Fry’ing the Trolls

I’ve been a long time opponent of anonymous, unauthenticated comments fire-hosed into mainstream online media decidedly without editorial review. They are an unfair and easily manipulative tool for beating down anyone who dares to stick their neck out and state their views in a public forum under their own name – either by writing themselves, or getting written about. Healthy societies need intelligent public discussion, contradicting views and debate-driven consensus, or at least educated compromises. I just don’t get how this cowardly bashing gets flagged as free speech while the opinions it suffocates get dismissed as one.

Another absurd argument often brought is about the “thick skin” that those who speak in public should have anyway – why should the wussies then complain on a few comments? Just read a rant in Stephen Fry‘s autobiography that summarizes the answer so simply and beautifully:

…those who grow up these days to become trollers on internet sites and who specialize on posting barbarous, mean, abusive, look-at-me, listen-to-me anonymous comments on YouTube and BBC ‘Have Your Say’ pages and other websites and blogs foolish enough to allow space for their poison. Such swine specialize on second-guessing the motives of those who are brave enough to commit to the risk of making fools of themselves in public and they are a blight on the face of the earth. ‘Oh, but a thick skin is surely necessary for the acting profession. Actors and theatre people should get used to it.’ Well, if you want to be in a profession which accesses emotion and attempts to penetrate the mind and soul of a man, I should have thought what is more necessary is thin skin. Sensitivity.

– quote from The Fry Chronicles by Stephen Fry

I believe you can replace the exemplary profession of actors and theatre people here with anyone: a parliament member, policeman, business leader, cabinet minister, social scientist, investigative reporter, novelist, civil servant, software engineer, creative artist, entrepreneur or the mother of the year. We do not want any of those people disappear from the public space, shut up and encapsulate growing their shell concrete hard only to sit in a hole surrounded by a selected trustworthy few of their own kind to throw poisonous, life-defyingly sarcastic remarks back and forth to underline their hatred of the world outside.

We do want all our leaders, hierarchy- or opinion-wise, no we want _anyone_ who has something to contribute to the society out in the open, sharing, listening, sensing, learning, teaching, analyzing and understanding.

Here’s to 2012… with thinner skins around us.

  • I wonder why (most) opponents of anonymous commenting choose the path of “let’s ban it” instead of “let’s just call the anonymous cowards anonymous cowards who they are, and dismiss their ad hominems as meaningless mumbling of non-people”? The only *real* problem with anonymous trolls is that they just fill up screen after screen of the comment space, making the real, meaningful comments (anonymous or otherwise) harder to find.

    But there are perfectly valid reasons to maintain the possibility of true anonymity (as opposed to “the identity of this anonymous author is known to the editor/ISP/the authorities” kind of anonymity), and make it easier for not-so-tech-savvy folks to speak their minds anonymously. The “free world” offers more than enough opportunities of getting into trouble for contradicting the “officially accepted” rhetoric, whether of governments or corporations.

    • wolli, even though this post wasn’t about technical remedies (ban/hide/whatever), I’d like to remind you that the anonymous channel exists: letter to the editor, through as much anonymization as you see fit. In that formation there is editorial control/value add, instead of the current by-default direct publishing of any bullshit on the branded media outlet web page, presented in equal weight and authority as reviewed, edited and checked content. And for those who fear they won’t pass the editorial controls – start a blog and drive the traffic.The “let’s just ignore” approach is just… growing thicker skin, as opposed to healthier public space.

      • imho

        it should not be about anonymous comment, it is more about shitty content. i would like delfi to stop publishing bullshit they call “articles” or news, but what i can do? ignore? grow thick skin?

        writing to someone for “editorial control” – this can be controversial..

  • Yup, kind of funny and sad – if you expect a politician to have a very thick skin, how can you expect that thick-skinned politician to care about you at the same time?

    It’s no coincidence that there’s “moron” in “oxymoron”…

  • I have nth against anonymous comments. It just amazes me that  EE daily newspapers are allowing this kind of behaviour (attacks, bullshitting, gibberish in large quantities etc). I guess “if it flies like a duck, quacks like a duck, then it must be a duck.” They are not white swans i.e there is no white & quality journalism any more. Subscribers &  ad revenues are  declining. 

    Few remarks
    *thickthin skin argument is invalid. Just don’t read comments.
    *these are not all anonymous, some people are using pseudonyms. There is a slight difference. 
    *what is the value of “commenting” anyway?
    *this discussion is so 1999. move on.

    • When I write something publicly I am quite naturally interested in what people think of it — i.e. I have zero interest in preaching, rather than starting a conversation, By that token I would say that it is the “don’t read comments” argument that’s invalid. I *want* to read comments, and I want to comment myself. 

    • btw. there has already has been long but fruitless discussion that has spanned over the years.

  • Fry (thanks, Sten, for the reference) makes a slightly larger argument about bullshitting in general rather than about anonymous comments, I think. One can choose not to read the comments but one can’t shut out media in general. 

    The sad thing is that trolls do not think of what they do as trolling, they just express their opinion and vent whatever frustration bugs them. Thus, trolling is always relative. Me blabbering about the latest and greatest gem of science i’ve found (system dynamics, thank you very much) at every opportunity can easily be perceived as trolling although it’s just me being really passionate. 
    I guess it comes down to trolls being more aware of what they are doing and the ones being trolled being more aware of what and why the trolls do. 

    I guess the general version of Sten’s wish would be “Here’s to 2012 with more compassion all around”

    • Yes, agree with you (and kronja who is making a somewhat similar point) – it is a broader “let’s be nicer to each other and generate less agressive bullshit” point.

      Fry actually goes further into this in his book, confessing how he at some point stopped wasting energy on writing bashing negative book reviews: he either praises someone’s work he likes or doesn’t even take the time to bitch about it. As a side-effect this shows compassion and empathy to the poor failed author’s emotions too, of course. 🙂

      That said, I think every author or a person raising a topic for public discussion is actually longing for serious critique, by peers who have taken the time to hear and understand her arguments. Constructive critique, both negative and positive are actively longed for, as are any new spin-off ideas.

      Why I picked online trolling as an example is that it displays absolutely none of this. And thus is not just worthless, but actively negative phenomenon.

      Oh, and btw, less so around private businesses, but there is tons of professional trolling, “flooding and spinning the message in grassroot voice” around any article published on daily politics. I wish harmless “trolls didn’t know what they were doing”, but a notable volume of trolling is intentional.