January 20, 2010

Are trolls bad for our health?


According to actual scientific evidence, the internet has the power to turn normal people into complete idiots.

These idiots inhabit forums, threads, message boards, blogs and discussion groups posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic comments, with the primary intent of attacking other users, derailing the conversation or provoking an emotional response.

The internet slang terms for these creatures of the web is of course trolls, and in the recent past we’ve crossed paths with one or two and lived to tell the tale. You can read about Publicis’ recent experience here, and there’s a further post here inspired by You Are Not A Gadget.

Judging by recent blog posts such as one here and the growing tide of opinion fermenting around You Are Not A Gadget, there appears to be a growing intolerance of this phenomenon despite its existence long pre-dating any of these contributions to the great troll debate.

All of this led me to question if trolls are in fact a bad for our collective digital health. On the negative side, trolls can be costly in several ways. A troll can disrupt a constructive, intelligent discussion, disseminate bad advice, and undermine the feeling of trust in an online community.

A lessening of trust among members of a community might lead to honestly naïve questions and requests for help and advice being quickly rejected as trollings.

I’ve seen this happen on the ad industry website Brand Republic where students and grads have tried to draw upon the collective wisdom of the working professionals who inhabit the site, only to be immediately bombarded with angry accusations.

Yet, not everyone views trolls as the scourge of online communities. The use of the term troll is highly subjective. Some site users may view a post as trolling, while others may regard the same post as a legitimate contribution to the discussion, even if it’s controversial.

On Brand Republic recently, a troll defended their comment as legitimate because if they used their real name and position within the industry, it would compromise both them and the company they worked at.

And sometimes, internet users taking part in discussions may try to attack someone who opposes their view behind an anonymous online identity by calling them a troll in a bid to discredit their comment and participation, even when it maybe a worthwhile contribution.

Given that a highly charged General Election is just round the corner and the likelihood that important arguments between the two main political parties will be won and lost on the internet like never before, expect to see a lot of trolling this year.

In a bid to stamp out the kind of mindless trolling that merely seeks to purge an enjoyable and stimulating conversation or provoke an emotional response, we’ve created an online badge for people to display on blogs, sites and other places. Feel free to share it with your friends, peers and networks. You can find the twibbon here.

However, mindful of the danger that the badge may in fact bait some of the more mischievous trolls out there, don’t forget that the most effective way to discourage a troll is usually to ignore him or her. As they say: “Please do not feed the trolls”