The Creature Under the Bridge

A friend of mine mentioned recently that she needed to step back from a blog that she was fond of — not because of the content of the blog itself, but because of the arguments going on in the comments.  A particular commenter’s poorly-written stridency was making her grumpy enough that reading was getting unfun.

So let’s talk about Trolls.  For purposes of this discussion, I’m going to define a “troll” as a frequent commenter who, by their content and style, tends to raise the heat of the conversation.  Some do so deliberately in order to bait people; many don’t realize they are doing it, and would deny (loudly, of course) that they are doing any such thing.

Frankly, trolls are worse than spammers.  Spam at least has the virtue of being obvious: computers can generally recognize it with considerable accuracy, and humans can recognize it 99.9% of the time.  But trolling is in the eye of the beholder, and there is no objective measure of it.  So trolls are a common problem in online conversation, because people are generally too tolerant of them.

I suspect that many people haven’t yet come across the Five Geek Social Fallacies.  It’s a generally interesting list, and good reading for anyone who considers themselves geeky.  (Even if they don’t apply to you, they probably do to some of your friends).  But the first one is especially relevant to bloggers, even non-geek ones: “Ostracizers are Evil”.  Basically, the fallacy is the idea that kicking anybody out of any group is automatically bad.

Another cause of the problem: the Net is dominated by people who have proudly internalized the First Amendment, and who regard censorship as fundamentally evil; therefore, they don’t think they have the right to kick someone out of a conversation.  But you aren’t the government, and if you are running a conversation, you sometimes have both the right and responsibility to take care of it.

Trolls erode polite conversation.  Not only do they derail possibly healthy conversation, they shut more interesting people up, or drive them away, simply because the conversation becomes too annoying to deal with.  It’s not unusual for an online community to go into a death-spiral because the strident loudmouths drive out the more moderate folks.

The implication here is that, yes, there are times that you really should kick someone out of the conversation, not because they are spamming or off-topic, but simply because they are rude.  If you don’t, you may find that everybody else eventually goes away instead, because they don’t want to deal with the jackass.

All that said, be balanced.  Not everyone with strong opinions is a troll, nor everyone who disagrees with you.  A healthy conversation often involves some disagreement.  The question is, is this person disagreeing solely for the sake of disagreeing?  Or, worse, for the sake of provoking people?

I recommend taking a gradual approach.  If you think someone is causing problems, talk to them about it, privately if possible.  Ask them to tone it down.  If they don’t, warn them; if they refuse to listen to warnings, or don’t get the clue, ban them.

Keep in mind that trolls thrive on anonymity.  If your conversational environment allows anonymity, there is essentially no way to keep trolls out.  This is one of the reasons I dislike entirely anonymous forums.  Pseudonymity is fine — there is some kind of identity that you can kick out.  But if you allow anonymous comments, I strongly recommend screening them — otherwise you have no way to ban the trolls.

Next time: a bit more discussion about Moderation, and why it’s important.

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2 Responses to “The Creature Under the Bridge”

  1. ChadBerg Says:

    First! Nazis. I think that ably demonstrates a few of the inadvertent trolling behaviors.

    The worst aspect of Trolls in a conversation is that they aren’t actually conversing. They’re often doing it for the sake of seeing themselves in print, or to deliberately push buttons, or out of ignorance of the social conventions of two-way dialogue.

    I see no problem, when one is trying to have a conversation, in getting trolls out of the way. The gradual approach is the only way to go about it without being dictatorial or censorial yourself.

  2. Justin Says:

    Well, it’s not just about being dictatorial — one reason I advise the gradual approach is the fuzzy lines. When someone is coming in out of the blue, and is blatantly offensive, it’s easy to (as they used to say in t.b) *plonk* him.

    But the interesting cases — which are actually most common in my experience — are the subtle ones. These are often the people who are firmly convinced that they *are* behaving appropriately. Typically, they post a mix of messages, some of them reasonable (if pushing the boundaries), some over the line.

    I prefer to give people a bit of benefit of the doubt in these cases, because I *have* seen some get the clue after being warned. Admittedly, I can usually tell from the immediate reaction to the warning: the ones who can be rehabilitated are usually startled to hear that they’ve done something wrong, whereas the genuine trolls tend to get either sullen or defensive…

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