More than just not feeding the trolls

Published May 11, 2013

I’ve been joyously listening to the new podcast from Molly Wood and Tom Merritt, called It’s a Thing. They were so good together on Buzz Out Loud and it was a shame when they went their separate ways, but onwards and upwards, the glorious duo are back together! This time, it’s not specifically technology topics, they just talk about whatever they deem to be an up and coming trend, or thing!

In the fourth episode, they were talking about the concept of people just not accepting trolling anymore, and that more and more, comments may be being switched off. It was a fascinating discussion, which is available to listen to here (there’s coffee talk first, the subject comes up at about 7:40) or I have transcribed most of it below.

Molly: I feel that we are finally approaching the point, as a society on the internet, where we have had enough of trolls… Clearly, trolls have been a thing for a long time. Obviously. But, the conventional wisdom around internet trolls has been they exist, you just ignore them, they’re an inevitable part of every community. The community will eventually take care of them. It’s more important to have comments so that you can build a community, and trolls just are a cost of doing business.

But I think those days are gone. I feel like everybody’s getting a little bit more parental about the idea of trolls on the internet, and we’re sort of, finally getting close to saying like, hey, how about if instead of sitting here and taking all this ridiculous abuse for voluntarily being on the internet, we just say, that’s enough. You don’t get to act like that and comments are not worth it. Off.

Like, I’m seeing an increase in sites that are turning off comments, and they’re turning off comments because there was even a study, and this is what made it fascinating to me, a study from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. They analysed comments on blogs about nano-technology, and they determined that the name-calling and the trolling in the otherwise balanced reporting, so the scientific reporting was good, but that the comments skewed the perceptions of the people who were reading the original story, so much so that the trolls were actually, like, defeating the science. And they were creating an anti-science perception that persisted after having read a perfectly good scientific article.

Tom: Did you remember when Gizmodo turned off their comments for a while?  That was a big deal. And Facebook replacing comments has been a solution for a lot of places, because they’re like, yeah, now you have to have an actual account, tied into your name. And Google Plus is doing this even more by saying you actually to have a real name to use one of our accounts, to use our comments, so you’d better… But I think you’re right, I think there’s a time when comments are not necessary.

Molly: No. And, there’s a time when it is, I think, okay… and this is what’s interesting. There’s another article in The Independent from not that long ago, where it’s “Silent No More, Our Message to Trolls Is No, We Will Not Shut Up. And it’s women saying that it’s not acceptable for the advice to just be “don’t feed the trolls.” Because that amounts to just sitting there and taking it. Like, I will say that I personally have a zero tolerance policy to trolls on Twitter. Like, if you say a d*** thing to me on Twitter, you’re gone. You’re blocked.

I’m there 100% voluntarily, if you’re not interested in what I have to say, or you don’t like it, don’t follow me. But certainly don’t think that I’m going to sit there and let you call me a name and then not get rid of you. I, frankly, part of this is advocacy but I am definitely seeing an increase in people saying, you know what? No. If you’re advice to me is just be quiet, like you would never let someone verbally abuse you walking down the street, or at work. Walking down the street, you might, because they’re probably crazy, homeless person.

Tom: You just keep walking, yea.

Molly: But if somebody said to you this stuff in public…

Tom: At work is a good example. You’re in a community at that point. Not just walking down the street, and someone says something. You’re like, wait a minute, this is affecting the group dynamics. It’s fascinating because I’ve always felt like, what’s going to happen with comments and interaction and trolling on the internet is… we are learning how to communicate in this medium, and that’s what we’re seeing. My advice has always been don’t feed the trolls after you try to engage them.

Because 90% of the time, and it varies depending on who you are and who you’re dealing with, but most of the time, if someone trolls you and then you confront them back, they will back off. They’ll realise, oh you’re a real person, I was being a jerk, that’s not what I meant, and that’s where I think this idea of don’t shut up, engage, not fight back, because you don’t want to lower yourself to their level, but just say, hey, that’s not okay for you to say that. And what do you mean by it? I think it’s fine. Then, if it turns out that that’s what they want, is any kind of recognition or interaction, that’s when you don’t feed them. That’s when you block them, and just say goodbye, you’re not part of this conversation any more.

Molly: Yea, and I think it becomes different advice for different scenarios. So if you’re the public figure, who is being engaged, right, if someone is attacking you personally, I think engaging back and showing them you’re a human being can often be effective. Then I think there’s a different conversation that is starting to be had about comment threads, and I think Google is definitely actively trying to take this on by encouraging… I would say that YouTube for me has become, it’s a bad neighbourhood.

And it’s partly a bad neighbourhood because a lot of the culture around YouTube and the thing that people like about it in a weird way is that they can go there and act like monsters, and say absolutely some of the worst things you’ve ever heard. We had a debate internally at CNET about turning off comments on some of our YouTube channels, because isn’t this sort of harrassment if I have to sit here and read these comments? Why should I be subjected to this.

Tom: Absolutely, and when we launched the Geek and Sundry channel in April with Sword & Laser on there, one of the things that they made sure of is that from the moment anything is posted there is someone on there killing any of the comments that are inappropriate. Just blasting them out. It’s not a free speech issue.

Molly: That sounds like a full time job.

