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How to keep trolls off your social sites

Don't allow trolls to take your online community over

I’ve blogged before about comment policies and the fine line between constructive criticism and bashing/flaming. How freedom of speech isn’t just about allowing everyone to have their say, but also moderating comments to make sure that trolls’ speech doesn’t drown out other voices.

But I was thinking that it’s important to understand trolls for who and what they are, and how to create a “culture” within your Facebook, Twitter or blog community that discourages trolls and ensures positive interaction with both supporters and critics alike.

Trolls have a culture all their own

Trolls are not the same as critics. True critics often have underlying issues which good leaders can often tease out and address. Whether the critic is loud because he expects to get resistance, or she’s just a lonely old lady seeking attention, these people, when treated with patience and kindness, can become a police department’s strongest allies.

Trolls, on the other hand, are just plain nasty. Patience and kindness are weaknesses to them, and they take advantage of it to get even more attention—usually the negative kind, which only feeds them. This blog from two years ago pretty much says it all, but good takeaways include:

…trolling is a lot like graffiti. Graffiti happens at the intersection of ambition and incompetence: people want to make their mark on the world, but have no other way to do it than literally making a mark on the world.

Perhaps more importantly, though, blogger Paul Graham points out:

Trolls are like children (many are children) in that they’re capable of a wide range of behavior depending on what they think will be tolerated. In a place where rudeness isn’t tolerated, most can be polite. But vice versa as well.

There’s a sort of Gresham’s Law of trolls: trolls are willing to use a forum with a lot of thoughtful people in it, but thoughtful people aren’t willing to use a forum with a lot of trolls in it. Which means that once trolling takes hold, it tends to become the dominant culture.

As a police officer, you can’t help the people who show or call up just to complain. But on a blog, Twitter or Facebook, you owe it to your primary audience to make sure blog conversations remain able to generate more light than heat, even when they do get heated.

Writing for your community

A hint: a social media presence is not as reactive as most police work. Sure, it can seem that way when you are responding to a news article or community issue. But the act of content creation is proactive. You can choose your words, your topic, the way you put it all across.

The best way to do this is to write for a specific group or person. This is a little easier on Facebook and Twitter, where you can see faces attached to names and comments, but it’s possible for a blog or podcast, too.

First, brainstorm all the different constituencies in your jurisdiction. Who comes to mind, and how do you feel about them? (This can uncover troll-friendly dynamics. For instance, if you’re defensive about a particular community group and you’re unconsciously writing for them, your defensiveness will show.)

Instead, focus on your ideal reader(s). This can be tricky. Your subjects won’t always be for the same audience, so while there might be one person you consistently write for, other people should inform the entry.

For example, blogging about identity theft, an entry about skimming devices should read slightly different than one about charity scams. Skimming devices affect people who are often out and about: young people, businesspeople, parents. Charity scams, on the other hand, frequently affect the elderly. So think about how you’d explain skimmers to your teenagers, and how you’d explain charity scams to your parents.

See the strategy? By writing very personally, you take away the element of anonymity on which trolls thrive. In fact, if trolling is like graffiti, then think about how Toronto Constable Scott Mills deals with graffiti artists, channeling that ambition into competence through the relationships he builds.

Who are the people you can talk to in your online community?

Image: Benimoto via Flickr