Greedy Goblin

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The myth of the forum troll

Rohan wrote "According to John Gabriel's Greater Internet F****** Theory, the combination of anonymity and an audience causes normal people to feel free to act badly. So maybe reducing anonymity is a valid strategy to build a better community." and then suggest that linking the alts to the main or the gaming identity to the real world identity would help building a better community.

When something so simple to implement, it is strange that its never implemented. Blizzard tried RealID but backed off after some forum whining. Blizzard don't use to back off from forum whining as it's always the voice of a small, vocal minority. They did not back off from nerfing raids in WotLK, despite the hardcore yelled and did not back off from buffing 5-mans in Cataclysm despite bad players yell. They would never back off on something that would have a slightest chance of providing the Holy Grail of MMO: building a great community where people would love to belong.

They backed off because they know something that Rohan and the other "anti-troll" people don't: the "troll" is a myth. It's one of the oldest myth of the internet culture, one of the most widely believed. But it's totally wrong. The "troll" - besides exceptions - does not exist.

At first look around the real life and ask where are the real life trolls? You can find some, especially in the media. When Madonna kissed Britney, that was trolling. When she published her own sex photo book, that was trolling too. When she touched herself in the Express yourself (yes, I'm that old) clip, she trolled so successfully that my mum jumped front of the TV screaming. However it's rare.

Do you think that the neo-nazis are decent people who just Sieg Heil a bit to troll for "lulz"? Do you think that the anti-market activists burn cars just because the masks give them anonymity and the TV audience? No. They are simply that stupid. The drunk also doesn't pee on the street front of the camera to troll. He just drank too much beer.

When you see a guy with no hair, big muscles, "88" tattoo in military-looking clothes, you know that you encountered a real neo-nazi. But when you see some post you don't see the poster. You therefore assume that he is a decent, intelligent, normal person like yourself. And that nonsense he just wrote can only be created by such person if he is trolling. It's more likely that a dumb kid, a drunkard, an unemployed, a college dropout or even the mentioned neo-nazi wrote the post.

The "myth of the troll" helps people upkeep the idea that the World is full of nice and worthy people. They dismiss the obvious counter-example by claiming that they are just the product of anonymity and audience. They believe that the writer was acting stupid instead of being stupid.
In real life we barely meet indecent people, due to the self-segregated society. I never ever encountered neo-nazis personally since they are pretty rare in libraries, university lectures and PHD courses. Middle class socials therefore allowed to believe that such people don't exist or only as extreme examples like the 6-legged sheep. The internet connect us to all kind of people. While there is "nice restaurant" for us and "dirty pub" for them, there is no "decent" and "indecent" internet. You can bump into anyone. When you look at the forums you see a real sample of the mankind. But if you want to believe that most people are good, you must do something about the flood of terrible posts: "they are just trolling".

By the way this is the reason why the "nice people should pay less in MMOs" idea is bad. The "not nice" people are not trolling who will stop it if punished. They are bad and will be outraged if punished for being what they are. They won't pay more, they will pay nothing as they cancel subscription.

31 comments:

Andru said...

Any stupidity sufficiently advanced is indisguishable from trolling.

You, however, are making another mistake. (Ironically, the same mistake you accuse others of making in this very same post.) You cannot see why a person would troll, so you logically conclude that it is stupid and no one who's rational would do it.

Problem is the 'for fun' people. You may think that 'shut up nolifer i play 4 fun' is a conditioned response in order to limit cognitive dissonance. I say that even that has exceptions. Is it because he's bad and doesn't want to learn? Is it because he sees you foaming and raging and decides to do it more to see you rage more?

Exploring the rationale for why would someone want to see someone else rage is futile from the start, since it's not rational.


The extent of trolling is unknown and is fueled by the presence of *real* stupidity. That is basically the 'hook' of trolling.

You're arguing that 'trolls' are stupid people who just don't know otherwise.

I say that 'trolls' behave like stupids to irritate people who genuinely believe said trolls are genuinely stupid.


I'm kind of sad you stopped there. As with all philosophy posts, I expected a solution of some kind, preferably goblinish.

Well, no matter. By some rare stroke of luck, the internets stumbled into the perfect solution to this problem.

Surprisingly, it involves treating both stupids and troll as though they are both trolling.

It works, because, when a troll is called out on being a troll it sends them a message: "I am aware of your tomfoolery, dear chap, I insist you cease it at once. I was never taken in by your farce."

