Coding Horror

programming and human factors

Death Threats, Intimidation, and Blogging

I miss Kathy Sierra.

Kathy was the primary author of the Creating Passionate Users blog, which she started in December 2004. Her writing was of sufficient quality to propel her blog into the Technorati top 100 within a year and a half. That's almost unheard of, particularly for a blog with no commercial aspirations. Kathy wrote because she believed in creating better user experiences, for no other reason than the singular joy of sharing her enthusiasm with us.

Kathy Sierra

And it worked. I found her blog by early 2005. I think my first link to Kathy's blog was Who Needs Talent When You Have Intensity? which is still, to this day, one of my favorite posts. It explains a lot about who Kathy is and why she was so inspiring.

I won a nice bonus from Sun for being one of only four instructors in north America to get the highest possible customer evaluations. But what was remarkable about this is that this happened in spite of my not being a particularly good instructor or Java guru. I proved that a very average instructor could get exceptional results by putting the focus entirely on the students. I paid no attention to whether they thought I knew my stuff.

And when I say that I was average, that's really a stretch. I have almost no presentation skills. When I first started at Sun I thought I was going to be fired because I refused to ever use the overhead slides and just relied on the whiteboard, where I drew largely unrecognizable objects and unreadable code. But... I say average when you evaluate me against a metric of traditional stand-up instructor presentation skills. Which I believe are largely bullshit anyway. Assuming you meet some very minimal threshold for teaching, all that matters is that you help the students become smarter. You help them learn by doing whatever it takes. And that usually has nothing to do with what comes out of your mouth, and has everything to do with what happens between their ears. You, as the instructor, have to design and enable situations that cause things to happen. Exercises, labs, debates, discussions, heavy interaction. In other words, things that they do, not things that you do (except that you create the scenarios).

Kathy kicked ass because she wanted us to kick ass. I immediately added her blog to my feed reader. Every new Creating Passionate Users post was the first thing I'd read in the morning, and I was never disappointed.

Until one day in March 2007.

The details are sordid and unpleasant. Kathy's wikipedia entry has a reasonable summary of what happened. It's uglier than most, but I've seen this same pattern play out a few times:

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

It's been almost exactly a year since Kathy stopped writing. And the world is, in a very small way, a lesser place for it. Kathy was filling her little corner of the world with useful, helpful, and often inspiring information. Just browse the "past favorites" column and imagine what could have filled that space in the last twelve months. Unique voices like Kathy's are what make the internet such a fascinating and wildly poweful Gutenberg press.

Hearing them silenced makes me profoundly sad.

And angry. I'm definitely angry at the jerks who always precipitate these hard decisions.

But I must admit, I'm also a little angry at Kathy, perhaps in a selfish way. Angry that she threw in the towel and locked herself away from the public, away from us, after so many years of positively affecting so many people. I completely understand her rationale for doing so. And it is absolutely her choice to make.

Given the kind of graphic threats Kathy received, I can appreciate the need to be cautious, maybe even to take a hiatus for a while. But when a voice is voluntarily silenced forever, the bad guys have won. Fear wins. I cannot accept this. Intimidation only works if you let yourself be intimidated; terrorism only works if you let yourself be terrorized.

So Kathy, if you're out there, I urge you to come back. We miss you.

I was reminded of all this because Dare Obasanjo recently announced that he's shuttering his blog.

Dare Obasanjo

Anil Dash, Mike Arrington, Shelley Powers and myself all find Dare's blog quite useful; he's a unique and insightful voice. I'm sure his nearly 70 thousand subscribers feel the same way. Why shut down something that is clearly enjoyed by so many people? Dare didn't receive death threats, but it's the same basic pattern:

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

In this case the problems are more subtle, and only alluded to in Dare's sign-off post as a postscript link to The Year the Blog Died.

This year was the first year I considered ending this blog because I'd finally gotten tired of the hassle of people complaining about what I wrote here. The final straw for me surprisingly hasn't been work related although there have been stretching points from disgruntled coworkers who lashed out because I use competing products to people complaining to my management chain and theirs hoping to get me reprimanded or even fired for not toeing the party line. I stand by everything I've written in this blog but I've now gotten enough heat and taken enough inter-personal communication training classes to realize that some opinions are more trouble than they are worth. So every once in a while, I quietly drown a kitten of a half written blog post because I can't be bothered with dealing with the feedback. However that wasn't the breaking point, since I've considered this experience part of "growing up".

What I didn't expect to have to deal with was people back home in Nigeria reading my blog. Or even worse, certain posts from my blog being printed out and republished in Nigerian print magazines. That audience which now includes quite a few members of my family is one I hadn't anticipated and one whose feedback on misconstrued posts is one I take more to heart than the other kinds of feedback I'm used to getting about my blog. This has now introduced a new set of filters I have to apply to my blog posts.

Of course, it is Dare's blog, and he is free to do whatever he likes with it, regardless of what those 70,000 readers might want. He doesn't specify exactly what the problem is, although I have a hard time imagining that his many posts about XML, web APIs, and Facebook are causing problems for his family in Nigeria. Still, I hate the idea that Dare is giving up, that he's conceding to unnamed forces who are intimidating him into silence. It'd be one thing if Dare said that he didn't enjoy blogging, or if nobody was listening. But clearly that's not the case. Dare provided a refreshingly honest and open look at what was going on inside parts of Microsoft, along with some penetrating industry analysis. I'll miss that greatly.

I've never met Kathy Sierra or Dare Obasanjo, although I do feel I know them peripherally through long term readership of their blogs. It's not my place to tell them-- or anyone, really-- what to do.

But I'm absolutely certain that when they stop writing, everyone loses.

Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Exchange and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: http://twitter.com/codinghorror