What to Do About the Dickheads

In the comment thread for “The Sort of Crap I Don’t Get” comes this question from JustaTech:

What can we as blog readers and comment-leavers do about the entire issue of trolls and abusive commenters? Some of the science-based blogs I read have a stated minimal-moderation policy, and develop a troll infestation. With known trolls, this leads to lots of comments that say “Ignore the troll” or “Don’t feed the troll”, but what else can we do? Do resolutely on-topic comments help drown out trolls and indicate that the rest of the readers don’t care, or is it silent approval?

The answer on this site is simple: If you think someone is trolling, leave them to me. I have no problem malleting the schmucks into oblivion, and the trolls and abusive commenters are pretty obvious, particularly in contrast to the other commenters and the standard level of commenting here (yes, that’s a compliment to you all. Thank you). We have commenters here who are contentious, but contentiousness is not the same thing as trolling and/or abusive. Contentious means you have a point related to the topic. Trolling/abusing means the only thing you’re trying to do is hit at other people.

Of course, ignoring trolls is not always easy, specifically because trolls are angling to get attention in the worst possible way. They want you to engage, and what they do is so obnoxious that you want to engage, if only to mock them. But mocking a troll doesn’t do anything; they can’t be shamed and all they want is a response so they keep doing what they do. Attention is oxygen to the troll. You suffocate them by ignoring them. And then I come around and throw the remains into the trash bin.

Anyway, here’s a handy tip: If you read a comment and you can’t decide whether it’s from a troll or not, err on the side of “it’s a troll” and leave it be. In almost all cases you will feel better not engaging that person, whether they were intending to troll or not.

However, I don’t think it’s the commenter’s responsibility to do anything about trolls and abusers on a Web site; it’s the responsibility of the site owner, and I think that it is a responsibility that’s not optional. In July Anil Dash wrote a piece entitled “If Your Website’s Full of Assholes, It’s Your Fault,” and I think he’s one hundred percent correct on that. If you open your site to comments, you have to police those comments. No one else is going to do it for you; no one else should have to do it for you. And if you don’t deal with the assholes quickly and decisively, they will take over the site. All the normal, nice people will go elsewhere because no one wants to be in the presence of an asshole any longer than they have to. And in the end you will be tainted by the association.

Here’s the problem with that: Moderation can be psychologically difficult, especially if you’ve not done it before. Most people start with the default and charitable assumption that other people (and their words) have value, and that people shouldn’t have their expression stifled. This is an entirely laudable premise and unfortunately one that trolls and abusers exploit to their own ends. Every time I stuff a troll into the moderation queue, they launch off several (unseen by others) comments about what an awful person I am for censoring them, how they’re just trying to make a point, how I’m a coward for not letting differing viewpoints into the blog, and so on and so forth. If you’re not anticipating these sort of tactics, they can make you feel like you are the asshole, not the troll. You also have to deal with the fallout, which can (and in the case of women bloggers/writers, often does) include the troll becoming incensed and starting another round of abuse.

Be that as it may, it has to be done. I think one way to do it is for the site owner to picture themselves as being a kindergarten teacher. If you don’t herd kindergartners, they make an awful mess. But if you do, then you find most kindergartners can follow directions, if you make those directions clear, obvious and firm. A couple of them may need more attention than others, but providing that direction both helps them and reinforces to the others the desirability of doing things by the rules. The occasional kindergartner that’s interested only in lighting fires in the trashcan? Quickly and calmly invite those to be educated elsewhere, and don’t feel guilty about it. There are many other kindergartens out there, and some of them appear to actually like the kids that start fires. Let them have them.

(I understand most commenters wouldn’t appreciate being compared to kindergartners. But you don’t have to tell them that’s how you’re dealing with them. As for you Whatever commenters, who are discovering only now that this is my management style: Oh, don’t look so shocked. Now have your snack. It’s almost nap time.)

I’m very serious about the “don’t feel guilty” thing, folks. Trolls and abusers don’t deserve that from you. They come to your site with the intent to shit all over it and you. So punt them, fast and hard and without any other sort of engagement, and remember that if you don’t, no one else is going to. It’s difficult to do at first, but it does get easier with practice, and at the end of it you’ll have a site that has comments worth having, from people worth having conversations with.

