[iDC] Internet Tough Guys

molly wright steenson molly at girlwonder.com
Thu May 17 10:32:15 EDT 2007

Of course it's possible to keep trolls from taking over. I groaned at  
the O'Reilly merit badge of good blogging content. Sure, fine:  
they're probably not the problem. Nice gesture, though, and even  
better if you could get a sew-on scout badge for it.

Cory's points were amusingly presented and well taken. Good behavior  
models good behavior; separating out a troll or taking away the  
uranium makes for less toxic waste in the end. Hosts can do this in a  
group situation. Anonymity makes it easier to say things people don't  
feel they need to own (one reason why the longstanding WeLL community  
doesn't have anonymous logins).

Getting personal works, too. In 1998-9, I ran part of Netscape's  
online communities (for the Web area content and the rock music  
forum). I would send a note to anyone who posted anything on the  
forum, welcoming them and saying hi: an attempt to greet people when  
they came in the room, if you will. I found that people knew they  
were noticed, they were less likely to be jerks. And if they were,  
they were easier to deal with, simply through an email that said,  
"that's not how we roll here."

On the Archinect community, I've observed how members got trolls to  
shut up and go away: by not engaging them. If you take away the hot  
air they demand, they dry up and find other people to bug. It gets to  
a point where it's a kind of aikido: the community deftly moves away  
from the troll, looking graceful all the while. It took some learning  
but it's been a good site to see.

On May 17, 2007, at 9:48 AM, Trebor Scholz wrote:

