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Sexual Threats Stifle Some Female Bloggers

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In what she intended to be her final blog post last month, she wrote:

"I have cancelled all speaking engagements.

"I am afraid to leave my yard.

"I will never feel the same. I will never be the same."

She received thousands of comments expressing outrage, including e-mails from women attesting to their own ordeals, "saying I got this. I got that. I went underground. I blogged under a pseudonym," she said.

Two factors can contribute to the vitriol, experts said: blogging in a male-dominated field, such as technology, and achieving a degree of prominence.

Susan Herring, a professor of information science at Indiana University, said each new online venue has been greeted with optimism because the early adopters tend to be educated, socially conscious people who think the form engenders community. Even as recently as 2003, she said, it was relatively rare to find negativity on blogs.

Now, she said, blogs risk becoming "nastified," at least in the comment zones.

Kathleen Cooper, the single mother, said she began to experience harassment about five years ago after she posted a retort on a friend's blog to a random blogger's threat against a friend. The harasser began posting defamatory accusations on Cooper's site, on his blog and then on a site that purports to track "bad businesses." He said that he could not be responsible for what "his minions" might do to her, she said.

Cooper, 37, who lives in Sarasota, Fla., has tried password-protecting her site. She and five other women have asked the man's Web site server to shut him down, but he revives his site with another server. Law enforcement officials laugh it off, she said, "like 'Oh, it's not a big deal. It's just online talk. Nobody's going to come get you.' "

Some female bloggers say their colleagues just need thicker skin. Columnist Michelle Malkin, who blogs about politics and culture, said she sympathizes with Sierra but has chided the bloggers expressing outrage now. "First, where have y'all been? For several years, the unhinged Internet underworld has been documented here," she wrote, reposting a comment on her site that called for the "torture, rape, murder" of her family.

Report the serious threats to law enforcement, she urged. And above all: "Keep blogging. Don't cut and run."

But Herring said Malkin is in a minority. "There's a whole bunch of women who are being intimidated," she said. They include academics, professional programmers and other women normally unafraid to speak their minds.

"I completely changed," said a professor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid further harassment. "I self-censor like crazy because I don't feel like getting caught up in another round of abuse."

Some bloggers have called for a voluntary code of conduct, including a ban on anonymous comments. But other bloggers resist because it seems like a restriction of free speech. The founders of BlogHer, a 10,000-member online community supporting women, said the best way to enforce civility on a blog is for each site to create its own rules -- such as removing abusive comments -- then make the rules public and apply them fairly.

Herring said the decline in women's participation in chat rooms was ominous. "If we see a lot of harassment in the blogosphere, will we see a decline in women blogging? I think we will."

Staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.


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