Tom: That’s the key. If you have the werewithall to do that, it really works. Because our YouTube comments actually are much easier to moderate because the trolls just gave up. They’re like, oh we don’t get heard, our posts don’t go up, we’re shouting into nothing, this is no fun. So they went away. Not that there aren’t still troll comments from time to time but you see fewer of those killed posts than you used to because of that.

Not everyone and not every institution and not every organisation has the time to devote to that for all of the things. Especially somebody like CNET who is pumping out so much content, you just can’t possibly, you know, justify the manhours it would take to sit there and moderate. So you just turn them off, sure, I think that’s fair.

Molly: I think it’s part of, like you said, the continuation of this conversation - how do we communicate online is to say, in this society, in a high-functioning society, one of the things you start learning from childhood on is how to exist in that society without being totally disruptive and rude, without being anti-social.

We have, I think by perpetuating this mantra “don’t feed the trolls” and by reflexively assuming that it’s better to have comments than not, we’ve created safe spaces for people to hide and act anti-social and say terrible things to people. It’s time, I think, for us to say, you know what, the web is mature now and you don’t get to act like that. Google is definitely pushing real names, in fact, I tried to play a YouTube recently and got four exhortations to start using my real name on YouTube.

Tom: Yea, to link it up with your Google Plus.

Molly: So, they’re doing it for those reasons too, but I think part of it is that they do understand that YouTube is an unpleasant place to be in some places because of comments, and they’re trying to encourage accountability by having people use real identities.

Tom: And that makes a big difference. Making people have an account used to be the “oh, we’ll just make them have an account and it’ll be easier” and then it became “well, it’s so easy to create accounts now on the fly, now we need to actually have them give a little information” and it’s become “now they have to have a real name” and I think that’s almost a neverending battle, that people will eventually get to a point where okay, I guess if I have to give my thumbprint and a birth certificate and a driver’s licence, that will keep me from being a troll but some people are trolls anyway, and they don’t care if you know that about them. But it does cut it down and it does advance us along the road to learning what the rules of this kind of communication should be.

Molly: I think that is the conversation we’re having, the conversation about trolls and why they act the way they do, that’s probably never going to go away but I do think we’re maturing now to the point where we can say, I don’t know if comments are worth it if this is how you act.

Tom: Depending, right? Unless you can do them right. I think that’s the key. Are the comments, in fact, adding something? Then yes, you should do them. But if they’re not, then no, they’re not 100% “oh you should always have comments on everything.” There are plenty of things out there that are like, why do I have comments on my resume page, I don’t need comments on that. It’s just on by default, and somebody comments on it. And usually, it’s not even trolling, it’s just somebody saying hey where do I find your subscription link? This is not the right place to ask that, but then again, what am I asking for with the comments on that page?

Molly: Yea, comments have become the thing that you assume you’re going to have on every page and like you said, maybe it’s not necessary. And in fact, maybe it’s not necessary on content.

Tom: Depends on the content.

Molly: That scientific thing, that was pretty disturbing.

Tom: It really only works if you’re soliciting comments. If I’m putting up a factual thing, then sure there should be a forum somewhere where people can debate what they think about all the stories, but you don’t necessarily need comments on that factual thing. Unless you’re setting up with a question. I think that’s also part of good commentary is having a discussion leader, who’s not only moderating and keeping the trolls out but directing the discussion, so it doesn’t just flail around and turn into some “I hate your political party, you hate mine.”

Molly: Right, like only do comments if you’re going to engage. Because if you’re not going to engage, you’re going to have an unmoderated playground of anonymous misanthropes. And they’re going to be saying really terrible things, and that’s not good for your brand to have that stuff next to your content, and that’s not good for the people who might be reading it, and who maybe created the content. It’s just really interesting, and I feel like just in the past couple of weeks a real uptick in articles and discussions and soul-searching around whether it’s worth it to let this go unchecked. My personal opinion happens to be no, it is not worth it.

Tom: I also think there is still a place for unmoderated, unmitigated conversation. That doesn’t have to be every place.

Molly: Yea, it’s Reddit.

Tom: Or maybe it’s just IRC, I don’t know. I’m not coming off as saying “And therefore all comments should be obliterated everywhere, or all comments should be moderated.” I think there’s a place for all of these things, and in fact we need to have all of these things so we can see how behaviours change because some things aren’t going to react to the form or the moderation, some things are just going to react to people now growing up entirely with the internet around and a commenting system. They’re going to use it differently than we do.

It’s such an interesting topic and so pertinent at the moment. We’ve been experimenting with having comments on and off things over in the Sidepodcast universe for a while. F1Minute doesn’t have comments and doesn’t feel like it needs them. Sidepodcast has always been the community side of things, but even there, it feels like it is changing a bit. We’ve recently closed comments on a couple of Sidepodcast posts knowing the kind of discussion they’d probably generate and not really feeling it would be very constructive. That’s not trolling, of course, but it’s still an interesting shift on the web, I know we’re not the only ones to start looking at this a bit closer.

Thankfully, I’ve managed to steer clear of too much unpleasant trolling, but I’ve had the comments on YouTube, and you can never really put yourself out there on the internet without developing a thick skin for the things. As Molly says, at some point, we all just have to sit back and think, I’m here voluntarily, there’s no need for this. It would be such a nicer place if we could all just be a bit nicer, and equally not care what others think.

But then that’s true of the real world too.

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