March 6, 2008
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.
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:
- Author starts blog
- Blog becomes wildly popular
- Popularity causes problem for author
- Author stops writing
- 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.
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:
- Author starts blog
- Blog becomes wildly popular
- Popularity causes problem for author
- Author stops writing
- 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.
Posted by Jeff Atwood
In as short a summary as possible (which may very well be overlooked):
If blogging is no longer enjoyable, then you should stop. You said so yourself at the end of this message here. So why angry that they're 'silenced forever' and 'giving into intimidation' when they certainly don't want to continue writing?
Do I agree with you that it's a particularly sad thing to lose interest in something you once loved, or enjoyed? Yes, absolutely. Every hobby has unpleasant variables that come with the turf -- it's the nature of the beast, and these bloggers have been exposed to those long enough that they don't want to continue blogging. It's no longer fun for them. Good doesn't outweigh the bad.
The subject is one of mixed feelings... and resounding dispair. For certain. Just a facet of human behavior that's especially ugly: the opinionated limelight.
I know that sounds irrational now, but unless you're been in that
situation, you can't imagine how real and scary it feels.
Exactly. I've been cyberstalked myself before. Nutjob found out my phone number, address, and employer and posted them all with vague threats. Starting harrasing my employer to fire me, started harrasing our customers to quit doing business with us, etc. When you've got someone unbalanced like this attacking you, and they've already taken things farther than any sane person would, how do you know where they'll stop if they don't get satisfaction? Will they come after you physically? Will they come after your wife? Your children? Would a meer piece of paper like a restraining order stop them? There's literally *nothing* you can do (inside the law) to defend yourself or your family from a crazy.
I understand where you people standing on principle are comming from, really. I used to feel the same way. But the nutjob doesn't care about your principles, or any principles at all. So what's the point, really? Unless you've been there I don't think it's easy to imagine what its like.
If I ever start blogging, it would only be under a pseudonym, and on someone else's server.
Ok, Jeff, good post, but step away from yourself for a moment. Just because YOU think someone should blog, doesn't mean they should. You've got good ideas sometimes and good arguments (sometimes) but you're certainly not always right. I've also noticed more and more you are throwing your opininos (strongly) into your blogs and I enjoyed your blog much more when you were less confrontational (I mean, come on, the whole douchebag thing, WTF!)
Mellow out, calm down.
I still check the Head Rush blog site in hopes that Kathy will restart her blog. I miss her contributions.
I hope you get logged off the moment you login, or may be keys should be jumbled.. :P
Its so hard to digest creative expression can get you so much trouble.. anyways keep up the good work and dont think of "Oh here's my final post and here's why ... " post just because of me :)
I miss Kathy too. I had just started reading her three months before she decided to quit, it was like loosing a new friend. A smart funny friend.
This MSFTie here is glad Dare is not blogging anymore. We need more _engineers_ to blog, not bullshit artist PMs.
don't stop the good work Jeff! :)
Jeff's readers may not be aware that Dare is the son of the former president of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo. That's an external factor that few other technical bloggers will ever have to deal with.
Dare makes a good point in reference to the Apple developers - it is perhaps doubtful their effectiveness would increase. They're probably being effective as they can be and the iPhone (for example) is more of a testament to that than anything else.
There's probably a distractive element to blogging that is perhaps not being factored in here. Because a MSFT employee isn't blogging doesn't automatically make them less relevant either. I've yet to read much in the way extensive blog based coverage from Steven Sinofsky, Allard or Gates, yet I doubt they're just "Borging around" at the company.
Having blogs being great and all, but its something that probably needs to be looked at on a per person/situation basis rather than be generalized. I read your blog because it has takes on almost everything, but in that sense it also means you're less likely to build up a "us vs them" fan/anti-fan base within a particular context, as opposed to bloggers focused around a more specific topic area.
yeah man! Don't stop your Blog!
I don't mind having a popular blog.
I ran a dating website with moderated forums for several years, and I dealt with a few dozen psychopaths/jerks/asshats. People have threatened to kill me, hack my server, ruin my reputation, sue me, destroy my property, etc etc etc.
I tried several ways of dealing with these situations. Here's what I learned:
* These trolls want attention, and a reaction. They will type the worst things they can think of to get that attention. 99.99% of the time, their threats are complete BS.