63 thoughts on “What to Do About the Dickheads

  1. As someone thinking of setting up his own blog, this comes in use at exactly the right time!
    And where the heck is my blankie for naptime?!?

  2. As someone who works tech support, I can tell you that this is very similar to what I do all day. Except my kids are cranky because their toys aren’t working.

    With my blog I haven’t had to worry that much about trolls so far. The traffic’s so low and I really don’t get comments. If and when it does come up, my method of dealing is likely to be the same.

    Any chance I could get a Mallet of Loving Correction? If not, how about a Frying Pan of Inevitible Destiny?

  3. I think I may have to post a link to this to an IRC channel I frequent, where I used to be one of the ppl in charge of moderation. Channel managers, for as long as I’ve been there (about 15 years, give or take), have been chosen, not “elected”. The most recent channel manager decided that “I can trust you to police yourselves, right?” would be his management style. Unfortunately, this gave the trolls a chance to take over, so now we have the kindergarteners telling the teachers what to do. Hence “elections”–when the “I can trust you” chanmgr had to step down due to pressing outside commitments, he chose his replacement, the trolls threw a hissyfit, and now they’re squawking that we “have” to have “elections” because anything else is “unfair”. Sigh. Somebody’s gotta be the “parent”, folks, if you don’t like it, feel free to run away from home.

  4. Corollary: If you’re running a business whose plan includes any kind of user-submitted content or commentary, you need to hire someone to do this. Probably several someones. If you have any kind of success at all, it will become a full-time job. Don’t forget to budget for it and then skimp.

  5. K.W. @2: There’s a dupe bug that lets you clone as many copies of the Rail Gun of Learn What The First Amendment Actually Says as you want.

    Having been a moderator of a community similar to the one Jennifer describes, I would rather scrape my eyes out with a tangerine peel than do it again. I’ve also found that ‘group blogs’, unless they are very small in their blogging board indeed, tend to degenerate into trollkingdom very quickly, because of internal moderating politics (and then what do you do when one of the mods goes full-metal asswipe)? The nice thing about one’s own blog, as our host repeatedly demonstrates, is that while nobody else mallets the trolls for you, nobody can stop you from malleting the trolls. They don’t like it? WordPress is right over there, buddy, start your own sandbox.

  6. It’s really hard to moderate comments if as the blog owner you have a strong urge to be liked.

    I mean this seriously. Most people want other people to like them, a natural urge given that we are by default social animals. We want to connect with people. We actively hope for others to be interested in what we say, and for them to communicate with us in some meaningful manner. We want people to like us and our content.

    Which makes punting trolls especially hard, because they’re hitting us right where we’re most vulnerable. Developing that thick skin, that indifference to foulness, especially when it is tailored personally to us (“You are being a bad mother by leaving your kids alone”), is really tough. I guess it takes years of experience, determination, perseverance and high levels of self confidence to really run a successful site that draws a lot of trolls. Which is also why so many people turn off comments or stop blogging when they start drawing a lot of attention.

  7. I highly recommend following the link to Anil Dash’s piece. Damn right, and kudos to John for taking responsibility for keeping this place feisty but generally peaceable.

  8. An excellent post. Trolls are such petulant little blighters. That they seek out any type of forum that allows commenting is all the more depressing. There is such a world of difference in presenting a differing opinion versus being inflammatory.

    In the end, the blog/what-have-you-type-forum owner is in control of that particular sand box and will decide who can and can’t play.

  9. Hear hear. You just cannot be nice to some people, and remoteness and anonymity brings these people out. “Everyone is a reactionary about subjects he understands.”

    John’s method is perfectly reasonable for a forum of this size, but it doesn’t scale. That is why, for example, sites with very large engagement like the Slashdot guys and wikipedia have gone further in implementing ways for their users to moderate each other.

  10. I’d suggest one thing that we can do as commenters and participants in various forums in order to deal with trolls is to make it clear we prefer a moderated space over one which is unmoderated – or in other words, let it be known that we support the folks in charge. I know I’m largely on the side of the existing mod(s) and blog owners in any blog I’m commenting on – if someone is coming along and being obnoxious, I’m likely to be in there saying something along the lines of “dude, not cool” to them, and doing my bit to point out the community standards.

