Thursday, March 10, 2011

Trolls, Spam, Anonymity and Censorship

There was a pretty decent editorial on Engadget about anonymity on the internet. They seemed to be trying to find a way to combat the excessive amount of trolling in their comments sections and made a thinly-veiled suggestion that maybe things would be better if people had to sign in under a verified real name. I'd link the article but it got pulled right after I commented beneath it. If it is still there somewhere, darned if I can find it.

My response to the editorial was shorter... but here's the expanded version:

I've been pretty hard on the US Government for their inability to find proper ways of regulating the internet that didn't amount to stupidity or censorship. If heavyweights like the folks at Engadget are struggling with the moderating the comments sections beneath articles, maybe it really is a problem. I was just spinning through Boing-Boing and saw a similar post about using mini URLs in the comments section to combat spammers and advert-bots.

I went ahead and committed some of my not-so-considerable brainpower to the problem and did a quick look around at the various sites I read and contribute to. Other than taking the Daring Fireball road and just not having a comments section at all there are three things I see to being key to preventing spam, trolls and so forth. None of those things have a thing to do with depriving people of what I see as their right to privacy online.

1. Hire professional writers who have a college level vocabulary.

Articles and content that are written well, by professionals, will deter a portion of the sub-human population that assuredly makes up a percentage of online trolls. I believe that an article written by someone who knows how, sans 1337speak/slang/etc, should act as a natural deterrent to certain types of trolls. It's clear from the way many trolls use language, words with more than two-syllables are pretty tough.

You can't fix stupid. Trolls are almost universally ignorant and will generally seek to verbally spar with people they consider their near equal intellectually. I find that whenever I engage or confront trolls in the comments section a few well placed ten cent words take the wind right out of their sails. Where pointing out how ignorant or irrational they are fails, illuminating their stupidity sometimes succeeds.

Read an article at Gizmodo (if you can figure out their cockamamie new format) and then read one from Ars Technica. Look at the threads beneath the articles on both sites and draw your own conclusion. From my perspective the comment sections on Ars Technica are far less painful and sport fewer trolls*.

2. Exercise Editorial Control

Sites that act as thinly-veiled mouthpieces for controversial corporate entities are going to be targets by trolls and regular folks alike. People crave objectivity most of the time and innately sense when you're faking it. If you're going to play that game with your readers, expect them to give you crap. When it's clear you're doing whatever you have to just to get hits and/or sell advertising anyone with a brain can generally tell.

If you don't seem to care about your content, no one else will either. It's common sense.

I rarely see someone giving the folks at Mac Rumors crap for their content. It's clear which team they are rooting for. They don't prevaricate with their audience in the slightest and to that end seem to suffer fewer trolls* than sites who aren't up front about who they think is a good and who they think is crap.

EDIT: Ask your readers within the textual portion of the article or content what you want to see in the comments section. Give them a clear option to participate in a positive way.

3. Forums

Having a separate place where people can discuss and moderate themselves is always a good thing. Generally they can find others of a similar mindset, commiserate in an area designated for the purpose and move on. The trolls, spammers and advert-bots will continue to do what they do, but they'll be easier to spot and kick without accidentally alienating someone who was just having a bad day.

Setting up a forum is easier than dodging around two dozen comments sections a day hunting trolls.

Why is anonymity important?

The internet is a wondrous resource, but there are many times when people need to be anonymous. To that end I think a lot of people would or could be barred from contributing to the online community if they had to shed that buffer.

Folks with general anxiety disorder come to mind. The folks who are related to a member of law enforcement, a federal judge or celebrity probably find anonymity a necessity every once in a while. Then there are all the other occasions when having the option to be anonymous is important.

Example: Your mom/brother/spouse/gerbil is dying of AIDS. You want to find a support group to help you cope with everything going on without compromising your own or your mom/brother/spouse/gerbil's identities online. It's an extreme example, but I can think of plenty others.

The moral of the story?

You can't get people to make good choices (for the right reasons) by reducing the number choices available to them.

*Maybe these sites do suffer the same amount of trolls and have found an efficient way of weeding them. It speaks to their perseverance and the pride they take in the content they provide regardless.

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