Protecting Online Communities and Listservs from Trolls

Ok, we have a few new things to absorb here. This is about trolls, troll-whisperers, disemvoweling, and mostly about participating productively and peaceably in message boards, listservs, and on-line communities.

First, many of you have noticed that I have been conspicuously negligent in posting. That is because I am in the final throes of preparation for the first Managing Partner Development Institute What You Didn’t Learn in Law School Conference, which is scheduled for June 1 and 2, 2007 at the state-of-the-art Normandy Farms Hotel and Conference Center in Blue Bell, PA. With all undue modesty aside, the content of this event is phenomenal for current and aspiring managing partners of law firms from 2 to 50+ attorneys in size. Registrations are coming in briskly from PA, MD, NJ and DE. I hope you will consider joining us.

Now to the topic at hand — many of you have participated in an online message board or listserv and encountered a troll. A troll is someone who comes onto an online community looking to pick fights. A troll has two victory conditions: either everyone ends up talking about him, or no one talks at all. Unfortunately it can take only one troll to significantly squash meaningful interaction in an online forum. There are also unknowing trolls who are not mean-spirited, but have the same effect.

Back in the days when CompuServe was about the only option for listservs or bulletin boards, I participated in one such listserv set up by a chapter of the Association of Legal Administrators. There was in fact a troll who became more and more vitriolic over time, to the extent that people ultimately became silenced. They were loathe to post because they did not want to subject themselves to the biting sarcastic comments of the troll. Eventually many people left the forum.

What was particularly sad was that the troll, in person, was a very nice, affable person. He did not intend to be a troll. He just thought he was more clever than he was, and his sense of humor may have come across in person, but in email text the words were biting and way too critical. When I attempted to point out the problem to listserv moderators and regular participants, they rushed to the defense of the troll. After all, the regulars “knew” him, and knew the spirit in which words were written. But that did not make it more palatable for those new to the forum, or unfamiliar to the troll.

On the Pennsylvania Bar Association listserv there are two well-meaning trolls who occasionally stir up flame wars by posting what they believe are humorous (one troll) or particularly insightful (the other troll) comments. The results usually reverberate quickly; resulting in departures from the listserv, but more a temporary flame war which subsides after a troll-whisperer posts soothing thoughts to cool the flames.

My experience here is the same as it was back in the CompuServe days, though. When I attempt to point out the problem to the appropriate person(s), they rush to the defense of the troll. I am encouraged by the fact that fewer of the people who lurk in the background stand by silently and endure the trolls words directed at others, nor do they just quietly cancel subscriptions. They are speaking up more and more often, in an effort to appropriately civilize the listserv and it’s participants.

I came across a particularly interesting post written by Cory Doctorow entitled “How To Keep Hostile Jerks From Taking Over Your Online Community” and you may find it equally worthwhile reading, particularly if you are active in a listserv or bulletin board. There’s some technical stuff in there which is not necessary to understand unless you’re running your own forum. I anticipated mean-spirited trolls when I designed my blog by turning off comments. I had heard too many horror stories about trolls posting pornographic, derogatory, or outright threatening comments. I wanted to take no chances. If someone contacts me through my blog or web site with an insightful comment I respond privately or create a new post in which it’s included.

What’s amazing is that if you read the above-referenced article, it contains reference to a blogger who actually received so many death threats through her blog that she cancelled a speaking engagement and has been virtually bunkered down in her house ever since.

We’re fortunate that our legal community doesn’t often encounter that kind of psychological depravity. No, our trolls are strictly well-intentioned people who are incapable of “hearing themselves” through the eyes of others. They simply don’t know how poorly their words come across, or how many negative feelings they may inadvertently be generating.

My suggestion to all of you who are participants in listservs or bulletin boards — and that includes all you lurkers out there who read but do not post — is that you do not put up with trolls and their actions. Doctorow says that a talented troll-whisperer suggests picking up the phone to have a few calm words with the troll. It may be the only way to help the miscreant “see” their words from the perspective of others. Even if you don’t want to pick up the phone, I encourage you to post in response. Not start a flame war, mind you. Just a simple post which says “Whether purposefully intended or not, your post offends the spirit of civility which normally pervades this forum.”

That’s my troll-whisperer methodology, and I’m sticking to it.

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