However, when a stupid person is called a troll, they get this message: "Your idea is so stupid that no one can take you seriously. See, people are calling you 'troll' because they can't believe you would be so stupid to make this point! Why don't you just quit while you're ahead. After all, those people now consider you a gentleman of fine wit, albeit of poor character."

I've yet to see a stupid, social person pass the opportunity to let peers believe that he is smarter than he truly is.

Rohan said...

You may be completely correct in that anonymity does not cause more trolls. On the other hand, maybe John Gabriel is correct is that anonymity does cause more trolls.

Personally, I was looking forward to RealID just to see what would happen. It would have provided some sort of proof or evidence for one side of the argument or the other.

Second, the counter-point to your argument is not that trolls exist in real life. They do. The argument is that trolls are far more common if anonymity is allowed.

For example, the fact that you can name real-life trolls implies that in real life, trolls are rare enough such that they are infamous or notable. That they are significantly out of the norm. If it was "normal" to be a troll in real life, we wouldn't notice them, much less give them air time.

Take muggers versus neo-nazis. Both negative behaviors. But muggers are common. Therefore a mugging won't even make the six o'clock news. Neo-nazis are rare, thus if they do something, it's often considered newsworthy.

Anonymous said...

One should never attribute malice to something that can be explained by plain ignorance.

If you see someone posting a angry 500 word post in one sentence with only "lol", "rofl" and "ffs" in place of comas in one paragraph, the rational explanation is that he is just an angry moron not advanced troll.

Aracos said...

I would say there is a lot of truth to this for one simple reason; when you get down to it, lying is really pretty difficult, especially over an extended period of time. Why would someone go through the trouble of creating a different "persona" on the internet? It is much easier to be who you are, and most people are jerks. And they will continue to be jerks, whether tied to a forum name, character name, or their real name.

Azuriel said...

If you think the RealID fiasco was simply "some forum whining," you obviously were not actually anywhere near the forums when the news broke. There was a community manager (e.g. a blue poster) who posted under his real name to convince people that it would be perfectly fine, and within an hour someone ordered 10 pizzas in his name that were delivered to his house. Some moron in the D&R forum gave out his real name to prove it wasn't a big deal, and I linked him back his deleted MySpace page (go-go Google archives), where he lived, and more importantly, the MySpace pages of his family.

So while I agree with your overall point, you are giving Blizzard entirely too much credit here. They were moving forward with mandatory RealID until the forums went nuclear. Considering how RealID is now going to be tied to premium services, it's clear that Blizzard probably wanted everyone to have been using it by now. For as dumb as the forums can be ("That guy must be trolling"), this is one issue they instinctively got right.

Big Heals said...

People like attention. It's not surprising that forums which are not moderated or edited will have a lot of attention seeking posts which contribute no substance to the discussion.

I'm not sure why people are so hung up with the having consequences. The outrage should be with the lack of moderation. It certainly wouldn't be that hard to moderate the forums to a higher standard. Why isn't Blizzard doing it?

Yaggle said...

Well, the truth is that most people are not "good" at all, and when you remove anonymity, you see the truth. When a person says on a forum "We should nuke Pakistan" or "We should disembowel all the CEOs", they are not trolling, they really want those things to happen. Some male monkeys will kill their mate's newborn baby if it is from a previous father instead of theirs. Humans would do the same thing very often if it was not illegal. The internet forces us to confront people's true thoughts, but we want to believe most people are "good", so we invent the troll problem.

chewy said...

I agree that the forum pressure was not the reason Blizzard backed away from realid.

More likely it was their realisation that they may become legally liable for the consequences and they couldn't foresee what those consequences would be.

But I don't think you've gone far enough. The internet doesn't provide any segregation which leads to many outcomes. As you say, it requires the "nice" middle class people to come up with a theory to protect their own sensibility, "trolls", but it also allows the young, rebellious, middle class to act badly.

We never know with any certainty that the person behind the screen is acting like a thug because they are anonymous or actually is a thug.

Anonymous said...

Hi, my name is Anon and I'm an internet troll.

If I get bored at work posting something inflammatory then stepping back and watching a crowd of muppets sit up and dance for me is amusing. It's usually something homophobic or sometimes far-right creationist BS.

Whilst you may not see the fun in it and believe that I'm some sort of self-hating closet-ed retard who believes dinosaur fossils are "tests" from our Lord I *know* I'm a atheist/agnostic bisexual.

But I don't behave like that IRL or under any name tag that obviously connects to an account that could in some way be connected to, for instance, my proffesional linkedin account.