    Blog and forum owners and moderators can and do get a lot of crap for insisting on standards, and insisting those standards be complied with. Support from the peanut gallery may not be much, but I suspect it helps a lot. (I know if I were ever in the position of having to moderate my own blog, I’d probably appreciate it no end – particularly since most of the work of moderation tends to happen in the background, where most commenters don’t notice it).

  11. Trolls want to get a reaction, either from the other readers or the moderator. If you take that away from them, they tend to get bored and leave.

    I remember reading about a moderation system setup so if a person / post was marked as trolling by the moderator, it was hidden from everyone else, but the troll could still see it. The troll was also not given any indication this happened. It falls apart if the troll has multiple accounts or logs out and notices the post isn’t there, but the claim is it was fairly effective.

  12. I think there is a difference between starting with the “charitable assumption that other people (and their words) have value, and that people shouldn’t have their expression stifled”, and always feeling the need to end with it. If someone has repeatedly or outrageously trolled, the moderator should feel no guilt at all for using the mallet. There is a difference between giving people the chance to be decent, and letting them walk over everybody when they are not.

    I don’t comment many places, especially on controversial topics. But here is one place I will and that is because it has incisive well thought posts to start the discussion and it is extremely well moderated which gives the space for greater discussion by a really great group of kindergarteners.

    I’m off to nap now.

  13. I wonder how a level of self-moderation may work on the mid-range sites? My first thought was something like the MMO chat channel “Ignore”, but a variation can be seen with the Slashdot comment ranking.

    Has this worked for anyone, or is it just not an option unless you develop your own comment system?

  14. Shutting down trolls was the hardest thing to do when I first started blogging. Well, people who make death threats or ramble on about stuff that only makes sense in their head are easy to block and delete, but assholes are very quick to cry “censorship!” and “you’re too sensitive” and “you know I’m right, or you wouldn’t have to shut me up!”

    Then I realized something: my blog is mine. I wouldn’t allow someone to shout racial slurs in my home, who allow it on my blog? In fact, I wouldn’t allow shouting in my house at all, and no one would accuse me of censorship!, so fuck the trolls. If they want to pay the hosting fees and write content every day and manage links and keep up on comments . . . well, they’d be a blogger and not a troll, now wouldn’t they.

  15. There are many other kindergartens out there, and some of them appear to actually like the kids that start fires.

    House of Slytherin preschool is closed for applications until next spring. House of Slytherin Kindergarten is still accepting applications, but is nearly full.

  16. I read a wide range of blogs on many topics and it is interesting how different one handle it & how different the communities are. Of course the political blogs I read tend to be very contentious & have the worst sorts of trolls. I read a couple of feminist sites who are brutal with the mallet and the threads end up being a lot of “me too!” (not to pick on them, the writing is excellent & the trolls were the ugliest bastards you (N)ever want to read. Professor Jonathon Turley has a blog, while it focuses on legal issues it really covers a lot of social and cultural stuff. He keeps it wide open yet, beyond on Christian loon and 2 paid RNC staffers it is one of the most respectful and decent thread generators on my daily route.

    But, if I might be frank here :), this site is incredibly well commented. I appreciate so many of you guys & often feel there is nothing more I can add by the time I get here. You can blame us commentators for that but you also are a huge part of it. first by attracting smart, well-rounded folks & second by a judicious use of the mallet of righteousness. Too fast & you end up with dull commenters, to slow & you end up with poo flinging

  17. Yeah – snacks!

    And I agree, I think as a blog community member, my biggest job is to support the moderator in his or her work keeping out the trolls. Thank you very much Mr. Scalzi for your part in making this a fun, interesting and educational place to hang out when I should be working. Wanna share my snack?

  18. What I don’t understand are the trolls that troll the trolls. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of looking at the comments on any Yahoo! article you might know what I mean. Any article will quickly generate four figures worth of comments and 90+ percent appear to be from trolls. Too many comments to be read by anyone. Who are they trying to get a reaction from?

    At some point, comments just no longer make sense and should be turned off.

