CommResp for MeanKids?

Would the MeanKids/Kathy Sierra saga have unfolded differently under CommResp? That’s a tricky question. Perhaps, perhaps not. I’m just reading about the whole genesis of the problem now.

The first stage started by Tara Hunt, an online marketing professional, who wrote a fairly open-ended blog post on February 4th discussing “Higher Purpose“– about a contemporary business book she was reading. Hunt mentioned that the book cited Henry Ford and Warren Buffett as a business visionaries (hardly a first in business journalism). Chris Locke, another online marketing professional, posted a comment condemning the author for having the gall to include a chapter on Henry Ford, since he was, in Locke’s words, “Hitler’s inspiration for the Holocaust.” Ford’s anti-Semitism and sympathies for Nazism are well known, but they aren’t always germane in books on management theory.* (Locke himself had mentioned Henry Ford in a book he had co-authored, The Cluetrain Manifesto, where he criticized Ford not for his anti-Semitism, but instead for the command-and-control management which Ford introduced– and which the “Cluetrain” was rebelling against). Locke then sent a link to the blog comment thread to his mailing list of 2,800 subscribers.

Hunt had no comment moderation policy or even a strategy to deal with the increased commenters; she admitted to being very busy over the few days. During the thread she appealed: “If you are part of the swarm of mean kids that come around to just be disruptive without making a point, you will be deleted.”

So it’s possible, with a CommResp policy, Tara Hunt may have been able to slow down the swarm. On the other hand, the practice of being a marketing professional involves attracting as large an audience as you can.

The second stage was when Chris Locke and Frank Paynter set up a site at and invited other bloggers to contribute. Paynter later wrote that he hoped “the people at Meankids would create art and criticism, pointed and insulting satire, but not foster a climate of fear.” The meankids may well have been nudged to pick on tech writer Kathy Sierra by this offhand remark. One of the anonymous bloggers of Meankids had posted an alleged death threat to Sierra; another threat appeared on Sierra’s blog.

There’s been a lot of comments on the web about what actually transpired. Very few of them appear to have contacted one of the named alleged perpetrators, “joey.” Seth Finkelstein this evening pointed me to Joey’s explanation, and his subsequent conversation with Bert Bates, Kathy Sierra’s husband. One of the key points of contention was how Joey’s identity could be divined: Joey contended that his server log files showed that they were monitoring his site; Bert responded that they hadn’t quite known for sure it was him.

Frank Paynter apologized to Sierra for setting up the site, and she accepted it. But one part of his explanation puzzled me: “Misogynistic postings at led me to try to moderate, but indeed the group there was of the ‘You Own Your Own Words’ tradition, so moderating or central editorial control wouldn’t work.”

This wouldn’t fly in CommResp compliance. If the philosophy of this site was that people had to stand by their words, as in the WELL, the identity would have been a cinch to recall.

In Internet communities, just as in any offline endeavor in civil society, the participants must ask: what rules are governing our interactions here? This is what the community’s leadership must provide. CommResp is a way of defining those rules.

*It’s quite ironic that at the end of my investigation, when I finally tried to discover the root cause of it all, it was that old chestnut of online dialogue, Godwin’s Law. I prefer Cliff Stoll’s restatement of it: “Godwin’s Law? Isn’t that the law that states that once a discussion reaches a comparison to Nazis or Hitler, its usefulness is over?”

Neither Tara Hunt’s HorsePigCow or Chris Locke’s RageBoy weblogs make mention of Godwin’s Law. I think I’ll ask them.