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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Ask the Matriarch — Please Don't Feed the Trolls

Before we adjourned for the holidays, we got a note from one of our members dealing with something that's very common in the blogosphere. A complete stranger had dropped in with sour comments about a post she had made.

What is the appropriate response to someone who anonymously comments on a blog entry with critical comments? I don't enable comment moderation because I have never had any trouble since I began blogging. Unless this becomes a regular event, I plan to continue to just allow people to comment without having to wait for me to review it.

In this case, I am sure the person does not know me. Clearly, the person is angry and I happened to be a place to share some anger via anonymous venting. What is proper blog etitquite? Do I just ignore it? Delete the comment? Reply in a loving way? Use it as a way to create more conversation? I could reply on the comment section. I could even write a new entry and open dialogue about it, requesting other's opinions. One of my goals for the blog is to foment spiritual conversation and thinking among those who read, especially folks in my community. I am not sure using this as a springboard would be fruitful, but who knows?

This is a little different from our usual Ask the Matriarch questions, but we see it come up time and time again. Blogs are increasingly another form of ministry, as much as they are anything else. So I asked our Webring Matriarch, Songbird, for her guidance as well. She and I share a long history on the Internet, so we remember the time before we had blogthings and webrings and listservs (oh my!): USENET. "A person who makes nasty or disagreeable comments anonymously is, in Netiquette terms, a troll," she writes. "The advice I have been given and have attempted to follow going way back to the days of USENET is, "Do not feed the Troll." In other words, don't answer the person and don't write a post about the comments—unless it's a post explaining why you added comment moderation, for instance."

All too often, trolls are just hanging around waiting to get your blood pressure up. They have the same kind of pathological desire for anonymous attention as the cretins who would yell fire in a crowded, darkened theater. "I know it's tempting to engage," Songbird continues, "But it's not asking too much for commenters to identify themselves in some way. If the would-be troll is a person who really wants to have a dialogue, he or she can come back with a handle or an e-mail address, whatever you wish to set as your bottom line for commenters. It's also possible to simply ban anonymous commenters without adding comment moderation. It's your blog, and it's okay to make the rules."

But what about their privacy?
There's always a fine line between requiring people to identify themselves and still affording them the privacy they desire. The real issue is accountability. When I sign off on something as Gallycat, you know it's me; since I'm fairly open with my identity you also know I'm Helen. But Songbird is Songbird. St. Casserole is St. Casserole. Peripatetic Polar Bear is PPB. But you know who they are from their writing, even though you may not know their real names. They sign their posts. That's different from the fly-by poster who comes on board saying hurtful or divisive or even slanderous things that they would never say if their name could be attached to it. Some blogging platforms also allow you to track IP addresses, and you can plug those into a "reverse DNS" lookup tool (such as this one) which might help you narrow down where your troll is from.

It's your blog
Like Songbird said, you can—and maybe even should—set your own ground rules. In fact, there's a movement afoot, as reported recently in New York Times article, for a kinder, gentler blogosphere. Check around at other blogs you admire and see if they have guidelines in place. And it's true, while we want to be as unfettered as possible when we write publically, you'll want to be mindful of what your putting out there. "I do think we do have to think about how we write what we write, especially if it is about others," says Rev. Abi. "But I don't think we have to be defensive either. We've known some bloggers who have just quit, because they kept getting negative comments or persons who did know them were talking about what they wrote. It's up to you what you want to do about this. But my suggestion is to moderate."

Try it out for a little while and see if it suits you. I did at one point, and then got inundated with 40 comments I didn't know I had gotten because Blogger wasn't telling me they were there. On my Livejournal, I keep all anonymous comments screened so only I can see them. On my Wordpress blogs, I always require an email address and track IP addresses. And now I have a Moveable Type blog again, so I'll see what they have in place to help fight comment abuse there.

It comes with the territory
Unfortunately, it may well happen to all of us at one point or another. "When you write such thougthful pieces, it must really hurt to get some negative comments. However, if you are not going to moderate them, you do leave yourself open to getting them," writes Abi. "I moderate, but that's my choice. I have seen people try to have open dialogue with persons who leave negative comments with little success. To try for open conversation, you could write a new post about that, mention the comment thread the post originated in and ask for the conversation."

But bear in mind that if you're dealing with a bully, the best thing you can do is ignore the comment.


  1. Wow back to the USENET days. I am impressed. I like that Don't feed the Trolls. And there are Trolls. Thanks, Helen and Songbird for your answers and input.

  2. You, too, Abi!
    Helen, hope you're feeling better!

  3. Not really. Still in a lot of pain and not much they can do to help right now.

    Fortunately I've discovered that one of my friends at church has been through something very similar. She's one of my favorite people in the universe, and so she will be a good support person as I navigate these strange new waters of chronic pain.

    I can't tell you how much your prayers mean to me!!!

  4. I have Comment Moderation on for a different reason, but the effect is the same. I was receving a lot of spamming and got very tired of it. The added few seconds of working through the Permission is not a big deal, so I don't mind having CM in place.

  5. Greetings,

    It sounds like Songbird is pointing toward the Blogesphere version of a non-anxious response (for all you systems theory folks out there). Anyway, my instinct (which I have taken to calling my spiddy-sense as of late) says that Songbird is right. Unless the comment uses profanity I would post the comment but not write a response. This way you are keeping an open space, but not "feeding the troll".

  6. Aren't trolls just the greatest? I think they're the electronic version of the hate-mailers; those unknown folks who love to send stuff like this:

    I would agree with your recommendation: provide the open space but don't feed the troll (great imagery, btw). I do moderate comments but only reject the blatant spam - everything else gets published.


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