The N Word of the Internet: Troll

A good start in cleaning the place up would be to see the permanent banning not of an editor but that ugly word “troll”. This word is increasingly used to suppress any voice of dissent no matter how reasonable. Many attempts to reach a hidden truth or even just the honest truth are met with a barrage of name calling. The term inhibits justice and speech and honest debate. It is an ugly word, to use it is to attack, and we need to wake up to that. So let’s not use it any more.

That quote is from Wikipedia editor Giano, who exposed the “Durova’s List” scandal on Wikipedia recently. Another quote from that story:

The problem with Wikipedia is that, for so many in the project, it’s no longer about the encyclopedia. The problem is that Wikipedia’s community has defined itself not in terms of the encyclopedia it is supposedly producing, but instead of the people it venerates and the people it abhors.

Indeed, anytime in an online community you see terms used like “troll”, “flame”, “newbie”, or “RTFM” (see this article on rtfm jerks), that’s a sign of an unhealthy community. It’s not a place I’d recommend beginners (or children for that matter) go for help, especially. It may be a fine place to lurk, but not so great to be an active (commenting, submitting) participant. That unfortunately includes many USENET groups, mailing lists, forums, IRC channels, and yes, even Wikipedia. See also the article “Wikipedia’s Technological Obscurification: Three ways Wikipedia keeps 99% of the population from participating.”

I wouldn’t use an IRC channel or an unmoderated mailing list or discussion board as the primary means of community support & participation. Ubuntu Linux, for example, lists their IRC channels first for support, when their (moderated) forums are much more recommendable to those looking for help.

So just to speculate, what are some features that might help a site from becoming exclusionist, elitist, or the like? Perhaps things like:

  • Have a clear mission or purpose that is beneficial to the community. Define what the community is for, not what it is against.
  • Make some things more transient. Blog posts, for example, fade away from rss readers after a while.
  • Make community processes transparent. That’s what got Wikipedia into trouble in this latest controversy.
  • Diminish the importance of rankings or ratings, or at least disconnect them from people involved in the community and contributing the content. I’m not a big fan of “user stats” on various forums and sites like reddit or digg, although I suppose it does stimulate the amount of content submitted, which may be more important and useful when getting a community off the ground. It depends if you value quantity over quality.
  • Allow individuals to make a contribution that won’t be trampled on. Good examples include some blogs or forums or for example Yahoo Answers, and again you can let it quickly fade away if need be (unlike with USENET groups or mailing lists). Questions more than 10-15 minutes old on Yahoo Answers pretty much disappear off the front page of each section.
  • Most popular online social sites allow complete anonymity, but a lot of the time it is the fuel for what makes the communities bad, as well.
    There are some middle ground strategies, like allowing anonymous contributions from people with verified identifies (such as pseudonymous contributions to the Chronicle of Higher Education, or the Second Life virtual world which requires registering with a credit card first). The Citizendium wiki is trying the experiment of requiring everyone to use real identities, and furthermore, while anyone can contribute to the wiki, only real-world experts can approve or certify articles as being accurate. Wikipedia suffered (and suffers) from this problem as well. See for example the Essjay controversy from earlier this year. Wikipedia is also constantly vandalized by anonymous individuals. Citizendium, in contrast, hasn’t had any vandalism problems. Perhaps not coincidentally, even “Jimbo” Wales, head of Wikipedia, uses the term troll.
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