The leftward and other blatherings of Span (now with Snaps!)

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Conduct Code Collections

It seems that my Bloglines feeder has a whole lot of overseas posts I'm yet to read properly on codes of conduct for blogging, as a result of the Kathy Sierra furore I mentioned in a past Linky Love. Given that local Blog God Russell Brown has blogged on it today it seems a bit topical so I'm going to spew them all out here and see what happens next:

A few questions for readers:
  1. Do you think that unmoderated comments improve the dialogue or lead to degredation?

  2. Does trolling tend towards the racist and sexist, and does it make blogging less attractive to those who aren't part of the dominant demographic? Should we even be interested in creating a blogosphere that is more diverse?

  3. Is trolling about bullying* people into conformity? Or do people just need to "harden up"?
And finally:

What can we do about trolling if we don't like it? Should we do anything at all?

Readers' thoughts much appreciated.

* I've written a little bit about this before.


morgue said...

Hey Span, this one is a big deal for me. I've been intensely involved in online discussions pretty much non-stop since I arrived at university in February 1994, and I've seen a lot of horrible, horrible behaviour. I sometimes overreact. It's a bit of a weakness.

That said - I can't quite formulate an answer to your question one. ("Do you think that unmoderated comments improve the dialogue or lead to degredation?") I need to reinterpret it slightly to get somewhere meaningful for me, so hope this makes sense...

It isn't the presence or absence of moderation or otherwise that improves or degrades the dialogue - it's the participants in the comments environment.

I think that, if a comments section has attracted participants who start its deterioration, it will inevitably continue along that track unless there is a moderation policy in place and followed (and even if there is it might still go that way).

By and large, I think there's clear merit to comment moderation, and that objections to such moderation are usually made in ignorance. If you have a high enough profile, or if you have a large enough user base, or if you blog about contentious issues, you will find trouble in your comments. You will attract trolls, non-troll commenters will get angry at each other and say terrible things, etc.

There is a cost. Unmoderated comments do give an unrestricted window into a subject of debate. But, in all seriousness, anyone who thinks this cost is anything but trivial is deluded. *Everything* of value to a discussion can be contributed without attracting moderation. Everything.

Common responses to moderation are to deride moderators for cowardice, fragility, or outright intellectual dishonesty via censorship. These objections hit home because they tie into what we value about our ability to engage with ideas. These objections are also completely disingenous and meritless. Disregard them entirely.

morgue said...

That part-answers question 3, too. ('Is trolling about bullying* people into conformity? Or do people just need to "harden up"?') Trolling is a form of bullying, but its goal is rarely conformity; the goal is to emotionally hurt or confuse or degrade the target, and perhaps to silence them.

I honestly believe that many - most? - of the nastiest trolls rationalise their behaviour as part of a massive exercise in online social darwinism, where they are testing people to see if they are strong enough to say what they wish. Of course, they usually don't have any supporting argument as to why anyone should prove their strength to random abusers; and if they do, it is bound to be founded on an assumption that online communication is not "real" communication, that it's all a great game with gladitorial rules.

(There is nothing I hate more than someone being an absolute bastard online then when called on it say "it's just online stuff, it doesn't matter, forget about it". You see less of that in 2007 than you saw in 1997, but it still turns up a lot.)

The social norms of the real world are enforced by powerful drivers - our reputation, our understanding of shared fates and future interactions, the network of acquaintances and friends between us and the responsibility we bear for a complex social network.

Online, we have a social system without these drivers for social norms. There is nothing wrong or weak in imposing them forcibly.

The best frame for this is one of host privilege and host responsibility. The owner of a place is entitled to set rules and enforce the tone and need offer no justification beyond "that is how I wish it to be; if you disagree, go play elsewhere". Netiquette has already instituted this as the primary rationale for moderation of all kinds, and it's a good one for a bunch of reasons, as sociologists/psychologists/communications people will all recognise.

morgue said...

Question two - does trolling work to suppress diversity online - absolutely. Bad behaviour online comes when someone feels their terrain is threatened, their turf is compromised, that someone is speaking untruths or insults about their tribe. The dominant demographic in any society will inevitably react badly to other voices, because those voices will as a matter of course tread on all of these spaces.

Furthermore, abusive online behaviour feeds on itself; the more of it there is, the more of it there will be. As the dominant demographic has an advantage of numbers, that sets up a feedback loop.

A diverse blogosphere is, to me, a self-evident good. I could try and muster an argument about why it is good, but it would be like trying to argue that pineapple tastes nice - it isn't necessary, is it?

morgue said...

