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.
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.
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