Sat Mar 13, 2010
I’ve been reading Jaron Lanier’s book, “You Are Not A Gadget“. Contrary to what you might think, having been online forever (my very first 19.2 baud connection, I had a user address firstname.lastname@example.org. I seem to recall at the time that there were only about 4 commercial services to even get online with, to access things like usenet, and the very start of www) I don’t consider myself anything close to a techie. Or maybe you are a tech person, in which case that won’t surprise you at all. I consider myself more of a casual observer of online culture, and even when it comes to that, I sort of skipped the last 3 years or so.
At any rate, I was thinking about something that Lanier mentions almost in passing: what are the conditions necessary to create trolling? You know, of course, what trolling is: making inflammatory comments, being inordinately mean to other people, not seeking to engage in discourse, but just to spew venom that is ultimately not constructive. You get to say your hateful thing, then move on without being challenged in your ideas or assumptions. It’s one of the things I despite most about online life, and as I try to decide and develop a community aspect of JanesGuide (user logins, places to store info, ability to rate sites) it’s something I’m thinking of more and more.
There are websites out there that I think are good sites, but are plagued with a larger trolling percentage than others. Examples: in celebrity/fashion blogging, one of my favorite funny sites is GoFugYourself. They are merciless in their critiques, although they do try not to be MEAN. Just witty and keeping it to (mostly) sartorial critique. They have very little public problem with trolling in their comments. But visit their parent site, Celebuzz, and take a look around their comments. Yikes. The difference there is that GFY shut down their comments for a couple of years, because they couldn’t stand the uber-negative. When they re-opened commenting, tentatively and on only select posts, they did so with a warning: that they could and would shut it all back down if it was abused. Now I don’t know what they deal with behind the scenes, and maybe they still have a pain-in-the-ass process, but publicly it makes their site a nice troll-free zone.
In the midst of doing a review for Nubiles.net today, I was noticing how they attempt to use certain aspects of community building, but in a way that circumvents trolling. If you’re a member there, you can create a profile and rate things. Other users can see what you rated highly, and through that it helps to sift through the mountain of content on the website, for users. Find someone with similar tastes, and your work is much less. However, I noticed that this community is only about leading each other to content that might be enjoyable. There is no commenting that I found, other than the user forum. And then, either the user forum is extremely well moderated, or the general tone of the site suggests that being an intelligent person is an attribute here, because again I wasn’t finding a bunch of hateful garbage. Contrast that to the (also well-reviewed, but only from a content and price point) Videobox. Their comments and ratings by users are by and large trollish and hateful. It’s sad to have a great value and super technology made awful by user-trolls.
So back to my initial point. What Lanier pointed out when he talked about trolling was that the condition that needs to exist is not anonymity, but “transient anonymity“. What is the difference, you ask? Well – I am relatively anonymous in any of the places I post online, in that the chances of someone showing up at my actual home unannounced because they had figured out who I am and where I live are slim. In the vast noise of the web, the chances of my “real” life and my “online” life intersecting are rare, and I’d have to make an effort for that to happen. However, over time I have built up a community in various areas that I participate in. I care as much about my online persona as my real life persona, because they are both me. They are both how I choose to interact with the others, and as such they are both valuable to me. This is why almost 100% of trolling is from either a totally anonymous source, or a brand new user who sets up an account quickly enough to spew whatever garbage s/he wants to, and move on. It’s transient anonymity.
When we do get any kind of user community going on JG (there are a number of software solutions we are looking at as possibilities) there will be levels of access. Unfettered access is going to be a privilege, not a right to anyone who takes 5 minutes to sign up.