5 Ways to Stop Trolls From Killing the Internet | Cracked.com
By David Wong
You might not be aware of this, but there are a lot of dickheads on the Internet.
Since this phenomenon seems to get worse with the size of the crowd, it is theorized that we will reach a critical mass; an Asshole Apocalypse, if you will. That's when casual Internet users--and the corporations who want their business--will step in.
There are ways to solve this crisis, but I'm telling you now, you won't like some of them.
But first, the problem...
Right away let me shut down everyone who's snorting derisively into their can of Mountain Dew and saying, "Trolls will be trolls!" You should know that there are billions of dollars at play here. The trolls are driving away business, and that simply won't be allowed to continue. I'm not saying I'm rooting for it--I'm saying that's the economic reality.
There are two huge, growing industries at stake: social networking and online gaming.
Social networking is at the heart of "Web 2.0," the future of the online world, the Facebook/MySpace/Twitter web where users create all the content and their parent companies make billions just for hosting it. It's a pretty sweet deal.
Or it would be, if they could only convince everybody to use it. But they're finding that lots of users will communicate online with people they know (virtually all use email and 37% use private text messaging), but only 8% use message boards or blogs or anything else that exposes them to the Internet's assheads.
Hell, look at this site. We just had an article that was read by 305,396 unique users in a few days ... but fewer than 100 of them joined the conversation down in the comments. That's .002%, folks. It's not that the Cracked comments are mostly retarded or nasty; it's that for a normal person, the memory of getting called a fucktard in public even one time is striking enough to make them avoid the comments forever, even if it was accompanied by 10 non-fucktard comments. It's human nature to remember the fucktard.
It's the same in gaming. There are reports that most people who give up online gaming aren't frustrated by the games themselves or technical issues. It's the sheer number of fuckwads they have to play with. Even on the most popular online multiplayer game, World of Warcraft, 70% of new players stay in modes where they don't have to interact with anybody else.
So there is a clear barrier to entry for the vast majority who haven't joined the Web 2.0 party, and that barrier is a moat full of dipshits. How can we bridge it? I see five ways:
#5. Develop Anti-Troll Software
Imagine a world where you get in a heated argument in a hallway, but before even one sentence can get fully out of your mouth, a robot voice pipes up and tells you to cool it. Well, what sounds like really stupid science-fiction in real life is entirely possible online. Of all the futuristic movies to turn out to be cruelly accurate, who would have thought it'd be Demolition Man?
I'm talking about programs like:
This highly experimental piece of software is in beta and will some day be able to recognize comment stupidity the moment it's posted. They have a demo on their site you can play with.
You plug this code into your comment section and it's like a strap of tape over the mouth of every teenager who can't type a sentence without including the word "fail."
This is a program invented by Randall Monroe, the XKCD webcomic guy that requires every post to be unique. If someone types "First!", no other post can ever consist of just that.
This sounds pointless to anybody who's never been in a chat room or message board before, but the rest of us know better. Mindless repetition of jokes (or "memes") is one of the primary tools of bored trolls who want to fill a thread with noise to drown out the signal. For once, many will find themselves using keys other than Ctrl-V.
Linguists speculate that no single body of written communication in the history of human language has ever been as collectively retarded and horrible as the comments under YouTube videos. After the aforementioned Randall Monroe suggested a feature to force users to hear their comment read aloud before they can post it, YouTube implemented that very thing (though only on an optional basis). Many a YouTuber has sat in dismayed silence after realizing that "lol wut", when spoken aloud, did not sound as clever a they had first believed.
Real-Time Voice Censor:
Now we're in the realm of the real Demolition Man-type solutions. Want to know how bad Microsoft wants to control the trolls on Xbox Live? They've patented a real-time voice censoring program. Yeah. You curse into your headset and it bleeps it in real time. How does it know the difference between "The cock crows at midnight" and "My cock grows at midnight"? With technology. Don't question it.
Of course, widespread use of this stuff will just kick off the same "DRM vs. pirates" arms race we see any time they try to control human behavior with software. The humans always win.
Also, the technology has to get a whole lot smarter before we can even try. Playing with the StupidFilter demo I linked earlier taught me that it doesn't find any stupidity in the sentence, "lol, wut your mom farts lolcats."
