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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Troll Whisperer

Seth Godin points to a great article by Cory Doctorow on how to handle trolls.

Cory talks about separating the trolls from the group and keeping the group small as trolls seem to thrive in larger groups.

... neither of these strategies solves the underlying problem: getting big groups of people to converse civilly and productively among themselves. Spreading out the pile reduces the heat -- but it also reduces the light. Splitting the groups up requires the consent of the users, a willingness to be segregated from their peers.

The holy grail is to figure out how to twiddle the rods in just the right fashion so as to create a festive, rollicking, passionate discussion that keeps its discourse respectful, if not always friendly or amiable.

He also admits his own problem:

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.
So turning the other cheek is not an option for Cory. Hence the idea of the "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.

The trouble with this "unquantifiable tips" means showing another how to be a troll whisperer is going to be difficult. Of course, there is never a silver bullet or a quick fix but a least if there were some steps to follow.

Well maybe there is:

Teresa invented a technique called disemvowelling -- removing the vowels from some or all of a fiery message-board post. The advantage of this is that it leaves the words intact, but requires that you read them very slowly -- so slowly that it takes the sting out of them. And, as Teresa recently explained to me, disemvowelling part of a post lets the rest of the community know what kind of sentiment is and is not socially acceptable.
Now, that is a cool concept.

Read Cory's full essay here.

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