I'm not a unique snowflake .. if I'm doing it others are doing it.

As for the RealID thing, I believe as well as the ordered pizza and other fun things listed by other posters, it fell foul of the data-protection laws in some countries; the fact that it exposed my real name to people who weren't on my friends list was against the law in the UK.

Riptor said...

I think Trolling is a Term also often used to dismiss an Idea or Theroy as not worthy of being talked about.

For a die hard Social you whole Blog might look like a gigantic Troll Fest soely designed to piss people (as ALL people are social by default) off.

Trolling however exists in variouse Forms but i have found that it is mostly the elaborate, smart Trolls that provide the best entrtainment. They however mostly roam Forums that are not dedicated to one sole Purpose (like WoW) but rather more widespread Topics.

Anonymous said...

Have to agree with some of the other posters above. Some forum whining is what they get when nerfing whatever class is OP that month or buffing frost mages. Thousands and thousands of posts with practically everyone against it and the BBC news site reporting on it is pretty much going to make any company think again.

In any case, I seriously doubt that plan ever had anything to do with cleaning up the forums anyway. I'm fairly convinced it had a lot more to do with long term goals of integrating RealID into other social networking platforms. Having johnnyDK's facebook page spammed with reports of how much fun he's having while playing WoW. Yeah, that's a pretty good way of getting some of those 100m farmville playing socials into WoW.

Péter Zoltán said...

hey, if the bad people cancel, it's good :)

BTW I always tought (and playing wow just assured it) that the world is full of indecent idiots who are acting more-or-less normally in RL because they would get slapped in the face otherwise.

But still, trolls are not a myth. Trolling is just one of the stupid things that stupid people do.

Ðesolate said...

@RID-war: if this would have gone online, I would have left WoW. The aononymity of the Internet allows me to take part of a community not accepted in the academic world I am part of during my working hours.

I can be a part of your project. I dont want to know what a potential boss would think of me being a part of an asocial community.

Of course every rational thinking boss would appreciate it. But I dont know any rational Bosses at this level in the German industry.

@Trolls: I meet as mouch trolls in RL as I do ingame. Same base of talking something obviously bullshit. Politicians, Stars, Professors, Bosses, Parents, Teacher... this goes on infenitely. Maybe its a bit POV but well, its mine.

Anonymous said...

The Internet is developing to minimize your interaction with opinions that differ from you.

http://yro.slashdot.org/story/11/05/16/0044236/The-Rise-of-Filter-Bubbles

Bobbins said...

'Blizzard tried RealID but backed off after some forum whining'

Also wasn't there a 'stalk the blizzard' employees real life history sub game built in. A blizzard employee said I don't mind giving my real name next thing you know people are showing salletille images of his home address.

Ihodael of Darnassus said...

"I would say there is a lot of truth to this for one simple reason; when you get down to it, lying is really pretty difficult, especially over an extended period of time. Why would someone go through the trouble of creating a different "persona" on the internet? It is much easier to be who you are, and most people are jerks. And they will continue to be jerks, whether tied to a forum name, character name, or their real name."

One could even go a step further and say that perhaps their most real persona is their internet one. In real life they just play nice to avoid social or physical repercussions of their innate behaviour: calling someone a retard in the internet or in a game has very little risk - doing so in real life when the other guy is twice your size might lead to a severe beating - caution is advised.

Bernard said...

Gevlon, you *appear* to enjoy producing provocative posts with opinions that elicit a strong reaction from social players.

We, the readers, enjoy these posts because you *appear* to be an intelligent person deliberately being provocative.

I would be surprised if you are:
a) stupid
b) a bad person

The benefit of anonymity is that I will never know...

Anonymous said...

I'll have to disagree. In class, I often see students intentionally "trolling" (misunderstanding others' arguments, presenting an unaccepted opinion on a hotly debated subjects while offering obvious flaws to their own post, inviting others to critizise said flaws).

Ayonel said...

I think you are off base on this one. The very fact that people post on the Internet is in hopes of a response. Think about the word troll. It is a verb, not a noun. When someone trolls, they are looking for a response. If their regular conversation is too mundane or uninteresting, they get no response, so they look around and realize that the way to get a response is by being offensive in some way. This is true of your examples. Madonna did what she did to stay relevant. Most female singers/ actresses start taking off their clothes because at some point(almost universally) they think their talent alone won't suffice.

