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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  1. I agree, Jeremy. This one was way over the line.

    The reality is, and I'm speaking specifically about the PR blogging community, too many have turned a blind eye to other attacks and cyber-bullying. They give the attacks a wink and a nod - say they disapprove - but really, giggle in the back channels like school children.

    It is sad. Even sadder, perhaps, is that there may well be a backlash with "get a thicker skin" comments.

  2. Jeremy - I think Kathy Sierra's situation and elements of this post are really two very different issues.

    Stepping well outside of Kathy's situation, which is light years over the line, and defending a position are different discussions.

    Rohit Bhargava has a great post about Blog Karma. He tells us to be real but also recommends we avoid snark.


    I define snark differently, well outside the realm of the people/person terrorizing Kathy (people I hope will be brought to justice).

    We've both posted items that I would define as snark, but we're not arrogant. We're self-effacing. And I think we're ultimately trying to drive a healthy discussion looking at both sides of a topic.

    But I'll ask you the question I asked Rohit, am I wrong? Do I need to update my snark definition?

    I'm not proposing thicker skins, I am proposing a no lemming rule. If I disagree with something, I'm raising my hand and posting it in my voice or risk jumping off the cliff for fear of being tagged a bully.

    Or to quote Monty Python, a "wabble wouser."

  3. Maybe I'm caught up in semantics, but what happened to Kathy Sierra was not bullying/cyberbullying.

    To me, bullying conjures up thoughts of bullies from the playground days. Kids who thought they were tougher and tried to/did intimidate you with non-life threatening actions.

    But, the comments and images directed at Sierra are very much life-threatening. Detailed. Thought-out. Planned.

    I don't take bullies seriously. They're usually people who can't express a disagreement or anger in a civil way.

    Detailed and perverse threats on one's life are definitely serious.

  4. This week I've had a number of private conversations about this issue, and know that as with any important matter, reasonable people's views can differ (well, within limits).

    Most of those I've talked with, myself included, feel that learning how to deal with online criticism, sometimes not expressed in an eloquent or mature manner, is a necessary thing.

    But it's an all-too fine line between criticism and insults and harassment and threats (and even execution of threats). And unfortunately there are some individuals who don't seem to know the difference -- feeling that words or images alone cause no harm, or arent' legally actionable -- and those are the ones who have to be dealt with quickly and firmly, both by their community of peers and within the legal system, when necessary.

  5. First off, let’s make a distinction... this is not a schoolyard. And in a free society, adults that put forth concepts/proposals need to be prepared to defend them. Bottom line: those that put forth weak positions and want a pass as they walk to the bank ALWAYS cry “bully” when criticized. To those people, be advised: We are watching and will show no mercy.


    - Amanda

    PS Great story on the Failure of "Naked Conversations" and the problem with banning anonymity: http://tinyurl.com/29j7eh

  6. Robert: Thanks, you hit on issues that are too true.

    Kevin: agree and disagree, because it is all about cyberbullying, just different degrees. And, well, some of are real voices are snark - people that meet me in person note that my blog is pretty dead on to my real persona. But, Kevin, we differ from others because we do stick our necks out, and have conviction. What happened was wrong, but it was a good primer on what is wrong out there.

    Michael: well, I view it as cyberbullying because it was done online, via email and blogs. And, well, teens/tweens go through this all the time, some driven to drastic ends. Attacks and bullying are both just signs of cowardice, some taken way too far.

  7. For the record, we at Strumpette think Jeremy that you're one of those who enjoys their blog status and would like a pass. We think the identity/anonymity point is only a ploy you and others use to try to skirt and deflect criticism.

    How's that working for ya?

    - Amanda

  8. I agree with you completely. I think you've brought up a serious issue that the PR blogging community should take seriously.

    In fact some such issues have been considered in Cul De Sac's blog - its available at

  9. Well, the example in this post I was completely unaware of, but now am very interested and have since looked up what you spoke about more. As a new blogger and not out in the real world yet, I am going to take something different from this post and not make quite as an insightful comment as the other ones. "Cyberbullying".... a completely new word to me and now must be added to my web language. Thanks for introducing me to cyberbulling and giving me a good example!!

  10. I completely agree that cyber bullying should not be tolerated and can be detrimental to people, especially younger people on the internet. We have set ourselves up for disaster by making it extremely easy for kids starter at a very young age to get on AOL instant message where they can talk to anyone and are usually not supervised, from my experience. This gets people used to saying whatever they want on the internet starting at a very young age. People are more inclined to say something on the internet than in person or even on the phone that they would not normally say. Parents need to monitor their kids internet use better than they do.

  11. Bulling is a real problem for women's information network too.