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Marty Weintraub, a search engine optimization expert at aimClear, detailed on SearchEngineWatch.com some of his recent experiences with death threats online. He, like many other online marketers, had begun focusing marketing efforts on social sites like Facebook and StumbleUpon because of their rich user data and easily-targetable user groups. But not all users are fond of the fact that their personal data can be used for marketing purposes, and Weintraub found himself right at the center of angry StumbleUpon users' crosshairs after posting about how much he loved the eBay-owned site.
"The feeling was reminiscent of historic book burnings because of violent and Nazi-laced symbolism and hyperbolic rhetoric," Weintraub wrote. The level of harassment even increased after he discussed his experiences publicly several times. After receiving a number of death threats and calls for suicide by members of StumbleUpon (of which Weintraub notes are a violation of the site's Terms of Service), he turned to the FBI, who told him that nothing could be done about users from overseas and that he should contact moderators of the site. Eventually, StumbleUpon moderators reacted by booting a single user from the site. "Then all hell broke loose," Weintraub wrote.
To most of us who have spent a large part of our lives participating in forums, the above situation doesn't sound all that bad. But is that because we're been conditioned to accept a much lower set of standards for online behavior? At what point do threats online become more serious than juvenile postings?
A number of incidents have been publicized in recent years as a result of cyber harassment. An man sued AOL over a chat room kerfuffle that allegedly resulted in one member attempting to intercept his (real) mail. High school teachers and principals have faced online allegations of child molestation. A third of teens say that they've experienced some sort of cyberbullying. Two law school students sued AutoAdmit after receiving repeated death, rape, and other threats, which resulted in one victim losing a number of job prospects. And now there's a (somewhat stale) movement towards a Blogger Code of Conduct after programmer and instructor Kathy Sierra was subject to a string of threats of physical harm, death, and rape online.
It's hard for me to write about this. Having been a writer for Ars Technica for a number of years now and a forum member for more than twice as long, I'm no stranger to trolls. I remember the first time I received an e-mail containing a photo of a woman being gang-raped with my face Photoshopped over hers. Then there was the time when a certain forum and IRC member started following me around online, eventually gained access to my unlisted phone number, and began calling me repeatedly all hours of the night to tell me what "pleasant" things he planned to do to me. Another time, a reader showed up at my door unannounced. The last time I wrote about Ron Paul spam, I received hordes of e-mail and IM messages from "supporters" telling me to watch out when I leave the house lest someone put a hit on me for "selling out." Some of my colleagues are so afraid for me that one of them offered to teach me self-defense for the sole purpose of protecting myself against readers who have gone off their rockers.
So, I can sympathize with Weintraub.
He doesn't ask for much—all he wants is for eBay (and the companies that own similar communities online) to step up moderation of users that go over the line. "[T]he only pathway to success and longevity in social media is to actually participate and bring value to the community," he wrote. "If the problem continues then many people will leave. eBay might be left holding a $75 million investment with limited value to big brands."
Unfortunately, the solution isn't quite that simple—anyone who has moderated any sort of community knows that doing so means constantly walking a thin, gray, moving line, and users are equally as sensitive to over-moderation as they are to a constantly negative environment. But he does have a point—no one should have to put up with that kind of constant harassment, online or off. Not even marketers.
What message do we have for those who choose to harass others online? First, none of us are perfect (that includes the Ars staff, Weintraub, Kathy Sierra, you, me, and the rest of the Internet). Second, realize that your words aren't going into a black hole. They're being read by other people—a lot of them, in some cases. You may hate these people and what they have to say, but addressing issues instead of taking cheap pot shots or making death threats against people will go a long way towards ensuring that your point of view is heard, and maybe even respected. That's better than having the substance of your arguments disappear in a torrent of threats and invective.