When Will We Have Our First Valleywag Suicide?

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Today I read all the sordid details about the alleged sexual encounter between a notable technology visionary and a woman who appears to be looking for as much publicity as possible. Where did I read it? On the Silicon Valley gossip blog Valleywag. The posts include private IM chats and various rumors, all designed to make the person mentioned look like as much of a fool as possible. That’s not new, of course. Valleywag is making a business out of digging into people’s personal lives and publishing it for all to see (me included, regularly).

A lot of people I know read Valleywag, and say it’s fun to hear all the gossip. But all of those people change their tune the first time the blog turns on them and includes them in a rumor. An example: TED founder Chris Anderson, distressed over the publication of the TED attendee list, recently wrote to Valleywag owner Nick Denton that he “didn’t think [he'd] be on the receiving end” of Valleywag gossip. His email was promptly posted to the site.

Most of the gossip is harmless. Much of it, though, isn’t (like the sex incident above). Celebrities have had to live with this kind of nonsense for decades, which explains why some of them pull out of society entirely and become completely anti-social. Perhaps, some argue, they bring it on themselves by seeking fame.

But for people in Silicon Valley, who are not celebrities and who have no desire other than to build a great startup, a post on Valleywag comes as a huge shock. Seeing your marriage woes, DUI or employment termination up on a popular public website (permanently indexed by search engines) is simply more than they can handle. They have not had the ramp up time to build resistance to the attacks.

The New York Times today is reporting about the suicide of advertising exec Paul Tilley, saying that it that might be linked to heavy criticisms about the person on a blog. The blogger, an anonymous woman, takes no responsibility. She says “I’m saddened by Paul Tilley’s death, but I do not feel that my blog postings contributed to the events that occurred” and boasted about the sites traffic growth since the incident. The blog in question is owned by JupiterMedia and counts IAC and the Wall Street Journal as advertisers.

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.

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