I had a long conversation with a colleague of mine about how easily comment threads can go sour. She said every community manager begins with a pleasant view of their online preserve, a view that values democracy, free speech and an open market place of ideas.
Then, after countless episodes of rants, name calling and non sequiturs (it's people like you who will soon have us living in a Nazi wonderland ruled over by a leader who makes Hitler look like a caring social worker), your ideals are dashed.
Where do these meandering, senseless rants come from? Trolls, people who say just about anything to get a rise out of others. Don't get me wrong, I think for the most part, we have a very strong let-the-community-sort-itself-out ethos. We welcome pointed comments from all points of view. We just ask that they also be constructive and substantive.
Trolls, however, are community members without convictions, arguing a point just to see the other person go red. They turn perfectly interesting threads into festering cesspools of resentment.
We've talked about what to do with them. We've stepped in and asked posters to stop breaking the discussion rules. We've blocked scads of comments, and even a few community accounts. Eventually, we came to the obvious conclusion that the only thing that will move this conversation forward is to ask the community to ignore them.
So, here's a new community rule: Do not "feed" the trolls. We encourage community members to report abuse by trolls. But we also ask that you not engage with trolls in the comment threads. Reacting to their provocations is exactly what they want.
If we see you feeding a troll, we will remove both the troll's comments and your responses.
I messaged with a few community members about implementing this new rule and the reaction was mostly positive. But everyone had one question: How do you define a troll?
I think I've already given some definition to the concept of a troll. But community member Peter Wilbur added a bit more: "I think of it," he wrote in an e-mail, "as someone who doesn't engage others in a discussion, who posts irrelevant comments, or who goes off on the same rant no matter the topic."
In some ways, a troll is like the person at the party who's a little too drunk and picks a fight with everyone. He (or she) is the one who makes things so hostile that everyone avoids a gathering as soon as they see him on the guest list.
Our oft-stated principle is that we want the NPR.org community to be home to a civil conversation that avoids insults, vulgarities and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories. We ask for first and last names during the registration process because we want users to remember that behind our funny avatars and strong views are real human beings.
Trolls tend to hide behind the anonymity of the Internet to make community interactions less human. So, from now on, let's ignore them.