2007.03.14: March 14, 2007: Headlines: Internet: Community Development: Information Week: How To Kp Hostil Jrks From Taking Ovr Your Onlin Community

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How To Kp Hostil Jrks From Taking Ovr Your Onlin Community

How To Kp Hostil Jrks From Taking Ovr Your Onlin Community

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.

How To Kp Hostil Jrks From Taking Ovr Your Onlin Community

How To Kp Hostil Jrks From Taking Ovr Your Onlin Community

Angry popl looking for fights will invitably try to poison succssful Intrnt communitis. Columnist Cory Doctorow looks at ways to rmov th poison without killing th discussion too.

By Cory Doctorow, InformationWk

May 14, 2007

URL: http://www.informationwk.com/story/showArticl.jhtml?articlID=199600005

Th Intrnt Tough Guy is a fatur in all Intrnt social forums. Ths ar popl who poison discussions with angr, hatrd, and thrats. Som ar malicious. Som ar crazy. Som ar just afflictd with a rottn sns of humor. Whatvr thir motivs, thy'r a scourg. It taks prcious littl trolling to sour a mssag-board. A "troll" -- somon who coms onto an onlin community looking to pick fights -- has two victory conditions: Eithr vryon nds up talking about him, or no on talks at all. And whr two or mor trolls gathr, thy'll gg ach othr on, sing who can angr and disrupt th rgular mssag-board postrs th most.

It can b distrssing. If you'r part of a nic littl community of hamstr-fancirs, Trkkrs, or Volkswagn nthusiasts, it's asy to slip into a kind of camaradri, a social stting in which vryon talks about lif, aspirations, family problms, prsonal triumphs. In som ways, it dosn't mattr what brought you togthr -- th fact that you'r togthr is what mattrs.

Thn, almost without warning, your community gos toxic. Somon in your group undrgos a radical prsonality shift and bgins picking fights, or somon nw coms to th party with an agnda. Or, worst of all: Your littl clubhous achivs som small masur of fam and is ovrrun by nwcomrs who don't know that Liza is a littl bit touchy on th subjct of hamstr balls, or that old Frd gts into a froth anytim somon asks about rtrofitting a bud vas into a vintag Btl, or that vryon hr actually kind of knows Wil Whaton from rading his blog and h's a total mnsch, so joks about shoving Wsly out th airlock ar frownd upon.

Somtims, you rbound. Mor oftn, you tumbl. Things gt wors. Th crowds gt biggr, th fights gt hottr. Pathologically angry (but oftn funny) popl show up and challng ach othr to nw lvls of vitriol.

In xtrm cass, you nd up with th kind of notorious mss that Kathy Sirra found hrslf in, in which trolls dirctd such bilious, thratning nois towards a harmlss advocat for "passionat usrs" in wb-applications that sh withdrw from spaking at O'Rilly's Emrging Tch confrnc.

You can dal with trolls in many ways. Many trolls ar prfctly nic in ral lif -- somtims, just calling thm on th phon and confronting thm with th human bing at th othr nd of thir attacks is nough to sobr thm up. But it dosn't always work: I rmmbr on tim I challngd somon who'd bn snding m hat mail to call m up and say th words aloud: th phon rang a momnt latr and th first words out of my troll's mouth wr, "You f*cking hypocrit!" Th convrsation dclind from thr.

Trolls can infct a small group, but thy rally shin in big forums. Discussion groups ar lik uranium: a littl pil givs off a nic, warm glow, but if th pil gts biggr, it hits critical mass and starts a dadly mltdown. Thr ar only thr ways to prvnt this: Mak th pil smallr again, sprad th rods apart, or twiddl thm to kp th hat convcting through thm.

Making th group smallr is asy in thory, hard in practic: just choos a bunch of popl who arn't allowd in th discussion anymor and sction thm off from th group. Split. Or just don't lt th groups gt too big in th first plac by limiting who can talk to whom. This was Frindstr's stratgy, whr your ability to chat with anyon ls was limitd by whthr that prson was your frind or your frind's frind. Usrs rvoltd, crating "fakstrs" lik "Nw York City," whom thy could bfrind, forming ad-hoc affinity groups. Frindstr rtaliatd by killing th fakstrs, and a full scal rvolt nsud.