  19. Given that my blog’s readership consists of my mom and a few other friends who read often by rarely comment, spam, not trolls, is the usual problem. (Which, for the most part is handled well by Akismet.) But I wouldn’t have any problem smacking down trolls. As I see it, my blog isn’t a free speech zone. It’s my online living room. You’re welcomed to visit, but if you act like an ass, I will gleefully kick your ass to the curb.

    That said, I’ve found that on some sites, especially those with a large group of intelligent, articulate followers, I actually enjoy it when trolls arrive. Because the blog regulars do such a lovely job of eviscerating the little monsters. Each blog has its own culture: for some, trolls are a disruptive force that shuts down reasonable discourse; on others, the trolls serves as a kind of object lesson to others.

  20. Point of clarification, John: When you mallet, you simply poof the comment, stuff the miscreant in the mod queue, and don’t say anything else? or….? I recently acquired the role of assistant mod for a site I hope becomes of some size, and I want to have my good ideas in hand before we get there… and I don’t doubt that the site owners will want to at least consider the ideas of a guy whose gentle mallet rides herd on some of the best damn commenters on the net… who the heck else gets good comments out of Slytherin? :) :) :) :) :)

  21. I find it also helps if you’re slightly misanthropic. Not that I actually *hate* other people. But when it comes down to brass tacks, I simply do not care in the slightest what someone thinks. At least personally. I’ll care that someone’s not being constructive in a conversation, or is arguing poorly, etc… But trolls? Gone. And they can send as many emails as they want. My email-filter-fu is stronger than their stream of abuse.

  22. #15 Bobby — Our setup was such that any login from a phone at the address of a twit received “twit” status. Some of them never did figure out why no one was replying (especially since mods could reply, and even pull a good post out of twit status for the community to reply to!)

  23. I’m one of the moderators for io9 and I took my inspiration from the Mallet of Loving Correction. Instead, I have La Isla Trollita – the island of little trolls. Whenever someone is obviously trolling, I simply move their comment to #laislatrollita. I imagine it as a lovely place where everyone is unhappy together forever. A beautiful girl stands on the docks, handing out leis to the new inhabitants as they queue up and grumble things like, “This place sucks” or “She looks foreign” or “How much did I pay for this crap?” It’s tough to feel bad about handing someone an island vacation, right?

  24. So, all well and good for Trolls, but how do you tell when the Troll is going to escalate into a full blown stalker? Following the links from comments the other day made it clear that these things can get very scary and downright dangerous. So, whacking trolls may be easy, but a true psychopath will simply use that as an excuse to escalate.

  25. discovering only now that this is my management style: Oh, don’t look so shocked. Now have your snack. It’s almost nap time. – I had to chuckle at that one.

    I too had to chuckle at this one.

    And now I shall run around the room with my toy X-Wing yelling, “This is Red 5, I’m going in! Shweeeeeeeee! Phwat! Phwat! Keerkow! Keerkow! BOOOOOOM!”

  26. Phil@26: “I find it also helps if you’re slightly misanthropic.”

    As an engineer, I would call that “staying on task.” A site needs to have a goal. When it does, the only question the moderator has to be concerned with is “does this comment further the site’s goal?” If it doesn’t, it goes. How it goes is a choice left to the moderator or site owner. By then the troll has already been convicted; the only question that remains is what will be its sentence.

    It’s not misanthropic, it’s deciding ahead of time which is more important: the site’s goal or some stranger’s feelings. (Although I suppose if your goal was to make people miserable, that could be misanthropic. Could also be quite entertaining if you’re into that kind of thing.)

    I believe that’s why commercial sites that leave comments unmoderated continue to do so. Their goal is page hits, and unless there are data to show that moderation results in more hits, moderation won’t be implemented. (Most of the sites I visit that have regular comment cesspools aren’t there for the conversation anyway. They present interesting content and commenting is just a feature left enabled by default. In fact, the trolls are probably a significant fraction of their hit counts.)

  27. I’ve been following this discussion, and the related and historical items on other parts of the intrawebz, with great interest. It’s been well worth reading. I no longer feel apologetic about having taken a hard-assed stand on my own journal.

    I’m very serious about the “don’t feel guilty” thing, folks. Trolls and abusers don’t deserve that from you.

    For a female blogger/writer, the environment is a kindergarten — when things are going well.

