Anyone who has participated in the blogosphere lately knows the troubling story of Kathy Sierra, a prominent blogger who received online threats of 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 canceled a speaking engagement and took a hiatus from blogging.
But Sierra isnt the only one to have endured online harassment. In fact, some would argue that shes just the visible 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 behavior has been distressingly constant, says Tim Bray, a veteran blogger and director of Web technologies at Sun Microsystems Inc.
But there are 70 million blogs online today and an average of 1.4 new blogs created every second, according to blog search engine Technorati Inc., so there are just more people participating, whether on corporate or personal sites.
Anyone who enters the blogosphere for business or pleasure needs to be aware of the types of people who get satisfaction out of disrupting online communities. According to Derek Wood, vice president of clinical operations at PsychTracker Inc., a journaling site for people with mental illness, the harassment comes in two general forms: trolls and cyberstalkers. Its important for blog participants and sponsors to understand the psychological makeup of both types so that if they encounter online abuse, theyll have some idea of what theyre facing and how to respond to it.
A troll is a person who posts with the intent to insult and provoke others, Wood explains. The goal is to disrupt the normal traffic of a discussion group beyond repair. A group is considered to be cohesively destroyed when two-thirds to three quarters of the messages are a result of [trolls] comments, Wood explains. They often target new bloggers, who are more likely to take offense, hence the term troll (as in trolling for newbies).
Trolls are characterized as having an excess of free time and are probably lonely and seeking attention, Wood says. They often see their own self-worth in relation to how much reaction they can provoke, he says.
Cyberstalkers can assume many different forms, according to Wood, although theyre characterized by a continuing pattern of communication that the recipient considers to be offensive. Cyberstalkers tend to be malicious, premeditating, repetitious, obsessive, vengeful and threatening in a way that may make victims fear for their physical safety. Cyberstalkers usually disregard warnings to stop.
In many cases, victims feel they have very little ammunition legal, technological or tactical to stop the abuse. However, there are some things bloggers and other online contributors can do to try to avoid this kind of harassment, or at least to keep it from crossing into the physical world.
1. Know the trolls tactics. According to Wood, the first rule for dealing with trolls is to avoid being deceived by them in the first place. Dont trust anything you receive or read without verifying the poster through known, reliable sources, he suggests. Also, ignore postings or private e-mails that are suspicious, such as those that praise, flatter or evoke a sympathetic response.
2. DFTT. This acronym, which stands for Dont feed the trolls, is one of the more important in the blog world. Just like in-person bullies, trolls feed off your reaction, says a former victim who asked not to be identified. Under no circumstances should you acknowledge the behavior or repay it with anger or defensiveness. If you dont react, theyll get bored and go away.
If ignoring the harasser doesnt get him to stop, at least you wont be fanning his flames, Wood says. The more a person responds, the more they teach the stalker about themselves or divulge information they shouldnt, he says.
3. Maintain your privacy. Dont publish any personal information, such as your address or phone number. If you need to allow participants to contact you in the physical world, use a post office box number. If you are being harassed, Wood suggests asking your states motor vehicle and voter registries to put a block on your address and phone number. Otherwise, any person may obtain them just by inquiring, he says.
Some longtime bloggers, such as Bray and his wife, Lauren Wood, a senior technical program manager at Sun, also refrain from posting photos of their children on their personal blogs.
4. Block and ban. If youre experiencing abuse on a moderated blog, you can appeal to the administrator, who can try banning the troll. Be prepared to include a history of the trolls posts, including full headers.
Some blog services offer technologies that enable you to block offensive participants. Using the WordPress open-source blogging tool, a blogger can moderate the comments of anyone who hasnt contributed to the site before, which helps eliminate hit-and-run trolls. Other plug-ins enable bloggers to ban certain IP addresses.
5. Keep a log. Be sure to keep a copy of anything you receive from the harasser, Lauren Wood suggests. If he begins to contact you by phone rather than e-mail, take notes on what he says and how often he calls. Youll need proof rather than, I think he was calling three times a day, she says. Youll want a log that says, He called at 9:14 p.m.
Above all, when you have an online presence, you need to prepare yourself for the possibility of becoming a target, Lauren Wood says. Just like in the real world, she says, you need to realize which dark alleys you shouldnt enter at night, and if you do, have protection and know what you should do.
Brandel is a Computerworld contributing writer in Newton, Mass. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.