Don’t Feed the Trolls

I know quite a few new and prospective teachers and bloggers read this blog based on feedback I’ve received. I wonder if you have yet experienced the Web phenomenon known as the “troll.” Truthfully, I haven’t had too many problems with trolls, though they have occasionally cropped up. I have a clear comments policy, I moderate comments, and frankly, I don’t think much of what I write encourages trolls — it’s not exactly controversial or edgy.

I was utterly astonished when I read Vicki’s post in which she shares her answers to Scott McLeod‘s 2008 Education Blogosphere Survey:

What do you wish you could eradicate in the blogosphere?

Death threats and profanity. Small minds think that they can intimidate voices into being quiet. I am still missing Kathy Sierra terribly and wish she’d give us all a present and come back during 2008.

As recently as last December I received a death threat as well as some comments akin to those sent to Kathy calling me derogatory names and filled with sexual perversion. I wish there was a prefilter before it got to my premoderation or a “spam capture” or “smut capture” with automatic e-mail sent to the person who does it as well as a log of their IP address done automatically. These are a distraction and when they get back to my family, it makes them want me to quit.

When I read that, I thought, “Someone threatened to kill Vicki? I can’t think of a reason why anyone would say something like that to Vicki, who is one of the warmest, most genuine people you’ll ever meet. She is unfailingly positive in her encouragement of other bloggers and teachers, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why anyone would even think of harming her, much less send her a death threat. Frankly, I thought it was scary.

Obviously, if you receive a threat of any kind, I encourage you to report it. However, if it is your garden-variety troll leaving nasty, rude comments, I would ignore them — the reason they are so nasty is that at some point they learned that negative attention is still attention, and they will get attention quicker, in some cases, if they are rude. All these people did was transfer this behavior to the Internet, where it thrives because people feel anonymous and feel shielded by the distance between themselves and the person they are attacking. In fact, I would go so far as to say that most people who make trollish comments online would never say the same things to their target’s face. Most of the time, people will leave you alone if you ignore them.

But it is hard to ignore nastiness. I have my own trouble with it. I recommend doing the following:

  1. Filter your mail. If the person is bothering you via e-mail, see if you can set up a filter that will send their message to the trash without passing through your inbox. G-Mail allows you to do this.
  2. Moderate your comments. I know it can be a pain for new commenters to wait for their comments to be published, but I can assure you that with the large volume of spam and rude comments, it’s absolutely necessary.
  3. Develop a comments policy. Make it one that allows for respectful dissent and conversation. Ultimately, it’s your blog, and you can decide what kind of comments, if any, you will allow. However, if you have a fair comments policy, you should have few arguments about what is posted and what is not. I’d like to think people generally know when they’re crossing the line, but a comments policy will clarify things. Trollers might not bother if they know in advance their comment most likely won’t appear.
  4. Don’t stop blogging. While I respect the decisions made by those who truly felt threatened (Kathy Sierra), I think the trolls win when we quit. Any time you put yourself out there, you run the risk of meeting up with a troll, and they only get what they want when they realize they have bothered you.

Most of all, a piece of sage advice I first read in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: “Illegitimi non carborundum.”

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7 thoughts on “Don’t Feed the Trolls

  1. I really don't understand why some people have to be so incredibly nasty. It's beyond my comprehension. I very much enjoy reading other blogs and if I find I don't agree with someone, I move on. Why cause a fight? I have my opinion and that person has his/hers. For someone to write mean-spirited, much less threatening, comments is terrible. I just don't understand why some people get their jollies in being mean and making others mad.

  2. Ok, so I had to look the phrase up, she said sheepishly. The Wikipedia entry has me LOLing: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illegitimi_non_carbo…. It says, "Illegitimi non carborundum is a mock-Latin aphorism jokingly taken to mean "don't let the bastards grind you down"."

    Excellent points, all. Unfortunately, Vicki's complaint that she was bothered by seeing the nastiness in her moderation queue can't really be helped by current filtering & moderation tech. Your advice still helps keep the nastiness from everyone else's eyes. Thanks for the post!

  3. I also looked up "troll" and I teach computer literacy, also said sheepishly. I am familiar with the behaviour, if not the term. Some of my students have blogs / post on YouTube, etc. and have experienced nasty comments including gratuitous threats (and the videos weren't that bad!).

    I would like to start using blogs in my classroom – I'm waiting school approval – and I always thought that the purpose of using moderated comments was to make sure that the kids didn't post anything problematic, but now I see that it's also a way to control the trolls.

    Dana, do you have a comments policy for your students?

  4. Megan, point well taken — moderation will not keep the nastiness from our eyes, but it will at least keep it from the eyes of our readers.

    Shayne, my students, alas, do not really comment on my blogs (something I lamented in a new post today); however, I do have guidelines on the student blog (which is mostly dormant right now as I try to figure out how I want to do with it): http://students.huffenglish.com/?page_id=4.

  5. Actually in this case, I paraphrased it and warned the person who did it about how anonymity is an illusion. I actually think it was a teenager who was being "forced" to listen to my Atomic Learning piece and didn't like my southern accent — I know that sounds silly, but there was a comment that came JUST before the death threat that made me think that.

    Anyway it didn't happen again but when it happens, it will make you think. And no one likes to be called a &*()^* &*()&* anyway.

    Thank you for talking about this important topic. (And thank you for your kind words about me. It is very encouraging.)

  6. You know, Vicki, you reminded me of something similar (not as bad, though) that happened to me. A student left a comment here (not one of my students) complaining about my Walt Whitman/Emily Dickinson assignment. I can't remember anymore how I responded, but I evidently convinced the student there was a person on the other end of this site. We exchanged a few messages, and what I discovered was that the student had a case of writer's block. I gave the student suggestions, and it ended very well with an apology and a thank you. Weird how that happens.

    And no problem about the kind words. You deserve them!

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