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"Complete abstinence is easier than perfect moderation." Saint Augustine

The final solution for persistant trolls?

September 21, 2003

So what do you do when nothing else has worked and you're left with a board that is at the mercy of a persistent troublemaker? There aren't very many options. Firstly there's taking the situation to the ISP or workplace of the person concerned. But if they're that persistent, then it's not unlikely to think that they'll just take such a move as an escalation of hostilities. Contacting the police might be appropriate if you think you've got enough of a case to push for harrassment or something similar - but again, it's more than likely that it would just be read as an escalation of hostilities - and that's likely to make everything more serious and difficult to deal with in the long-term. At the other extreme, you have the option of just learning to live with them, but that comes with a range of costs - the most significant of which is that your authority (and those of the system you've built and the people who occupy it) has been openly challenged and you have failed to resolve the situation. This will encourage other trouble-makers either within the population of the board itself or real-life friends of the 'conquering troll' to come and populate your community. Backing down, fundamentally, is only an option if you were wrong in the first place. Under those circumstances you should confess pretty much immediately. This is embarrassing, but not normally catastrophic. Backing down when you're right because you can't enforce your decision - however - is.

One extreme - and totally uncommercial - solution is to build upon the social networks of individual culpability and responsibility that already exist within your community. For example - by making it impossible for the unregistered user to see what's being posted, you limit their ability to check up on what people are saying about them. By making it impossible to register without having been directly invited, you not only get the benefits of a web of trust-style selection process for new members, but you also have someone responsible for bringing the new member into the midst of the community. That person can be held accountable if they invite someone particularly troubling inside. Unfortunately this has a number of problematic elements - firstly it's commercial suicide if you're running the board as part of a business (unless you are getting people to pay for your messageboard on the basis of who is on it), secondly it will increase the cliquey aspect of all online communities and finally it will mean that the content produced by your community's members can't easily be used as a resource for anyone other than the community members itself. Nonetheless, in many circumstances it can be the only practical way to move forward...


James Cronin said:

I've always liked Phil Greenspun's approach to this.

No handy anchor tags I'm afraid. So scroll about halfway down down to Case 4 and read the "Microsoft Helps Defend Against Bozos" section.



Ari Davidow said:

I have gradually evolved some serious prejudices about trolls, or people who play the part on forums for which I am responsible.

If I am a participant, I tend to leave when the signal/noise ratio moves far towards the noise end of the scale. I assume that my best users are likewise.

In general, though, most people are pretty open to hearing reasonably voiced criticism: "I enjoy your participation, but xxx", if actually presented in a non-confrontational way. (I don't know that I have the "non-confrontational way" thing down as well as I might, but I'm working on it.")

But some people can't or won't learn. And it has gradually occurred to me, in communities that I own (as you note, this doesn't work in large commercial arenas, although perhaps it could) that I don't have to tolerate people too stupid to learn to play well with others. That's it. In my forums, every few years someone gets dumped. Something stupid inevitably triggered my notice, and then, when the person proved to be difficult, unpleasant, or implausible to deal with, I just kick 'em out. So far, the communities I work with are small enough, and generally friendly enough, so that this is very, very rare. And so far, the damage caused by kicking someone out has been less than the damage of letting them stay, both to me and to the community.

I think that making a place that people feel good about hanging out with is a lot like creating a garden. A bit harder - you have to remember that people aren't often unreasonable or overbearing from their own perspective, but neither is a honeysuckle bramble. And for a garden to have healthy plants, and for it to look good, you have to do a little weeding.

Sounds awfully cold put that way. I hope that I never internalize it that way. But I'm not going to fight with users over the health of a community. If someone is too stupid, or too evil, to fit in, time to weed.

Tom Coates said:

Yeah James - that approach does work pretty well. We used a version of it pretty much exactly like that on UpMyStreet Conversations.

Richard Soderberg said:

Many online communities provide functionality to individuals to "ignore" certain others, whose words they do not wish to hear. It's interesting that the converse is rarely provide: the ability to "hide" my words from certain others. As a troll makes people aware of its presence, authors can choose to make the troll unaware of their posts. This sort of exclusion is common in life, but seems to never have migrated to the online communities.

damien said:

very good point Richard.
You should talk to the phpBB developers about that.

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