the always controversial sarah lacy, Twitter, Web/Tech

Twitter: Please Give Us Your Side of the Story

Warning: This is a frank post with coarse language. I felt I needed to be clear about the kind of harassment I'm talking about. Please do not read if you are sensitive. That means you Mom and Dad!

I have been thinking about this for hours and feel compelled to blog about it. The problem is I’m utterly torn on what to say. I don’t follow Ariel, so I first saw Evan Williams’ Tweet about people joining a mob without the facts—IMHO one of the ugliest and most pervasive things about the Web these days. I am friends with Evan and a fan of Twitter, and have felt bad for all the piling on they’re getting this week (even though as a reporter, I’ve had to write about it as well), so I immediately felt for him. Then, I read Ariel’s post.

Given that I’ve done national press for two weeks for my book and every single person has asked me about SXSW, I don’t think I need to explain why I can relate to what Ariel’s going through. I have several people who have continued to personally harass me since—some on BusinessWeek’s site, some on Tech Ticker, and some still on Twitter. And “cunt” is one of the nicer things I’ve been called. In the days after SXSW my husband had to read some truly shocking and horrible things about me by some truly depraved people. My parents could read that stuff. My niece could read it. And it’s all still out there on the Web. It’s pretty horrific. Especially since – at worst—all I did to deserve this was ask questions people didn’t like.

That said, it never would have occurred to me to ask Twitter to ban anyone, and I have defended Twitter in interview after interview after interview. It’s not Twitter’s fault people are jerks. There are a million mega-phones for people to hate me on the Web. And, personally, I deal with it by just not reading it. Because, stalking and harassment is impossible to control, and I would drive myself nuts trying. I just view it as a price of what I do for a living. And really, more good stuff is written about me than bad. And the bad is mostly by anonymous cowards who no one pays attention to anyway.

So, before I started to write this, I found myself pulled by both sides, I guess. Because I hate mobs and hype cycles—and I’ve been the target of them. And I still don’t know Twitter’s side of the story. But I also hate harassment by cowards online no matter the medium—and I know how Ariel feels.

Then I talked to my husband, who was deeply upset by Ariel’s post. If you think it’s hard to read about men saying they all raped you in Austin last night, try reading that – and so much more—about your wife from miles away. While I just decided not to read all the noise, and to hold my head high and move on, SXSW was incredibly hard on Geoff. He sees how hard I work. He knows me. And, of course, as my husband, he is incredibly protective of me. At the time, he was very upset more mutual friends of ours didn’t come to my defense publicly, and this post brought up all those feelings. At the time, he never thought to ask to have anyone banned either, but now, feels people should have some recourse aside from quitting Twitter and walking away from the Web.

We’re both holding out hope that there’s a Twitter side to this story and forcing ourselves not to judge them until it comes out. And I hope it does soon. But we also can’t fault Ariel at all for her feelings or her actions.

UPDATE: Biz Stone responds here. I don't know what to think, and I still feel unsatisfied, but I get why they can't say more. I think it's wise that they clarify terms of service and think it's silly that Wired is saying they "can't" do that after users have signed up. They have a technical point, but it's a growing service and people can always walk away if they have a problem with the rules. Better that they get fleshed out, even if people are already using it. Twitter couldn't have known everything it would face  one the day it launched. In essence, I agree Twitter shouldn't be arbitrating conversations. Still, if other sites like Flickr and Digg address harassment, there should in general be a recourse.



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I'm wondering after reading this how much of your decision to still use services like twitter etc. is because you have to for your job. If you didn't have to, would you still want to?

Your husband's reaction is similar to mine. Except in my case it was my little girl, all of 10 years and attacked online. The worst part is the helplessness you feel when you try to get people at Google or Yahoo or the ISPs to do something to help you stop it and figure out who is doing it. Get a court order, they say. They respond in a similar manner to Twitter. It's as if they just want to be left alone to code and not worry about the consequences of the tools they are building. For Biz to say, "hey, we're a utility, we can't be monitoring this stuff" just doesn't wash. People's lives are being screwed up via their "utility" and are they just going to turn a blind eye and shrug their shoulders like the guy who provides the train that ships people off to the gas chambers?

Apparently, yes. I know it's a strong analogy, but the principle is the same. With success comes responsibility. And if you can't handle that responsibility, you have no place being in business.

I wonder if Ev would take the same position if someone repeatedly put his mother's full name, email address and continuously called her a cunt or a crack whore?

There is a conversation on this at FriendFeed here.

Thomas Hawk: I don't know how Ev would feel about that, but from my perspective, Ariel already publishers her full name and email address on her website, so I'm not so sure I feel that someone else posting that info online is that horrible.

As for calling her a c*nt, that isn't a nice thing to call her, but should Twitter really have to sort out if that is harrassment or an opinion? Personally, I don't want Twitter in that role. That is a slippery slope. Where do they draw the line?

Ariel's mom posted a comment to her blog saying that they know who the offending person is, that he has mental problems and has been being disruptive to Ariel for a long time. If they know who he is, I think that they need to deal with him through the proper channels like the police and or the courts. Asking Twitter to ban him doesn't solve the underlying problem. I do hope they are able to get this guy to stop bothering her, though.

As an observation, I feel like the mob-rules response against Twitter is almost as scary as the offending person's comments. Perhaps more scary in some ways.

