered a prick, the jails would be full.” But most Valleywag readers who commented disagreed with Denton and Locke: “When the free speech is directed in [Locke's] direction, it becomes character assassination?” wrote a poster with the screen name WendySharp. “That’s really rather beautiful hypocrisy in action.” A similar but uglier battle raged in the Broadsheet comments section when Lynn Harris wrote about Sierra earlier this week.
And on and on it goes: Is Sierra another woman silenced by vicious online sexism, or just a wuss? Were the threats of violence real? Or is she the real bully, organizing a “lynch mob” to win her blogosphere battle?
I avoided writing about the mess for a day or two because I had mixed feelings about it. Ever since Salon automated its letters, it’s been hard to ignore that the criticisms of women writers are much more brutal and vicious than those about men — sometimes nakedly sexist, sometimes less obviously so; sometimes sexually and/or personally degrading. But I’ve never admitted the toll our letters can sometimes take on women writers at Salon, myself included, because admitting it would be giving misogynist losers — and these are the posters I’m talking about — power. Still, I’ve come to think that denying it gives them another kind of power, and I’m trying to sort that out by thinking about the Kathy Sierra mess in all its complexity.
When I first heard about the Sierra mess, I confess to skimming the final post on her blog, and fixating on these words:
“I have cancelled all speaking engagements.
I am afraid to leave my yard.
I will never feel the same.
I will never be the same.”
And I cringed. It felt over-the-top to me. I had a comparable reaction to the controversy over Harvard’s Lawrence Summers’ ditzy and wrongheaded observations about women lacking “some of the necessities,” to use Al Campanis’ language about blacks managing baseball, to excel in science. Summers was an idiot to say what he did, but the reaction of certain female professors disturbed me, too. Nancy Hopkins famously told the media that if she hadn’t walked out, ”I would’ve either blacked out or thrown up.” That bothered me. If I blacked out or threw up every time I experienced sexism in my career, I’d be in a hospital, not working in journalism. I don’t think we can be fragile flowers about workplace sexism. Fight it, but don’t take to your bed over it.
I’ve had a comparable reaction to the storm of sexist commentary Salon unleashed when we started letting our users post letters to the editor themselves in October 2005. Let me be clear: We have the smartest audience in journalism. Our letters have by far been a net gain for Salon. The vast majority are either smart, serious or harmless. A small minority pollutes letters and blog comments, and I’ve mostly chosen to ignore them. I’ve known they were disproportionately vicious to women. The fact is, in my nine years here, I’ve learned misogyny grows wild on the Web.
When I joined Salon in 1998, I had no idea what was about to hit me (figuratively, folks, I’ve never been hit). I had written about controversial topics for newspapers and magazines — race relations, affirmative action, women’s rights, Israel and the Palestinians; every kind of politics, state, local and national. My edgiest work had been the target of nasty letter-writing campaigns, even protests. But I’d never been truly, viciously attacked, in terms relating to my intellect, my appearance or my sexuality, and I’d never experienced a personal threat — to anything other than my future employment at a given publication, if it caved to outside pressure.
But once I joined Salon I started receiving the creepiest personal e-mails about my work. Anything I wrote that vaguely defended President Clinton or criticized his attackers, in particular, would get me a torrent of badly spelled e-mail, often from Free Republic readers and posters. There were themes: A significant subset tended to depict me in a Monica Lewinsky role, often graphically. Like Kathy Sierra, I endured too many references to “cum” in those e-mails. I’ll forgo other details for the sake of brevity and discretion.
But it was hard to know for sure how much had to do with my gender. David Talbot was regularly attacked by wingnuts as a Clinton “butt-boy,” so it was impossible to say it was all about my being a woman. It still seems that when a man comes in for abuse online, he’s disproportionately attacked as gay — and if he is gay, like Andrew Sullivan, who wrote a column for us for a while, his hate mail at Salon is likely to be comparable to mine: heavy on sexual imagery and insult, sometimes bordering on violence. Yuck. I couldn’t see into anyone else’s in box to be sure if the abuse I was getting was disproportionate, but I suspected it was. Mostly I just ignored it.
