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Why Sexist/Offensive Comments Online Should Not Be Tolerated

Fast Company's Women in Web 2.0 article caused a minor uproar in the Digg community when I called out several commenters who posted comments that I, and many of the women I interviewed for the piece, found overtly sexist and/or offensive. As the conversation – if you can call it that – spiraled, a couple of prominent themes emerged amongst the community's accusations.

The first: Writing an article highlighting the accomplishment of women in web 2.0 is inherently sexist, and hence any sexist comments in response are justified.

Women have far less power than men in almost every aspect of society, and especially in Silicon Valley. Highlighting the accomplishments of those few who have broken through is instructive and, for many of us, inspiring. Obama is celebrated as being the country's first black president, Eileen Collins is recognized as the first woman to command the Space Shuttle. Calling any of this sexist or racist is grasping at straws.

The second major sentiment: "Welcome to Digg. I suggest you relax and don't take the comments so seriously."

Here’s the thought behind this one: Apparently calling people out on Digg for making sexist comments is naïve and uninformed. "Fast Company put up photographs of these women – what else did you expect?"

Talking down to people is part of Digg's "culture"—or at least it is for a subset of the community who make "jokes" at the expense of those they don’t know, who twist references to pop culture to distort reputations, who basically bend over backwards to run other people into the ground. It's okay to be offensive, these folks say, because it's on Digg. Yeah, right. Kevin Rose and his team apparently don’t think so. They banned 20-30 users for hate speech made in response to Fast Company’s article.

"If you're offended, you don't get the joke. The people spouting these racist, sexist comments (most of them) do NOT believe them."

Would anyone get away with calling Oprah Winfrey, Obama or Michael Jordan the N-word in real-life? Even if they claim they're just doing it to be "funny" but don't actually believe it? Nope. Why? Because it's offensive to all African-Americans.

Sexism isn’t always attacked with the same gravity as racism. That’s because so many men don’t think it’s an issue that deserves their attention. They’re wrong. Such behavior that goes unchecked—or worse still, is condoned—leads to a pattern that reinforces negative stereotypes.

The true Digg community includes lots of people who participate to learn what others online are up to. It's an influential community and an important navigation tool. It has 35 million users a month. Using a site like that to call women names and treat them like sex objects compounds is just compounding a much larger problem—and the repercussions won’t end on one site.

There was a time when it was deemed okay that women didn't have the right to vote. It was okay that they weren't allowed to be doctors or lawyers or politicians. It was okay that they couldn't drive. It was okay that they didn’t go to school. While lots has changed, there's much that hasn't. An equitable balance is never going to be struck so long as the online community, men and women alike, continues to turn a blind eye to the "humor" and slurs that users on some message boards sling about — under the shield of anonymity of course.

For an interview with Digg's Marketing Director, Beth Murphy, about the site's culture, policies and plans for the future click here.