Broken windows

There’s been some fun and games in LinuxChix lately with a particularly violent sounding poster calling himself MikeeUSA posting variations on the phrase “Death to women’s rights” interspersed with some obscenity laden mails.

He’s been posting to Debian Women for a while longer and a bit more extensively. From what I gather from them and from Google his purported beef with women’s rights is that either:

  • increasing rights for women reduces the pool of submissive women suitable to be his mate; or
  • horrible controlling women not suitable to be his mate are invading every aspect of his life including his Free Software hobby and are actively attempting to steal all the credit for them, eg by claiming that women built Debian or something.

Some random places to look include the bug he filed against <!—->Daniel Stone<!—-> for being a “a woman disrespectful of men” (<!—->Daniel<!—-> claims to be neither a woman nor the Debian xorg maintainer, but has not yet to my knowledge stated in public that he respects men, so I consider this case open) and the by now rather well linked post to debian-women. With some small ingenuity with Google you can find him getting banned from games forums and Wikipedia for similar activities. It all gets a bit nastier later on with him posting fantasies about the violent deaths of the women reading, and harassing people’s teenage daughters off-list and stuff. Suffice to say that I disagree with his purported premises really quite a lot (if nothing else, he doesn’t strike me as being that attractive pre-feminism either: just because women earned less doesn’t mean that they didn’t know stark raving madness when they saw it) and with his methods so strongly that I can’t think of a good way to express it.

What I have been considering is the correct response to this.

Conventional wisdom about trolls says “don’t feed them.” Ignore them and deny them the precious coin of attention, and take especial care to avoid actually engaging with their arguments even as an antagonist. This has some merits, although it’s actually quite difficult to accomplish: the work of 499 people in ignoring the troll is more or less undone by the one person who responds. It’s pretty rare that I’ve seen all 500 people respond with silence.

The initial Debian Women post got a response that I (and Anarchogeek) considered quite bizarre: someone attempted to engage with whatever sanity lurks beneath the madness and honoured MikeeUSA’s need for recognition as a software developer. The only reasoning for this I’ve seen was in the Anarchogeek thread, in which commenter Jeevan argued that it was an appropriate decision because “Don’t you think the reason one person on the mailing list thanked him for the software is because it’s a Debian mailing list and not a human rights (or something equivalent) mailing list.” I appreciate that some members of the Debian community have different social norms to me, but I don’t quite understand how the mere mention of doing FOSS development entitles you to a free ride on such matters as making death threats against a group of Debian community members. However, Jeevan seems to think so, and therefore the option of “giving them the respect that they so manifestly deny you” is placed before me. Let’s move on from that one without further comment.

I may be missing a thread, but as the mails from this nut job continued I believe the next response from Debian Women was a month later, and here it is. It’s much closer to what I did on LinuxChix.

My decision on LinuxChix was to do the following: wherever this guy appeared, I would respond with a post directed at the list saying that this blatant violation of the “be polite, be helpful” list rules was being responded to by banning. After a few more episodes I posted a warning to people about avoiding direct interaction with him where possible. (Given the reported incident of harassing someone’s family together with the hysterically violent emails, I think it’s possible that he may pose a danger to people, if only by upsetting their family. I’m shocked not to have gotten a direct contact from him yet.)

My reasoning for doing so was as follows:

  1. it’s not acceptable behaviour on our lists, and we generally call people on considerably less outrageous nonsense than this;
  2. LinuxChix is a community which is always partly composed of people new to online forums and new to the related forms of bad behaviour; and
  3. some of these newcomers, in addition to possibly finding the nastiness frightening, would interpret silence as implying that that behaviour was either unremarkable or acceptable (as might readers of the archives).

Hence I wanted to show clearly that that behaviour was not acceptable.

I later thought of a further point, which is the Broken Windows theory.

In its standard formulation, this theory goes that minor signs of urban decay such as broken windows that are not quickly repaired lead very quickly to other decay and then to a failing of any kind of civic feeling.

My particular variant of this for this case is that by not clearly having someone with some notional authority about to state clearly that violent harassment is unacceptable has two negative consequences:

  1. it encourages a feeling that violent harassment may in fact be acceptable; and
  2. it encourages a feeling that whatever we might say is unacceptable doesn’t matter, because we’re not around to stomp on unacceptable crap when it happens.

In other words, nastiness that’s not publicly identified by someone with authority (in this case, I chose to use the authority conferred by my list admin status) who asserts community norms, is like a broken window in a community.

In many ways I imagine this matters more on LinuxChix, where blatant trolls are now rare, than on Debian Women which is still waging the odd flamefest with some Debian developers who have only slightly more moderate opinions than MikeeUSA’s, and which probably has a different position on trolls. (LinuxChix is not as ban happy as this post might imply, but people who the list admins consider purely disruptive will be booted: this happens once a year or so). I think following the standard prescription on trolls, while useful when individually targeted or when you realise that you’ve got into a discussion with one, is a potential broken windows disaster from a community’s point of view. The troll doesn’t care, but the rest of the community is likely to be pleased and reassured to see agreed standards fairly enforced.