Sadly, the moderators on MMO-Champion have failed terribly. Rather than dissuade trolls, they encourage them. Almost any offensive, stupid, or "Hey, Moderator!" post gets a response, and so the number of relevant threads shrinks and the number of stupid threads forms an impenetrable wall. Anyone who wants to get a response to a useful, relevant topic must be louder and more obnoxious than all the egotistical morons combined.

The point being that while i agree that lots of people are just stupid, when people engage in trolling behavior on the Internet, or reality TV shows, for that matter, it's because they know that is what is required for them to get the attention that they so desperately crave.

If only Daddy had hugged them more.

Jokkl said...

sidenote from steam:
Trolls pay more for games and dont get any special offers - good players get free dlcs or pay less.

german:
http://www.gulli.com/news/valve-chef-teure-preise-f-r-b-se-spieler-2011-05-17

or

http://www.develop-online.net/features/1192/Gabe-Newell-on-Valve

Anonymous said...

People do act like idiots sometimes if they are anonymous, especially with the rationale of "Its just a game" (Check Eve for evidence of this. One of my long term contacts in Eve is in day to day life, a Canadian mounty, but in Eve is a corp thief and scammer)

Forum trolls cannot just be dismissed as "stupid people", but then, sometimes anyone who disagrees with someone can be dismissed as "trolling", which is another way of saying "You don't agree with my world view, therefore you must be trolling/stupid"

Some people like winding other people up, this happens in life, as well as on forums. I may have visited some conspiracy theory sites and accidentally posted something provocative once or twice. Does this make me a troll? In those instances, yes.

To troll is to post in a way designed to provoke a response. Your macro, and your forum posts could, by some be construed as trolling.

Deepcut said...

While yes it would curb trolling, I think the reason it would curb trolling is wrong. It would be due to privacy issues (probably real-life harassment), not due to some type of in-game backlash, which I would totally support.

The Standing Dragon said...

Oh, anecdotally, I'm certain trolls exist. I know one or two - otherwise decent people that get their jollies from making people get all angry over what amounts to an inconsequential forum post.

Personally, I think Gabriel's Theory is right - it just doesn't go far enough. It isn't anonymity that makes people idiots.. it's a lack of consequence.

If you walked up to some guy in the street and spoke to him as many forum trolls 'speak', you'd likely get arrested. If nothing else, you'd likely get banned from your local bar or bodega. On the internet, being an idiot has no lasting consequence.

William said...

Yeah, I don't think the G.I.F.T. is really about trolls.

(Defining "troll" as someone who says or does something they don't really believe in, in order to provoke a reaction in the audience.)

It's more that anonymity and audience causes many people to lose the social inhibitions that normally prevent them from saying what they really believe.

Say, for example, someone who is deeply racist, but normally hides that racism because they know that if they spout their racist hatred in, for example, the lunch room at work then they will suffer very negative social consequences.

But put that same person behind an anonymous handle on a forum, and they feel safe to let loose with their true beliefs.

Anonymous said...

I agree with many posters - there definitely are trolls. Even in real life I occasionally tell my friends something completely idiotic and even defending it a bit just to say "ha, and you believed me too!" afterwards. It's silly when I think about it. Trolling on the internet is just taking it one step further, and when I was younger I had some fun with that too. Today I've found things I enjoy more, but I refuse to believe that I'm unique, and I also think plenty of people never grow tired of trolling.

I'm surprised you see no explanation for trolling, because I'd think trolling was one of the most social things you could do: I pretend to be stupid, which is easy and doable by anyone, and I get lots of people devoting time and energy to telling me why I am wrong, which is attention and something socials would enjoy, and finally I reveal (or at least think to myself) that I didn't really mean what I said, so I don't even have to take the negative sentiments to heart - I get lots of attention and am able to disregard all criticism. Indeed it can even be construed as positive feedback - "he thinks my pretend-behavior is stupid, which I also do, so he probably thinks my real behavior is good!". How can you not see M&S doing this?

I agree, though, that it's borderline impossible to actually distinguish between trolling and idiocy in practice, and also that the majority of stupid posts are made by stupid people, but I also agree completely with Andru's assessment of this.

Steve said...

I think that removing anonymity would greatly reduce the amount of trolling, simply due to peoples reputations being on the line. If someone was known to just be a troll, they would lose any credibility in the community, even for their future comments. Trust and reputations are a funny thing. Generally, it takes a long time to build trust or a good reputation, but can take a matter of minutes to destroy it. In conclusion, I think that having peoples reputations on the line would reduce trolling significantly. (This doesn't mean you have to use RealID, just make everyone have a single unique username with a publicly visible history of comments).

