Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Bullying and Cyberbullying

Bullying is a serious issue. It makes people feel bad, makes them do things that they might not necesarily want to do, and forces people's hands. Cyberbullying is worse - it takes all those things, puts them online in blogs or journals or social networks, and ramps it up a level via emails, Twitters and text messaging, and instant messages.

This past Monday, we saw one example of cyberbullying in the case of Kathy Sierra - a good synopsis came from Lisa Stone of BlogHer, an organization that has been (possibly / probably unfairly) dragged into the controversy.

Let's take a step back and get to the basics: this should not have happened. Yes, the blogosphere gives us a sense of anonymity - us in PR have been attacked by an anonymous blog, but none of us have been physically threatened with death (as far as I know), but have had to deal with venomous emails and threats of livelihoods - but it is a false sense, and should not be abused. The truth always comes out, in the end.

And, we have seen the blogosphere get up in arms over gender equality, which has cyberbullied conferences to include women in panels. There is an odd bit of irony there.

We are mostly adults in the blogosphere. Well, "adults" behind a computer giving some people a bigger sense of worth (most likely self-inflated worth, as seems to be the norm in blogs), and there is a lot of testosterone in the blogosphere that comes out in immature ways against women that should not be tolerated.

But, like I noted, we are supposedly adults that should act as adults. In this instance, the adults have lost to the immature and anonymous.

At CommunityNext, I was speaking to three women about bullying and cyberbullying. One of the women is writing her graduate thesis on bullying - both offline and online - and has been spending time in a classroom to research. The other two women work at a childrens' social network, and we were joking about the bullying of our childhood. My point was that in our school yard days - the more carefree 70's - that bullying was not necessarily a bad thing, as it hardened us and prepared us for the real world. It was not totally malicious, and while some kids cried, the next day brought the next adventure, and we were all friends. And, well, bullying was always harshest amongst the girls - man, they could get catty. One of the women talked about her experience as a camp counselor, and teasing the children, who valued and sought the interaction from an adult.

But, there is the difference - that was about children. And, children are not equiped to deal with such bullying, and are now being pushed beyond the norm by being cyberbullied on MySpace comments, IM, and text messaged threats. There is no escaping Cyberbullying, as it follows you from device to device - it is the true idea of presence, taken to a horrific level with horrific results. Cyberbullying takes what we did as children, and ramps it up to a whole new level. That "take their cookies" mentality - one that I still subscribe to - is different, as it is not about being tough, but about pushing the other child down in the dirt as much as possible and pushing them over the brink.

What happened is a travesty and embarasing as a male and a long-time blogger. It was an adult-on-adult bullying, but that is the point: we are adults, and should recognize that too big a part of blogging is sandlot bravado. As a PR person, that is part of my counsel to clients: be prepared to defend your line in the sand, and sometimes you need to be prepared to be attacked and defend.

This crossed the line, but are we going to see a backlash where the sentiment is going to be "get a thicker skin"? While that is not the right answer, the blogosphere is fluid, and unfortunately, at times it can be cruel. But, at least we have the hardened years of adulthood, and can sigh a breath of relief that we are not growing up in a world where cyberbullying is the norm.

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