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Forumization and Its Malcontent (5)

A. D. Coleman. Photo © 2012 by Anna Lung.

The term troll applies to someone who, as Wikipedia puts it, “posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.”

Most trolls operate anonymously. The effect, usually intentional, goes by the name “threadjacking” ― moving the discussion to a subject area where the troll feels comfortable and in control. Readers of this blog will recall my late 2011 encounter with trolls and threadjackers in several photo-specific online forums.

As part of this blog’s opinionating on that subject, I invited photographer and writer Ken Schles to provide a Guest Post from his perspective. In our email exchanges leading up to that, Ken suggested that one should view participation in a forum as analogous to beachcombing, with its unexpected discoveries and other attendant pleasures.

Plastic debris washed up on a San Francisco beach. Photo by Kent K. Barnes / kentkb, Creative Commons.

Plastic debris washed up on a San Francisco beach. Photo by Kent K. Barnes, Creative Commons.

I responded, in part, that while I too enjoy beachcombing in virtual life (and in real life too), online forums don’t provide enough intriguing detritus to make them go-to destinations for me. If I want serendipity and/or chance to direct my attention, I do quite well with casual web browsing, whether that’s just following my nose or else plugging in some keyword that occurs to me and seeing where it takes me. Why opt to wander around in an environment full of not just irrelevancy but drivel, viperous attack, and semi-literacy?

I’m not looking for an agora filled with patricians. Nor do I require discourse on the level of the Federalist papers or the Lincoln-Douglas debates (though I certainly welcome it). I’ll gladly settle for Hyde Park, or the Union Square my parents and grandparents knew in New York City. I enjoy contention, indeed seek to provoke it. But disputation with people who can’t muster the courage to show their true faces and use their real names doesn’t interest me in the least. Man up or shut up.

Banishing the Nameless Ones

Huffington Post logoI feel considerably less alone with that attitude nowadays. This past summer, the Huffington Post announced that, starting in fall 2013, its editors would bar anonymous comments, closing the HuffPost’s door on trolls. (Click here for Elizabeth Landers’s CNN report, August 22, 2013.) The New York Daily News has now followed suit. Popular Science has just announced that, for the same reason, they’ve decided to close down their comments function entirely. Nice to see HuffPo, the Daily News, and PopSci taking a play from my book. I’ve disallowed anonymous commenting here at Photocritic International from the outset, making this blog, by design, a troll-free zone.

Popular Science logoBoth Facebook and Google have started to crack down on people using pseudonyms rather than full or “strong” identities. See John Gapper’s Financial Times report of August 31, 2011, “It is right to curtail web anonymity.” We need to preserve anonymity in some situations― that’s what makes whistle-blowing possible, among other things. But no reputable print periodical would publish unsigned letters to the editor; they require a verifiable sender, though they’ll withhold a name on request if there’s a good reason for it. No reason that online forums, and the comments section of periodicals and blogs, shouldn’t subscribe to the same standards.

NY Daily News, screenshot, 11/12/13.

NY Daily News, screenshot, 11/12/13.

Troll-free Zone

Akismet logoI publish Photocritic International with the open-source blogware called WordPress. A WordPress plugin, Akismet, catches spam, anonymous (or pseudonymous) by definition. In the three and half years since I inaugurated this blog, Akismet has filtered out a terrifying 315,000 spam messages.

Most of that takes the form of online marketing junk; no matter how automated the systems that generate it at my blog, it must take its senders longer than the five seconds I spend wiping the accumulated batch each time I log in to the site. My readers never see it; Akismet stores it backstage till I empty the file, while learning from it algorithmically to spot spam ever more efficiently. I can’t recommend this plugin too highly to my fellow bloggers.

Potentially legitimate comments get shunted by Akismet into a different file, where I review them for appropriateness. As one measure of that, I require a first and last name in the name field, and a legitimate email address. With these (assuming I don’t know, or know of, the commenter) I can usually verify the existence of the sender. Once I authenticate the source, I approve the comment and it goes live. Anyone whose comment I approve can post comments thereafter without going through that filtration system, though I reserve the right to delete anything I consider unsuitable.

No Trolls signI announced this policy when PI made its debut in spring 2009, and have abided by it rigorously, thus unashamedly censoring the free and unfettered expression of the opinions of netizens. Or, as I see it, sparing myself and my subscribers and visitors a boatload of bullshit from people too gutless to stand behind their own public utterances. Having spent the past half-century-plus signing my name to my published ideas, I don’t really have any interest in hearing from anyone who lacks the stones to do the same. (I exempt from this whistleblowers, of course, or others who, for professional reasons, communicate with me off the record as unnamed sources of information.)

As a result, this blog’s comments, however they may vary in substance and quality, do not reflect the opinions of trolls.

The GIFT That Keeps On Giving

That brings us to John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory (GIFT), “a postulate which asserts that normal, well-adjusted people may display psychopathic or antisocial behaviors when given both anonymity and a captive audience on the Internet.” Gabriel proposes the equation “Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Total Fuckwad.”

This has become known more scientifically as “The Online Disinhibition Effect,” a term coined by cyberpsychologist John Suler in his hypertext treatise The Psychology of Cyberspace. (Dr. Suler teaches in the Department of Psychology, Science and Technology Center, Rider University, Lawrenceville, NJ.)

Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget (2010), cover.

Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget (2010), cover.

Jaron Lanier has insights into this in his 2010 treatise You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. “There is a vast online flood of videos of humiliating assaults on helpless victims,” he writes. “The culture of sadism online has its own vocabulary and has gone mainstream. The common term ‘lulz,’ for instance, refers to the gratification of watching others suffer over the cloud.” He concludes, “Trolling is not a string of isolated incidents, but the status quo in the online world.”

Lanier doesn’t use the term “fuckwad,” whose pungency I acknowledge readily but which has such broad application in common usage that it lacks precision, especially insofar as the deviousness of antisocial online behavior goes. Like the German scheisskopf, to whose English version it bears close kinship, the all-purpose functionality of “fuckwad” makes it less than useful in discussing net-specific behavior.

Mike Reed, self-portrait

Mike Reed, self-portrait

For an astute, humorful, nuanced, carefully delineated and cross-referenced breakdown of the personality types who populate online forums, I recommend highly Mike Reed’s “Flame Warriors” for both its graphic caricatures and its pithy textual summations of some 80 recurrent characters ― what Reed describes as “the roster of online belligerents.”

But there are behaviors and actions that regularly manifest themselves online outside of the context of forums, calling for a nomenclature of their own. I’ll discuss some of those, and propose a term of my own, in my next post.

(For an index of links to all posts in this series, click here.)

This post supported by a donation from Yoshio Kishi.

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