* The worst thing you can do is give them attention. Delete (if not possible, just ignore) every post that crosses the line, WITHOUT comment.
* They will escalate their attacks until they see you will not budge, then they will give up and move on to the next victim.
* Never reference, imply, or otherwise acknowledge the existence of the troll or any troll-like behavior. Giving the slightest hint that they affected you is like pouring fuel on dying flame.
I don't know about everyone else, but I am finding this discussion between Jeff and Dare to be some of the most compelling reading I've seen...here's hoping they don't take it offline (Community Escalation...balls!).
Everybody has Freedom of Speech, on the basis that nobody will listen to you
With a large readership and that changes, and you loose the right to freedoom of speech.
I really miss Kathy too. She was really inspiring, and helped me get inspired about my own work. I still check her blog and try and find news from her.
I understand perfectly why Kathy stopped blogging.
My blog is popular in a limited way and in fact the hits are nowhere near what the really popular bloggers get. But yes, it's doing okay but there are people who come to my blog simply to tear down the posts. Mostly these bloggers write very below par stuff themselves and often write posts to tear down what others write. They think they are being very clever because their comment is clean, there are no bad words or abuse. It's difficult enough handling such 'polite' comments, leave alone the abusive ones! They make it difficult for one to write, because while writing one at times thinks of that person and one knows that this person will attack this or attack that...after all it is possible to attack almost everything. Nothing is that wonderful that it can't be torn down. It starts to affect what one writes, the spontanienty starts to vanish...The problem is that there are people whose sole objective is to tear down post after post after post.
Kathy must have got hundreds of commentators like this and so must Dare I suppose and after sometime one wonders why one is doing this at all...one cannot look at the thousands of unnamed readers who are reading one's blog and say, Hey so many are reading my blog how wonderful! No, this isn't enough. One day if I stop blogging, it will be for this same reason and no, I don't think the bad guys will have won. I will have won because I am happier. I don't need to take shit from some arrogant and rude person who sits behind a computer, a person who has no guts to tear down another's work on his face. He prefers to let loose from the safe haven of his computer.
"Here is what I don't understand. Why just up and disappear?"
What I don't understand is post after post frantically trying to pooh-pooh any notion that threats and harassment could matter. In real life, there is no /ignore command. There is no magical way to tell whether somebody issuing death threats is a mouthy asshole or a genuine nutcase. Are you willing to put your sense of "nobody would mess with ME" over, say, your kids' safety?
I agree with Jeff. I have long enjoyed Dare's blog and frankly the thing that troubles me most is the line asking what does he get out of it? That people he does not know or met getting something from it is not a reason.
Taking this thinking to a more extreme example as to why it is wrong - I am glad researchers do not subscribe to that method of thought. If they did, they would not bother developing anything to help stop cancer or spread knowledge to help those people they have never met. After all, why bother publishing research, articles or spread knowledge if all you get out of it is helping others???
Personally, if there is not more to it, that line of reason causes me to lose much of the respect I had for him via what I thought was a well thought out and written blog.
As long as blogs permit anonymous postings there will be those few gutless wonders who post hurtful or intimidating posts. Most are harmless wimps who would slink away if confronted on the street but feel powerful behind a veil of secrecy.
The solution is simple. You must create an account id with a valid email address. Then block that address permanently if they post any disallowed comment.
The true sociopath will just keep getting new Yahoo/Gmail accounts, but this will alleviate the bulk of the nut cases (present company excluded, of course).
I can't exactly come up with a good metaphor for the theory of the internet community, but i'll tell you this much; there's a fruitful ammount of stupidity on the internet. The fact that emotions can run high on a blog isn't really the big issue, it's that there are so many people repeating the same statement as before, people just get tired of it and give up. A lot of bloggers are going to have to equip their combat armor if they want to continue blogging, otherwise they'll be crumpled on the battlefield.
People on the internet like to beat dead horses until they can see the skeleton. (Oh hey a metaphor)
kiss my but hole you asterd
I miss Kathy too. I hope we see her return.
nice article thanks for sharing, wish you continued success
I'm shutting a website community of almost 7,000 members that has lived for 10 years for pretty much the same reasons as the authors above.
