by upstate girl, Tue Aug 05, 2008 at 11:56:16 AM EDT
So I wake up today and there's another half dozen trolls swarming diaries that don't even bother trying to hide they're trolling against Obama on a purportedly Democratic website. And that's fine. They bring flame wars, and flame wars bring page hits.
There was an article recently on the NYT about web trolling.
Does free speech tend to move toward the truth or away from it? When does it evolve into a better collective understanding? When does it collapse into the Babel of trolling, the pointless and eristic game of talking the other guy into crying "uncle"? Is the effort to control what's said always a form of censorship, or might certain rules be compatible with our notions of free speech?
One promising answer comes from the computer scientist Jon Postel, now known as "god of the Internet" for the influence he exercised over the emerging network. In 1981, he formulated what's known as Postel's Law: "Be conservative in what you do; be liberal in what you accept from others." Originally intended to foster "interoperability," the ability of multiple computer systems to understand one another, Postel's Law is now recognized as having wider applications. To build a robust global network with no central authority, engineers were encouraged to write code that could "speak" as clearly as possible yet "listen" to the widest possible range of other speakers, including those who do not conform perfectly to the rules of the road. The human equivalent of this robustness is a combination of eloquence and tolerance -- the spirit of good conversation. Trolls embody the opposite principle. They are liberal in what they do and conservative in what they construe as acceptable behavior from others. You, the troll says, are not worthy of my understanding; I, therefore, will do everything I can to confound you.
The article goes on to describe a worst-case scenario wherein the government actively monitors the net for cases of cyberbullying that are set up to spiral out of control. But there's another option - where moderators and admins of a board take responsibility for the activity on their site, and enforce basic ground rules.
There's far, far worse places online than MyDD - the article describes a few alpha posters at b as an example of the "worst of the worst" (or best of the worst, I suppose) - and I'm certainly not making the comparison between the two. But the article describes a problem that's been hitting boards since they were first Usenet groups, and its hitting MyDD in full force.
Either through apathy or design, complete hands-off moderation (or as is often the case at MyDD, completely random enforcement of the rules and punishments that accompany them) doesn't lead to a thriving, active, intelligent community. It leads to a continual swarm of posters looking to get a rise out of others.
For a site that's supposedly so dedicated to grassroots politics, one would think they'd discover that wasting time and energy on dealing with trolls we can't even TR for fear of "abusing the system" or put on ignore leaves precious little time to discuss politics, much less organize to actually effect something besides their page counts.
Good luck Jerome, Todd, and the rest of the admins. You're probably going to need it. I'll spend my time and my precious page hits at a site that promotes discussion by doing basic pruning.