Why did prominent blogger Kathy Sierra suddenly cancel the talk she was supposed to give Tuesday in San Diego? Because of specific, sexually graphic death threats posted on her blog and elsewhere on the Internet. One of the tamer threats featured a photo of her next to a noose.
Death threats! If you've never heard of Sierra, perhaps you assume that she writes about religion, the mob or the Satanic Verses. But actually, Sierra writes about cognition and computers. Wrote, actually -- she has also seen fit to shut down her venerable blog, Creating Passionate Users. (Warning: Some of the particularly grody threats now appear there as part of her final post.) "As I type this, I am supposed to be in San Diego, delivering a workshop at the ETech conference. But I'm not. I'm at home, with the doors locked, terrified," she writes, adding as part of an of apology to conference organizers and attendees, "If you want to do something about it, do not tolerate the kind of abuse that includes threats or even suggestions of violence (especially sexual violence). Do not put these people on a pedestal. Do not let them get away with calling this 'social commentary,' 'protected speech,' or simply 'criticism.'"
Sierra -- also co-creator of the Head First computer books and founder of the JavaRanch programmer site -- told Computerworld in an interview yesterday that she has no idea what particular post or topic might have prompted the threats. She and many of her allies point instead to her particular gender.
"It's this culture of attacking women that has especially got to stop," writes fellow blogger Robert Scoble, who, in response to the threats against Sierra, no longer allows anonymous posting on his blog. "I really don't care if you attack me. I take those attacks in stride. But, 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."
To be sure, the blogosphere is replete with dumb-ass, even hateful commentary; blogging -- especially using one's true identity -- demands the thickest of skins. Some say such vivid, vile death threats nonetheless cross the line; others say Sierra needs to cowboy up. Still others have criticized Sierra's online fingerpointing at possible suspects, or at least parties accused of guilt by association. But whatever one's opinion of the incidents and Sierra's response to them, this story is a telling, and troubling, reminder that when it comes to criticism of work by women -- especially, perhaps, women in male-dominated fields -- misogyny is so often the default programming language.