So, in summary, if you don't like trolling - yeah, do something about it. Shut it down. Demand that trolls either be silent or express themselves better. Be unapologetic about protecting the tone of your virtual living room.

(Or, as I've seen you do here Span, engage with someone using a trollish and aggressive posting style and see if you can get decent contribution out of them. But that takes a lot of effort and there's no shame in being ruthless.)

Doing nothing is not an option.

Blimey, that was long. I might blog this myself.

Make Tea Not War said...

One thing I do agree with about the code of conduct is that individual people need to take responsibility for what they publish. By which I mean if commenters are engaging in threatening, defamatory behaviour or harrassment it needs to be shut down and it is the responsibility of the host to do this.

I think (well intentioned) people also need to take responsibility for their own writing. Flame attracts flame and if you make a habit of posting venomous rants someone is going to respond in kind.

As for the rest I think the code of conduct is rather jumbled and I think its because it seems to be viewing bad internet behaviour as all of a piece.

However, I think there are different kinds of trolls.

1. Stupid people who can think of no better way to contribute to a conversation than by repeated reiterations of things like 'ur retarded'. I think you need an approach of zero tolerance towards this type. Ideally such comments should be deleted by a moderator before anyone sees them. This is because like graffiti these comments attract others thus making the troll think their behaviour is somehow acceptable possibly resulting in an escalation- and then there goes the neighbourhood.

2. Volatile drama queens. These people may be capable of contributing something of substance but they are prone to take offence. They are the kind of people who love nothing more than prolonged email exchanges about the conflict and dragging other people in as allies or imagined enemies. I think this kind of behaviour should be ruthlessly ignored though I think a lot of people actually enjoy this kind of thing.

3. There are some trolls who are irrational, sick & quite possibly mentally ill. Don't engage with these people, try not to give them any personal details, if they become threatening legal action may be a possibility.

4. A group of people may somehow convince themselves they have the right to gang up on an individual. One of the nastiest ones I ever saw was a group of child free by choice people targetting someone who blogged about his kid a lot. This escalated to the point where personal threats where made to his child. This behavior can easily escalate if it is not ruthlessly nipped in the bud. Close the comments immediately and don't get into a dialogue with these bullies.

5. People who are not necessarily bad or intentionally anti social but probably just somewhat immature and lacking in other intellectual outlets. These people pride themselves on their debating skills so they like to engage in lots of inane arguments for the sake of it. I think they can be tolerated especially if it seems like they are young and will grow out of it.

All just IMO of course.

Rich said...

I guess there are a few categories of messages you may not want to see:

Spam - obviously

Illegal content - such as libel, breaches of suppression orders. However some forums actively encourage this as a form of civil disobedience - e.g. posting the name of the AB that's been beating his wife that week

Offensive content - e.g. personal attacks, etc. I guess this rarely adds to the tone of the discussion and many bloggers would delete this

Trolls - this is an interesting question which hinges on what you define as trolling.
Wikipedia's entry contains this:
For example, a person with political point of view A who approaches a forum frequented by people with political point of view B, may be considered a troll, even if no lies or attacks are made
A number of forums have an implied ideology that posters are expected to be in broad agreement with. For instance, if you post on Slashdot suggesting that Microsoft products actually do a reasonable job, you will be considered to be trolling.
Is this reasonable? It sometimes makes for nicer reading. The Guardian's CIF doesn't have this consensus and as a result the comments contain millions of words of repetitive debate. Ben Goldacre's Bad Science takes the other opposite and tends to have more or less complete agreement. I think Public Address has a good middle way, in that they have debate but it's usually constructive.
I don't really agree that trolling==bullying unless you have a different definition of the word?

debra@dagcentral said...

Hi span - just posted some deep (*snort* ;) thoughts on my blog about this as well...

1. My thought about unmoderated comments is that it's not so much a problem of moderation (although folks could certainly stand to step up their game in that regard) - it's a shift in consciousness on the Net overall, over the past 10 - 15 years. Tim O' Reilly's suggestion for a code of conduct, and the fact that he mentions the Well in his excellent post, really sums up the difference between current considerations of fair use and how folks viewed online community back in the day.

"You own what you say." Truly own it, in every sense of the world. That really meant something at one time. It's so sad to me, how far we've strayed from that concept.

