Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

Under the Bridge: The Side Benefits of Troll Culture

The problem with making the Internet safe is that it would necessarily make the Internet the same. That's the reason Facebook creeps people out: it tries to impose a uniform user interface on the existing heterogeneous online experience to make it appear homogenous, and in so doing actually transform the culture into one where everything is the same. In an op-ed in today's Times, Julie Zhuo, a product design manager at Facebook, goes further, proposing that non-Facebook content providers standardize their approach to anonymous commenting to rid the Internet of trolls. (Or hey, maybe they could just use the Facebook commenting system!) But what would the Internet be without trolls? Hell, what would New York City be without trolls? Denying the ability of different online communities to respond to disruptive or contrary commenters in a way that reflects the values of that community ultimately denies the wonderful cornucopia of microcultures that is the fantastic, awful Internet we all know and (mostly) love.

Most writing on what makes a "good" online community tends to come from people who are, let's say, a bit too rational for their own good. They tend to assume that there is no such thing as an online community other than the ones they participate in. Oh, sure, alternatives may exist, but they are simply less-evolved versions of the Platonic type inhabited by those paragons of substantive discourse known as "computer nerds."

I'm thinking here of Slash, the open-source message-board and news programming that has as its most visible component the undeniably innovative commenting system displayed on ur-nerd site Slashdot. Instead of just listing all comments chronologically or in threads, users voted for which comments were the best, and you could then set your filter to only show highly-rated comments and/or commenters. I used it extensively on the post-Suck discussion board Plastic (where, somewhat distressingly, my username still appears in the top-rated posters list), and I liked it! But my subsequent experience in other communities showed me how other forms of filtering could work, too.

And these systems tend to both be informed by and promote the values the community is interested in promoting. For instance, if I may be so bold, the Awl is interested in a sense of empathy and collective enthusiasm, so commenters reward people who promote these values (by replying en masse) and ignore commenters who don't, thus encouraging people interested in becoming part of the community to conform to the community's values.

The current incarnation of Gawker, meanwhile, seems overall interested less in community than in making commenters a form of unpaid content contributors, which is why (at least some) editors promote particular comments based on entertainment value and legibility rather than creating a shared identity. Another forum to which I previously contributed was (or became, anyway) more gladiatorial in tone, and newcomers were roundly (and sometimes unintelligibly) mocked until they learned to hold their own in a way the community could respect, which reflected values of shared knowledge-building over inclusion or engagement. And you can think of the values of mommyblogs or neighborhood blogs or religion blogs as places where different values might lead to different attitudes toward anonymity and new contributors.

What interests me most, though, are those feminist blogs and bloggers which seem to consistently engage with people who wander in and say something clueless and/or confrontational. This strikes me as extremely brave and impressive, representing a commitment to dialogue and discourse above, say, one's own time and sanity that I simply cannot manage myself. (Just one recent example.) I've never been an active participant in these forums, so I certainly can't say for sure that this is what's going on. But it seems to me to represent a true translation of feminist values into action, and as frustrating as these debates can sometimes be to watch and (from what people say) engage in, it is truly walking the walk by talking the talk: they refuse to silence people even when they know they're wrong, and can only be content through extreme engagement with the other point of view.

And it is particularly that kind of relationship between a community's values and a community's commenting system that a standardized treatment of anonymity and commenters would erase. Not all online microcultures want to engage with every ill-informed yokel who staggers in to blurt out an opinion, and for them, there are certainly options. But eliminating anonymity and encouraging everyone to act online in the same way they would in real life essentially ruins the point of going online in the first place. There's a real value in being able to try on different identities and code-switch at will rather than by necessity. And there's a real value in communities being able to enforce their particular values rather than those of society at large. I don't act everywhere like I act on the Awl, but I would like to! If my comments here are held accountable to everyone else I've ever known, then I can't do the Awl-specific things that are such fun.

