The Dark Side of Authority

troll dolls

If you’ve seen our thoughts on authority, you know about the benefits of developing yourself as a credible authority online. Respect, trust, business success, traffic, links. All the good stuff we want.

But there’s a downside.

Whether your blog is large or small, you’ve dealt with these unpleasant creatures. The ones who, for whatever reason, get their enjoyment out of what they can knock down, rather than what they can build.

They’re the plague of anyone who creates something good online, and today we’ll talk about how to manage that unlovely creature: the troll.

How to spot a troll

We’re not talking about the scary voice in your customer’s ear that keeps him from buying — that’s a different flavor of troll.

I’m talking about the more classic Internet definition. Our friend Wikipedia says:

In Internet slang, a troll is someone who posts controversial, inflammatory, irrelevant or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum, chat room or blog, with the primary intent of provoking other users into an emotional or disciplinary response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.

The most harmless are essentially annoying kids, making poop jokes to get attention. The uglier kind are those who make themselves feel less puny by taking a bite out of your ankle. Tall poppy syndrome is alive and well on the web.

It’s human nature to admire authority, but it’s also human nature to resent it. If you stand out and speak with confidence, you become a target.

Just realize it’s the nature of the Web. Move decisively, consider the source, and try not to let it bother you. Trust me, I know that’s easier said than done.

Set boundaries

Whether you have a blog, a forum, or a membership site, don’t let others trash it. It’s not fair to what you’ve built, but much more important, it’s not fair to other users.

Who gets to decide what’s over the line? You do. You can create a formal code of conduct or comment policy (always a good idea) or go with your gut, but don’t be afraid to step in and put an end to bad behavior.

No matter what policies you put in place, you’ll have those who try to obey the letter of the law while violating the spirit. Trolls love loopholes. Stay firm and listen to your gut. If your instincts tell you this is a troll trying to yank your chain, you’re probably right.

You may choose to allow a few potshots directed at you. Depending on the situation, that can show strength and confidence on your part.

But it’s never a good idea to let a user attack another community member. The argument will escalate at sickening speed, with users dividing into armed camps and going to war. The experience sours pretty quickly for everyone.

DNFTT

This is an old Usenet acronym, standing for “Do not feed the troll.”

A troll loves attention more than anything else. That’s her payoff for coming onto your site and stinking the place up.

Never reward a troll. Delete her comments as soon as you see them. If you think the person is going to be a persistent problem, block her from posting.

Do not give her any attention whatsoever. The game is no fun if the troll can’t get you to rise to the bait.

It can be really hard to avoid the temptation to defend yourself. Trolls are fantastic at pushing buttons and getting a reaction. They hone their skills over months and sometimes, in truly pathetic cases, years. It’s tempting to think that you can make a reasonable argument to convince the troll of the error of her ways, but trolls don’t work that way.

How about constructive criticism?

Does this mean that you should delete anything negative that shows up in your comments or forum?

Not at all. Truly constructive criticism is usually easy to spot. It’s respectful. It allows for the other person’s opinion, even if strongly disagreeing with it. It assumes good faith on the part of everyone in the discussion.

Every community seems to have its devil’s advocate, who makes a point of criticizing everything and everyone “for the sake of discussion.” Whether or not this person contributes value to your community is your decision to make. Your gut will tell you if the person is adding value or just poking sticks in beehives.

When the troll’s not on your site

Sometimes the troll doesn’t have the guts to kick you on your own site (or has been tossed off for bad behavior), and will either post garbage on their own blog or, more often, spread the slime in comments on other sites.

You have two options. The wisest is often to remember DNFTT. Usually, one of your true fans will show up to defend your honor.

Another option that can be satisfying is to show up and make a mild, pleasant comment. This shows the troll that yes, you’ve seen the behavior, but it’s not bothering you. This is unlikely to affect the troll much one way or the other, but I’ve seen it spark a tiny sense of decency in the crowd of gawkers gathered around.

It’s very important to never link to a troll, whether the person is trashing you or someone else. Links are attention, and attention is troll food. DNFTT.

Red velvet rope

The openness of the Internet can be an amazing strength. But all you have to do is read a few comments on YouTube or FAIL Blog to realize that at a certain point, “openness” can become an open sewer.

Sometimes the answer is to get in off the street. It’s healthy and good to have public spaces, but you may well find that real connection, conversation and community are better fostered by providing a private, members-only spot for more serious discussions. It’s amazing what even a small monthly fee will do to keep the conversation civilized.

