May 15, 2007

Defanging Internet Trolls: The Art of Being a Troll Whisperer

I Had That Dream About You Again by Thomas Hawk

Thomas Hawk, via Flickr (Creative Commons license)

We've all heard or read about the wonders of horse whisperers or dog whisperers -- now we have troll whisperers. People who can manage the most difficult people online and keep the conversation engaging, entertaining but civil.

In this article, Cory Doctorow reflects on why people responds to trolls (and many of us do, leaping in feet first), limits of message board tools and the fine art of moderating an online discussion. Far too often trolls win and poison the well for everyone. They either scare everyone away or a nasty vitriolic fight breaks out that no one wants to hear about.

Trolls can infect a small group, but they really shine in big forums. Discussion groups are like uranium: a little pile gives off a nice, warm glow, but if the pile gets bigger, it hits critical mass and starts a deadly meltdown. There are only three ways to prevent this: Make the pile smaller again, spread the rods apart, or twiddle them to keep the heat convecting through them.(How To Keep Hostile Jerks From Taking Over Your Online Community)

Cory notes that the challenge is:
to figure out how to twiddle the rods in just the right fashion so as to create a festive, rollicking, passionate discussion that keeps its discourse respectful, if not always friendly or amiable. (How To Keep Hostile Jerks From Taking Over Your Online Community)

Cory discusses some of the techniques that Teresea, a Troll Whisperer extrarodinaire, uses. Her techniques are mix of art and science. She can read the text like a river guide reads the water. Sometimes you can delete the post and discourage the troll. Other times it just inflames them. Knowing which to do when is both art and skill. Teresa also used a technique called disemvowelling - removing all the vowels from a post to slow down the reading. Other moderators share some of their ideas like putting a delay between posts of ten minutes that helps to the cool the tempers.

More about Trolling, Managing Trolls and Online Facilitation

Take a look at Wikipedia's entry for a typology of trolls and ideas where to start handling trolls.

At the Northern Voice 2006, Nancy White gave a presentation, Seven Competencies of Online Interaction which has a few gems that might be useful.

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I remember trolls in Usenet groups in the mid nineties. The regular posters would tell everyone not to respond to the trolls, so that the trolls would give up and go away. However, this only worked sometimes. Usually people would get upset, respond, and start flame wars.
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