The ultimate counter to all this, of course, is 4chan. But that seems undeniably like one of those "I disapprove of the fact that you have a child-molesting bear meme, but I will begrudgingly grant your right to do so, I guess" kind of situations. As awful as 4chan (or /b/, or anon, or whatever) is, it's certainly something, and it would be impossible without the entirely unique commenting system it has in place. It's totally illogical and yet, somehow, it works. It is a form of communication made possible entirely by the Internet, and it seems not only like a shame but like an impossibility to lose that. It would make more sense, instead of trying to find some universal solution to the problem of trolls, to look at the ways in which individual communities have dealt with the issue and admit that every venue will have to design its own solution unique to their context. Facebook wants to make everywhere online the same, and I don't think they'll be able to. But I also wish they'd stop trying, if only so we could have a more productive discussion about the whole matter. If anyone is the troll in this debate, it's Zuckerberg and company.

Mike Barthel is not trolling on his Tumblr.

57 Comments / Post A Comment

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

Empathy is the key to en-masse replies? I thought it was puns.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

Yeah, but empathy can sometimes lead people to look you up on Twitter.

jolie (#16)


C_Webb (#855)

As I once declared to my (loud) family about my (finally!) sleeping toddler: "YOU WAKE IT; YOU TAKE IT!"

@jolie: I am rewarding your sense of empathy and collective enthusiasm by replying en masse.

That's how it's done, right?

jolie (#16)

@Gef: Beautiful. Also: Alex Balk is shooting himself at the notion that his business website promotes enthusiasm.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)


(I do actually miss comment archives though)

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

@DD We all do! What happened to them?

cherrispryte (#444)

I have emailed and been promised that they are working on fixing this.

They are working slowly, apparently. :)

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

You get a thumbs up for your hard work, cherri.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

COMMENT ARCHIVES (clap clap, clap clap clap)
COMMENT ARCHIVES (clap clap, clap clap clap)

garge (#736)

I will admit that sometimes I conceive of elaborate fantasies structured around a character named Jeffrey Barea.

Girls are bossy, I didn't think this was news.

jolie (#16)

God, I love a bossy girl so much. I miss my bossy friends. (They all have husbands to order around now, and it's so sad for me.)

Miles Klee (#3,657)

'Bossyboots' is the only pet name I throw around.

Bittersweet (#765)

@jolie: a real bossypants wouldn't be content just to boss her husband around, so you should tell your friends to branch out! (Yes, I have a bossy best friend who tells me what to do all the time.)

jolie (#16)

@bittersweet: Aren't they the best? I want a bossy girlfriend next!

max bread (#5,970)

"Another forum to which I previously contributed was (or became, anyway) more gladiatorial in tone, and newcomers were roundly (and sometimes unintelligibly) mocked until they learned to hold their own in a way the community could respect, which reflected values of shared knowledge-building over inclusion or engagement."

ILX misses you, Mike! Come back!

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

There are only so many hours in the day!

saythatscool (#101)

Help! My girlfriend got a silybands stuck in her vagina!?!

What should we do??????

cherrispryte (#444)

I am sincerely hoping you are quoting some internet meme, and not actually issuing a call for assistance.

NinetyNine (#98)

So real democracy is best guided by the firm hand of the self-appointed elites but the internet should be left to the rabble? Bread and circuses, chapter and verse, with you dude.

synchronia (#3,755)

This kinda makes me miss Adequacy.

deepomega (#1,720)

-1, 2002 centric

Bittersweet (#765)

@synchronia: me too! That site was wicked fun.

@deepo: thththbbt. 2002 was a freakin' vintage year.

myfanwy (#1,124)

So far, the only conclusion I have drawn from anonymous online comments (moderated and unmoderated) is that most people are self-obsessed idiots, and I am one of them.

KarenUhOh (#19)

Well, the key to any social order is to charge for it. So, we [the commenter sic] should pay per the comment. Or word.

No wait. We should be paid by the comment. Or word. As long as there's a seven-letter limit.

Can I get a W4?

You're 1099 material, and you know it.

brent_cox (#40)

Question I've often wondered: what makes these comment threads so generally well-behaved if not outright polite and accommodating? (Also: nice piece.)

saythatscool (#101)

Go fuck yourself, brent.

oudemia (#177)

It says "Be less stupid" right up there at the top!* Much as Milwaukee's Best says "best" smack dab on the label.

