Anyone who has participated in the blogosphere in the past two months knows the troubling story of Kathy Sierra, a prominent blogger who was the victim of online threats that included violent sexual acts and murder. When the harassment spread beyond her own blog to two others that were affiliated with other prominent bloggers, Sierra became so terrified that she cancelled an upcoming speaking engagement and took a hiatus from blogging.
But Sierra isn't the only one to endure online harassment. In fact, some would argue that she's just the most visible - if not the most historically egregious - tip of an iceberg that has been around since internet discussions began in the early 1980s. "Between now and the early days of Usenet, the level of abusive behaviour has been distressingly constant," says Tim Bray, a veteran blogger and director of Web technologies at Sun Microsystems.
The difference is, with 70 million blogs in existence today and 1.4 new blogs created every second, according to blog search engine Technorati, there are just more people participating in online discussions, and "the more crazy people you've got reading them, the wilder the whole blogosphere can become," says Richard Silverstein, who advocates for a peaceful approach to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his blog.
And he should know. Like Sierra, Silverstein is the victim of online harassment, in the form of hostile comments on his own blog, in external discussion groups and on blogs created solely for the purpose of maligning him. Given the topic that he blogs about, Silverstein is no stranger to abusive commentary. "It's part of the territory - if you want to write a blog like this, you're going to deal with unpalatable people," he says.
But when the external blogs - whose creators were anonymous - grew increasingly threatening, including what he saw as pornographic photographs, he began to feel personally harassed. "I've felt insecure and under threat," he says. "No one has said, 'I'm going to come and kill you’, but there were some comments that got me concerned. You hate to think of these things, but it's very possible that some wacko will escalate from a threatening comment to actually doing something."