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"Trouble at the Koolaid Point" is an important post by Kathy Sierra on the structure of online harassment, especially toward women. Here's an excerpt:

I now believe the most dangerous time for a woman with online visibility is the point at which others are seen to be listening, “following”, “liking”, “favoriting”, retweeting. In other words, the point at which her readers have (in the troll’s mind) “drunk the Koolaid”. Apparently, that just can’t be allowed.

From the hater’s POV, you (the Koolaid server) do not “deserve” that attention. You are “stealing” an audience. From their angry, frustrated point of view, the idea that others listen to you is insanity. From their emotion-fueled view you don’t have readers you have cult followers. That just can’t be allowed.

You must be stopped. And if they cannot stop you, they can at least ruin your quality of life. A standard goal, in troll culture, I soon learned, is to cause “personal ruin”. They aren’t all trolls, though. Some of those who seek to stop and/or ruin you are misguided/misinformed but well-intended. They actually believe in a cause, and they believe you (or rather the Koolaid you’re serving) threatens that cause.

You should read it as soon as you can.

If you don’t know Kathy, she’s an author and software developer who was one of the first high-profile cases of internet trolling in 2007; she went public with the harassment, and then was attacked even more brutally, with a pseudonymous troll named Memphis Two releasing her home address, social security number, and other personal information accompanied by a fictitious sordid backstory.

Among other things, Kathy received death threats both online and at her home, against both her and her family. The threats seemed credible, but law enforcement seemed unwilling or unable to do much to protect her or investigate the people responsible. Soon after, Kathy more or less left public life; she stopped blogging and writing books.

In 2008, Andrew Auernheimer (also known as “weev,” among other names) claimed responsibility for Kathy’s doxx to a reporter for The New York Times Magazine. He’s since denied it, half-denied it, half-justified it, and explicitly endorsed it, but I believe he wrote the Memphis Two post, and so does Kathy.

In 2013, Andrew was convicted for his role in exposing a security flaw on AT&T’s website revealing iPad users’ email addresses. It was a questionable charge against a man who has said, believed, and done disgusting things. He’s no longer masking in any way his white supremacism, for example.

In a video he filmed while doing a Reddit aMa shortly before his sentencing, Andrew taunted Kathy, calling her a "stupid bitch" and "a charlatan and a liar. I have never ever published her docs, and she should cry more." Later, he boiled down his denial-with-justification formula: “The Holocaust never happened, and it should happen again."

Postscript: today on Livejournal, Andrew's doing it again, saying he wasn’t responsible for the Memphis Two post and posting photos to that effect, while also saying doxxing is common behavior on the internet and that Kathy “got what she deserved.”]

After Andrew was in prison, Kathy came forward to tell her story, first to me and then to Greg Sandoval, my colleague at The Verge. Greg wrote this feature I helped report, The End of Kindness: weev and the Cult of the Angry Young Man, published in September 2013.

Kathy was frustrated with the treatment of Andrew as a hero by many people in the tech and popular press, who either didn’t know or didn’t care about his backstory; they just saw him as a victim of federal prosecutors eager to chalk up victories over “hackers.” Complicating things further was that Kathy also felt that Andrew’s prosecution was ridiculous. Corporations, it seemed, had more protections than people did.

Andrew’s now out of prison after a successful appeal, and looks likely to stay that way. Last summer, Kathy joined Twitter again as @seriouspony, tweeting occasionally about tech and occasionally about online culture, but mostly about the ponies on her farm and her research on group and business dynamics.

On October 1, Andrew posted an essay at The Daily Stormer, which I think is fair to call a white supremacist site. He appeared with a swastika tattooed on his chest, railed against blacks and Jews, blamed his conviction on the stupidity and evil of his black judge and Jewish prosecutor, and announced he’d moved to Palestine. Little of this rhetoric was new for him, but the photo of the swastika tattoo was stark, and it circulated among an audience that either hadn’t been aware of this side of him, had hoped it was a joke, or preferred to ignore it.

Kathy got involved in the conversation over this essay on Twitter — I first learned about it from her — and her frustration that many people (including prominent ones in the tech community) still supported Andrew led her to leave Twitter.

She explained herself in an email to Tim Bray:

Even after all this there are people still determined to defend weev-the-person (not weev-the-case) to the point of suggesting I’m trolling so people will troll me back…

I just was tired of having that conversation, and disheartened that there are still prominent people in tech that support and believe him… I hope one day there’s a place like Twitter where the voices of these people aren’t so elevated and overwhelming.

Anyways, all this is prologue. Kathy’s essay is important as both a personal story and general anatomy of where we are today in online discourse. In the corners of the tech or gaming or publishing (or x or y or z) worlds, or on social media, anyone can become a microcelebrity (it doesn’t take much) and find angry individuals who resent them for it. These people look for their own kind of celebrity among the circles they travel in, through personal destruction of their targets.

Things are getting worse on the internet, not better, at the very moment when the internet in all of its forms is becoming part and parcel of everyday life. If there was once a pretext that “the internet” was a separate universe made from electric green light where the rules were different from “IRL,” I think we’re well past that. As my old boss Joshua Topolsky said once, "the internet is where we live now." And where we live isn’t so nice, once you start to look, especially if you are a woman standing on a platform.

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Tim Carmody




Everything changes. Don't be afraid.

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