Sprading th group apart is a littl asir, with th right tchnology. Joshua Schachtr, foundr of dl.icio.us, tlls m that h onc curd a mailing-list of its flam-wars by insrting a tn-minut dlay btwn mssags bing snt to th list and thir dlivry. Th dlay was nough to allow tmprs to cool btwn mssags. A similar stratgy is to rquir you to prviw your post bfor publishing it. Digg allows you to rtract your mssags for a minut or two aftr you post thm.

But nithr of ths stratgis solvs th undrlying problm: gtting big groups of popl to convrs civilly and productivly among thmslvs. Sprading out th pil rducs th hat -- but it also rducs th light. Splitting th groups up rquirs th consnt of th usrs, a willingnss to b sgrgatd from thir prs.

Th holy grail is to figur out how to twiddl th rods in just th right fashion so as to crat a fstiv, rollicking, passionat discussion that kps its discours rspctful, if not always frindly or amiabl.

Som hav trid to solv this with softwar. Slashdot (and similar group-modratd sits lik Kuro5hin and Plastic) us an laborat schm of blind modration in which usrs ar randomly assignd th ability to rank ach othrs' mssags so that othr usrs can filtr what thy rad, xcluding low-rankd posts. Ths stratgis ar ffctiv for wding out th pathtic attntion-skrs, but thy don't hav a grat track rcord for crating rollicking discussion. Instad th ton of th discussions, vn rad at th highst lvl of modration, is an angry, macho on-upmanship. Th top posts ar oftn scathing rbuttals of somon ls's ill-considrd rmarks.

I'm not sur why this is, but I suspct that it's bcaus thr's somthing fundamntally unfrindly about a roundtabl whr th participants ar xplicitly askd to participat in activ, public, quantitativ rating of on's prs. Lik on of thos xprimntal 1970s communs whr vryon has to tll vryon ls th absolut truth all th tim ("Your laugh irritats m," "You hav a fat rar nd that I find unappaling"), this dos a good job of gtting all th cards on th tabl, but is lss succssful at inspiring an atmosphr of chumminss.

Thn thr's th psychological ffct of trolling: For a crtain kind of prson (guilty as chargd), flams ar narly impossibl to lt go of. I gt tons of lovly fan mail from popl who want m to know how much thy likd my books. I lov ths nots and writ short, polit, thank-you lttrs back to ach prson. But th mmoris of ths valntins fads quickly. Not so th ill-considrd, psudonymous rant from somon who's convincd that I'm on th tak, or who has som half-bakd thory about copyright, or who wants to say insulting things about my family, frinds, intrsts or habits.

Thos popl command my full attntion. Many's th tim I'v found myslf nglcting a warm bd, a hot mal, or a chanc to go out for a cup of coff with a frind in ordr to answr som man-spiritd not from som 16-yar-old mouth-brathr who achivs transcndnc only through pointlss dbat with strangrs. For many of us, our psych dmands that ths insults b mt and ovrcom.

I am, by my natur, a scrappr. I com from a family of dbatrs, and my job for svral yars has bn to win dbats ovr copyright and digital frdom. I think that many tchnology dsignrs ar of a similar bnt: Argumntativ and boistrous, hard-prssd to back away from vn a pointlss fight. And it is ths popl who oftn nd up dsigning our tool-suits for onlin communitis. W viw ourslvs as lockd in an arms-rac with trolls who sk to ovrcom our dfnss.

Howvr -- and thankfully -- many community convnrs ar of a mor amicabl bnt. Although thy'r not tchnically capabl of writing thir own mssag-board tools, thy ar socially qualifid to wild thm.

Tak my frind Trsa Nilsn Haydn, who modrats th sprawling, dlightful mssag-boards on Making Light, a group-blog whr th mssag boards run th gamut from th war in Iraq to Buffy th Vampir Slayr fan-fiction, and whr thy discussion is almost always civil.