When Salon automated its letters, ideas that had only seen our in boxes at Salon were suddenly turning up on the site. And I couldn’t deny the pattern: Women came in for the cruelest and most graphic criticism and taunting. Gary Kamiya summed it up well in a piece on overall online feedback, noting “an ugly misogynistic aspect” to the reaction to women writers. One thing I noticed early on: We all got nicknames. I’m “Joanie,” Rebecca Traister is “Becky,” Debra Dickerson is “Debbie” and on and on. There are lots of comments about our looks and sexuality or … likability, to avoid using the f-word, a theme you almost never see even in angry, nasty threads about male writers. Most common is a sneering undercurrent of certainty that the woman in question is just plain stupid; it’s hard to believe we have jobs at all. (But then, since a woman is, unbelievably, the clueless, incompetent boss of Salon, it makes a certain kind of sense.)
Still, I’ve taken the position that yes, women have it harder, but most letter writers aren’t misogynist, and sometimes their criticism has made valid points: our writing could be clearer, our reporting stronger, our analysis crisper. I know that’s been true in my case. I’ve mostly told Salon’s women writers who are upset about their mail either to get a thicker skin — I grew one over the years — or to stop reading it. Basically, I told them to man up. Sometimes I was right. Sometimes my reaction amounted to telling them to stop wearing such provocative outfits online, lest they get what they deserve.
So when I first read Sierra’s complaints, my knee jerked with my conditioned reaction. I focused on what seemed to be her over-the-top response, quoted above, as well as her decision not to attend the Emerging Technology conference this week in San Diego because of the threats. I thought: If you curtail your activities or your speech, Kathy, the bad-boy terrorists have won. And then I read the graphic, threatening posts on Sierra’s blog and elsewhere, and I felt a little less sure of my reaction.
The fact is, I’ve never experienced the violent threats Sierra has online — and I don’t think any woman has on Salon — and so I can’t really judge her reaction. I’d like to think I’d just go on with my life, but I don’t know. And maybe I was a little bit more chastened by what Sierra experienced because I started my own blog last week, and two days later, I interviewed our former columnist Anne Lamott. We got no violent threats, just 300 letters or so, many of them quite nasty.
I don’t want to compare that thread to what Sierra suffered; there were no threats of violence and no particularly sexual insults. But boy, there were plenty of insults, and most of them had to do with us as women — as mothers, as sexual objects, as writers, as professional women in the world. To boil it down, we’re wrinkly old hags (even though Lamott said my neck looks good! WTF?); we’re narcissists and bad mothers, and worst of all, for writers, we’re really bad writers, and terribly stupid. But mostly we’re just bad women. Bad, bad women. And did I mention ugly and wrinkly?
To be fair, some thoughtful readers came to Lamott’s and my defense. I particularly appreciated a letter from a reader who described herself as having been “infuriated” by things I’ve done as editor of Salon, who nevertheless suggested sexism might be behind the vitriol in my Lamott thread. “I haven’t read all of the letters that pass through Salon, but I wonder about certain patterns. Oprah, Camille Paglia, Joan Walsh and Anne Lamott have one thing in common. I will sound very P.C. saying this (as Bill O’Reilly would be the first to note) but do we just find it easier to bash women?” No, replied one writer: The problem was “the kind of woman writer Salon has been fond of publishing in the last few years … Smug, self-satisfied, without any kind of real difficulty except their sad inability to make the rest of the world understand, and so appreciate, them for who they are,” and then he went on to name a lot of us. Glad we cleared that up.
Reading that thread made me realize the warped, and warping, experience of Salon letters for many women writers: It’s like seeing everything awful you’ve ever thought or feared about yourself — but said out loud by someone else, for thousands of people to hear. It lives in your head longer than it should, and then you beat yourself up for giving it space, for not being tougher. The Broadsheet thread about Kathy Sierra was in many ways worse. Not about writer Lynn Harris, thankfully, but about Sierra, as well as women posters who came to her defense. This is how it got started:
Anyone on the internet is subject to all sorts of threats. It has nothing to do with being a woman.
