In all the trainings I’ve done over the last couple of years, the one hot-button issue guaranteed to touch off a passionate debate, even amongst the most detached, sit-on-their-hands group is the reader comments section.

See, journalists just hate them damn comments.

Yeah, yeah, notable exceptions abound, and some people “get it” that we’re supposed to include our readers/users in our little game of “Hey lookee here! I done found out sumthin’ kewl!” But by and large, newspaper reporters & editors have grown accustomed to their comfy positions as The Voice Of God That Brooks No Disagreement.

So when I start talking about some of the measure that newspapers around the world have taken to try to moderate & impose order on the chaotic forums, comment sections, trackbacks, etc., the journalists fairly leap out of their chairs, eyes alight, as they tick off all the awful insults and calumnies they have been forced to endure by the damn intertubes propellorheads. They talk about how their readers are crazy people who write horrible insults and lies about the reporters, and who get crafty to avoid all the various moderation/banning mechanisms.

In Chile, in Argentina, Russia, Mexico, Colombia, Ukraine … the trolls know no boundaries. In each place, the reporters and editors go on and on at great length about how they can’t stand looking at the comments under their stories, because they know that some persistent readers that have an axe to grind against them are going to show up there and start yammering and flinging virtual monkey poo.

I’ve actually found this subject to be a godsend – when my voice is wearing out and I need a few minutes to chug water and compose myself, I toss this little conversational grenade in the room, and let the journalists vent for a while before moving on to possible solutions.

It’s stunning to me that there appears to be international norms and predictable patterns to troll behavior. Vulgar sex-based insults, thread hijacking, escalating to physical threats. There’s a great gallery of Flame Warriors here – I highly recommend that you check it out. If you’ve spent any time whatsoever in the comments sections, having conversations online, you will laugh, cry and grit your teeth in rage as you recognize the archetypes. Is there some special international brotherhood of the troll that you have to join? Do the entrance exams call for you to drive a netizen into such a frenzy of rage that he smashes his computer monitor with his fist? Hey … that’d made a cool YouTube movie…


There’s an interesting case coming out of the Yale Law School that might put an end to all this. How?

By making people responsible for what they say online.

At the risk of cheapening my training message, Web anonymity - John Gabrielhere’s John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, put far more elegantly in a simple chalkboard drawing than I could with multiple 2,000 word posts: 

So yeah. The reason socially retarded dimwits, 15-year-olds off their Ritalin and drunk dormrats stink up forums and comment boards is because they aren’t going to have to pay the price for their actions.

The Yale lawsuit seeks to change that.

From Wired:

AK-47 was one of a handful of students heaping misogynist scorn on
women attending the nations’ top law schools in 2007, in posts so vile
they spurred a national debate on the limits of online anonymity, and
an unprecedented federal lawsuit aimed at unmasking and punishing the

…lawyers for two female Yale Law School students have ascertained
AK-47’s real identity, along with the identities of other AutoAdmit
posters, who all now face the likely publication of their names in
court records — potentially marking a death sentence for the comment
trolls’ budding legal careers even before the case has gone to trial.

The unmasking of the posters marks a milestone in a rare legal
challenge to the norms of online commenting, where arguments live on
for years in search-engine results and where reputations can be sullied
nearly irreparably by anyone with a grudge, a laptop and a WiFi

We keep dancing around this problem on the internet, mainly because nobody has really found a workable solution yet. On the one hand, unfettered speech leads to such chaos that the signal-to-noise ratio becomes unworkable – my best example of this is the Yahoo News message boards. They’ve been down for more than a year and a half. If you ever went there, you know why.

The boards were taken over by a hard-core group of trolls with apparently limitless time, energy and hatred. No subject was too off-topic for them to use to spew their anger, obscenities and insults at … well, it wasn’t really at each other. It was basically the digital equivalent of a grubby guy in tattered clothes in a bus station screaming “AAAAAHHHHGGG! AHHHGGG!” at his socks. Even the most innocuous subjects – a story on flower arrangement or dogs, f’rinstance, would attract the trolls within about 10 posts.

The other extreme, of course, are the limp & lifeless forums & comment spaces, where moderation is imposed to such an extent that the audience just migrates elsewhere to talk to each other.

Now then.

One of the key things that helps keep internet users sociable is imposing some kind of accountability for their actions. Which is what registration is all about – trying to attach a real human identity to the screenname. The fight for newspapers has been trying to raise the hurdles for commenters to a level where it’s tough enough to establish an identity so that you don’t do it casually (no shelling out to create a free Hotmail, Gmail or Yahoo account on the spot to establish a handy sock puppet), but not so hard that users start feeling like they’re applying for a home equity line of credit a Business Visa from the Russian Consulate.

Now that there appears to be a clear legal precedent for peeling back the layers of anonymity to hold trolls accountable for their poo-flinging, I find myself of two minds about this. I have been roughed up by a fairly good cross-section of trolls over the years, and it’d be nice to be able to expose them as the pathetic, mommy’s basement-dwelling loser subcreatures my wounded ego insists they must be. On the other hand … some of my responses to said trolls (hey! I was provoked! Honest, they started it!) may have been a bit … intemperate. So I have to wonder if there are perhaps some other sad, wounded egos out there. And, where would it stop? If you can bring an action for something someone said in a chat room, or Second Life, or the forums at AngryJournalist, well, we better just pave over the downtown areas of every major city in the U.S. and turn it all into one giant courthouse, because we’re gonna need the space.