There are better ways. For instance, you can...
#4. Start a Posse of Moderators, and Arm Them
Right now if you have a blog or forum or anything else with open comments, and you don't have a human moderator to watch it, you're going to wind up with a wasteland. As soon as more than one troll shows up, they will feed off each other until everyone else is gone. You have to control them. And don't start talking about free speech; the troll's goal is to shut down speech, to either fill the channel with noise until no one can talk to each other, or to get everyone talking about him instead of the subject at hand. He's a guy in a coffee shop screaming nonsense over a bullhorn.
And it's here where the marriage of creative software and human moderators can make all the difference. With things like...
This is a bit of code that will suck all of the vowels out of a targeted post, so that this:
"What an unfunny piece of shit. Somebody should be fired for letting this guy write for the site."
"Wht n nfnny pc f sht. Smbdy shld b frd fr lttng ths gy wrt fr th st."
The theory is that it makes people slow down and try to parse what was being said and thus robs the post of its impact. Also it makes the troll look retarded.
Geek megaportal SlashDot was among the first to use this, a way of allowing the community to moderate itself. Registered users can vote every post up or down, and each user winds up with a karma "score" that is just the sum total of all the "up" votes minus the "down" ones they've ever gotten.
We use this in the Cracked forums (where each member's karma score is visible to other members at all times). You can only vote once per day, so even a coordinated karma voting campaign couldn't change a score faster than the rest of the community could correct it.
Yes, it works. Everyone claims they don't care what their karma is, yet any time a person sees an unexplained drop, I get an email complaining about it. You just can't ignore a number right next to your name that announces what the community thinks of you.
But we're still thinking small, on a site-by-site basis. After all, assheads will simply migrate to places where security isn't as tight. If this is an Internet-wide problem, we need to think big. But how?
#3. Unify the Culture
Experts agree that the Internet has the magical power to turn normal people into fuckwads simply by granting them anonymity and an audience. But there's another cause that gets overlooked. Specifically, that a comment screen abhors a vacuum and will quickly fill it with assholes.
It works like this: Everybody is an asshole in some circumstances, and a nice guy in others. You go to Mardi Gras and scream for a lady to show you her boobs, but you don't do the same when sitting at the dinner table with Grandma on Sunday. As this article put it: "The largest determinant of behavior is the perceived social environment." But often on the Internet, there is no social environment.
To again use our own site as an example, the Cracked forums are consistently less angry and/or insulting than the article comments. Why? Because when you show up on the forums, you find yourself in an existing community, looking at a long list of threads and posts that establish the culture. Just a few minutes of reading gives you a sense of what is and is not acceptable.
But in the comments under an article (or YouTube video, or blog post), it's a clean slate. If just one dude comes in and submits "LOL WHAT A FAT BITCH" as the first post, he's set the tone for everybody and it will only go downhill from there. That's why modular post situations, where each conversation is completely isolated from the rest, make for some of the shittiest posting. A man sees an empty room and says, "Well, nobody here, guess I can flip out my dong."
So how do you fix that?
Universal Moderation Policy:
Something like this has been proposed by some prominent bloggers calling for a blogger Code of Conduct.
Some kind of guidelines for what is and is not acceptable in the comments would be drawn up, and everybody who agrees can adopt it. Those sites would be marked with some kind of symbol or badge, just as copyright and Creative Commons symbols indicate at a glance how intellectual property can be used.
In a world where those badges are common and commonly recognized, even looking at an empty comment box would let the poster know what's acceptable there.
Obviously a Lemonparty spammer won't see a badge and think, "Oh, you mean you don't want me to act like a douchebag? I do apologize, kind sir!"
But huge chunks of the population will modify their irritating behavior if you make it clear it's unacceptable (theater chains that reminded patrons to turn off their cell phones--and kicked out people who didn't--saw immediate results). For some people, they just need a sign in that empty room saying, "NON-COCK EXPOSURE ZONE" to keep their pants zipped. Give it to them.
And if that doesn't work...
#2. Up the Stakes for Membership
We've established that anonymous communication makes people assholes. But it also works the opposite way: Real life, in-person communication suppresses many of us who wish we could be assholes around the clock.