You get harassed for your every post. Feel continuously beaten down by the torrent of abuse and attacks. Inevitably this leads to an enormous amount of stress. That in turn affects your work life and your private life. Eventually you have so many layers of filters and considerations for even the smallest contribution, that you evaluate it and decide that your efforts are best spent elsewhere and that you can bring the most amount of happiness to your life and those around you by disconnecting.
It's very saddening for all involved (except the trolls), but when something good has become a burden then you needn't continue carrying that burden. I feel for the authors and would, and am, do the same.
If you don't start writing about how great Ubuntu is and how evil and incompetent Microsoft is, I'm going to have to take the law into my own hands.
I also miss Kathy's writing, and I'm not angry at her, but I am disappointed. The fact is, there are dozens of bloggers, particularly female ones and most often in the political genre, that undergo much harsher criticism and threats on a daily basis than she ever did in her entire blogging history.
Part of being a public figure, however small, is taking heat from the public. You, Jeff, have a pretty thick skin I think, and just continue on your merry way regardless of the reactions. Then there are people like Raymond Chen and Alex Papadimoulis who deal with the non-constructive criticism by publicly mocking the critics. And there are probably thousands more who stay under the radar by choice, making infrequent updates so as not to generate too much traffic.
Of course, what those folks did to Kathy was immature and cruel, and she was probably hurt more than some because she didn't perceive her writing as particularly controversial, but this behaviour is unfortunately par for the course in an e-world with tens of thousands of bitter anti-social cranks who have a captive audience and almost total anonymity (although sock-puppets occasionally do get caught, with predictably hilarious results).
I sometimes wonder if the people who start blogging seriously don't realize what notoriety is like (but how could you not, with all the celebrity gossip and tabloid stories and t0pl3ss p1x!!!1 flying around daily?), or if by some impossible leap of faith, they're somehow able to totally ignore or rationalize away that elephant until it is literally in their living room. Does anyone know?
God im so tired. I just read this entire post and every comment. I have to agree with Jeff.
I would kill to work at MS and have a kick ass popular blog, with 100's of people backing my opinion, or benefitting from what i had to say, regardless of a few bad apples who disagree with my opinion or such.
Id love to blog about something going on in MS that im involved with and getting feedback from the public and been able to give them exactly, or as close as possible, what they want.
Alas, im just a poor old .net developed in Australia who goes unnoticed :(
I understand what YOU get out of me having a blog. What do I get out of it? The fact that MSFT customers will have one less b0rg blog from a choice of over 5500 Microsoft employee blogs doesn't sound like a compelling argument for me to continue investing myself in my personal blog.
I read a number of those blogs. But in my feed reader (care to guess) there is one I almost always go to first. Some blogs are more equal than others - so I don't think the above comparison is not all that great Dare. Each blogger has a unique view and agenda, as Jeff said - my reading tends towards the blgogers I find interesting, who make me think. For me, in that sense, your blog was one of the best from within MS. Given #rs on your readership I susect I wasn't the only one.
On the other hand, while saddened by your decision, I totally understand it. Writting a blog is a lot like finishing a Ph.D. thesis: you can't do it unless you really want to do it. You can't coast. I had a kid about 1.5 years ago and now I find my blog has long gaps in it when it never did before. :-) And my posts tend to be more "frilly" than before.
Whatever, Dare, I'm definately going to miss your posts. For example, watching your transition to social computing was a great introduction to the social web for me - thanks for that and everything else you wrote. I'll miss your posts.
Jeff -- sorry to hijack your blog; Dare shut off comments on his. :-)
Very much agree with this post. This is a secondary reason for why I disagreed with your "outing @haacked and @sbellware" post. In addition to broadcasting something that had previously been "a public conversation in a small cafe", I felt like you shouted down a valid form of public communication.
I've talked to several people who have (without my prompting) mentioned that the @sbellware / @haacked conversation was one of the more interesting things they've seen on Twitter. In effect, by publicizing the conversation out of context, you performed step 3 of the above 6 steps, and step 4 followed immediately - @haacked made his posts private.
Out of context, it sounds like I'm really upset about that, and I'm not. I just see this post as a contradiction to another recent post.
P.S. I totally made out with Miguel at MIX 08. Don't lie, you're seething with jealousy. He said I remind him of you, but cuter and more "kissable".
People complain about freedom of speech, the trouble is, when you start broadcasting any thoughts, there will always be someone who takes offence.