First of all, I fundamentally agree with the notion that Twitter should not be monitering things without cause. I'm sorry, Nathen, but to me that does wash. The Orwelian out cry of them taking that approach would just as pronounced, perhaps more.

Having said that, I do not think Twitter is quite towing the line on their TOS. Worse, I do not think they are being consistant in how they hadle these situations (see the @foulbastard and @eMailourMilitary incidents, for example).

Twitter deserves credit, they are, far and away, the most responsive "social" web site I have dealt with. However, I would like to see them sharpen their TOS and their resolve to consistantly enforcing those terms. Not by "pro-actively" banning, suspending, or whatever, but in their dealings with violations once reported.

thanks for the comments everyone. don't know about you guys, but i've really continued to agonize about this issue and this post.

ultimately, i am fine with twitter being a utility and not moderating these things at all- agree it's a slippery slope- but there is a risk that changes the dynamic of the site. and I feel for anyone who is attacked and feels helpless to make it stop. I guess it's the business reporter side of me and the human (especially woman) side warring. logic v. emotion? i also feel like there's part of this story we don't yet know. it's not entirely clear to me why this is an issue if the stuff was removed.

@nathan: it's not just because i cover them that i use them. i have to say as much pain as people on twitter have caused me and my loved ones, i get way more joy out of it on a day to day basis. it's also a place where thousands of people can connect with me and discuss my book, support me through things, and generally form pen-pal like friendships. i have never considered walking away from the web, although my husband has. but as i said, he feels it more acutely than i do.

one more note: i did have a real life stalker for about seven years who was very disturbed. so i guess that's why i think the web is just another tool for people like this-- not the problem and banning people isn't the answer. it's almost a shame it isn't that easy. still, i know, it's hard when people won't *help* protect you at least. is it really that different someone calling me a "cunt" on Twitter versus yelling it in the street? i'm not convinced it is.

as you can see-- not a lot of clarity for me after a night of thinking about it!

Sarah I've been leaning to Ariel's point of view on this, especially after reading (from her mother!) that this is an ongoing case of stalking rather than some isolated online event. But we need to see the dialog here to judge the case. If you type in the c* word at Twitter several profiles use it in reference to themselves. In fact at Pownce it is used as well to attack people.


People weren't mad at you @ SXSW for the questions you asked, they were mad at you because you tried to insert yourself into every question in the interview... along the lines of "that's great, but what do you think about me?" (I'm barely exaggerating.)

It was ego-centric "journalism" and your lame defense and justification afterwards rendered you all the more irrelevant. If you actually LEARNED that people don't want to hear from you, they want to hear from whomever you interviewed by asking good insightful questions and maybe taking some from the audience or from a twitter feed or whatever, then you would likely get a little less flack. But, when you say people "didn't like the questions I asked" you just show you don't get it or are UNWILLING to get it. You can't have it both ways. If you want it to be about you, you can't be a journalist. Or, you have to be willing to say, "I'm sorry...I was wrong. I did make it about me more than I should have and I'll do better next time." If you do this, there MIGHT be a next time. If you don't, I'm afraid your 15 minutes is wayyyyyyyyy up.

look at that! someone criticizing me without the balls to put their real name. shocking.

i love when you guys prove my point! thanks!


Don't focus on the anonymity...focus on what I'm saying to need to tone down the ego or any relevancy you ever could have had is long, long gone. Ask Facebook if they'll ever have you question their CEO again...or for that matter, ask anybody if they'll have you question their guess: not a chance in hell. I hope you get help...or listen to friends. Ask them: am I too full of myself? You might be surprised what you hear back from your true friends. And, if it is a schtick, it isn't working.


Don't focus on the anonymity...focus on what I'm saying to need to tone down the ego or any relevancy you ever could have had is long, long gone. Ask Facebook if they'll ever have you question their CEO again...or for that matter, ask anybody if they'll have you question their guess: not a chance in hell. I hope you get help...or listen to friends. Ask them: am I too full of myself? You might be surprised what you hear back from your true friends. And, if it is a schtick, it isn't working.

truth speaker:

I am happy to have a conversation with you about this when you grow a pair and can interact with me like a human being. wtf are you so scared of? if i'm such a horrendous journalist it's not like i have any power.

you also must *really* hate me to continue to come back to my blog all the time. oh wait, that's not hatred! ;)


Get help. Would Walter Cronkite (or any REAL journalist) have told a viewer/reader to "grow a pair"? You need to read the words I wrote and not focus on frivolities such as me not using my name. Seriously, ask your friends if everything is ALL about you and when they answer, "yes," ask them if it bugs them, and when they answer "yes", apologize and promise them that you'll remember that you have TWO ears and one mouth for a reason. You obviously aren't a bad person, but you've fallen into some bad egocentric habits and you need to grow some awareness and respect for your surroundings.

Is this really where things are at, it's depressing. Why build social tools if this is the end result - facilitating harassment? Sarah doesn't need defending, but damn it leave her be. Walk away if you really have an issue with her and and can't come to terms with it. I've seen more sympathy given to terrorist groups than has been given to her, and I think it's safe to say her crimes are little less severe.

Regarding the bigger twitter issue, my only recommendation is to just leave the service. We over complicate this nonsense so much. Have an issue with Twittter, then walk away. Hate Pownce? Then don't use it. Grow up and move on gang.

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