Shiny, shiny tools won’t save you from trolls

Last week, Meg Pickard, who works with community at AOL Europe, came round to have a chat. She talked about creating and managing communities. I was going to write about her comments because they were just so damn good, but like a lot of people, I’m currently digging out from a blizzard of holiday cheer and Christmas parties so am catching up with blogging.

There were so many gems in what she had to say, and I’ll highlight just a few:

  • “Is this a community or just people who have something in common?” she said. Brilliant, I say. Your readers/viewers aren’t a community. Don’t throw blogs and social networking tools on your site and expect a ‘community’ to form. Your audience represents a lot of different communities – geographical, interest-based, activity-based, etc. But, just because they have your channel, newspaper, website in common, doesn’t make them a community.
  • “Community is off-line as well as online,” she added. Websites who don’t use off-line events to bolster their online communities are missing a trick.
  • “Good communities need participation by users and by YOU,” Meg said. Too many news sites are looking to community as a silver-bullet technical solution. They seem to think they just need to add some blogs and bingo the next BoingBoing or add some social networking tools and they are on their way to becoming the next MySpace. No, the biggest change is getting out there on your own websites and mixing it up a bit.
  • Moderation is a big issue. “But who is moderating it? Do you let your users moderate each other?” she said. Do you give them voting tools like Digg? Do you let them hide things they don’t want to see? She said that moderation rules should focus on making the sure the comments, photos and video are ‘safe and appropriate and not whether they are ‘good’ and on topic’.

It was a great presentation from a digital native who not only looks at these spaces with the eye of a trained anthropologist but also from someone who lives in these online communities with her Flickr groups, Last.Fm stream and her own online projects.

But let me just touch on that last point: Moderation. It’s often one of the overlooked issues with community. My second online news job, 10 years ago, was with Newhouse Newspapers’ Michigan Live, and part of my job, as with all of the online journalists on staff, was policing our forums when our ‘fuck filters’ failed. Community was never a build it and they will come proposition. I have had to build up a few online communities, and it takes work. And once they have a critical mass, they can still be overwhelmed by trolls.

When I first joined the Guardian, someone on Comment is Free said that by trolls I only meant someone who I didn’t agree with. No, that’s not a troll. Trolls are folks who delight in breaking things. The BBC calls them WUM – wind-up merchants. But they can wreak havoc in online spaces, and the answers aren’t simple and they aren’t wholly technical. Looking through my RSS feeds, I noticed the most recent example of an news site that has succumb to trolling: The Arizona Daily Star, with an explanation from Executive Editor Bobbie Jo Buel on why the site had to delete comments. Ryan Sholin has a great write-up, and I’ll quote liberally from his second of three points:

…that is a damn fine commenting system they’re running over there: It’s got the Digg-ish thumbs up/thumbs down function I’ve been wanting to see. It’s got the Slashdot-esque threshold I agitated for a long time ago. The paper has a clean, well-designed registration page, and users must be registered to post or rate comments. I want this commenting system. Seriously. What sort of CMS are you guys running and is the commenting system built into it, or is it an add on?

I agree. The Daily Star has gone further than most newspapers in building a commenting system with a lot more intelligence than standard forums or blog software. (And like Ryan, I’m curious as to what software you’re using, feel free to e-mail me as well.) UPDATE: I just found out that the software is Bakomatic from Participata.

And as for the staff and managers at the Daily Star, don’t worry. You’re not alone in having an outbreak of trolls. It happens to everyone. I hope you don’t pull down your comment feature. You’ve put a lot of work and thought into it. Good luck, and a little unsolicited advice:

  • Get some community managers in there.
  • Don’t run one-half of a Skinner box. Don’t just poke the commenters with cattle prods when they misbehave, also give them some cheese when they are good neighbours in your community.
  • See Meg’s comment above. The community needs participation from users and from you and your staff. Join with your users in making it your (you and your commenters’) community.

When people ask me how blogs are different from forums, I say, “The blogger sets the tone”. I sort of joke when doing blog training for journalists that if you write a post like a pompous ass, people will respond accordingly. I’m only half joking. Yes, the technology will help you manage the comments and help foster the community, but unless you look at your content as well, you’re going to be fighting a losing battle against the trolls.

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