    When things go badly: the trolls are not commenters, with rights to what they say. They are abusers, whose goal is to deny you your rights: to speak, to live without fear, to live at all. Stop treating them as human beings with the same rights as human beings. They will only abuse you further for it.

    When I had to get out of an abusive relationship, I had a fine therapist who taught me some ugly but necessary rules: abusers will take advantage of your every positive trait or inclination. They will use your humanity, your decency, your sense of fairness, your sense of justice, your wish to communicate, your belief in reason and reasoned discourse, your desire to believe in any kind of good — all of this will be used as more weapons to destroy you. Don’t give them anything: a weapon, a platform, a voice, a lever, a moment of compassion.

    When faced with an abuser, this is not about justice. It’s about survival. If I want to survive online, if I want my journal to be a safe place for my real commenters, it’s my job to protect them from the abusers. It’s my job to protect myself as well.

  28. First time I ever ran anything, it was a Fortress-PC BBS in 1992. Perhaps a few dozen dial-up users, and most of us knew each other from college, or the occasional BBS face-to-face party. Trolling wasn’t a big problem. People got in fights sometimes, but it wasn’t anything like the psychotic stuff we see on the internet in 2011, where you sometimes have to wonder if someone hasn’t deliberately gifted all the sociopathic shut-ins around the world with unlimited 24 hour wide-band.

    Modding is tricky because I think being a -good- mod means thinking carefully about why you want to fish-slap someone: is the commenter truly crossing a line, or am I just pissed at them and want to use the God-power of the control panel to ‘win’ the discussion? People who stray too far into the I-must-win category tend to have attenuated user returns, in that only a very narrow bunch of personality cultists can put up with someone who never allows the commenters to disagree with anything the mod says.

    I’ve been contracted to mod the Writers of the Future forum for almost a year now, and I’m pleased to say that we’ve had very little need for fish-slapping or malleting of any sort. Probably because most everyone who is participating is also entering the Contest and isn’t eager to display him or herself as a web-raging lunatic, lest he or she find him or herself barred from entering — on account of being a dangerous or unstable-seeming fruitloop. My biggest chore has been combatting robo-spam, which was surprisingly adept at defeating several different CAPTCHA plugins. I put in a new, altogether different screening plugin that seems to have the robo-spammers beat… for now.

  29. I found the hardest time I had putting on the Moderator Hat was when two of my friends were getting nasty in an argument. Still, gotta keep the squabbling kids apart.

  30. That said, I’ve found that on some sites, especially those with a large group of intelligent, articulate followers, I actually enjoy it when trolls arrive. Because the blog regulars do such a lovely job of eviscerating the little monsters.

    Fandom_Wank. Particularly fail-tastic trolls get greeted with cookie recipes and cat macros.

  31. I *like* being treated like a kindergartener. Someone in the thread about abusive responses to blogs mentioned Karen Pryor’s Don’t Shoot the Dog. I am a huge fan of hers and a clicker trainer of dogs. People like to make jokes: “Oh, does this work on kids/husbands/bosses? ha ha” Well, yes, it does. It works on fish, cats, children, neighbors, parents, etc. The laws of behavior apply to any organism that is physically capable of doing what you are trying to teach it to do. In fact, Don’t Shoot was not written to be a dog training book (and isn’t); it’s about teaching and training anything/anyone, including oneself. The book focuses most on people.

    Before I knew there was a name for what I was doing (applying behavioral psychology to every day life), I was teaching self-defense and assertiveness classes to young women. Often the students who were the best at taking an assertive (versus polite/passive or aggressive/escalating) tone were teachers, baby sitters, day-care workers, etc. I would often say to them, if I found out they had a background working with kids, “Use your teacher/mommy voice.” And voila! Suddenly they were calm, confident, and in control. Sometimes, for the ones who had trouble letting go of people pleasing/polite responses to intrusion, I’d say, “Say this and imagine adding ‘dammit’ to the end of the sentence.”

    People/adults get all bent out of shape when we think we’re different and more special than children or other species, but really, the only difference is that adult humans are often much harder to train!

