Comments, Trolls, and Flamewars

You may have noticed that we’ve implemented a system that allows readers to report comments that abuse our forum rules, in an effort to improve the quality of the conversation and make the job of moderating the comments a little easier for OSNews volunteers. However, this reactive solution is only half of the effort that will be required to make OSNews a better place for reasoned debate. The proactive, and more important, effort is the responsibility of all those who use the comments system. It involves showing a little restraint before being lured into the fray and contributing to a negative atmosphere.From time to time there are outcries that the OSNews comments system needs a Slashdot-style auto-moderation system to combat abuse, trolling, flamewars, spam, and goofy, pointless, off-topic posts. We’ve certainly had our share of all of those, and Eugenia has resolutely resisted a more complicated system for several good reasons. Chiefly among those reasons, and I agree, is that even the most complicated system will not solve the problem 100% and it would be difficult to justify the effort of buliding/configuring it, especially considering the fact that a system like that would introduce its own negative effects to the site.

There is one very simple method that will solve some of the most egregious abuses of the simple commenting system that we have: DON’T FEED THE TROLLS!

One of the most likely origins of the term troll is the angling term “trolling” which means essentially to dangle a bit of bait off of a moving boat and sit back (usually with beer in hand) to see what bites. Trolls on internet message boards have only one source of power: provocation. Good ones know all the right buttons to push, and they do it because they don’t have any particular interest in the site or the specific topic of discussion they’re on, but they think it might be personally amusing to try to provoke a heated flamewar. So they pick from their box of well-worn flamebait (Linux users are communists, Macs are slow and expensive, Windows crashes all the time, SCO is right, or just some off-topic political, nationalistic, or religious jab) and craft a posting that seems almost serious, but with a bit of flamebait sprinkled on top. Then they post a few responses and followups to fan the flames, and sit back and enjoy the show. Please, for everyone’s sake: when someone posts something obviously outrageous, don’t make yourself the fool by responding. It degrades the experience for everyone, it wastes your time, and it encourages the troll.

Occasionally people have accused the OSNews staff of permitting or even encouraging flamewars with the idea that flamewars generate advertising revenue. Just to set the record straight, a good juicy flamewar earns us about 10 cents in extra advertising revenue. In the long run, they turn regular readers off to reading the comments and participating, thus canceling out the miniscule gain from the flamewar itself. The way OSNews becomes more successful is to attract more regular, everyday readers. Flamewars only end up entertaining the trolls. They don’t help the site.

From time to time, OSNews will publish something that provokes controversy. Some of the articles that we publish are opinion pieces, and you may disagree with them vehemently. That’s fine. It seems that there are some people who have never heard of an editorial. Anyone who thinks that the opinions of the people who post editorials on the site are not worth reading have a few options:

  1. Don’t read the editorials
  2. Use the comments and post your disagreement in a civilized and intelligent way
  3. Submit your own editorial to OSNews. As you can see, our acceptance policy is pretty liberal.

OSNews exists to be an informative and entertaining forum for ideas. Some topics of discussion are eternal points of contention for our readers and will always have the potential to turn into nasty flamewars. Nevertheless, we can’t let that fact stop us from posting stories on those topics. To do that, we’d have to cease all reporting on Windows, MacOS, and Linux, because even the most benign newsbit on those subjects has been known to result in a platform-bashing flamewar.

There’s another reason that we post stories that are likely to provoke controversy. People enjoy participating in heated, point-by-point discussions. Lively debate is one of the hallmarks of our civilization, whether it’s over which sports team has the best lineup this year, which politician’s plan is most likely to improve the economy, or which OS is best. The problem is, if you’re a rude asshole arguing about your favorite football team in the corner pub, you’re likely to get punched in the nose. On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog, and nobody can punch you in the nose.

In conclusion, treat the trolls on the site as you would treat a mime who’s walking behind you on a city street, making fun of how you walk. If you turn around and start yelling at him, he’s just going to mimic your anger, making you a laughingstock for all the people on the street. If you ignore him, the mime will get tired and move on to pretending that he’s walking down an invisible flight of stairs. Likewise, if you ignore the trolls, they’ll go do something else.


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