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Posts Tagged ‘trolling’

The beauty of running a blog or a web site is getting to write or post whatever you want.

The flip side, for some bloggers and operators, is what might be called the scourge of the troll.

A troll is someone who anonymously (or pseudononymously) posts inflammatory, derogatory or downright ridiculous messages in public forums.

Fortunately, I don’t have that problem on JimmyCsays. Maybe it’s because I have relatively few readers. (I’m a teacher, and I tell people a full classroom is all the audience I need.) Maybe it’s because I have a sophisticated following. (Of course, that’s it!)

But it’s a big issue for a lot of  sites, including several local ones, and an op-ed column in Tuesday’s The New York Times explored the issue in depth.

Writer Julie Zhuo, a product design manager at Facebook, used her column to urge content providers to put their feet down and click the “delete” button on anonymous comments. She deplored trolling, essentially, as aberrant behavior under the cover of darkness. To me, she hit the nail on the head when she said, “…most trolls wouldn’t have the gall to say to another person’s face half the things they anonymously post on the Internet.”

She called on site operators to moderate their comments and forums and to do whatever they could to “improve the quality of engagement on your site.”

All of us bloggers and web site operators crave feedback and engagement, but we have varying views on how to best monitor and manage that engagement.

Being a relative newcomer (nine months) on the blogging scene, I did some research and solicited the views of others who have a lot more experience with anonymous comments than I. 

Here, then, are observations from Derek Donovan, readers representative at The Star; John Landsberg, operator of Bottom Line Communications (bottomlinecom.com); and Hearne Christopher of KC Confidential (kcconfidential.com).

Derek Donovan

Donovan hasn’t responded to my e-mails since I quoted an e-mail from him in which he tabbed me — a 36-year, former Star reporter and editor — as an “anti-Star blogger.” However, he has addressed the comments issue several times in his Ad Astrum blog.

Several months ago, he wrote that the No. 1 complaint he gets as readers rep is “about bad behavior” in the comments.

“It’s a Catch-22,” Donovan said. “People want to make their thoughts heard, but not many are willing to attach their real names to it, and there’s no way to force people to — especially in these days where so many are waking up to very real concerns about online privacy.

“So the imperfect system goes on. I know it’s frustrating, but I don’t see a better solution anywhere else. My personal hunch is that anonymous online comments may continue to exist around the Web, but fewer people will pay attention to them as time goes on. I know I never even glance at them any longer unless a reader points one out to me as problematic.”

John Landsberg

At Bottom Line, readers cannot directly post comments on the site. Instead they can send e-mail “feedback,” which John monitors and decides whether to publish.

I solicited John’s views in an e-mail, and this is how he responded.

“I will allow anonymous comments on my site because many journalists and very credible sources do not want to jeopardize their employment, but I will not simply allow trolls to come on and take cheap shots. To me, my site (and me) lose credibility when I allow some folks to simply spew personal venom.

“It is a tough call sometimes. I think anonymous comments can lead to some very honest discussions, but sometimes they can be destructive.  It is a balancing act.”

Hearne Christopher

Hearne, who, like me, is a former Star employee, has a particularly interesting situation at this time. With the help of a designer, he recently changed from a blog to a Web site.

(Disclosure: Hearne publishes a lot of my posts. My only requirement is that he include a tag line crediting JimmyCsays, where my posts almost always appear first. I receive no payment from him.)

Under Hearne’s former format, commenters could parachute in with virtually no restrictions or filters and say whatever they wanted and have their comments appear moments later.

Now, they have to register first, using their e-mail addresses (not displayed, of course) and establish a user name and password. Then, they have to write headlines for their comments, and they are limited to one paragraph. Granted, the paragraph can be as long as the writer pleases, but it does tend to reduce mush-mouthed rambling. Commenters can still uses pseudonyms, and most do.

Hearne doesn’t like the new comments format and has been prodding his designer to change it back to the old, fast-and-loose system.

In an e-mail, Hearne said: “Our comments section doubles as content for arguably some of our less sophisticated (but still important) readers.

“Filtering out comments robs those readers who find snarky retorts and opinions entertaining and/or informative. Believe it or not — and as writers we’d undoubtedly prefer not to — readers have told us on a number of occasions that they often find the comments more entertaining than the stories.

“So, rather than eliminate them as some who find them distasteful or insignificant suggest, our feeling is that the same standards apply to would-be comment killers as to the rest of the readership. If you don’t like something, don’t read it. In other words, turn the channel. It’s not like comments are required reading.”

Unlike bottomline.com and JimmyCsays, KC Confidential accepts paid advertising, and Hearne looks at the issue through a different lens. 

Since going to the new format several weeks ago, he said, “our traffic went down by nearly 20 percent. The comments themselves plummeted probably by 70 to 80 percent.”

Obviously, when the number of views goes down at his site, ads could follow suit. 

Yet, I believe — and I’ve told him this — that the designer did him a favor by making the commenters more accountable. I think the caliber of his site, as well as the caliber of the comments, is much improved and that his viewership numbers will rebound. 

He still gets some boring commenters who insist on writing three, four, five or more messages on the same post — more afterthoughts than genuine engagement in many cases — but, overall, the tone is not as reckless and ugly as it frequently was.    

My posts have been — and continue to be — the object of some vitriolic messages on Hearne’s site, but that’s not the reason I favor a more restrictive comments environment, at his site or elsewhere.

To put it simply, I’m in favor of conversation, personally and online, that is as substantive and high-road as possible.

I side with Julie Zhuo, who said: “Raising barriers to posting bad comments is…a smart first step. Well-designed commenting systems should also aim to highlight thoughtful and valuable opinions while letting trollish ones sink into oblivion.”

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