The Ugly Side of Online Success

by Krishna on January 29, 2009

Once again, another blogger (Michael Arrington of TechCrunch) is targeted with death threats. This is fast becoming too crazy for comfort:

Something very few people know: last year over the summer an off balance individual threatened to kill me and my family. He wasn’t very stealthy about it – he called our office number, sent me emails and even posted threats on his blog, so it wasn’t hard to determine who he was. The threats were, in the opinion of security experts we consulted, serious. The individual has a felony record and owns a gun. Police in three states became involved and we hired a personal security team to protect me, my family and TechCrunch employees.

At over $2,000 a day we couldn’t keep paying for security indefinitely. And the police were helpful but couldn’t do much based on the threats until he acted. We had the option of getting a restraining order but that just tells the person exactly where you are (the places they can’t go). So for a week I was literally in hiding with my parents at their home. The TechCrunch office was empty, and the police made regular checks to see if things were ok. One evening they almost arrested one of our employees who stopped by the office to pick up something.

Back in 2007, Kathy Sierra stopped blogging after death threats. Then, Jeff Atwood wrote about the recurring pattern of what is happening to successful bloggers:

  1. Author starts blog
  2. Blog becomes wildly popular
  3. Popularity causes problem for author
  4. Author stops writing
  5. Everyone loses

This year, during the presidential elections, political blogging and micro-blogging has been enormously influential, when compared to past elections. Regular news organizations, especially newspapers, are having a difficult time capturing the attention of news consumers who are moving to better sources of information, sometimes run by a single person. This phenomenon has created backlash in the following forms:

  • Politicians are finding it unbelievable that a person sitting at home and posting content can be powerful enough to sway large chunks of voters and raise money for the opposition. This is leading to politicians decrying such activity and even attempting to pass laws in some countries against them.
  • Conventional journalists are feeling threatened by bloggers and attempt to belittle the quality of their content. From there to intimidation of bloggers is a short step.

As online activity increases and some bloggers and Twitterers become very popular, they will be faced with all kinds of problems from spamming and hacking to legal bullying to physical threats and attacks. A blogger with more power and followers can create many enemies even with innocuous-looking posts praising a particular product.

It is time that forward-looking politicians look at these challenges to democracy, entrepreneurship and innovation, and create new (or update existing regulation) to adequately protect bloggers and other online activity against such threats. Right now, the law is very vague about all of this.

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