On Wednesday, Jason Calacanis sent out an email entitled We Live In Public (And The End of Empathy) about the decline of civility and empathy on the internet.  I’ve never replied to an email of his before, but after this one I wrote him a note which I’m posting here as an open letter.  I encourage you to read the email which Jason has since posted on his blog.  It has important ramifications for how we think about online communities and our roles as leaders of those communities.

Hey Jason,

I’ve never replied to you before except once when you wanted someone to help test something on Mahalo.  I just wanted to say thanks for writing this and I hope people see it.  I started paying attention to “IAS” a while back when Loren Feldman went on his tirade against Shel.  Shel’s a friend of mine and I couldn’t see any reason Loren tearing him apart publicly aside from getting some laughs.  And I was amazed at how many people laughed.  I don’t know Loren personally, but we’ve all met him before.  He’s the kid on the playground who makes fun of the other kids to get a chuckle from his buddies.  And we laugh because if we laugh, maybe he won’t attack us next.

The unfortunate thing is that the tactic works.  I saw Rafe’s post.  I don’t know any of the five of you personally.  But I laughed a bit, just like everyone else did, I’m sure.  One of the problems that I see is that we have this anonymous familiarity with each other.  Because we read your tweets and your blog and your emails, we feel like we know you.  We know you just enough to draw our own conclusions about you, but not enough to know if our conclusions are right.

I was at a dinner a few months back and sat at the same table as Kathy Sierra.  I didn’t know who she was or what her story was until someone recounted it for me afterward.  You see these same patterns emerging all over.  We all know each other just enough to think that we really know each other and we think that gives us the right to draw conclusions and act on them.  Same thing with Mike Arrington this week.  There’s a false sense of intimacy that exists when we live in public that when mixed with just a bit of distance becomes caustic.

Anaconda 3: The Offspring trailer You raise an interesting point about the people at the top being targets.  I think there’s a dual edged sword there.  Just like the climbers you reference, the big guys do it too.  It sets a tone about acceptable behavior for the community they build around themselves.  Empathy isn’t going to come about as a bottoms up movement.  It needs to be started by the leaders of the community who set the bounds for acceptable behavior.  If the big blogger goes around picking fights, the people who follow him are going to see that as acceptable behavior and since that guy’s at the top, it obviously works, right?

We as a community, and our community on Twitter or Facebook or in the blogosphere is still pretty small comparitively, need to get this straightened out.  Thanks for calling it to light.  It’s something that needs to be discussed.