  32. I find it’s hard to disagree with a prevailing opinion in a thread. Not in the “OMG, you guys have no idea what you’re talking about, here’s what *I* think” type of disagree, but the “I have a different opinion from y’all, and here’s why. I respect your opinions, but I disagree with them.” On some boards that gets called “trolling”, because it’s apparently difficult in the US these days to actually just disagree with someone without getting all shout-y about it.

    So I often just don’t comment in threads where I disagree with the prevailing opinion, because it’s simply not worth the fire damage and pile-ons.

  33. Janice – From what I’ve seen over the last few years here the commenters here are fine with disagreement as long as it’s rooted in logic and/or evidence. Putting forth one’s personal opinion as somehow fact is a problem as is making assertions of fact and not backing them up with citations despite repeated requests. But as long as one makes a reasonable argument and backs it up in a reasonable way commenters here seem pretty respectful of differing opinions.

    ONe comment in the other thread made me sad (well more than one did…). Someone had started a blog, posted something to it, gotten a nasty comment and decided to shut the blog down. The effects of nasty trolling on individuals is bad enough, but we all lose when people decide not to speak and share things because of trolls.

    For those of you who blog I’d encourage you to think about it as if you were having a discussion group in your home. Hopefully you’d tolerate different viewpoints even if those were somewhat contentious, but you’d step in and stop things that got personal and you’d kick out people being trolls (in the web sense). Do that on your blog. It’s not quashing peoples’ freedom of speech or being unfair or any of that. It’s running the place in a manner you want. That’s your right. It’s also your responsibility.

  34. Sharon @ #38

    My sister works in behavioral therapy and she’s commented much the same thing — that the things she uses to help kids at her job work on her rescue dog at home and work on herself if she wants to change her own behavior.

  35. I’m diabetic… can I have a cracker instead of a cookie? As for the nap, you don’t gotta tell me twice Mr. Scalzi.

  36. Thanks for the heads up on this; I particularly liked Anil Dash’ observation that:

    “As it turns out, we have a way to prevent gangs of humans from acting like savage packs of animals.In fact, we’ve developed entire disciplines based around this goal over thousands of years. We just ignore most of the lessons that have been learned when we create our communities online.”

    Saruby, I suspect that true psychopaths don’t need excuses to escalate; they are going to do it anyway. Most people aren’t psychopaths, and even if they are currently behaving like dickheads their behaviour can often be modified by the judicious combination of the stick, sorry, mallet, and the carrot. That’s what we do outside the Internet, and it seems to me that we should apply those lessons online as well…

  37. One site I frequent generally does manage to keep trolling in check, with the exception of one entity who posts disturbing foul-mouthed insults all over the place. The moderators reliably clean it up, usually in minutes, and yet the behavior has persisted for years (IP-bans and the like seem not to help). I sort of get the mentality of vaguely on-topic trolling, getting a rise or provoking a fight, even if I don’t do it or like it. I don’t get this behavior at all.

  38. Science blogs that moderate out the stupid get dumped on by the persecution complex of the ignorance, bunk, cons, cranks, and conspiracy brigade or sued for libeling the make believe nonsense. It’s a special kind of reality challenged troll hanging round those parts.

  39. I really do need a nap today.

    I try to stay off of blogs that aren’t moderated by someone. It’s such a joy to go to a well-run blog where people engage in discourse. I read another blog religiously. He moderates, but does let most comments through. He’s one of those guys when someone is a troll or is rude beyond belief (I do believe there is a difference), he will not just delete the comment. He responds. They usually go away. Not sure what his talents are to do this. I prefer the mallet though. Much more clean and efficient.

    I actually read a decent conversation/comments over on Time magazine’s website. That never happens. Sites like those, although technically not a blog, just pull those trolls in. People were discussing why George Lucas had a right to keep changing his movies. I was waiting for some troll to come in and just mess it all up. It hasn’t happened yet. Not sure whether those types of sites have moderators.

  40. Phil at @26: If you’re not misanthropic *before* you become a moderator, a few years at the coal face unearthing nuggets of trollium from among the seams of commentite will *make* you misanthropic.

    Sharon @38: This isn’t surprising – on the board I moderate quite a few of my fellow moderators are mothers or teachers!

