It’s over, the era of the internet Troll is coming to an end. Not because trolls are dying out but because trolling has grown. As the internet has become more vital for businesses and individuals, we’ve seen trolling behavior emerge from the deepest crevices of internet message boards onto mainstream sites with millions of hits every month.
What’s also become apparent over the last few weeks is that businesses have decided enough is enough and are confronting the problem head-on. Google announced that it was completely revamping the comment section on YouTube, which most consider an absolute cesspool of all types of “isms” and hate-speech. It has been the worst of the worst for years now. But we have also seen Popular Science completely abandon commenting altogether. While sites like Gamespot and their parent company CNet are introducing more stringent moderating standards – ditto for IGN. Last month Huffington Post announced they would be ending anonymous commenting as well. There has been a sea change in the fight against trolls, and the trolls are losing. They will lose because there is no other option anymore.
For organizations contemplating joining this epic fight against the enemies of man, here are five easy steps your organization can take to humanely control the troll population.
1. Don’t accept it
Banning is your friend. I always use the analogy of a house party when discussing online commenting – I know I’m not the only one. Your company owns a house and decided to have an open-invite party. The commenters are guests at this house party. If someone enters your party acting like a jerk – spilling beer on the furniture, harassing women, yelling racial slurs, just being a douche – you’re going to kick that person out without hesitation.
Online commenting is no different. Lay down rules of the road for your house-party, but also lay down the fact that your subjective view of others’ behavior is all that matters because it is your house. Don’t get sucked into the trap of believing you have to justify banning people based on a select few criterion (i.e. not saying the n-word, death threats). If you believe your banning authority begins and ends at openly hostile things like that then trolling will continue, and your moderation skills prove to be poor.
Be ban-happy, within moderation of course.
2. Stop being stingy and hire moderators
Not every site has the funding or resources to hire a massive team of moderators, and frankly most sites don’t need an army of mods. Oftentimes the content-creator themselves can simply moderate their own posts. I do that with my own blog Entitled Millennial (shameless plug) because the volume of traffic is low. But for large organizations, with funding, there is no excuse for being stingy on community moderation. Huffington Post has 40 moderators, which sounds like a lot, until you realize the site gets hundreds of thousands of comments every single day. That’s simply not good enough.
3. Ignore the Anti-PC police
We’ve all heard the comments before, either in real life or online, where someone makes the inane statement “political correctness is out of control, we have freedom of speech” or something along those lines. The statement is so prevalent, especially in tech/gaming culture, that it’s ironically become a way to squash dissent itself. It’s not very surprising this is so popular in some circles, as nerd culture is dominated by privileged white males who don’t want to be reminded of their privilege.
It’s time the juvenile Anti-PC police are laughed out of the room, or in this case, online communities. They’re juvenile not just because of the garbage they spew but because they don’t actually understand what the first amendment means, at all. So let me provide a brief refresher.
The first amendment exists to protect people from government censorship, intrusion, and abuse. The first amendment does not mean that you get to say anything you want and not get called out on it by other people – who, low and behold also have freedom of speech to call you a jackass. The first amendment also doesn’t protect you from a private entity banning you from their private property. In the case of the internet, a website is like private property so you can be kicked off of it for whatever reason.
4. Engage with your communities
Listen, I understand that there can literally be hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of comments on any individual piece of content posted online. It’s impossible for the uploader to peruse all these comments and provide feedback on each one. It’s impossible even for a large team of moderators to engage with every comment, nor should they be expected to.
But the wrong attitude/approach is to use the dismissive excuse that “we have lives.” It’s important for you to remember that the livelihood you enjoy is partly the result of thousands of other people consuming your content.
Ignoring your commenters by not engaging with them tells us a few things. First, that you don’t understand the internet. Second, that you look down on the people consuming your content. And third, that you’re not humble or thankful for the support you’re receiving from everyday people.
Remember, every click and every comment is indirectly funding you via advertising revenue. Advertisers want data analytics on clicks, comments, site-time, and other metrics because it means their product is being seen by more eyes for longer periods of time. Advertising revenue is partially responsible (or entirely responsible) for your salary. So believing yourself to be above the people who comment on your work is just sort of douchey itself. Not every comment is created equal obviously, and no one is arguing for you to engage with bad comments. But you need to engage with the community fairly frequently, in part for self-interest.
An online community, like a real life community, supports each other. If you are an engaged participant in the community then the few trolls, jerks, and bigots who try to invade the space will be exiled by other community members who rally behind you. The community receives appreciation from you and they return the favor by defending you when need be.
The community thus becomes a bit self-regulating – but you obviously still need outside regulation via moderation as well, this isn’t Reddit.
5. Don’t get rid of anonymous commenting
This is a really interesting dilemma facing many websites right now. Actually it’s been facing many websites ever since Facebook introduced their sign-in feature years ago. But the anti-anonymity movement seems to be growing more recently.
I’m of two minds on this, I believe non-anonymous commenting can reduce trolling and hate speech but the cost can be too high – I’ll explain why in a second. I also believe anonymous commenting has its place and shouldn’t be done away with.
When I say that there is a cost to non-anonymous commenting it’s this – it reduces the ability to have genuine conversations because candidness gets destroyed.
Essentially, as soon as we put our real names and faces on the internet, where they are preserved forever, we are creating a brand of ourselves. In order to get a job, move up in a company, not get fired, attract potential clients, etc…our personal brands need to be a professional brand. That means spelling and grammar become very important, opinions beyond sports become a no-no, and your persona has to generally be squeaky clean.
There are plenty of reasons why someone who wishes to remain anonymous online does so without being someone who trolls, or engages in hate speech. It just takes a bit of imagination to figure out why. Here are some quick examples. I may comment anonymously about my severe dislike for a particular corporate practice at Company X. That’s not trolling or hate speech, but my personal brand is not going to make that same type of comment – especially if I’m applying for a job at the time, maybe even at Company X. My personal brand also won’t engage in commenting on activities that have a stigma attached to them. If I’m an older gamer I’m certainly not going to have my personal brand discussing video games – that seems too childish. Further, my personal brand is not going to comment, in any depth, on politics or religion. But I may do all of these things anonymously.
There are a host of things we want to say, but branding/professionalization prevents us from doing so. Not because the things we want to say are horrible, but because there are certain professional standards we have to abide by – grammar and spelling being the most obvious.
If you get rid of anonymous commenting the candidness of your community will suffer, which means dialogue and interesting conversations will never occur. That’s a shame for everyone involved; and may push enough people away that your organization could suffer a reduction in traffic overall. Lets remember that the freedom of the internet has always been one of its appeals. We want people to express themselves, just not in abusive ways.
Follow these five tips and your online community will mature, thrive, and no longer embarrass your organization. Don’t let the trolls win.