Socially disrupting a major news site is trivial

I originally was just going to add Chris Applegate’s discussion of trolling and griefing at Social Media Camp London last weekend (we didn’t manage to make it) into our delicious links for the day, but then I realised that Chris has highlighted a really important issue.

The social sophistication of trolls completely out-strips the social thinking behind most news sites. As a journalist who hears a lot of complaints from other editors about trolling, I can honestly say if 4Chan turned their attention to a major news website, it would be trivial to socially disrupt it. Actually, 4Chan has already done this, gaming the Time magazine most influential person poll.

The Internet has different rules. The folks at Time just learned about it in a very amusing way, as their third annual poll for the world’s most influential person was topped by moot A.K.A. Christopher Poole, founder of the legendary memebreeding forum 4chan.

The fact that it’s so easy is probably one of the reasons that really good trolls don’t bother playing silly buggers with news sites. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

Chris says, quite rightly:

The barrier between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ has come down, and what happens online can now very easily spill over into offline. There is no inherent morality within Web 2.0 – tools can be used for good or evil. Trolls are now their own separate problem within themselves – they allow efforts to be distributed to many human actors over a variety of technologies, and collectivised to any particular end, over a mere matter of minutes, hours, days or months. It’s a different problem from spam (mainly bots) or hacking (mainly individuals or small groups) and as the social web gets ever more ubiquitous and less distinct from the ‘real’ world, it’s only going to be more of a concern. Successfully fighting against them is a distinct concern – but at the same time let’s not get obsessed by it; letting it stifle innovation would mean the trolls truly have won.

Anyone who has worked with social media on a news site knows that trolling isn’t a new problem. As soon as you have a forum, as sites that I worked on in the 1990s did, you will have people who enjoy poking at the other users. But there are just some folks who have a passion for more than mischief.

However, although we’ve increased the number of interactive features on our sites, news organisations mostly have failed to increase the emotional and social intelligence of their strategies. Some of this is an over-emphasis on technical solutions to what are largely social problems. Certainly, bad technology can make your job harder, but technology can only go so far in solving social issues.

A lot of the problems come from strategies that make perfect sense in the era of broadcast mass media but don’t make sense in terms of social media. And when I say broadcast, I mean uni-directional media, including print, not simply television or radio. Mass media constantly competes for attention, often by trying to shout over each other. Editors wanted to be talked about, and a lot of the strategies seem solely designed to outrage, upset or simply piss people off. Some mass media strategies aren’t social strategies. They are anti-social strategies. Journalists give sources a right to respond, but now the audience has a right to respond too. If we whip an audience into a mob, the result is predictable.

Social media journalism is about working in constructive ways with the audience to provide something of value both to the news organisation but more importantly to our co-collaborators in the audience. We have new opportunities to help people make sense of the world and make decisions in democratic socieities. If the only value that news organisations provide in terms of social media is an opportunity for people to vent their rage, that’s not a winning startegy. It’s a strategy that deserves to fail.

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