If you’re going to create online authority, you’ll need to accept the responsibilities and not just the privileges. Cleaning out the messes made by trolls is an unpleasant maintenance task, but an important one.

Remember the troll-wrangler’s mantra: Don’t talk to the trash, just take it out.

About the Author: Sonia Simone is Senior Editor of Copyblogger and the founder of Remarkable Communication.

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Comments

  1. Sonia,

    There’s a tactic for dealing with Trolls called the “Ransberger Pivot” that takes the underlying desires of the attackers and neutralized them by starting off the conversation on common ground.

    Take any criticism a Troll throws at you and respond with, “Like you, I (want/feel/hate/love) X.”

    Follow that with, “Here is why my position is best for what we (want/feel/hate/love) about X.”

    Study it further and try it out.

  2. Works with four-year-olds, makes sense that it could work with trolls. :)

  3. Things got a little out of hand in the comments on one of my posts a while back.

    I remember an article from Chris Guillebeau being very helpful: http://chrisguillebeau.com/3×5/keeping-it-real/

    The key message: A blog is not a democracy. If you don’t want to allow a certain comment, don’t.

  4. I had a troll figure out my home address from one of the sites I owned and posted it all over the Internet. It was very tough to get that person stopped.

    Great article.

  5. Thanks Sonia!

    Last year I wrote a blog for a Seattle newspaper and decided to quit after 6 months because I just got tired of the trolls taking shots. I didn’t realize at the time that this was a common occurence and thought I must have deserved it (now I know how to recognize a vampire).

    Your advice will help me continue with my own personal blog as I’m sure I’ll have to deal with the trolls again at some point.

    Thanks again!

  6. I *love* that mantra! :D

  7. It’s important not to make it personal, not for you or the troll. Don’t take it personally and like Sonia wrote, do not feed the troll. It will sting the first couple of times, but then you’ll learn to look at it the right way.

    p.s. Great comment Shane, I like that style.

  8. But as Frank says…

    The best revenge is massive success.”

    :)

  9. Tony, I couldn’t agree more. Laughing.

  10. Trolls are much more annoying on forums then they are on blogs because you can very easily delete the comments in your comment moderation section, or you can let akismit do it too. Getting rid of these people on forums is a much tougher situation.

  11. Love the last sentence “Don’t talk to the trash, just take it out.” Thanks for the great advice, so simple but so true!

  12. @Wallpapers, yep, that’s why I’m no longer such a fan of public forums, even though I love the community that a forum can foster. They’re horrendously hard to manage, IME.

    @Nicole, I must admit that I stole that line from a certain business partner who will remain nameless. :) I love it too.

    @Patrick, that was what led me to write the post, I know that feeling of, “geez, I must really suck to be attracting this.” Nope, it’s just a particular breed of online pest.

  13. (Oh, and thanks to @Mike Piper for a point I think is particularly important. A blog is not a democracy. People do not have a civil right to come post crap on your blog. You may see it differently, of course, but in my experience that’s what works best.)

  14. I do not have a comment policy because I tend to think everyone will be nice…I should probably set one up just in case.

    Thank you for another great article!

  15. A blog is private property.

    Commenters are guests.

    It’s as simple as that.

    P.S. Thanks for having me.

  16. ** success is unrelated to truth or value — otherwise Rush Limbaugh would be an honest, decent person **

    Here are six criteria that RL and millions of ideologically determined bloggers fail every day:

    1. don’t pretend to be a knowledge-authority if you aren’t (typical problem of politico-religious bloggers and posters)

    2. don’t imagine that even if you are a KA in one area that you’re entitled to think that you’re one in another area — or worse, that you are a PA — power-authority (typical problem of college level instructors, priests, preachers, rabbis, imams, elected officials and “true believers”)

    3. don’t confuse your subjective confidence that a view is true (= strongly held belief) with the truth. if you have reasons for a claim, present them briefly and cogently.

    4. don’t reason illogically. If your reasoning skills are flawed, expect those defects to be punctured. (apologists for all ideologies fall into logical traps = fallacies!)

