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.
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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