Thursday, May 24, 2007

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 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, 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.

Editor's Note: What do you think? How can you prevent trolls from taking over online communities? Leave a message on the InformationWeek Blog and let us know.

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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