    5. don’t neglect breadth and depth of data, especially in history, geography (it is typical of bloggers to make “false generalizations” — fallacy! — based on too little history, too little geography, too little relevant data of any kind.)

    if i find you fail under any of these points, you’re likely to hear from me. i’ll be polite, but firm and pointed. and nothing personal — i’ll reach you by the random choice of StumbleUpon.

    so, if you can’t stand a lot of legitimate heat, get out of blogging into a safe, cool web site.

    bipolar2

  17. Ah! for poeple over (cough) a certain age – that brings flashbacks of BBS discussion boards and early USENET alt.*
    :-)

  18. I remember about a 1,000 years ago in art school during critique sessions, there would occasionally be that one person who deviated from the normal constructive criticism to just be plain cruel. The amazing thing that almost always seemed to happen was that the strongest defense came not from the artist but from the peers in the room. Trolls are attention whores! Once again, great post and great advice, words to live by!

  19. LOL this post is pretty timely for me. As a newbie in the blogging and building a readership process, just today I got my first flame comment. I was thinking about replying, but hadnt, and after reading your thoughts I will just ignore him.

    Perhaps y’all (I am in Texas afterall… lol) have heard the of the three “S”s. Some will (get it), some won’t (get it), so what.

  20. I can spot these trashy trolls easily just by skimming comments. They all have a tone that feels needy, weak and a bit scary.

    The sad thing is that I have seen myself get caught up in a back and forth that got so far removed from the original point that I was amazed. It can happen so easily, especially if you feel cornered and don’t have your wits about you to chalk the detractor up as someone off kilter. Have you found yourself in this position?

  21. I was once stalked for months (on a forum where I couldn’t control responses) by a dedicated troll. Guy was after me for more than a year. That was one of the reasons I shifted over to a personal blog.

    That said, I don’t think this is a solved problem, as you seem to imply. DNFTT is too coarse a heuristic, and constructive criticism is not as easy to spot as you say. There is a genuine tension between building a creative community (which requires resonance to outweigh dissonance by a 4:1 ratio, extrapolating wildly from John Gottman’s research on healthy marriages) and seeking the “truth” whatever that may be in your authority domain.

    Which is why academic conferences and journals go to all those lengths like double-blind peer reviews etc. before something is accepted as “authoritative.”

    Bottomline: blogging is a game of moral hazards around truth-telling, and how you deal with both trolls and well-intentioned dissent is the acid test of credibility and authority.

  22. I always think of it this way Sonia. Web Trolls are weak sad critters that sit at home in their slippers trying to suck their strength to carry for another day from the great work of others. They always prey on the mighty to give them that cap full of power they crave. This sees them through their sad lonely day. The more trol you attract happen the mightier you are.

    One could be so good you become a troll-magnet.

    Davictionary: Troll-magnet = noun: evidence of greatness.

  23. I’m approaching my 200th post on my blog and in all that time I have only deleted one post. I deleted it because I link to a troll’s blog in my post to emphasize a point. Amazingly, he was not happy about that and chose to flame me in the comments.

    Luckily, I had enough common sense to delete the post, stop reading his blog, and move on with my life. (We’re masters of conflict avoidance here in the uppermidwest.) I have seen other more hot-blooded colleagues get into quite a mess online when encountering a troll.

    Melissa Paulik

  24. Trolls sure do like loopholes. I like that you pointed that out. Trolls search for loopholes like investors look for an up-and-coming company. That first comment by Shane is a solid way to counter any problems one could bring up.

  25. Mmmm I’m gonna throw a different spin on this, because honestly, all this energy on ‘how to avoid feeding the troll’, is, still kinda feeding the troll. What about feeding him some of his/her own crap.

    I once made a guy cry, who was trying to pick a fight (completely unprovoked and outta-the-blue) with a friend of mine in a bar. I just started pointing out what a loser he was, and that only reason he was trying to fight someone, was a lame attempt at trying to prove himself to the rest of the people around, and avoid being seen for the loser he was. Did he come after me? No, he started crying! Obviously the guy was shit-faced, but still. I had nailed him.

    The point is, if you aim directly at the pain that someone is expressing by trying to tear down others, you stop it dead in it’s tracks.

    Now, that was probably 10 or 12 years ago. Would my (slightly, hopefully) wiser self engage in that kind of emotional warfare today? I’d probably try and be a bit more responsible about it (feel his pain with him, yada yada) – as it can really dismantle a person – but it’s more powerful in the long run than wasting energy on perpetual avoidance tactics.

    I like what you wrote about letting them take a few shots, remaining strong and confident. And of course, sometimes that doesn’t work and you just gotta throw’em outta the party.