During the heyday of the Well, it's worth mentioning that its participants were deeply invested in the notion of community, and in the unique social experiment they embodied. There was an awareness and an appreciation back then - a desire to create something new and visionary, I think, that's been horribly lost in the shuffle since then. I don't know if that's due to the explosion of Internet users overall in the interim - I suspect it's a contributing factor - but what I do know is that it feels different nowadays, out here in the cyberfrontier. And it's not a good kind of different.

2. My eldest daughter and I were discussing this recently - she was reacting to a recent Metafilter thread about Ann Coulter, and some of the comments. I'm not a fan of Coulter's and oh gawd, how I wish she would just shut up and go away - but the male response to her, in that thread, was more than a bit pathological. Contrast this to general commentary about GWB anywhere on the Net over the past several years - has anybody encountered a thread composed of post after post, calling for him to be raped, sodomized, skull-fucked, or anything else of that nature? Despite an almost universal loathing of the man - I sure haven't seen one.

So what's up with that?

2. Trolling is about whatever the troll's particular agenda is at that moment, and there's not much point in trying to divine that purpose. The net result is that it's disruptive and hurtful. In cases where a clueless n00b is maybe tripping all over themselves in their efforts to be clever - a private convo between the mod and the individual should set it straight. If that doesn't work - imo - put the smack down on 'em. If a coworker or neighbor was similarly disruptive - there would be consequences. Rational adults shouldn't expect any different response just because there's a keyboard and monitor involved.

Stephen said...

"1. Do you think that unmoderated comments improve the dialogue or lead to degradation?"

They don't LEAD to degradation but they are vulnerable to degradation when an antisocial person chooses to take advantage of the lack of moderation. But many online forums trundle along for a long time without moderation. I suspect that as the user community gets bigger and the forum gets older, the probability of trouble approaches 1.

" 2. Does trolling tend towards the racist and sexist, and does it make blogging less attractive to those who aren't part of the dominant demographic?"

Since the art of the troll is to get a rise out of the audience, it depends on the nature of the community. No one ever trolled Kiwiblog by being sexist.

To a limited extent moderate trolling may actually encourage minority members to delurk and represent.

" Should we even be interested in creating a blogosphere that is more diverse?"

If we could create a blogosphere that was polite and respectful then the kind of diversity you're talking about would emerge on its own.

" 3. Is trolling about bullying* people into conformity? Or do people just need to "harden up"?"

In my experience trolling is about the sheer pleasure of making other people react. If their reaction is so extreme as to leave, that is gratifying, as long as the victim says goodbye publicly.

I don't think people should harden up, but "don't feed the trolls" is always good advice. They want your love. Really. They are like stalkers who interpret all response as signs of affection. You can only extinguish the behaviour by abstaining from all response.

" What can we do about trolling if we don't like it? Should we do anything at all?"

On forums you control, rigorously and consistently punish them. This could be by banning, or comment deletion, or my favourite: disemvowelling. (Remove all vowels from their comments).

On forums you do not control, don't answer trolls; encourage others to do likewise; praise moderators who take action against trolls.

Stephen said...

PS: I think we should distinguish trolling, where people ostensibly are part of the community but in fact are disruptive, from out and out abuse. Eg, the Sierra case isn't trolling. It's online bullying, a dogpile, a trainwreck. The motivations for trolling - to get a rise - are different from the motivations of bullying - to make people shut up and enjoy the power.

Span said...

Thanks for all the great comments, and for the obvious thought and effort people have put into their responses. I hope to be able to read them all on the weekend, but please do continue in the meantime!

Briefly, something MTNW mentioned hit a nerve (actually there are bits from all of you that did, but more on that on the weekend) - I was very active in an online forum a few years ago when a few childless people decided that those with children weren't allowed to discuss parenting or pregnancy in a certain part of the forum, and succeeded in pushing them into another section. It was totally bizarre and I never understood it - it's not like there was limited forum space or it was in the wrong part of the forum, nor did it impinge on those without children (and I didn't have kids myself). Otherwise things were largely amicable, it was very weird.

morgue said...

Stephen - Disemvowelling is my favourite too. First encountered it at Making Light - I'm not sure how widespread it has become from there?

(I'm not convinced that trolls and abusers are different beasties, as opposed to different extremes of one spectrum; but there's obvious merit in the notion, particularly because you need different tactics to deal with the two. Anyway, that's kind of a side issue.)

Dark Daughta said...

You missed a question:
What is trolling?

I've been called a troll by people who don't want to have to answer tough political, ethical questions about their own actions. They got scared of how they would look, got scared of potential fall out and fell back on a really accessible label which put me out of commission in the eyes of many. I think that nettiquet is important. But how do we decide what is a proper code of conduct when sometimes these codes are used to stifle unpopular yet valid dissent? Darktroll signing off.

