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Helen Popkin
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msnbc.com
updated 1/28/2009 9:59:47 PM ET 2009-01-29T02:59:47

A couple of years ago, the hot trendy thing on the Internet was to be a well-versed technology writer of the female persuasion with a tech blog so popular that for some reason unknown to sane people, it inspired commenters to respond with vile and misogynistic threats of sexual violence and imminent death. 

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In 2007, that honor belonged to Kathy Sierra, the programming instructor and game developer behind “Creating Passionate Users,” who became so frightened by the graphic words and images aimed in her general direction, she cancelled her speaking appearances and abandoned her blog. 

Indeed, those were dark times on the World Wide Web. A recent TechCrunch post by the site’s founder Michael Arrington shows just how far we’ve come. It seems the gob someone hocked in his face at a recent conference in Munich was the final straw for Arrington, no stranger to death threats himself.

“In the past I’ve been grabbed, pulled, shoved and otherwise abused at events, but never spat on. I think this is where I’m going to draw a line,” Arrington wrote in a post detailing the increasing threats to his safety and sense of well-being. “I’ve decided the right thing to do is take some time off and get a better perspective on what I’m spending my life doing.”

Two years ago, misogyny was the word bandied about by top bloggers, including Robert Scoble, who rallied to support Sierra.  I have no doubt women who write about technology still get the worst of it. But Arrington’s announcement demonstrates that no gender is immune to the insidious virus programmed into the binary code. The Internet makes people crazy.

At least that’s the best I can figure. Of course, as others have noted on the Internet, I am no rocket surgeon. Still, I have yet to read or hear a credible explanation as to why people with jobs, families and social ties utilize the Internet as an outlet for typing words so hateful, and with such enthusiasm. I can't muster that kind of enthusiasm for ... anything. Even free cupcakes.

To be sure, TechCrunch’s Arrington isn’t the most popular kid on the cyber campus. He’s been described by Valleywag as “the tech industry's most overbearing, self-important blogger” and in a recent post reporting Arrington’s abdication, “the self-crowned king of start-ups.”

Yeah, OK. But it’s not like Arrington cloned Hitler.

As talk of Arrington’s long exit letter spreads across the Internet, there’s an air of amusement you’d  expect with any sort of gossip.  And yes, the Arrington tome does border on melodramatic overshare – as Valleywag points out, he’s still attending the World Economic Forum in Davos. What’s more, you’d think a guy plagued with potentially violent stalkers – both cyber and corporeal — would ease up on his Twitter feed … or maybe not have one at all. But as for Arrington taking a break, can you blame him?

I was recently lectured on the dangers Internet hubris and chumming for trolls — returning increasingly polite and appreciative comments to those attempting to tear you (metaphorically) to shreds. I was forced to endure my own oft-ignored warning — that messing around willy-nilly in cyberspace can easily become the starting point on the map to Where it All Went Wrong. In other words, losing income or friends over something stupid you did on the Internet.

But the real meat of the lecture was this — you may think sticks and stones, but the words can hurt you. If you’re fairly thick-skinned, like me, the damage might not be obvious. But the bile seeps into your brain and ever so slowly twists and perverts your own sense of self. Anyone who’s ever been suddenly napalmed in a chat room while happily typing about something as innocent as, say, fluffy kittens, knows what I mean.

So imagine being Arrington. He’s been soaking in super-strength bile for years. “I write about technology startups and news,” he wrote in his farewell post. “In any sane world that shouldn’t make me someone who has to deal with death threats and being spat on.”

But this isn’t a sane world. It’s the Internet. And the Internet will cut you.

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