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Spare the rod

I do a fair business as a public speaker, partly because I keep a lot of videos on YouTube. Many of my talks, such as ‘Piracy is Good?’ and some more cinematic pieces, like ‘Becoming Trans-human,’ are freely available to anyone interested in hearing my thoughts. Providing these resources has proven an invaluable promotional tool – more than a few clients come to me because they’ve watched me online.

YouTube has a dark secret, one you’re already familiar with if you’ve posted anything that’s become even modestly popular – it attracts ‘trolls’ like moths to a flame. The troll is nasty, mean, poorly socialized, always ready to take offense, and eager to give it. Trolling is one of the most obvious downsides to a broadly connected world. Before the last decade, the ugliness within such people stayed much closer to home. Now, this ugliness has gone global, finding particularly fertile ground in YouTube’s comment system.

Over thirty thousand people have watched ‘Piracy is Good?’ Plus, about one percent of my viewers have left a comment. Most of these remarks are enthusiastic, helpful, or insightful. Even the critical comments often take issue with a point but are perfectly polite.

Then there are the trolls – posters who call me out because of my very button-down looks, making nasty and often explicit comments about the subject of my talk (television), or who in some other way engage in an ad hominem attack. When the critique strikes ‘to the man’ (the meaning of ad hominem), rather than to the matter at hand, you know you’ve found a troll.

I always delete comments from trolls, as soon as they appear. No one else should be confronted with their meanness, no one else should have to soothe themselves after being stirred up. That’s my job: I planted the seeds, and it’s up to me to tend the garden.

A few of these trolls, their remarks flushed, go on to accuse me of censorship. Since free speech is one of our most essential rights, I don’t hit the delete button lightly. I don’t delete a comment simply because I disagree with it. But if a comment is designed to be inflammatory, its value as free speech has been poisoned by anger. After deletion, the troll can always post their criticism again, with less vitriol. But they never do. Free speech is a tactic for a troll, a way of playing on democratic sympathies to advance their own agenda. If a comment is worth making, it is worth the time to compose something politely. Be as incisive as needed, but always be polite.

During the 2007 Federal election, John Howard’s media team got into trouble for deleting all negative comments from his YouTube channel. The former prime minister had his detractors, but most would have been civil in their criticism, and those comments should have been retained. When you share, you bear the burden of the reaction to what you share, and the responsibility to represent that reaction honestly. If the Howard campaign had established guidelines for acceptable comments, people would have observed the stated rules, even if a few trolls took it as a golden opportunity to have a go. It could have been a place for a national conversation. Instead, it became a propaganda outlet.

In this connected world, we all walk the line between being careful gardeners and propagandists. To create a place where people feel comfortable freely expressing themselves, we need to be transparent and fair while also being strict and firm. People must understand the rules that govern public behavior. It is our responsibility to share those rules, and if we do that job well, other members of the community will propagate those rules to newcomers. Where those rules have been violated, we can remove posts, even ban members – so long as it’s all done openly. The community will let you know if they think you’re being too strict – or not strict enough.

My rule of thumb is that everyone gets one strike. If someone has been cited, warned, yet continues to misbehave, they should be banned, in order to preserve the equanimity of the community.

If we’re talking about a personal blog or YouTube page, you can treat this gardening casually, but if you represent a large organization, everything must be documented, every deleted post must be captured and noted, every banned troll must be recorded – and offered a chance for reinstatement via a private back-channel. Some trolls will scream censorship, others will try to use the threat of a lawsuit to force you to acquiesce to their mind games. Document everything you can and save yourself from sleepless nights.

As we move into an increasingly social web, invited to add our own voice in every matter that touches us, the opportunities for trollish disruption will only increase. Eternal vigilance is the price of peace of mind. Spare the rod and you may find yourself drowned out by other voices, braying, and barking, and calling for blood.

Mark Pesce is the co-inventor of the VRML, co-author of The Next Billion Seconds, and founder of Future St, a Sydney media and technology consultancy. He was formerly one of the judges on ABC’s The New Inventors.

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