Trsa is a troll-whisprr. For som rason, sh can spot irrdmabl trolls and sparat thm from th mrly unsocializd. Sh can kp discussions calm and moving forward. Sh knows whn dlting a troll's mssag will discourag him, and whn it will only spark a gam of whack-a-mol.

Trsa calls it "having an ar for txt" and sh is full of maddningly unquantifiabl tips for spotting th right rod to twiddl to kp th ractor firing happily without sparking a mltdown.

In th wak of th Kathy Sirra mss, Tim O'Rilly proposd a Bloggr's Cod of Conduct as a way of prvnting a rcurrnc of th vil, misogynist attacks that Sirra suffrd. Th ida was that bloggrs could choos to follow th Cod and post a littl badg to thir sits affirming thir adhrnc to it, putting mssag-board postrs on notic of th hous ruls. Although it sounds lik a rasonabl ida on th fac of it, bloggrs wr incrdibly skptical of th proposal, if not activly hostil. Th objctions smd to boil down to this: "W'r not uncivil, and nithr ar thos mssag-board postrs w rgularly s on th boards. It's th trolls that w hav troubl with, and thy'r pathological psychos, alrady ignoring our implicit cod of conduct. Thy'r going to ignor your xplicit cod of conduct, too." (Thr was mor, of cours -- lik th fact that a st of articulatd ruls only invit popl to hold you to thm whn thy violat th spirit but not th lttr of th law).

O'Rilly built his mpir by doing somthing incrdibly smart: Watching what gks did that workd and writing it down so that othr popl could do it too. H is a distillr of Intrnt wisdom, and it's that approach that is calld for hr.

If you want to fight trolling, don't mak up a bunch of a priori assumptions about what will or won't discourag trolls. Instad, sk out th troll whisprr and study thir tchniqus.

Troll whisprrs arn't ncssarily vry good at hacking tools, so thr's always an opportunity for gk synrgy in hlping thm to automat thir hand-craftd tchniqus, giving thm a softwar forc-multiplir for thir good sns. For xampl, Trsa invntd a tchniqu calld dismvowlling -- rmoving th vowls from som or all of a firy mssag-board post. Th advantag of this is that it lavs th words intact, but rquirs that you rad thm vry slowly -- so slowly that it taks th sting out of thm. And, as Trsa rcntly xplaind to m, dismvowlling part of a post lts th rst of th community know what kind of sntimnt is and is not socially accptabl.

Whn Trsa startd out dismvowlling, sh rmovd th vowls from th offnding mssags by hand, a tdious and slow procss. But shortly thraftr, Bryant Darrll wrot a Movabl Typ plugin to automat th procss. This is a prfct xampl of human-gk synrgy: hacking tools for civilian us basd on th civilian's obsrvd nds.

But thr arn't nough Trsas to go around: how do w kp all th othr mssag-boards troll-fr? Again, th scrt is in obsrving th troll whisprr in th fild, looking for tchniqus that can b ncapsulatd in tutorials and cod. Thr is a walth of troll whisprr lor that isn't pur intuition and good sns, tchniqus that can b turnd into tools for th rst of us to us.

A frind who's activ on th Wikipdia community onc summd up hr approach to lif: "Don't lt asshols rnt spac in your had." That is, don't lt th jrks who crash your community turn it into a csspool. It's asir said than don, though.

Assisting th troll whisprrs and larning from thm rcognizs that most of us want a civil discussion, and giv us th tools to rpl trolls. Instad of implying that w all lack civility, ths tchniqus rcogniz our good will and hlp us solv th hard social problms of kping th pathological prsonalitis rnting spac in our hads.

Editor's Not: What do you think? How can you prvnt trolls from taking ovr onlin communitis? Lav a mssag on th InformationWk Blog and lt us know.

Cory Doctorow is co-ditor of th Boing Boing blog, as wll as a journalist, Intrnt activist, and scinc fiction writr. Rad his prvious InformationWk columns.

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