February 2008

A user on Hacker News recently posted a comment that set me thinking:
Something about hacker culture that never really set well with me was this the nastiness. ... I just don't understand why people troll like they do.
I've thought a lot over the last couple years about the problem of trolls. It's an old one, as old as forums, but we're still just learning what the causes are and how to address them.

There are two senses of the word "troll." In the original sense it meant someone, usually an outsider, who deliberately stirred up fights in a forum by saying controversial things. [1] For example, someone who didn't use a certain programming language might go to a forum for users of that language and make disparaging remarks about it, then sit back and watch as people rose to the bait. This sort of trolling was in the nature of a practical joke, like letting a bat loose in a room full of people.

The definition then spread to people who behaved like assholes in forums, whether intentionally or not. Now when people talk about trolls they usually mean this broader sense of the word. Though in a sense this is historically inaccurate, it is in other ways more accurate, because when someone is being an asshole it's usually uncertain even in their own mind how much is deliberate. That is arguably one of the defining qualities of an asshole.

I think trolling in the broader sense has four causes. The most important is distance. People will say things in anonymous forums that they'd never dare say to someone's face, just as they'll do things in cars that they'd never do as pedestrians like tailgate people, or honk at them, or cut them off.

Trolling tends to be particularly bad in forums related to computers, and I think that's due to the kind of people you find there. Most of them (myself included) are more comfortable dealing with abstract ideas than with people. Hackers can be abrupt even in person. Put them on an anonymous forum, and the problem gets worse.

The third cause of trolling is incompetence. If you disagree with something, it's easier to say "you suck" than to figure out and explain exactly what you disagree with. You're also safe that way from refutation. In this respect trolling is a lot like graffiti. Graffiti happens at the intersection of ambition and incompetence: people want to make their mark on the world, but have no other way to do it than literally making a mark on the world. [2]

The final contributing factor is the culture of the forum. Trolls are like children (many are children) in that they're capable of a wide range of behavior depending on what they think will be tolerated. In a place where rudeness isn't tolerated, most can be polite. But vice versa as well.

There's a sort of Gresham's Law of trolls: trolls are willing to use a forum with a lot of thoughtful people in it, but thoughtful people aren't willing to use a forum with a lot of trolls in it. Which means that once trolling takes hold, it tends to become the dominant culture. That had already happened to Slashdot and Digg by the time I paid attention to comment threads there, but I watched it happen to Reddit.

News.YC is, among other things, an experiment to see if this fate can be avoided. The sites's guidelines explicitly ask people not to say things they wouldn't say face to face. If someone starts being rude, other users will step in and tell them to stop. And when people seem to be deliberately trolling, we ban them ruthlessly.

Technical tweaks may also help. On Reddit, votes on your comments don't affect your karma score, but they do on News.YC. And it does seem to influence people when they can see their reputation in the eyes of their peers drain away after making an asshole remark. Often users have second thoughts and delete such comments.

One might worry this would prevent people from expressing controversial ideas, but empirically that doesn't seem to be what happens. When people say something substantial that gets modded down, they stubbornly leave it up. What people delete are wisecracks, because they have less invested in them.

So far the experiment seems to be working. The level of conversation on News.YC is as high as on any forum I've seen. But we still only have about 8,000 uniques a day. The conversations on Reddit were good when it was that small. The challenge is whether we can keep things this way.

I'm optimistic we will. We're not depending just on technical tricks. The core users of News.YC are mostly refugees from other sites that were overrun by trolls. They feel about trolls roughly the way refugees from Cuba or Eastern Europe feel about dictatorships. So there are a lot of people working to keep this from happening again.


[1] I mean forum in the general sense of a place to exchange views. The original Internet forums were not web sites but Usenet newsgroups.

[2] I'm talking here about everyday tagging. Some graffiti is quite impressive (anything becomes art if you do it well enough) but the median tag is just visual spam.

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