The lady is a loser
Ms. Sierra also fabricated some of threats. This has been proven and established.
That poster pointed to Chris Locke’s “Rageboy” blog as evidence Sierra was lying, but in fact Locke didn’t claim she fabricated the threats; he merely insisted he’s not to blame. And on it went. A charming Broadsheet regular told a woman who disagreed, “Trying [sic] verifying rather than just opening you fat piehole and spewing bile,” and later, “Now I know you are a fattie and single.” It was a petri dish of online misogyny. We left it unmoderated as a science experiment. And I feel a little sick now that I’ve read the whole thing. Yes, sick.
So what is the answer?
I’m left with a lot of my initial reaction: Attitudes toward women have improved dramatically just in my lifetime, but still the world has too many misogynists, and the Web has given them a microphone that lets them turn up the volume on their quavering selves, their self-righteous fury, their self-loathing expressed as hatred of women. And yet, mostly, women on the Web just have to ignore it. If you show it bothers you, you’ve given them pleasure. Life is too short to think about Broadsheet trolls.
But it coarsens you to look away, and to tell others to do the same. I’ve grown a thicker skin. I didn’t want skin this thick. And what does it mean that women writers have to drag around this anchor every time they start to write — that we reflexively compose our own hate mail, and sometimes type and retype to try to avoid it? I can honestly say it’s probably made me more precise and less glib. That’s good. But it’s also, for now, made me too cautious. I write less than I would if I wasn’t thinking these thoughts. I think that’s bad. I think Web misogyny puts women writers at a disadvantage, and as someone who’s worked for women’s advancement in the workplace, and the world, that saddens me.
I truly believe misogynist trolls are only a tiny sliver of the Web population. But I can no longer say they don’t matter, or they do no real harm. We have them here at Salon in politics and relationship threads; Sierra has them in the world of tech marketing. They’re probably not the same guys. That’s disturbing. What’s unique to the Web is that they can easily collaborate: A vicious prankster who’d like to rattle Sierra can make threats or even find and publish her address, and he might only want to scare her, not do her real physical harm. But he can be joined by an unhinged person who takes the address and acts on it. And who’s to blame?
I don’t have an answer to that question, or a solution. All I can really do is promise to think and talk about it more, and not dismiss other women’s — and some men’s — complaints about what women suffer online as easily as I have in the past. I chide myself for cringing, at first, at Kathy Sierra’s response to her threats. I still wish she’d gone to ETech and given her tormentors the finger, but I can’t say with certainty I’d have done so in her shoes. I do know that in the Nick Denton/Chris Locke vs. Kathy Sierra/Robert Scoble smackdown, I am firmly on the side of Sierra and Scoble. As a woman writer friend e-mailed me after reading Denton’s fierce defense of Locke on Valleywag: “There is nothing like hysterical masculine self-pity posing as righteous indignation.” I couldn’t put it any better than that. Man up, fellas!
And at Salon, we have been promising better tools to moderate and control our letters and comments; we will finally be rolling them out in the days and weeks to come (not as a reaction to the Sierra situation; it’s just coincidence that we’re on the verge of having some features ready we promised readers months ago). We will also start to take a tougher line on serial abusers, deleting more posts that are simply ad hominem, or feminem, attacks.
I’m not sure what else there is to do, but I’ll keep thinking about it, and listening to suggestions. And in the meantime, I’ll give Anne Lamott the last word. She advised me to look at nasty letters threads as a “workshop, a workshop on your own self-doubt.” Some people pay money for that sort of thing; women writers at Salon get paid for it. Yes, I’ll keep trying to find the bright side of online misogyny, while doing what I can to make it go away.
Joan Walsh is Salon's editor at large and the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."More Joan Walsh.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)