Dealing with Troll Trouble

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.

demographics internet users

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.) 

Pew social network survey

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. 

photo credit: zen via photopin cc

Why Nobody Tweets but Everybody uses Facebook

A Pew Survey just came out saying that while 67% of the internet using population use Facebook only 16% use Twitter. What’s so striking about this is that I have had several conversations over the past year in which people swear to me that Facebook is already totally passé. These people uniformly are in the “Brands” segment of social media and it is true that for Brands, Twitter does work better than Facebook. Unfortunately, the public does not seem to be complying with this logic and are sticking to Facebook. So we face a conundrum- we have a tool with tremendous potential to build both brands and communities that suffers from a major lack of users.


I’ve found that many people simply don’t understand Twitter. I can say this from personal experience. I signed up for an account in December 2009 but it sat dormant until June 2012 when the UVA crisis suddenly provided a very good reason to make use of it. Once that settled down, I realized that it was a great way to follow the my beloved Nats as they blasted to the playoffs. Simultaneously I began to enjoy getting election news there as well. I found that one of my Facebook friends was a Nats fan and a total politics geek when, on the night of the Vice Presidential debate, which coincided with one of the Nats playoff games, both of our tweets simultaneously shifted gears from baseball to politics.

Facebook connections

Categories of my Facebook “Friends”- Notice that 3 of the 4 categories are personal connections. Twitter networkCategories of who I “Follow” on Twitter- notice that 3 of the 4 are impersonal- people I have most likely never met.

Facebook is clearly about friends and community. It fits well into our lives as a way to keep in touch with friends and family particularly as we become more and more far flung across the globe. The fact that Facebook began in the University community shaped it to fulfill this need.

Twitter by contrast is more utilitarian. This about the terminology- you “Follow” as opposed to “Friend”. A July Pew survey shows that once someone begins to use Twitter (I would say that once they “get” Twitter) their use quickly rises. If you follow a friend on Twitter, it is going to be someone who shares your interests, not just someone with whom you wish to keep in touch. For the majority of the population (74% according to Pew), Twitter simply does not have a natural “hook” that would make them want to learn how to use it.

Twitter, therefore, must be taught. Campaigns seeking to make use of Twitter- whether for marketing, community building, or personal connections- must plan on including a “Why should you use Twitter” component. So, for example, I’m working on a project right now to try to get UVA alums across the country to begin to “live-tweet” events at which they host notable speakers so that the greater University community can feel involved. Many, if not most, of these people do not use Twitter. Part of my campaign, then, must include explaining to them why Twitter is a great tool to reach the UVA community. I intend to show them “live-tweets” of the UVA football games and other events. Part of this will also explain that they themselves do not need to feel that they have to “tweet” constantly. Always assume that you must get past the “Roland Hedley” perception of Twitter:

As I’ve said, Twitter does have lots of potential and once an individual is hooked- they are majorly hooked. The key, however, is getting them to see how Twitter fits into their life.

See my follow-up post “Why You Should Consider Using Twitter”

Facebook and Twitter are not Magic Beans

The place of social media within society is still a highly contentious issue. For its most ardent advocates it has become something of a deus ex machina for every societal ill. This view cropped up recently in Thomas Freedman’s article giving advice to incoming Secretary of State John Kerry. He suggests using social networks (read: social media) to deal with everything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the negotiations with Iran over nuclear arms. Aside from the political naiveté of this piece which has been well laid out elsewhere, this is emblematic of this belief that social media is a “fix-it” tool. The political degeneration of the so-called “Facebook/Twitter Revolution” in Egypt demonstrates the fallacy of the belief that using Facebook or Twitter has any magical powers. Why should Facebook posts or Tweets matter to a domestic government? Sure it matters to the International Community- abuse can be reported and organizations such as Human Rights Watch can mount campaigns but this is independent of the process of actual political change. In the aftermath of the revolution, analysts revealed that the central utility of social media was its ability to rally people together. The fact that it took a mere 18 days is touted as a direct result of Social Media. Yet harken back to the fall of the Soviet Union- the communist government in Czechoslovakia fell in a mere 10 days. Please don’t get me wrong- my goal is not to minimize this achievement- and it would be completely false to say that social media didn’t play an important role. Rather it is to push back against the idea that social media is in and of itself as a game changer.

At this point you are probably asking why I am going to such lengths to hammer this home. It is because I believe that social media can be a game changer- but the power lies in its implementation. It is not enough to start a Facebook page or a Twitter account. What do 2,000 “likes” on your Page actually mean? So what that your hashtag went viral? One thing that a few journalists have discussed when talking about the Egypt revolution is the way that Social Media allowed for a sense of solidarity across state borders. This is actually very similar to what occurred during the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. Students and activists were emboldened by stories of the East Germans and Poles standing up to their regimes. Social media is about dialogue- about engagement. 

