// Internet Duct Tape

The Internet is for Trolls

Posted in Digital Culture, Technology, Web 2.0 and Social Media by engtech on December 20, 2006

Meek, normally polite people can turn into the biggest assholes when they don’t have to look each other in the eyes.

When I was involved in the BBS/IRC scene as a teenager I was surrounded by flame wars; one-upmanship was part of the attraction. I thought it was because of the immaturity of the participants, but now I think it is a natural offshoot of digital communication. We lose all the visual and auditory cues that are a normal part of human dialog and instead focus on words that can be easy to misinterpret (especially if looking for a reason to fight).

Throw anonymity into the mix and it becomes a recipe for disaster. Becoming popular on Slashdot or Digg is equal parts excitement at the exposure and annoyance at the new commenters. To be fair this isn’t restricted to these two communities; for a large number of people getting into arguments on the Internet is a major source of entertainment. Two weeks ago I put a comment policy on my blog – I have no problem with disagreement but keep things civil.


Recently Dave Pogue of the NY Times wrote a post about ‘what ever happened to online etiquette?‘ that asked the question when did the Internet become a bunch of immature 15 year old boys? Michael Moncur correctly responds that this isn’t a new phenomena: people are jerks, maturity matters, anonymity isn’t the problem and content inspires community (and Darren agrees).

TechCrunch Bleeds Writers

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(photo by natalidelconte)

There is a lot of news coverage at the moment about tech writer Natali del Conte quitting the popular blog TechCrunch over inappropriate comments by the audience. What surprised me is that given her views on commenters, Michael Arrlington wrote on December 10th when reviewing a site that allows users to easily create humorous doctored photos:

I’d make one of these for TechCrunch writer Natali Del Conte, but she’d probably resign (readers are encouraged to do so, however, and link to them in the comments).

Within five days she did resign. I have no idea if these events were related; it was likely one straw of many on the camel’s back.

Mr. Arrlington himself is no stranger to the pressure that comes from being a public figure. When his readers aren’t lambasting him, it’s websites like Valleywag roasting him. It isn’t a pleasant experience; I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. There’s been several posts on his personal blog that indicate that it is starting to get to him, some of which have been deleted.

You only have to take a cursory look at sites like Go Fug Yourself and the Superficial to see that extent that mass culture as a whole has embraced celebrity bashing. Some people take it to the next level where they actively devote themselves to starting flame wars and virtually stalk people.

Paying the Toll to Cross the Bridge

In early October I had a conversation with Mark of ScheduleWorld about comments that were appearing on my blog stating that he was censoring user complaints and deleting posts. I have no affiliation with his company other than writing a very popular how-to guide about his website. He responded:

“I believe it’s the same person. They both signed up and started trashing the service. The first guy did all of his trashing anonymously. Since I couldn’t contact the person I didn’t know what else to do – so I deleted the posts. A real person with a real concern wouldn’t post like this (I don’t believe). It’s too coincidental that they both posted to my site, then right away to your site.”

My response at the time was:

“I’ve just been on the Internet for about 13-14 years so I’ve see a lot of trolls. The key thing to remember is treat them as you would any other customer (except don’t fall into the rat hole of putting their demands ahead of normal people), even when they’re frustrating the crap out of you.

Every product has their fair share of people complaining bitterly about it, mine those comments for what they’re worth and how they can help you improve your product, but don’t let them get to you. If people see you deal with your detractors in a sane and calm matter then you’ve taken their negative comments and made it into a positive — see how professional these guys are even in the face of these idiots.”

Mark from ScheduleWorld recently contacted me with a follow-up:

It’s interesting that some folks do this. I think the ability to remain anonymous and post whatever you like with no repercussions makes some folks incredibly bold and do things they would never risk (for legal and other reasons) in “the real world”.

What’s fascinating is that I’ve noticed such a troll has absolutely no effect. I received emails from two bloggers, who cared enough about the integrity of their sites to contact me. But that’s it. The subscription and service usage rate increases weekly. I think that
says a lot. It could be a lot of things, but I suspect that it’s because:

Folks are aware of anonymous cowards and treat their comments accordingly. Or perhaps they quickly disregarded the more obvious hate-speak. Or maybe folks are willing to try something out for themselves and easily discount the bad or potentially biased
experiences of someone else. We all like to learn on our own.

All one has to do is search the [ScheduleWorld] forums for ‘great’, or ‘thanks’ or ‘love’ to see what folks really think of ScheduleWorld.”

(his quotes were edited for this post)

Being flamed says more about the person flaming you than anything else. That’s why you should never say something negative about a former employer in an interview. It’s important to remember when ranting that you are writing about real people and that thanks to the wonders of the Internet your words will probably reach the people you are talking about. Arrogance is not a virtue.

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3 Responses

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  1. cDogg said, on December 24, 2006 at 10:06 am

    I’m really glad to learn that I have socially responsable people to look upto on the internet! that have to deal with the same growing troll threat we all have to face as non-trolls. Dido to everything you said sir!

    Merry Christmas!

  2. [...] The Internet is for Trolls [...]

  3. [...] Where there was once up to 100 to 200 local BBSes there are now so many online forums for communication that it might as well be infinite., New forums for communication are being created all the time. Mainstream sites like the New York Times let you comment on articles, and each person has their own discussion forum thanks to sites like Facebook and MySpace. “When I was involved in the BBS/IRC scene as a teenager I was surrounded by flame wars; one-upmanship was part of the attraction. I thought it was because of the immaturity of the participants, but now I think it is a natural offshoot of digital communication. We lose all the visual and auditory cues that are a normal part of human dialog and instead focus on words that can be easy to misinterpret (especially if looking for a reason to fight).” quoting myself [...]


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