    Nathan @46: I know the kind of people you’re talking about … the ones who come back day after day, year after year, long after they’ve been permanently disinvited. They have to know by this point that their only lasting contribution will be a +1 killcount on a moderator’s stats … do they think they’re making work for us? Do they not realize just how *easy* it is to delete their accounts and ban them? When someone’s only purpose on the site is to spam the forums with goatse, you don’t even have to *think* about it!

    I think it’s important to make sure that one’s moderator staff get along well together, and that they are generally mature, upstanding and righteous people. Giving people a position of power can be dangerous! One of the standing rules on the site I moderate regarding the new moderator selection process is “No self-nominations” – on the grounds that anyone who wants to be a moderator shouldn’t be one. You’d be surprised at how many people try to get around this by nominating themselves with puppet accounts. They think we can’t see them, it is adorable.

  41. It’s really hard to moderate comments if as the blog owner you have a strong urge to be liked.

    Sure, but such people should ask themselves this: “You really think getting a rep as an enabling troll-farming d-bag is going to make you popular with anyone whose esteem is worth having?

    (Hint: Answer is two letters, begins with N and ends with a vowel.)

  42. User provided content is emerging as a significant issue. I know of one large financial company that hires at least six people at six figures each per year to monitor Facebook and Twitter interactions–that’s round the clock coverage. If there’s a “problematic” comment by a user, they scramble a team of lawyers, too, even if it’s 2 AM on Sunday. Not kidding!

    As another example, a change at Facebook has triggered a crisis in pharma company Facebook pages. This may be outdated information, but as I understand it, pharma companies are awaiting FDA guidance on user-provided content–what they are and are not allowed to do. An innocent comment by a user saying “This heartburn drug cured my brain cancer!” could violate FTC regulations on advertising for health products. To address that problem, pharma companies had set their Facebook pages not to accept user content. But a change at Facebook would have made that impossible. I believe some companies deleted their pages in order to avoid any conflict with regulations. Others are waiting on guidance from the FDA before they decide what to do about social media.

    Bottom line: yes you ARE responsible for third party content posted on your web site. You are publishing the material, whether you see and approve it before hand or let it through willy-nilly. Not only can your site fill up with assholes, but it can put you at legal risk. I am a believer that user comments are mostly not necessary. There are relatively few places where they work. I wrote for one web magazine that required authors to monitor and interact with a comment community–without the power to moderate. Every time there was a negative comment, I had to respond to it. Worst experience of my writing life. In the case of a mistake in an article, the magazine should publish a correction. Letting a bunch of sharks rehash every single one erodes the reputation of the author and the magazine by giving the impression they are not really sure of their facts and need to vet their articles with a community of readers. But I digress.

  43. I used to have a twitchy trigger finger on the comment threads. When I switched from Typepad to WordPress, the comment levels dropped, and I realized I was probably zapping comments that could have stood.

    That said, if your method of debate is to shout down anyone who disagrees with you, forget the loving mallet. I’m out there with the Angry Lead Pipe of Vengeance. Zap. Ban. Goodbye.

  44. #34: Your second paragraph is why I no longer have mod capability in the channel I referred to in my previous comment. I had some personal issues with a moderator who was at a higher level of moderatorship than I was, and he decided to punish me by entirely removing my ability to moderate. And even when I had moderator abilities, the only time I really came down hard on somebody was if they’d followed me from another channel with the express purpose of either continuing an argument from the other channel, or of trying to start a new argument in the peaceful channel where I had mod ability. On IRC, “kicking” is less severe than “banning”, and I always made sure to give the stalkers at least two kicks before I banned them. Yet I constantly got second-guessed by the higher level moderators who chose not to believe me when I tried to explain the circumstances. That’s one of the reasons the channel where I used to moderate has turned into, as I mentioned in my previous comment, the kindergarteners telling the teachers what to do. It’s tiresome constantly having someone accuse you of having a “god complex” simply because you’re uninterested in continuing/starting a fight with a troll. But I’d still prefer to have my moderating ability restored, since the moderator who removed said ability did so purely out of spite.

  45. I completely agree that no comment area is better than a poorly moderated one. Unfortunately, some users get upset if they aren’t allowed to comment. For example, on the group blog Language Log, one of the bloggers, Geoff Pullum, disables comments on his posts because he doesn’t want to deal with moderation. When a user complained about this, Pullum’s co-blogger Mark Liberman responded with an awesome metaphor: “In effect, you’re complaining that Geoff Pullum gives you free music but doesn’t maintain a mosh pit.”