> On the list of the Association for Internet Researchers Alex Halavais
> pointed to the article How To Keep Hostile Jerks From Taking Over Your
> Online Community, which relates to our exchange about Kathy Sierra's
> case and the Bloggers Code of Conduct. Do you feel that it's  
> possible to
> keep trolls from taking over?
> http://mailman.thing.net/pipermail/idc/2007-April/002422.html
> best,
> Trebor
> http://tinyurl.com/yoxws7
> ==
> How To Keep Hostile Jerks From Taking Over Your Online Community
> Angry people looking for fights will inevitably try to poison  
> successful
> Internet communities. Columnist Cory Doctorow looks at ways to remove
> the poison without killing the discussion too.
> By Cory Doctorow,  InformationWeek
> May 14, 2007
> URL:
> http://www.informationweek.com/story/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=
> 199600005
> The Internet Tough Guy is a feature in all Internet social forums.  
> These
> are people who poison discussions with anger, hatred, and threats.  
> Some
> are malicious. Some are crazy. Some are just afflicted with a rotten
> sense of humor. Whatever their motives, they're a scourge. It takes
> precious little trolling to sour a message-board. A "troll" -- someone
> who comes onto an online community looking to pick fights -- has two
> victory conditions: Either everyone ends up talking about him, or  
> no one
> talks at all. And where two or more trolls gather, they'll egg each
> other on, seeing who can anger and disrupt the regular message-board
> posters the most.
> It can be distressing. If you're part of a nice little community of
> hamster-fanciers, Trekkers, or Volkswagen enthusiasts, it's easy to  
> slip
> into a kind of camaraderie, a social setting in which everyone talks
> about life, aspirations, family problems, personal triumphs. In some
> ways, it doesn't matter what brought you together -- the fact that
> you're together is what matters.
> Then, almost without warning, your community goes toxic. Someone in  
> your
> group undergoes a radical personality shift and begins picking fights,
> or someone new comes to the party with an agenda. Or, worst of all:  
> Your
> little clubhouse achieves some small measure of fame and is overrun by
> newcomers who don't know that Liza is a little bit touchy on the  
> subject
> of hamster balls, or that old Fred gets into a froth anytime someone
> asks about retrofitting a bud vase into a vintage Beetle, or that
> everyone here actually kind of knows Wil Wheaton from reading his blog
> and he's a total mensch, so jokes about shoving Wesley out the airlock
> are frowned upon.
> Sometimes, you rebound. More often, you tumble. Things get worse. The
> crowds get bigger, the fights get hotter. Pathologically angry (but
> often funny) people show up and challenge each other to new levels of
> vitriol.
> In extreme cases, you end up with the kind of notorious mess that  
> Kathy
> Sierra found herself in, in which trolls directed such bilious,
> threatening noise towards a harmless advocate for "passionate  
> users" in
> web-applications that she withdrew from speaking at O'Reilly's  
> Emerging
> Tech conference.
> You can deal with trolls in many ways. Many trolls are perfectly  
> nice in
> real life -- sometimes, just calling them on the phone and confronting
> them with the human being at the other end of their attacks is  
> enough to
> sober them up. But it doesn't always work: I remember one time I
> challenged someone who'd been sending me hate mail to call me up  
> and say
> the words aloud: the phone rang a moment later and the first words out
> of my troll's mouth were, "You f*cking hypocrite!" The conversation
> declined from there.
> Trolls can infect a small group, but they really shine in big forums.
> Discussion groups are like uranium: a little pile gives off a nice,  
> warm
> glow, but if the pile gets bigger, it hits critical mass and starts a
> deadly meltdown. There are only three ways to prevent this: Make the
> pile smaller again, spread the rods apart, or twiddle them to keep the
> heat convecting through them.
> Making the group smaller is easy in theory, hard in practice: just
> choose a bunch of people who aren't allowed in the discussion anymore
> and section them off from the group. Split. Or just don't let the  
> groups
> get too big in the first place by limiting who can talk to whom. This
> was Friendster's strategy, where your ability to chat with anyone else
> was limited by whether that person was your friend or your friend's
> friend. Users revolted, creating "fakesters" like "New York City,"  
> whom
> they could befriend, forming ad-hoc affinity groups. Friendster
> retaliated by killing the fakesters, and a full scale revolt ensued.
> Spreading the group apart is a little easier, with the right  
> technology.
> Joshua Schachter, founder of del.icio.us, tells me that he once  
> cured a
> mailing-list of its flame-wars by inserting a ten-minute delay between
> messages being sent to the list and their delivery. The delay was  
> enough
> to allow tempers to cool between messages. A similar strategy is to
> require you to preview your post before publishing it. Digg allows you
> to retract your messages for a minute or two after you post them.
> But neither of these strategies solves the underlying problem: getting
> big groups of people to converse civilly and productively among
> themselves. Spreading out the pile reduces the heat -- but it also
> reduces the light. Splitting the groups up requires the consent of the
> users, a willingness to be segregated from their peers.
> The holy grail is to figure out how to twiddle the rods in just the
> right fashion so as to create a festive, rollicking, passionate
> discussion that keeps its discourse respectful, if not always friendly
> or amiable.
> Some have tried to solve this with software. Slashdot (and similar
> group-moderated sites like Kuro5hin and Plastic) use an elaborate  
> scheme
> of blind moderation in which users are randomly assigned the  
> ability to
> rank each others' messages so that other users can filter what they
> read, excluding low-ranked posts. These strategies are effective for
> weeding out the pathetic attention-seekers, but they don't have a  
> great
> track record for creating rollicking discussion. Instead the tone  
> of the
> discussions, even read at the highest level of moderation, is an  
> angry,
> macho one-upmanship. The top posts are often scathing rebuttals of
> someone else's ill-considered remarks.
> I'm not sure why this is, but I suspect that it's because there's
> something fundamentally unfriendly about a roundtable where the
> participants are explicitly asked to participate in active, public,
