I’m not going to spend much time addressing the “facts” or specifics of the situation– that has been done ad-nauseum by many far better versed in the issue than myself. From what I’ve read, a group of individuals took some online bullying way too far, and caused Ms. Sierra such emotional distress as to cause her to cancel her trip to, and presentation at, the ongoing O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference. This caused many in the blogosphere and related communities to call for the outing of the anonymous (for now) bullies and their criminal prosecution. Others feel Ms. Sierra is perhaps being a bit too sensitive about the issue.
Bullying and the making of threats against others is certainly nothing new, nor is it uncommon. Electronic manifestations of these actions have likely been around since the very early days of the internet. Seemingly unaware of this fact, many have begun sprouting nonsense about how the internet has suddenly become violent and dangerous.
To say that this sort of thing is common is by no means meant to condone the activity nor to discount the effects it can have. I myself have been the victim of some pretty significant targeted online harassment, and it certainly put me on edge and made me feel vulnerable. Being that I was younger and still in school, and that the perpetrators were classmates of mine, I was able to deal with the issue through parental intervention. I had no illusions however about my chances of resolving the situation in a satisfying way had this not been the case. In the real world, there is not much that can be done about this sort of thing. If the threats do not cross certain legal lines, vigilanteism– either by the victim or by others acting on their behalf– is often the only recourse. As hard as it is to do, the best course of action in most cases is to ignore any attempts to get a response out of you. These bastards feed on the rise they get out of you, and if you cut that off, they’ll quickly become bored and move on.
In the end, I think there has been a bit of over-reaction in both camps. As tough as it is, Ms. Sierra needs to realize that these are likely nothing more than the rantings of a few disturbed individuals with no intention to act. Unless the threats, as bad as they are already, escalate in medium (phone calls, snail-mail, etc) or severity (statements of intent to commit criminal acts including some substantiation of this intent), the best thing to do would be for everyone to just try and ignore the whole thing. I’m sure it would be easy for these individuals to be tracked down and punished by the mob, but then we are no better than they are.