Troll Whispering at Web2Open

Earlier today, Teresa Nielsen Hayden posted the guidelines she uses for moderating the comments on BoingBoing. Of course, not everyone agrees with her take-no-prisoners approach, and her post has drawn some fire. But whether you’re a fan (which I am, big time), there’s no question that Teresa’s advancing our collective understanding of online community dynamics.

If you’re grappling with an online community yourself, or if you’re just interested in learning more, plan to join Teresa at Web2Open–along with Christy Canida of Instrucables, Amy Muller of Get Satisfaction, and Kirrily Robert of Metaweb–for a juicy discussion of community dynamics. Our “Troll Whispering” session, scheduled for the afternoon of Weds, April 23, will be a great place to share your successes and challenges.

PS. For a dose of inspiration, check out Teresa’s own site, Making Light, where she uses the pretty much the same moderation system she does on BoingBoing: it’s home to some of the most thoughtful comment threads on the Web.

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  • http://dasht-exp-1a.com Thomas Lord

    Hey, it’s the Code of Conduct thread again!

    -t

  • http://dasht-exp-1a.com Thomas Lord

    Wait a minute. I was a little to quick there.

    A “Troll Whispering” session?

    You are now advertising, quite openly, O’Reilly Inc’s intention to help your customers learn how to exploit the unpaid labor generated by deceiving people who are angry about something on your web site.

    Fascinating. Honestly, a bunch of fairly rich people and/or their proxies are getting together to figure out how best to tame and exploit the anger of people who otherwise threaten their ad revenues? You go, girl.

    -t

  • http://www.stubbleblog.com Tony Stubblebine

    @Thomas: The code of conduct comparison doesn’t make any sense. That thing was rules for community members. This session is for community moderators to share techniques. Almost every successful community has some form of moderation, and they all want to find a way to do it better.

    Also, what’s with the exploitation accusation? Websites are becoming increasingly social, so improving moderation is just another form of improving your site. If that’s exploitation, then so is every other session at the Expo and at every conference I’ve ever been to.

    Maybe you’ve never watched the Dog Whisperer, but that show’s about removing anti-social behaviors from dogs so that the whole family gets along better, dog and people alike. The goals of moderation are no different.

  • http://dasht-exp-1a.com Thomas Lord

    “Troll” Whisperer?

    Comparisons to dogs and to horses of meeting out economic fates?

    YOU ARE DEHUMANIZING ACTUAL (often extremely innocent, and sometimes quite insightful) HUMANS BY POLITICAL MEANS. YOU ARE WORKING ON PERFECTING FASCIST BUSINESS PLANS.

    .

    “Nothing human disgusts me… [but much of it fails to impress me].”

    -t

  • http://meyerweb.com/ Eric Meyer

    Well, I’m a fan of the policies– but then, considering that I’ve long used pretty much exactly the same policies in moderating comments on my site and participation in css-discuss, I would be.

    And yeah, I’ve had the same accusations of fascistic censorship thrown at me. I’ve been thinking about getting one of those swanky medal-choked generalissimo outfits, complete with snappy hat and oversized aviator sunglasses. Think Teresa would want to go in with me on a bulk order?

  • Michael R. Bernstein

    Thomas, it’s perfectly possible to be angry, and express that anger, without being a troll. Furthermore, most trolling seems to be motivated by something other than genuine anger.

    I’m not sure why you’re conflating the two. They’re orthogonal.

    Next, please consider that ‘deception’ doesn’t really enter into this at all.

    As for ‘dehumanizing’, well, you may have a small point there, but in fact trolling behavior is something that normal people do not typically engage in offline, but do online. There is something slightly dehumanizing about the medium, and dealing with this effectively involves treating the behavior as distinct from the people exhibiting it, because nearly *everyone* occasionally becomes a troll online:

    http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2004/03/19

    Full-time trolls who won’t take a hint are another matter, of course.

    Anyway, coping with that requires devising means of ‘social control’ to basically replace the normal restraint people feel in everyday face-to-face interaction. No more than that, but no less either. Disemvowelling a comment (or portions of a comment), for example, is a much better solution than deletion, as it is more transparent, and gives appropriate social signals to both the commenter and the rest of the community as to what is considered inappropriate, *without* feeding the troll (you can’t claim that your comment was ‘censored’ due to disagreement if the evidence of your trolling is still right there for anyone willing to expend a slight effort). This actually *encourages* debate (sometimes fierce) while counteracting the (otherwise inevitable) devolution of most online discussion forums to a cesspool.

