[ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 17TH MAY 2009 BY RED C MAGAZINE]
If you have ever commented on a blog post, web news article or Facebook group, you will probably have come into contact with trolls. They are the thoroughly irksome, pedantic and occasionally downright unsavoury individuals who post irrelevant, inflammatory and/or abusive remarks in message boards, often with the sole intent of disrupting on-topic conversation or undermining other forum users.
For the most part, trolls are accepted as just one of those irritations that happen online – like receiving those persistent emails about enlarging your penis, or unwittingly helping to prolong Rick Astley’s career – but for us marketing types trolls are more than just an annoyance. The truth is that these cyber-tosspots cost advertising agencies in the UK alone millions of pounds every year.
Okay, that may be a little unfair – I’m sure most ‘trollers’ aren’t consciously trying to get one over the advertising industry. However, their actions make creating things like brand blogs and social network groups a risky business… and clients don’t like risk. Whenever we propose a campaign involving online content with user input to one of the companies we represent, we’re guaranteed to be met with a nervous glance, quivering lip and those five immortal words: “but what about the trolls?”
Controlling the trolls
The simplest way to combat ‘trolling’ is to employ moderators to screen every contribution and decide what is and is not acceptable. Yet for high-volume sites this can be a laborious and expensive process, as well as raising issues around censorship and free speech; something that may incense trolls and invite a reaction. Do not feed the trolls! Instead, the best defence is to discourage them from commenting, or making their comments impotent. The good news is that the world’s techy geeks have risen to the occasion and developed a range of troll repellent software with the aim of bringing civility back to the discussion board – and confidence back to our clients. To help you control the trolls I have listed, in no particular order, the most popular software innovations on the market today.
Audio Preview: This software allows your forum comments to be read back to you in a mildly creepy robot voice before being posted. The idea, presumably, is that trolls who write “you are a moron” get it thrown right back in their face, making them lament the effect of their actions and pack their bags for the nearest seminary. It may sound like a fairly futile tool against hardcore trolls but web giant YouTube obviously sees its potential – they have recently added the feature to their video feedback forums, although it’s optional.
Real-Time Voice Censor: Developed by Microsoft to shut up Xbox Live trolls, this telepathic censor bleeps swear words as they’re being said. No, I have no idea how it works either – but if you can comprehend it, you can view the explanation here. Regardless of the mechanics, the system is far from infallible; you can still get away with some utterly filthy language, while being censored for perfectly acceptable statements like “I love Scunthorpe” or “my cock is crowing”.
Disemvoweling: This simple bit of code sucks all the vowels out of offensive posts, rendering them either illegible or simply ineffectual. For example, the comment “This code is bloody rubbish” becomes “Ths cd s blddy rbbsh”. The message has become incoherent enough to require a slow reading, so lessening its impact on the audience, and yet coherent enough that trolls can’t cry total censorship. They just look a bit silly.
Crowdsourcing: Also known as ‘blind moderation’, this system randomly selects contributors and gives them the temporary omnipotence to rate everyone else’s comments. The idea is that forum users set their filters to exclude comments with poor reviews, effectively eliminating trolling. This technology has proved so popular and effective that is now used by such high profile websites as The New York Times.
Comment Snob: Rather than software attached to a specific forum, this is an add-on for the forum users themselves. The programme simply allows them to choose which comments they don’t want to see in discussion board postings: option examples include removing comments that have ‘more that XX spelling mistakes’, ‘more than XX capital letters’, ‘excessive punctuation’ and ‘profanity’.
StupidFilter: This open-source filter software claims it can “detect rampant stupidity in written English”. While it’s an interesting and ambitious idea, StupidFilter is still very much a work in progress – you can click here to see how well it works for yourself. For those of you who didn’t bother clicking, the answer is ‘not very well’.
Karma: This system essentially allows an online community to moderate itself. Registered users vote for posts with a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ and the post is awarded a score accordingly (e.g. 3 thumbs up plus 7 thumbs down gives a score of minus 4). The hope is that a troll, upon seeing their score of minus 220, will: a) slink off quietly, never to be heard of again; or b) realise that trolling is a pathetic pastime, vow to change their ways and, after hours of therapy, blossom into a fully functioning human being.
Selective Invisibility: Similar to the above, forum users rate posts themselves. The twist is that poorly rated posts, rather than simply having a low score to dissuade readers, actually become invisible. The only person who can then view the comment is its creator, so as far as they’re aware everybody is just ignoring them. Ideally, the troll them becomes disillusioned with the lack of reaction and buggers off.
Robot9000: This programme ensures that every post on a discussion forum is unique. This helps to combat trolls who mindlessly copy and paste content to flood discussions and drive fellow users out. At the very least, it forces trolls to be more creative with their hate-filled diatribes.
Time Delay: True to its name, this system simply puts a ten-minute time delay between messages being sent to the forum and their delivery. It’s hardly a revolutionary development – this time lapse is essentially just how dial-up internet used to work – but the theory is that the gap allows tempers to cool between messages. Unfortunately, many forum users complain that it makes interest cool between messages too.
So there you have it. Ten (mostly) useful software developments to combat trolling, and so ten less reasons why clients shouldn’t embrace the interactive world of Web 2.0. Your comments are, of course, very welcome.
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