Normally I don’t claim to be an Internet graybeard, because I tend to hang in circles where there are many people who have been doing this online stuff even longer than me. Still, I’ve been using online communications since the days of 1200 baud modems, which is way longer than most people I run into. A notable exception was at the 2011 World Science Fiction Convention in Reno, where for some reason the organizers put me on a panel composed mainly of people who had personally shoveled the very first electrons into the ARPANET. It was interesting and humbling to have been an upstart in that company.
But because I go back to the pre-Internet BBS world, I have early and painful experience with trolls. The first online system I spent a lot of time with in a supervisory capacity was the late- 1980s Los Angeles Macintosh Group’s private BBS, which was open only to the members of the group. This was the place where I learned that a small group of determined assholes could have an out-of-proportion deleterious effect on a much larger group of conversants. As it turns out, these proto-trolls exhibited much the same skill set as our trolls of today, with the possible exception that none of them were anonymous. I learned that to the dedicated asshole, anonymity is not a necessary tool. Anyway. So we had a group of trolls who liked to stir things up and to infuriate people as much as possible for sport.
I was on the LAMG board of directors, so I had some responsibility for how the BBS was run. We got a lot of complaints from members about these trolls. Naturally, we tried to talk to the problem children and appealed to their sense of reason, carefully explaining that they were upsetting people and in some cases driving members away from using the BBS. Of course, this didn’t work and led to the usual cries of “Help, Help, I’m being repressed! Haven’t you heard of the First Amendment?”
Being an elected Board, we tried to deal with things in an open and representative fashion, so we set up a group of moderators (we called them the Online Referees) that could mediate disputes and keep the level of vitriol down. We tried to pick people who were widely seen as fair. Of course, they were all painted as Hitler/Stalin/Pol Pot in short order by the troll group. Eventually, the moderation fell apart and the trolls ran wild.
With the experience I have today, I would have simply have banned the trolls from use of the BBS on a trial, and then if necessary, permanent basis. But we had a lawyer on our Board who was the kind of lawyer no community organization should ever have. Instead of working with the organization to explain how we could use the law to further our goals and accomplish what we wanted, he always quoted the law in a worst-case scenario, preventing us from doing things. I was perfectly willing to tell the trolls that we were throwing them off the BBS for the good of the group and that we would be refunding their membership fee on a pro-rated basis. But this lawyer claimed that just couldn’t be done. Of course, that’s ridiculous.
That whole experience keeps me interested in the topic of moderation of online groups. I’ve appreciated a lot of the work done by Teresa Nielsen Hayden over the years, with her list of actions for moderators and her thoughtful comments about some of the most famous events. She’s responsible for a great technique, disemvowelling, which defangs troll posts without deleting them entirely.
At the moment, my role model when it comes to trolls and moderation is science fiction writer John Scalzi, who has a blog called Whatever that gets something like 50,000 visits a day, with very active comments. Scalzi makes no bones about moderating his comment threads with an iron fist; it’s his blog, and everyone else is a guest. He’s a benevolent host, but an uncompromising one, and he suffers fools and trolls not at all. Assholes get immediately hammered flat by Scalzi so they don’t poison the conversation. He refers to this sort of active moderation as wielding the Mallet of Loving Correction. Today, he introduced on his blog a new moderation technique, kittening, which he adapted from a similar technique invented by Jenny Lawson (aka The Bloggess; if you don’t read her, you should). Take a look at Scalzi at work in his post, The Kitten Setting.
Ever since we started Backup Brain in 1999, and with that LAMG experience in mind, we created our own Terms of Service (below). It’s just as useful today as it was then, and feel free to use its spirit to guide your own online presence. And I think we should all feel just as free to do things like delete comments we don’t like from our Facebook posts. Civility is everyone’s responsibility.
However, we’ve decided that the comment area will be an Asshole-Free Zone. We’ve seen too many good discussions degenerate into forums for jerks. Because this is our blog, we see no reason to suffer fools and jerks; they can go post somewhere else, like on their own blogs (that we won’t read). So, we reserve the right to delete comments at our whim, if we determine that the comment has that indefinable but-we-know-it-when-we-see-it asshole quality. If someone is repeatedly annoying, we reserve the right to ban their IP address so that they can’t post again.