Apr 10, 2007

Women, writing and the web: what is the global conversation missing out on?

A while back, I was assigned the task of writing a new user's manual for the most recent update of the LEAP Editing and Publishing Framework (L.E.A.P. Framework), built on the Drupal Content Management framework. (Which, by the way, rocks. Great job to all the guys who worked on it!) The first place I turned to for ideas and best practices was Creating Passionate Users, the blog of tech author and speaker Kathy Sierra.

I adored her "Creating Passionate Users" blog, and printed and highlighted some of her articles on writing butt-kicking users manuals. And her "Head First" books are fantastic examples of well-written computer manuals.

So I was profoundly disturbed when I checked back at CPU, and saw that Kathy had canceled her speech at O'Reilly Media's ETech conference. What was more disturbing was the reason why.

Apparently, she started getting several threatening, hate-based comments on her blog. Then a couple of prominent bloggers started up two sites where the whole point was to say hateful things about other bloggers. There were some extremely disturbing, graphic words and images posted on those blogs about Sierra. Eventually, she canceled her speaking engagements, involved the police, and opened up about it on CPU.

It became a huge deal in the blogging community, and it sparked a lot of discussion about misogyny on the web. Many of the men were shocked at the things that were posted to and about Kathy. Most of the women who commented in response had experienced similar things.

This is a very present, personal issue for me. I truly believe in the internet as a powerful communication tool. As a writer, I honestly believe it's the publishing outlet of the future. The internet and blogging make global conversation possible and personal. The public forum of the ancient Greeks, where important ideas can receive passionate and thoughtful debate by the best minds of the culture, has become the message board forum and the blog in the twenty-first century.

Unless those best minds are held within a woman's body. I've been writing on the internet for a long time. Long enough to know that it's a given that if I participated in that global conversation at the level I would prefer, I'd be painting a giant target on myself that says "Hey, misogynistic freaks! Fresh meat!" I've had enough experiences on message boards to know that on the internet, just being a smart woman who expresses herself is incomprehensibly infuriating to a small but vocal group of men, to a near-pathological degree. I hate that. Because I've struggled with some of the same questions Kathy is currently struggling with (albeit in a "prior to getting death threats" way, rather than post-death-threat). What I do best is write. That's the best thing I have to offer and contribute to the world, and my employer, LEAP. So do I write anonymously? Write as "K.L. French" and pretend to be a faceless, genderless ghost for as long as possible? Just "suck it up" and accept that receiving vile, hideous comments and emails are just part of doing what I love? Granted, there are no by-lines on much of the web copy I write. I just wonder how many smart women are not contributing to the global conversation because we're letting emotionally-stunted freaks win...

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