Span said...

I was just thinking about that exact thing dd this morning on the way to work. I don't think trolling is disagreeing with the prevailing view on a blog. I think trolling is more about the manner of communication. You can disagree without being abusive, and have a debate. Or you can troll by getting nasty, calling names, etc. This is where commenters like millsy and Clint annoy me, because they are capable of rational clean argument but choose to often post in barbed ways that are unnecessary and just get in the way of proper debate.

By way of example - here's a link to a debate had with commenter aotea, where her style at first really got in the way of actually debating the issue, and when she moderated it a bit we were able to have a proper discussion:

Aotea said...

This blog is what I would call "troll-phobic". It is very difficult to express any sort of opposing view without being accused of trolling, especially if you don't know the required politically correct language to use. I'm not very au fait with feminism and PC language, so I was fairly quickly accused of trolling by Spam. Unfortunately she and some readers seemed to assume I was a bigoted white male who had no experience of rape or abuse issues and who was opposed to feminism. As it happens, I am none of these things.

As an example, a 12-year-old from south Auckland was walking home from central Auckland sometime between 11pm on Saturday and 2am on Sunday. She became separated from her friends and stopped in the grounds of a school for some reason, where she was attacked and raped. Her caregivers obviously did not know or care where she was, who she was with or how she was travelling.

I am sincerely interested to know whether or not the girl and/or her caregivers hold some sort of responsibility for the fact that someone took advantage of the circustances she was in and harmed the girl. I would like to know what various people think. But I can't ask that question on this blog because somehow it would make me insensitive and sexist and intolerant and therefore a troll. I will also be told to go read blogs where "views like mine" are acceptable. Go figure.

That kind of trolling and moderation policy is just over the top.

Span said...

Well I'd really like it if someone could find some examples of me calling someone a troll when they are merely disagreeing. The only person I can recall using the T word in relation to in recent times is aotea, and as you can see from the thread I didn't delete any comments and in fact we ended up having a lengthy discussion.

I'm not sure how that makes this blog troll-phobic to the extreme that aotea claims. If anyone would care to explain I would be keen to read!

Heine said...

Ahem, that was a tad harsh putting me into the same category as Millsy or as a troll, Span.

I get pissy because you answer all my comments with "I know better and you aren't telling the truth". Hardly a well thought out and rational clean response don't you think?

However I do agree trolling can be annoying, it seems both sides have their problems with them. My blog gets plenty of anonymous trolls who think they are awfully clever. Anon trolls are the worst, too chicken to even give their name!

Span said...

Everyone thinks they are lily white, that appears to be a pivotal part of the troll debate, imho.

Yes Clint you and I have had a discussion about one particular thing (several times) where we have both said the equivalent of I know better/different, but I don't really think that's indicative of our discussions in general. I have called you on your tone a number of times, but I have also engaged in debate with you on actual arguments. I don't think you are a troll, but I think you sometimes head in that direction with your behaviour.

So is this thread now all about examining in minute detail my practices on comments? Cos I think you'll find I've only ever deleted two comments that weren't spams or doubles. I've never edited any. I haven't banned anyone. But somehow I'm an evil evil blogger with a bad blog that censors people? That's the impression I'm starting to form...

Span said...

aotea, I didn't get time to say this yesterday, but in terms of the 12yo who was raped I actually was wondering about the role of the caregivers too, in a similar manner to what you commented. Hopefully I'll get a post up on the rape in the next day or two and perhaps you would like to comment about that further on that post?

morgue said...

Excellent link for more discussion on this:

Anonymous said...

Trolling is also saying something that sounds legitimate but it is ruthlessly causing emotional responses from people. i.e., if I post a quest that "Isn't modding going to cause 1 group to have more privileges than another group" or "Modding is creating an inner circle of superiority that is leaving the common man in the dust." This sounds like a real question but it is only baiting you to further posts. Or “Is modding is creating a situation of haves or have-nots’ Somehow the question sound real but it is like a arrow shot into the heart of your emotions which is hoping to splatter greater responses without caring about the real issues.

How can you tell which is real and which is trolling, this is a real art.

Heine said...

yes yes, I know what issue you're talking about, but you must see I didn't tell it from 2nd hand information, I was there through the entire union situation at the ANZ. I don't like being told that I'm wrong by somebody who wasn't there so felt entitled to be annoyed.

And I've never written, thought or insinuated you are some evil blogger. In fact I have praised your blog elsewhere on several occasions.