In the real world, getting a bad reputation can screw us over in countless ways, from losing future favors to getting punched in the nuts. A whole lot of people are civil for purely selfish motives. The Internet strips all that away.
Online you can drop by a blog and create an ID in seconds. You have absolutely nothing invested in it or its reputation. With that cardboard persona, you're free to rip shit up and if people get pissed, who cares?
Hell, you can even log out, create another ID, then join the others in their condemnation of the first ID. The rewards and consequences are all gone; your inner asshole is free to emerge.
This is why people tend to be less obnoxious in something like Second Life. Users there have an investment in their avatars, in time and energy and--usually--money. So how do you extend that to the rest of the web?
Charge Money for Membership:
When SomethingAwful.com started charging to join their forums a few years ago, it had the dual effect of raising cash for the site and slashing the number of retarded posters. It was just a one-time fee of $10--the cost of a few ringtones--but still far more than what some 13 year-old troll will pay to pop in and call Zach Parsons a fart zeppelin.
There's no realistic way to do this at the moment, but fast-forward ten years and don't be surprised if every major site makes you stick with the same user ID (maybe the one your ISP assigned you). And don't be surprised if that ID happens to look a whole lot like your real name.
I know, I know. You're saying, "But nobody wants that! That can only happen if they passed some kind of law or something ending anonymous Internet use!"
Well, that's why #1 is...
#1. Pass Some Kind of Law or Something Ending Anonymous Internet Use
And here we go. If all else fails--and I suspect it will--this will happen, eventually. And it will simply be the death of what most of us know as the World Wide Web. But of course this is silly, alarmist thinking, right? How can you ever regulate the wild-wild-west Internet?
Well, they've already started doing it in Korea. Everybody gets a 13-digit PIN and you've got to enter it any time you want to leave a comment somewhere. They enforce it site by site, via a government agency (the Korean version of the FCC). They've started from the top down, forcing every site with more than 200,000 visitors to require the PIN, and they're going to expand it to every site with 100,000 or more.
There's a similar movement in Brazil and years ago they tried to do it in France. And don't forget that American lawmakers are pushing for the same.
And no, there is nothing about the Internet that would keep them from making such tracking universal. All they need is a redesign of the protocols, which is why the US military is doing exactly that. Once they've got their secure, transparent network in place, it's just a matter of forcing its adoption.
If Web 2.0 was about social networking, Web 3.0 will be about the death of anonymity. You say nobody wants that, but there are three very important and powerful somebodies who do:
1. Copyright holders who want to be able to track pirates;
2. Law enforcement agencies who want to track child predators (don't forget the Oprah moms demanding the same) and to hunt down hackers;
3. Online advertisers who want to make billions off that 92% of housewives and adults who don't use social networking for fear of being called a Shitwhale in public.
Yes, it turns out there's a reason the Wild West didn't stay wild. The gunslingers loved it, but the other 99% of the world wanted laws and security and highways. And they were the ones with the money.
To get legislative momentum for this, all it'll take is some highly publicized deaths. You know, like that girl that committed suicide a year ago after a MySpace prank. Or Choi Jin-sil, the 40 year old entertainer from Korea who killed herself after relentless online harassment. Or Kathy Sierra, a popular blogger who canceled public appearances after getting death threats in her comments (and we're talking about the kind that come with people posting her home address). And don't forget this horrifying article in the New York Times chronicling the kids who very smoothly transitioned from online trolling to doing real-world harm without blinking an eye.
Next we'll get experts explaining that it's not just that anonymity makes offenders harder to catch, but in fact actually causes the bad behavior. Like this article does ("They are not the first to be grotesquely transformed by a new technology that offers easy availability and anonymity to its users").
Or this research paper that says due to that interpersonal disconnect, some people are unable to recognize anything that happens on a computer screen as having real-life consequences.
Now we've elevated anonymity itself to a public safety threat. We'd better do something about it! With laws!
And, behind every politician trying to kill anonymity "to protect our children," there will be an ocean of Time-Warner stockholders applauding the effort, dreaming of a future where every P2P downloader gets a knock on the door from the cops minutes later.
Sure, there'll still be untamed corners of the web in the future, just as there are still some cowboys around. But in that future, 10 or 20 years from now, us holdouts will all just be sad, deluded men in ridiculous hats.