    Not everyone who has interesting and insightful things to say has the skills to be a good moderator, or is interested in making the effort needed. We should discourage the notion that bloggers have an obligation to allow comments. When someone makes the decision to disallow comments, that needs to be respected. And when someone does allow comments, and does a great job moderating (as John does here), we should be grateful.

  46. I like the Bloggess’s solution for one negative comment she got this week; she turned it into a rather hilarious t-shirt. His idiocy will be publicly displayed, plus it will make her some cash.

  47. As I stated at Anil’s post I follow to rules when it comes to comments: If it makes me think, it gets to stay. If it looks like spam, it goes. Empty praise gets trashed, reasoned disagreement gets a reply.

  48. CLP @54: If you go to a symphony you don’t expect to get up and dance to the music, but not many people would want to go to a rock concert where the patrons were expected to sit quietly in their seats for the entire performance.

    Certainly bloggers have no obligation to allow comments. But a good community – like here, or at Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog, say – makes a blog a lot more than somebody throwing their opinions out into the aether, and one gets the impression that some blogs are no-comment not because of the moderating effort but because without comments, there’s no fear of contradiction.

  49. mythago@57: Some blogs are like rock concerts, where you can dance and have fun, and some are more like good radio stations, where you can listen to great music but can’t easily participate. And I agree, a blogs with great community (like this one!) are awesome. But I’d hate for someone with important and interesting insights to feel deterred from sharing them because they don’t have the time, energy, or skills to do moderation well. Such a person shouldn’t feel guilty running a comment-free blog.

    I agree, some bloggers disable comments because they can’t handle dissent, and I agree that this is unfortunate. But disallowing comments doesn’t have to mean denying readers an avenue to dissent or participate in the discussion. You can make a practice of posting a selection of interesting emailed replies, and include dissenting ones, like Andrew Sullivan does. Yes, that’s not as valuable as a well-moderated comment area, but it’s much better than a poorly-moderated, troll-infested, asshole-dominated comment area.

  50. And if you don’t deal with the assholes quickly and decisively […] All the normal, nice people will go elsewhere because no one wants to be in the presence of an asshole any longer than they have to./

    This applies to certain semi-public physical places, likre movie theatres too. Just this morning I was amused by this ad, and wishing more movie theatres would take this kind of stand:

  51. When I read this bit “This is an entirely laudable premise and unfortunately one that trolls and abusers exploit to their own ends.”, I had flashbacks to Liam Neeson’s characters diatribe in Batman Begins when he says, ‘Criminals thrive on humanity’s understanding’.

    Makes competent moderators seem like league of shadows type ruthless enforcers. Which is both cool and scary. There are probably many websites so corrupt with trolls they should be burnt down and started again. The official Warcraft forums spring to mind.

  52. On a bulletin board I used to be active on, we’d Westphalia trolls sometimes. That is, when someone went off on some trolly trollishness, the rest of us would start copy-and-pasting sections of the Treaty of Westphalia in the thread until the troll gave up and went away.
    Anyway, I think your advice is brilliant, Mr Scalzi, and I plan on posting a link to this on certain science blogs when they have certain issues.
    (PS my “favorite” trolls right now are folks who show up on a blog run by Muslims, where most of the community are Muslim, and post long comments about what a shite religion Islam is. Who raised these people?)

  53. #61 Jeff Rubinoff,

    Back in ye olde USENet days, when I was a regular on alt.folklore.urban, we used the “doe snot” i.e. ‘does not follow’ technique in a similar way to your Westphalia technique on trolls – except it could be any non-sequitur wall o’text. Different regulars each had their favourites – somebody liked Beowulf, I recall.

  54. I realise this post is nearly two weeks old now (yes, I’m a bit behind!), but I’m still surprised no-one has come back and brought this up: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-berkshire-14894576 This douchebag has been jailed in England for trolling memorial sites for dead teenagers. But hateful as his actions were, I’m very conflicted over whether or not they should be considered criminal. I would have thought the ASBO (Anti-Social Behaviour Order) would have been enough.

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