Xense said...

"Personally, I think Gabriel's Theory is right - it just doesn't go far enough. It isn't anonymity that makes people idiots.. it's a lack of consequence."

I agree. Some people say "absolute power corrupts absolutely" and that anonymity is like power (in that it corrupts). I myself believe that power is actually just a test of internal character. Do you do good things because you choose to, or because to do otherwise hurts you in some way? I believe being anonymous to be synonomous with power.

If there were real consequences for infractions then there would be fewer trolls. Obviously there would still be a few who would rather troll than be unpunished (much like the neo-nazis in real life that are not trusted by most people they might meet).

It's always easier to pretend to be dumber than you really are than it is to pretend you're more intelligent than you really are. But with the right punishments and incentives more would try the latter than the former.

What those incentives are is a mystery to me.

Magma said...

@Azuriel
That didn't happen. He gave out his name and they found someone with the same one that was totally unrelated, and they spammed his house with pizzas. All they did was make themselves look like morons, because clearly 2 guys couldn't have the same name.

Azuriel said...

@Azuriel
That didn't happen. He gave out his name and they found someone with the same one that was totally unrelated, and they spammed his house with pizzas. All they did was make themselves look like morons, because clearly 2 guys couldn't have the same name.


Some completely innocent guy unattached to this internet forum debate gets spammed with pizzas by people who suffer no consequences for their actions (if the guy went to the police, would they do anything?), and they're the morons?

-----------
The fundamental problem with RealID is that, at best, it "improves" the community through fear of reprisal worse than real life. The John Smiths and Jane Does of the internet world would continue acting exactly as they acted before, because unless their posts are auto-deleted before they actually hit the website, they still will get the eyeballs on their post and likely the reaction; nevermind what happens to the reputation of the legit John Smiths. Meanwhile, the people with unique names would live in continual fear that even their perfectly valid and logical posts could set off the army of still-anonymous forum lurkers to the point where malicious mischief could be executed.

I do not necessarily care that people IRL can look me up in the phone book, because the odds that I would ever attract their attention is pretty remote. In a sufficiently big community, you gain anonymity in the crowd even if everyone can find your name. And even if they did start up prank calling, harassing, or other things like that, I am reasonably protected by laws and can seek damages. Online though? There will be no way of identifying who is screwing you over, targeting you with harassment, and essentially ruining your life. Keeping anonymous protects you from the anonymous sociopaths who will still be anonymous unless they draw attention to themselves in a public way (e.g. boasting/threatening you on the forums).

This is why the GIFT argument is asinine. Does anonymity possibly encourage people to be their terrible true selves in front of others? Sure, maybe. But GIFT is presented as though the "community" would be improved without the double-blind safety net of anonymity. What would automatically occur instead is simply paint a bullseye on the face of good people and trolls alike, opening everyone up to the worst evils the internet has to offer. There is no other defense than anonymity against people who would rather send viruses to your family members or hack your network (or worse) than click the thumbs-down button on the WoW forum and/or report you for trolling.

Just imagine, Gevlon, if the M&S you berate on a daily basis had your real name. All it would take is one M&S pushed too far (or someone silently annoyed by your arrogance in berating others) in something stupid like a Tol Barad fight to make an anonymous (!) tip to the police regarding child molestation concerns or similar to possibly ruin your real life. Even if you have a common name, there is enough identifying information around this blog to piece together a profile for someone with a sufficient motive.

"Some forum whining" indeed.

Sthenno said...

While this post contains some hyperbole, it clearly admits that there are real trolls, just that they are far fewer in numbers than most people think. That's probably a very good point, and we should all face that fact that the world is full of people who actually completely disagree with us.

RealID, however, was not dropped because they didn't think it would work. There is no evidence of any event that would have made them change their mind about whether or not it would work between the time they announced it and the time they dropped it. There were plenty of other reasons to drop it, though, like they realized what they should have known in the beginning - that people would go after one another in real life. That is why they dropped it.

Me said...

My co-worker is very nice. He goes above and beyond and even crosses into others' jobs to make sure things get done properly. He's very polite while I am kind of sarcastic, even to my superiors. He doesn't like saying anything "negative", even if it's "we can't do that".

And he also blatantly admits that he loves trolling in online communities. If I talk about a new free game or something, he starts hypothesizing immediately about how he might annoy their community.

I wouldn't say he was a bad person, but that he might be a bit mischevious when he thinks nobody that can identify him is looking. And he has admitted to this.