  26. Sonia,

    Great reminder: “never link to a troll,” since we’re only feeding their need for attention.

    bipolar2′s comment is spot-on. Yes, trolls are a problem in and of themselves.

    But some bloggers set out to act as authorities when they’re not, making bold but logically unfounded statements.

    In those cases, they’re inviting trolls.

    So, don’t be a troll or feed the troll’s desire for attention, but also don’t blog authoritatively if you’re not an authority, thus inviting trolls to show up.

  27. Thanks for the encouragement and advice for handling trolls on blogs. Like you, I stay away from forums. In my case, it’s because they have more time and practice at verbal fencing than I.

    I found the “easier said than done link” worth reading, too. It’s nice to know that the folks I’m learning from here at copyblogger deal with the same challenges and hurts I do.

  28. Reminds me of the late Quentin Crisp’s little masterpiece ‘Doing it with Style’, Chapter 10, ‘Confusing your enemies with style’. Rather than answer the charges and insults, simply correct the troublemakers grammar, spelling or punctuation.

    Or, as George Bernard Shaw once said: “Silence is the perfect expression of scorn.”

  29. I find these people so irritating, not only on my own website, but when I find them on others. I write about writing, and you’d think there wouldn’t be a whole lot of controversy in that area. Well, you’d be wrong :)

    Controversial people can find something to nitpick anywhere. They’ll take something you say and twist it so they can hear themselves talk and try to sound superior to you.

    In the end, they just sound like dorks. And everyone knows it.

  30. Gee Sonia, I wonder what inspired this post???? LOLOL!

    Kudos to you my friend for taking the high road. :-)

  31. Sorry for adding two comments in a row…

    I just remembered something my Pastor said a few years ago “You know you’re doing something worthwhile when people start trying to drag you down”

  32. Very good reminders. I’m not sure I’m a fan of a “comment policy” though. If someone has troll-like tendencies, they aren’t going to read it anyway. And the smurfs (?) (non-trolls?) who will read it, will be intimidated no matter how simple you make it. And you want the smurfs to be uninhibited. I’m no lawyer but I think a general privacy policy for the site should include the fact that you, as the site owner, own all content (even reader content) but that you assume no liability for it. And by owning it, you can do whatever you want – including delete it or ignore it or respond to it.

    But don’t spell out what people can or can’t write – 99% of people will naturally behave well anyway and you’ll kill discussion if you post a rules list.

  33. @Melinda, ;)

    @Darrin, mostly a comment policy seems to make the smurfs (I love this term) freak out less when you bounce a troll. But to tell the truth, my comment policy is generally “it’s my blog, if I think you’re being a jerk I’m nuking you.”

  34. Back in the dark ages of the internet (1996?) I was running a web site devoted to a music group. I had an email list where fans could share memories in such. One person starting doing stupid things, so I had to make the list moderated.

    The troublemaker had a “lawyer” friend tell me that I was violating the person’s right to free speech.

    (sigh)

    I’m sure there are some dumb lawyers, but I doubt there are too many that are quite that dumb. Clearly just the troublemaker posing as a lawyer.

  35. It is only a natural reaction for someone to try and take you down. The best thing to do is to delete that pesky comment or just ignore it.

    Igor

  36. Speaking as a Troll … (grin!)

  37. Two words: don’t engage.

    ‘Tis the season, it seems, for commentary on troll-like commentary. Sounds like you, Sonia, have had a recent close encounter yourself. Either that, or (given the timing of this) you’ve witnessed mine on a recent guest blog at another major site, a bit of a bloody mess actually. That experience inspired me to write about it on yet another guest post, and on my own site today, in fact. Sort of a spiritual cleansing, I think. My guess is, seeing my name here, the troll will pop up here, and if she does, you won’t miss it.

    Computer viruses, sexually transmitted diseases, drunken guests that won’t leave… and blogsite trolls. The best protection is to not engage.

  38. I don’t take risk to post controversial or provoke article..
    Why make us in difficult situation… Even we use policies sometimes it still depends on us, author.. Don’t take a big risk being sue or punished

  39. The adage applies “you can’t please everybody!”

    No matter how hard you try, someone is always going to have a problem. You should spend your efforts on the 90% of people who are, not the 10% who just waste your time.