    Eric, that definitely sounds like a photo-op! Ask her.

  • http://dasht-exp-1a.com Thomas Lord

    The concept of a “whisperer” is a concept of dominance over a dumb animal by subtle manipulation. Don’t you people have something better to do?

    -t

  • http://www.socialtext.net/web2open/index.cgi?web2open Sarah Milstein

    Eric & Michael, as fans–or at least supporters–of moderation policies, do you make explicit your goals in posting them? I really like the way Teresa moderates comments. But when she posted the EULA yesterday, she did so without saying why. Was she getting a lot of questions that prompted her to answer en masse? Was there a particular incident? Does it matter? Put another way: do people respond differently to moderation policies when they’re posted with a “Here’s why we’ve got these guidelines” intro?

  • bowerbird

    teresa can whisper in my ear any time… :+)

    -bowerbird

    p.s. maybe using the excess vowels she now has…

  • don delny

    Sarah Milstein,
    you asked:
    “But when she posted the EULA yesterday, she did so without saying why. Was she getting a lot of questions that prompted her to answer en masse? Was there a particular incident?”

    Later on, in the comments, she did clarify why she posted her description of the site’s moderation standards. From memory, I think it was in response to complaints that people “had no idea” why their comment was disemvowelled and demanded a clear explanation of the “rules”.

    Note that some of the same individuals then proceeded to complain about the length and detail present in the moderation policy.

    (I believe she even clarified that it was not a EULA, since it is not binding on the commenters, but rather a description of standards.) It was also extensively discussed, revised, re-written, edited and approved by the Boingers (Cory, Mark, Xeni, etc.) before posting.

    I am relaying this to you via my somewhat flawed memory, so please do click on over to the attached discussion and control-f for Nielsen Hayden to verify what I have written here. There is a lot of meat in that discussion.

  • http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/ Teresa Nielsen Hayden

    I’ve gotten a small but steady stream of complaints from people who profess to have no idea why their behavior was curbed or repressed. I was also getting complaints about the lack of a formal set of guidelines, and complaints about vowels mysteriously disappearing, and complaints about …

    You get the picture.

    Then, when I put up a set of moderation guidelines, they complained.

    It’s mostly harmless.

  • http://meyerweb.com/ Eric Meyer

    Sarah, I don’t list out my policies step by step. I think people probably do react to guidelines very differently, and probably more negatively, when they’re written out– see http://flickr.com/photos/tantek/2140986376/ for a related example.

    My sole written policy is “management reserves the right to edit, delete, etc.” I’ve had people ask me on occasion to make explicit my policies. I’ve always refused on the grounds that I’m not about to get into a cycle of publishing detailed guidelines, having people object that their comment didn’t run afoul of the guidelines, me revising the guidelines, them finding new ways to skirt the line, me revising again, them accusing me of revising the guidelines solely to pursue a personal vendetta against them…

    Bleah. I got no time for that crapola. So I exercise creative ambiguity. So far, it’s worked out just fine. At some point, I may explicitly add an overarching policy of “be respectful of others and don’t be an asshat” but I dunno. I suspect even that minimal and obvious statement is just asking for rules-lawyering noise from the trollishly minded. So I’ll probably just stick with my “reserves the right” bit and let the results communicate the shape of that policy’s enforcement.

  • http://getsatisfaction.com Thor Muller

    Very few online communities do well to ignore the online equivalent of schoolyard bullies. But summarily throwing them out of the schoolyard isn’t always the most productive approach. The approach suggested by this Troll-whispering panel is actually quite respectful of the bullies, because it assumes that there is something to be gained by converting their belligerence into productive discourse.

    Contrary to Thomas’s accusation above, discussions like these among community managers aren’t about smothering opinions, but rather about creating an environment where divergent opinions can be exchanged respectfully. And as for “taming anger,” hopefully we can all agree that when unbridled anger boils over into hatred, harassment, or abuse, a bit of “taming” is good for everyone.

  • Joe

    I don’t like Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s moderation. Having commented on BoingBoing, it’s my observation that she can yell at commenters, but you step dangerously close to having your comment never see the light of day if you disagree too much with her. She’s very heavy handed in my opinion, and I’m getting pretty tired of it.

    > I really like the way Teresa moderates comments.

    Really? You never see the comments she decides you shouldn’t see. Maybe you’d feel different if you saw them.