A few weeks ago I was on the sidelines of a conversation on Twitter between social media strategist @DrDigiPol and other users on how to deal with Trolls. Just so we are all on the same page, “Troll” is internet slang for “someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as a forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.” Initially dealing with Trolls was the purview of the forum moderator. However, as the Internet becomes more and more geared towards group discussion, dealing with Trolls is something that anyone who engages in such a discussion can be susceptible to. In many corners of the internet the advice is non-engagement. Yet with the rise of Twitter in particular, some within the social media community, such as @DrDigiPol, advocate a policy of strategic engagement with Trolls. When I asked him to elaborate, he said that he knew that his engagement with the Troll was in the context of speaking to the larger community. It was important, he said, to bring their comments out into the light of day. Engaging with trolls, therefore, can be part of the community discourse. This suggests that moderators should trust that the larger community will react in a moderate fashion themselves to the Troll and for many I believe that that is quite a radical thought.
The legacy of the Wild West of the 1990s and early 2000s forum culture still casts a pall over the way that some people view online engagement. Many organizations in particular fear what will happen if they create a means for members of the public to engage with them. Of course part of that comes from the need to shift marketing mentalities from a monologue to a dialogue. But there is also a need to recognize that the internet is a very different place in 2013, the era of social networking sites, than it was in 2000, the era of internet chat rooms. As the table below demonstrates, not only do more adults now utilize the internet (47% in 2000 versus 78% in 2011), the demographic composition of those users has also evened out quite a bit.
A similar trend has occurred in forum/social network use. In 2000, Pew found a stark generational gap among those who took part in chat rooms: 53% of 18-24 year olds had gone on chat rooms and 8% did so daily whereas only 14% of users over the age of 50 had ever gone on a chat room and less than 3% did so daily. By contrast, as the table below shows, while the younger demographic still participates to a greater degree in social networks, even the 65+ demographic has a 32% usage rate. Internet use and more importantly, the directly social aspects of the internet, are now much more representative of the offline population. This means that more and more online communities have the potential to resemble off-line communities which is good news for community-building and engagement. The logic is simple: the ratio of extremists to moderates tends to resemble a bell-curve in society. So it follows that as more and more members of society across demographics engage in an online community, moderates will outnumber extremists. (Of course the logic inherent is that this is for a neutral type of group. If you build something that caters to extremists-some of the Reddit forums for example, then of course extremists will outweigh moderates.)
Moreover, if the online community resembles the offline community then there is a strong chance that you already intuitively know how to “strategically engage” with those who create discord. I want you to think about the last public meeting you went to-home owner’s association, Student council, School Board, City council, etc. Think of all of the personalities involved. I’m sure there was conflict and there is always that person there for who takes his or her role way too seriously. I bet there was also some heated debate. Perhaps some hurtful things were said. I’m also sure that if you attend those meeting regularly you know that certain discussions are more profitable than others. You also know what type of rhetoric to use if you want to calm the situation down versus if you are simply mad and want to let people know. Think about what the chairperson does to make the meeting productive. There are times that he or she engages- asking further question or allowing discussion and there are time that he or she decides to move on.
I could go on and on but my point is that all of us are conditioned to understand the nuance of these types of forums. We know the importance of dialogue, we know that things become heated, and we also can often sense when someone is simply out of control and should be instructed to cool down. Most importantly, we know that often heated debates can prove the most insightful in terms of discussion.