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.