May 22

Cory Doctorow of the wildly popular blog, BoingBoing, covers the challenges of online community communication.

He writes

Take my friend Teresa Nielsen Hayden, who moderates the sprawling, delightful message-boards on Making Light, a group-blog where the message boards run the gamut from the war in Iraq to Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan-fiction, and where they discussion is almost always civil.

Teresa is a troll-whisperer. For some reason, she can spot irredeemable trolls and separate them from the merely unsocialized. She can keep discussions calm and moving forward. She knows when deleting a troll’s message will discourage him, and when it will only spark a game of whack-a-mole.

Teresa calls it “having an ear for text” and she is full of maddeningly unquantifiable tips for spotting the right rod to twiddle to keep the reactor firing happily without sparking a meltdown.

If you want to fight trolling, don’t make up a bunch of a priori assumptions about what will or won’t discourage trolls. Instead, seek out the troll whisperer and study their techniques.

Troll whisperers aren’t necessarily very good at hacking tools, so there’s always an opportunity for geek synergy in helping them to automate their hand-crafted techniques, giving them a software force-multiplier for their good sense. For example, Teresa invented a technique called disemvowelling — removing the vowels from some or all of a fiery message-board post. The advantage of this is that it leaves the words intact, but requires that you read them very slowly — so slowly that it takes the sting out of them. And, as Teresa recently explained to me, disemvowelling part of a post lets the rest of the community know what kind of sentiment is and is not socially acceptable.

When Teresa started out disemvowelling, she removed the vowels from the offending messages by hand, a tedious and slow process. But shortly thereafter, Bryant Darrell wrote a Movable Type plugin to automate the process. This is a perfect example of human-geek synergy: hacking tools for civilian use based on the civilian’s observed needs.

But there aren’t enough Teresas to go around: how do we keep all the other message-boards troll-free? Again, the secret is in observing the troll whisperer in the field, looking for techniques that can be encapsulated in tutorials and code. There is a wealth of troll whisperer lore that isn’t pure intuition and good sense, techniques that can be turned into tools for the rest of us to use.

Read the whole thing

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