I was eating lunch with a media-industry friend the other day and the conversation turned to Michael Arrington’s recent post “When Will We Have Our First Valleywag Suicide?” (asking when the personal attacks on the blog Valleywag would lead someone to kill themselves). Though I’d say Arrington’s prediction is improbable, I wouldn’t say it’s totally impossible. Which led me ask the related question: if it’s possible for a blog to cause a suicide, it is just as likely for a blog to cause a murder?
That’s a point Arrington missed that I think is worth noting. Though a blog-based attack on an individual may seem one sided and unfair, in the Gawker Media situation I think the blogger incurrs as much risk as the people being blogged about. It may seem far-fetched, but I think it’s just as logical to imagine the person on the receiving end of nasty Internet attacks turning a gun on his attacker as it is to imagine him turning a gun on himself.
Let’s look at the facts:
* Every day, Gawker Media sites collectively post dozens of negative items about individuals. Many of these items are about people who aren’t frequently in the public eye and aren’t accustomed to any attention, let alone negative attention.
* The subjects these sites often target are writers, tech nerds, and other thin-skinned introverts: the type of person most likely to snap after years of keeping emotions bottled up.
* Bylines accompany each Gawker post and identify the author. So, unlike anonymous posts on a message board, finding out information about the person directly writing about you isn’t hard and the victim even knows where the writer works (a low security, first-floor storefront). These bloggers aren’t guarded national TV pundits with chauffeurs and security — they’re young people making relatively little money and taking public transportation.
So, when you have a collective group hurling dozens of harsh items a day at vulnerable people, statistically it’s just a matter of time before one of your targets snaps. It’s simply a numbers game.
Being a friend of Gawker’s publisher Nick Denton for years, I can safely say that Gawker’s tone will not soften. He’s a businessman above all else (a brilliant one at that) and unless it’s good for traffic to start being nice to people (it’s not), there would be no reason to do so.