*Or, er, it used to.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

I think the posts here don't contain much trollbait. Trolls are like cable news anchors: they thrive on discord, stereotypes, and heated rhetoric, and that stuff just doesn't appear here much.

brent_cox (#40)

Go fuck yourself, Brent.

scroll_lock (#4,122)

If only Jeff Barea and NewToJezebel would get married and comment happily ever after.

saythatscool (#101)

How is baby forrmed?

jolie (#16)

One can only hope that Springs1 would serve as the maid of honor.

myfanwy (#1,124)


scroll_lock (#4,122)

@STC: When two insane commenters love each other very, very much they want to express it in a special way. Let me show you this flip chart.

jolie (#16)

myfanwy: Wasn't momof3wildkids a real person who thought she had merit. Speaking of which, I wonder what ever happened to unfun?

Ronbo could officiate

I select my commenting communities according to the ones that have COCKTAIL PARTIES.

jolie (#16)


Br. Seamus (#217)

I feel collective enthusiasm for this.

scroll_lock (#4,122)


SeaBassTian (#281)

Every group needs a provocateur to make it interesting, but it would be nice to keep the non-sequitors to a minimum.

MrTeacup (#4,677)

Ah yes, the distant bureaucrats at Facebook enforcing homogenizing standards without sensitivity to the unique ways that local communities surveil and police their members! That must be defended.

davetar (#1,114)

"As awful as 4chan (or /b/, or anon, or whatever) is… It is a form of communication made possible entirely by the Internet,"

Well, there was always the bathroom wall.

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

Limited functionality for animated gifs.

cherrispryte (#444)

About the feminist blogging, as I used to do this (and sometimes still do so) – while it is frustrating and enraging to engage with someone who Just. Doesn't. Get It. it is also a really good way to better understand your own opinions and biases and dare-i-say privilege.
It is also really interesting to see how long a debate can go on before one side makes it personal or insulting. And depressing when you realize that you're the one that went there first.

As a former Fray editor, allow me to guess that Zhuo has no idea what real troll culture was like, back in the days when banning the incorrigible took skillz. Watching violent drunk posters roll from one proxy to another late on a Saturday night while the back channel filled up with threatened legal actions—those were good times.

6h057 (#1,914)

Why the fudge would anyone make the internet safe?

How is dangerous internet formed?

6h057 (#1,914)

Sorry, meant to write 'fuck' in there…


Art Yucko (#1,321)


Aatom (#74)

The cream tends to rise to the top on the best forums, which is what Facebook is trying to prevent in order to create a monetized lowest common denominator.

In other words, I think all of you are creamy and delicious.

Freddie (#4,189)

You've left something very important out, though. Which is: it's just the Internet. I'll tell you a story. I used to blog a little. I used to write about atheism a bit. I once got an email from a dude who told me that, because I am an insufficiently militant atheist, I was objectively complicit in Catholic priest child molestation. And this guy was notable only for how common and boring he was. That's the Internet.
Now, here's the question: who gives a fuck? It's the Internet. It's actually remarkably easy to get entire online communities agitated against a single person/handle/identity. Always has been. Occasionally, you get people eliciting sympathy about such things. And while I like sympathy, I wonder what it's for. Because the Internet is not real life, and no one on the Internet can possibly diminish you.
I was really amazed when I realized, a long time ago, that most of the people online secretly believe that your value is crowd-sourceable.
Now, I know that, in a sense, you are saying just that. But there's a hitch here: the kind of educating that your talking about could only really happen if people were correctable in their views and not in their perception of their own value. I think the opposite is true: I think most people online can't be corrected in their views but are (secretly, of course) deeply sensitive to online perceptions of their value. Which is dumb.
I do appreciate the insight that, as I've said for years, people who try to appear strong are weak. But it goes for everybody, you know?
Usually I've accomplished the most, at the end of the day, when the most people are telling me I'm horrible and should die in a fire. It's the R Crumb punk principle. The problem is that people celebrate that idea until they are the ones being mad about me being a punk, if you catch my drift. But I'm not being very articulate. It's interesting, though– the very reason that you say that people should have the right to remain anonymous on the Internet is exactly why I've always signed my name to anything I've ever said on the Internet. I get the point about people being able to slink away to a new identity if they get whacked– nobody likes to get made fun of– but, again. My value isn't a Wiki.

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