> quantitative rating of one's peers. Like one of those experimental  
> 1970s
> communes where everyone has to tell everyone else the absolute  
> truth all
> the time ("Your laugh irritates me," "You have a fat rear end that I
> find unappealing"), this does a good job of getting all the cards  
> on the
> table, but is less successful at inspiring an atmosphere of  
> chumminess.
> Then there's the psychological effect of trolling: For a certain  
> kind of
> person (guilty as charged), flames are nearly impossible to let go  
> of. I
> get tons of lovely fan mail from people who want me to know how much
> they liked my books. I love these notes and write short, polite,
> thank-you letters back to each person. But the memories of these
> valentines fades quickly. Not so the ill-considered, pseudonymous rant
> from someone who's convinced that I'm on the take, or who has some
> half-baked theory about copyright, or who wants to say insulting  
> things
> about my family, friends, interests or habits.
> Those people command my full attention. Many's the time I've found
> myself neglecting a warm bed, a hot meal, or a chance to go out for a
> cup of coffee with a friend in order to answer some mean-spirited note
> from some 16-year-old mouth-breather who achieves transcendence only
> through pointless debate with strangers. For many of us, our psyche
> demands that these insults be met and overcome.
> I am, by my nature, a scrapper. I come from a family of debaters,  
> and my
> job for several years has been to win debates over copyright and  
> digital
> freedom. I think that many technology designers are of a similar bent:
> Argumentative and boisterous, hard-pressed to back away from even a
> pointless fight. And it is these people who often end up designing our
> tool-suites for online communities. We view ourselves as locked in an
> arms-race with trolls who seek to overcome our defenses.
> However -- and thankfully -- many community conveners are of a more
> amicable bent. Although they're not technically capable of writing  
> their
> own message-board tools, they are socially qualified to wield them.
> Take my friend Teresa Nielsen Hayden, who moderates the sprawling,
> delightful message-boards on Making Light, a group-blog where the
> message boards run the gamut from the war in Iraq to Buffy the Vampire
> Slayer fan-fiction, and where they discussion is almost always civil.
> Teresa is a troll-whisperer. For some reason, she can spot  
> irredeemable
> trolls and separate them from the merely unsocialized. She can keep
> discussions calm and moving forward. She knows when deleting a troll's
> message will discourage him, and when it will only spark a game of
> whack-a-mole.
> Teresa calls it "having an ear for text" and she is full of  
> maddeningly
> unquantifiable tips for spotting the right rod to twiddle to keep the
> reactor firing happily without sparking a meltdown.
> In the wake of the Kathy Sierra mess, Tim O'Reilly proposed a  
> Blogger's
> Code of Conduct as a way of preventing a recurrence of the vile,
> misogynist attacks that Sierra suffered. The idea was that bloggers
> could choose to follow the Code and post a little badge to their sites
> affirming their adherence to it, putting message-board posters on  
> notice
> of the house rules. Although it sounds like a reasonable idea on the
> face of it, bloggers were incredibly skeptical of the proposal, if not
> actively hostile. The objections seemed to boil down to this:  
> "We're not
> uncivil, and neither are those message-board posters we regularly  
> see on
> the boards. It's the trolls that we have trouble with, and they're
> pathological psychos, already ignoring our implicit code of conduct.
> They're going to ignore your explicit code of conduct, too." (There  
> was
> more, of course -- like the fact that a set of articulated rules only
> invite people to hold you to them when they violate the spirit but not
> the letter of the law).
> O'Reilly built his empire by doing something incredibly smart:  
> Watching
> what geeks did that worked and writing it down so that other people
> could do it too. He is a distiller of Internet wisdom, and it's that
> approach that is called for here.
> If you want to fight trolling, don't make up a bunch of a priori
> assumptions about what will or won't discourage trolls. Instead, seek
> out the troll whisperer and study their techniques.
> Troll whisperers aren't necessarily very good at hacking tools, so
> there's always an opportunity for geek synergy in helping them to
> automate their hand-crafted techniques, giving them a software
> force-multiplier for their good sense. For example, Teresa invented a
> technique called disemvowelling -- removing the vowels from some or  
> all
> of a fiery message-board post. The advantage of this is that it leaves
> the words intact, but requires that you read them very slowly -- so
> slowly that it takes the sting out of them. And, as Teresa recently
> explained to me, disemvowelling part of a post lets the rest of the
> community know what kind of sentiment is and is not socially  
> acceptable.
> When Teresa started out disemvowelling, she removed the vowels from  
> the
> offending messages by hand, a tedious and slow process. But shortly
> thereafter, Bryant Darrell wrote a Movable Type plugin to automate the
> process. This is a perfect example of human-geek synergy: hacking  
> tools
> for civilian use based on the civilian's observed needs.
> But there aren't enough Teresas to go around: how do we keep all the
> other message-boards troll-free? Again, the secret is in observing the
> troll whisperer in the field, looking for techniques that can be
> encapsulated in tutorials and code. There is a wealth of troll  
> whisperer
> lore that isn't pure intuition and good sense, techniques that can be
> turned into tools for the rest of us to use.
> A friend who's active on the Wikipedia community once summed up her
> approach to life: "Don't let assholes rent space in your head."  
> That is,
> don't let the jerks who crash your community turn it into a cesspool.
> It's easier said than done, though.
> Assisting the troll whisperers and learning from them recognizes that
> most of us want a civil discussion, and give us the tools to repel
> trolls. Instead of implying that we all lack civility, these  
> techniques
> recognize our good will and help us solve the hard social problems of
> keeping the pathological personalities renting space in our heads.
> Cory Doctorow is co-editor of the Boing Boing blog, as well as a
> journalist, Internet activist, and science fiction writer. Read his
> previous InformationWeek columns.
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