My e-mail breakup with Jimmy Wales and other sordid doings

The flame mails are getting worse all the time and snarky takedowns are becoming routine. But are we really in danger of crossing a new red line?

Hey, you should have seen my breakup e-mail with Jimmy Wales.

Just kidding.

Of course, as all of Silicon Valley likely knows by now, Wikipedia's major domo is getting razzed over at Valleywag. The geek gossip site got its hands on a breakup note and IM text Wales apparently sent to ex-squeeze, Rachel Marsden.

The Wales' post was par for the course since Valleywag revels in the online agony of others. (Owen, I'm a kung fu expert, so do yourself a favor and keep me out of your headlines. :) ) But the correspondence came to light just as The New York Times decided to publish a piece about the suicide last month of Paul Tilley, who had been the creative director of DDB Chicago.

The Times piece examined whether nasty comments made by a couple of bloggers played any role in this tragedy. That struck me as odd. Were readers supposed to learn that the blogosphere resembles a rude locker room--or worse? Not much of a revelation. But the piece appeared to suggest that cruel words posted on the Internet may have been enough to drive Tilley over the edge. It reminded readers that a 13-year-old girl killed herself in 2006 after beinginsulted and dumped by an "online boyfriend" on MySpace.

"Gregory K. Brown, a specialist on suicide at the University of Pennsylvania, said that public humiliation could play a role in suicide because "hopelessness is often a major risk factor, and if you've been publicly humiliated and your reputation has been tarnished forever, you could see how someone could become hopeless." Such situations, he added, could contribute to feeling that life is unbearable.

And unlike some other forms of public humiliation, online insults can live in perpetuity. Whether that increases suicide risk, Mr. Brown said, is an open question, adding, "Although it's plausible that's the case, we know very little about the role of the Internet."

Let's be careful. The Times headline, "After Suicide, Blog Insults Are Debated," borders on the sensational. That's not to say it doesn't get rough out there. Check out the TalkBacks in the piece my colleague Elinor Mills wrote after returning from a interview with Google's Eric Schmidt. Hiding behind a cloak of anonymity--let alone the distance of a wireless connection--the trolls came out of the woodwork and let the bile flow.

The depth of their animosity floored me. Elinor's a delightful person, not to mention a hard-working and conscientious reporter. I couldn't contemplate the demons that drove these folks to jump ugly. But this is cyberspace and people are free to express their opinions. All you need is a keyboard and a connection.

So it was after reading the Times story early Monday morning that I clicked over to TechMeme.

The news led the page where I came across a pointer to a brief piece by Mike Arrington of TechCrunch titled, "When will we have our first Valleywag suicide?"

"So how long will it be before Valleywag drives someone in our community to suicide? My fear is that it isn't a matter of if it will happen, but when. Valleywag and Nick Denton, though, will likely look forward to the event, and the great traffic growth that will surely follow."

"There's a market for this kind of content, obviously. And nothing can stop it except significant changes to our libel and defamation laws. That isn't something I support. But the valley was a much nicer place to live and work before the days of Valleywag."

I wonder about that. If someone's contemplating jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge because of something posted on Valleywag, they've got serious issues. Arrington is a frequent target of Valleywag's barbs and I can understand his frustration. But he's missing the bigger point. Think back to Cassius' warning: the fault really is in our selves. If folks failed to click on the stories, I'm sure Nick Denton would have folded Valleywag eons ago.

Maybe the real story is that Silicon Valley types seek out the personal and the salacious because, well, they like it. Chalk it up to too much time spent staring at a computer screen each day.

 

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