I believe much of the current confusion lies in the fact that everyone recognizes the power of social media as an idea but they fail to implement it as such. Instead it becomes an additional tool- and let’s be honest, often a rather disappointing tool. My mother-in-law works as a social justice minister and recently told me that the most “likes” she received on a post was from one that she quickly typed up as a heartfelt response to a tragedy that had occurred. She didn’t understand why that as opposed to her normal posts which were well thought out and included links to issues that needed attention, should receive more attention.

To make use of social media the first step is to recognize that it is more than another tool of communication. It is best approached in that way that one would approach understanding a foreign land. There are norms, a culture, and distinct institutions. Now here’s the ironic thing. Most likely you are already aware of all of this because you are an inhabitant of this land. As a user of a social media platform you have an instinct for what is acceptable and what is not. Stylistically you know that there is a difference between posting on Twitter and Facebook (and it is more than just the 140 character limitation). Moreover, you know that you are in different frames of mind when you are on Facebook versus Twitter versus LinkedIn versus Tumblr. It is time to ask yourself why you use social media in your private day-to-day life. Is it to keep it touch with family and friends? Is it to stay up to date with the latest news? Or is it simply to give yourself a mental break? Now think about what it would take to engage a user like you. What would you be attracted to? Why would you engage? As I wrote in my post on the Oreo versus Coke Chase campaign, a major difference between the two is that Oreo choose to enter into the humorous Twitter conversation during the blackout. Coca-Cola, on the other hand, was intent on creating its own conversation. Oreo engaged while Coca-Cola simply used social media as another marketing tool. To truly grasp the full potential of social media organizations must focus on facilitating engagement- and this will differ, sometimes radically, case by case. 

The world of social media is exciting. It is a new frontier in many ways. In order to embrace this we must be willing to treat it as such and that will often mean throwing away the rule book and stepping out into the Great Unknown.

The Internet as an Idea: Celebrating Mosaic’s Twentieth Birthday

Its been twenty years since Mosaic was introduced to the world as a way to “browse” the World Wide Web. The excitement is palpable in a New York Times article introducing the browser. It is described as, “a map to the buried treasures of the Information Age.”  There was a general giddiness at the thought of having the ability to communicate and share information with people around the world. In some quarters- particularly the philosophical ones, there was a belief that the Internet might prove to be the elusive “public sphere”– a place where citizens could come together in serious and respectively debate about contentious topics. So how does the present measure up to that dream?

Like anything that includes the ideal of freedom, it’s been a rocky road. The first group outside of Academia to really take advantage of the Internet was the porn industry. On July 3, 1995, TIME magazine’s cover read “CYBERPORN” and asked “Can we protect our kids, and free speech?” In the name of the dream, porn became protected under Freedom of Speech. Written content has also proved controversial. What should we do with Forums advocating violence? Domestic Terrorism? The rise of social media during the past few years means that children must now deal with Cyberbullying.

All of these are serious issues that must be addressed. Yet to view the Internet according to these attributes is to risk missing the forest for the trees.  Taken in the aggregate, the tale of the Internet is one of progress. In the early days only a few key demographics were populating the internet- the net looked more like the jungle of streets in downtown Manhattan than an “information superhighway.” A lot of the content available, therefore, was the bad and harmful stuff. It took the development of online exclusive content via services such as YouTube, Facebook, and Wikipedia to attract other demographics onto the net. I think we can all agree that the quality of information on the Internet has increased in leaps and bounds since those early days. Of course you can always find wackos and bullies but in many ways that actually reaffirms the degree to which the Internet has become more representative of the offline world.

So how should we look at the past twenty years? To say that it’s complicated is an understatement. Much of this is based on the fact that we do not expect the Internet to be simply a tool- we expect it to be something larger than life. The Internet is every bit an Idea as it is a physical network of applications. The past twenty years tell a story of constant progression towards the Idea of an interconnected world. But like any Idea, it has generated strong opposition and at times vicious disagreement. Aaron Schwartz’s more than tragic suicide is emblematic of this “digital divide”. Hopefully this tragedy will spark serious dialogue between these opposing camps and what better time to do so than on the twenty year anniversary of Mosaic.

The history of the Internet has been fraught with trials and tribulations but also full of amazing achievements. Any assessment of its use must take the bad with the good and also include the fact that the Internet is a creature of progress- ever changing and expanding. Always reaching towards that elusive dream of connectedness.