  40. @Larry, sorry to hear about your experience. Been there, done that, didn’t have any fun. (Really like your observations about story structure/architecture, by the way.)

  41. Great article and so true. I’ve started having problems with trolls enrolling as users as well. Don’t think they’ve been able to do anything harmful but you still have the hassle of deleting them from your user base. And if you have several writers, which I don’t, it makes the job more difficult.

    Pat

  42. Yet another great trip to the wisdom font. I leave refreshed and wiser. Many thanks, Sonia! P. :)

  43. I’ve been blind-sided by a troll that I thought was a community friend. That one really through me for a loop. I responded heatedly, which is really not my style. I regret not taking a moment to realize this guy was a surreptitious troll that was otherwise harmless. Should have let that one go! After going through many of his communications, this guy does it to everybody. Lures them it with at-a-boys and way-to-go then goes in for the kill! Afterwards I just removed him from my connects.

  44. I know I’m doing well when I start getting a few trolls. I’ve found it can make me look good when I handle them well. Most good people come to my defence and help me out, so I don’t think it’s all bad, it even builds a sense of camaraderie.

    Sean

  45. @Killer, ow, that’s particularly painful.

  46. @SeanMorrissy

    I agree – handling trolls in public is often a great way to show the people that you’re not only legit but can handle situations.

  47. Great advice, Sonia. Sad, but very true. I think that we can find people like this in all walks of life but the internet indeed is an easy way for the cowards to create havoc while situated safely/anonymously behind a PC. Thanks for the coping tips. : )

  48. As Friedrich Nietzsche used to say: “Arrogance on the part of the meritorious is even more offensive to us than the arrogance of those without merit: for merit itself is offensive.” ;-)

  49. I had my first troll two days ago, but it put it’s foot in its mouth before even finishing the comment. It still hit the submit button and everyone knew it was full of, well… poop.

  50. Very nice article Sonia.
    To many people try to always be nice so everyone will like them & they put up with trolls.
    If I wrote a comment policy it would probably say; I love my dogs more that I like you & I don’t even let them $*** in my house.
    Maybe I spent to many years as a bartender & lost the ability to pussy foot around.
    ;)

  51. Laughing, Sheryl! I like it.

  52. Thank you for this post. I finally feel vindicated. When attacked by a troll on a large social network I was an active part of, the moderator failed to take any action until, as you said, “Sides were chosen and it soured quickly.” Then it was too little, too late and it changed the personality and security of the community forever. Sure, most folks there now don’t know about it, but those who do will never forget. Moderators should take QUICK, DECISIVE ACTION to protect their members. When wrong, apologize. So glad to see you agree.

  53. Yet another excellent post. I really find “real world experience” posts like this one helpful. It reduces some of the fear and learning-curve out of going at it alone.

  54. A quick note to Sara above: I think you are dead on accurate. I am reminded of a quote from Patrick Swaze’s character in “Roadhouse.” He said, “be nice, be nice, be nice… until it is time not to be nice.”

  55. ooops… sorry … I actually meant to address that to Sheryl Loch, not to Sara.

  56. I always wonder what kind of person a troll is in his/her private life? Are they like this at home or maybe just acting out (anonymously) on the internet?
    Completely ignoring it or just giving them a nice reply would be the best thing. If they still act out after that they will look stupid. And being more succesful than them, that’s the best revenge!

  57. I’d just like to point out that Sonia has used the feminine pronoun when referring to our unknown troll. So there you go. Anyone who wants to fight with Sonia over whether “she” and “her” are acceptable instead of “he” and “him” gets a backhand slap from me.

    Okay, not really, but slaps can be funny in some contexts. Like in blog comments.

  58. To me, it seems pretty simple as to choosing which gender pronoun to use–use whichever you, the writer, are.

    If everyone did that, the usage would generally balance out.

  59. A blog is private property. Commenters are guests.

    It’s as simple as that.

    P.S. Thanks for having me.

  60. I think if the troll is posting nasty and unjustified comments, as a blogger I have the right to not approve the comment or delete it. Why waste time and energy on someone who as you said is taking a shot at what you built. Not fair to you or to your readers. No one said blogging and having a public presence online was going to be easy! Great reminders.

  61. Thank you for this post. But here’s a tough one.

    I just started blogging this past January, signed up for coaching and after having some pretty good sessions on customer service, I was not satisfied with the level of followup (customer service) with the coaching program. There ended up being a pretty rough interaction with the blogger, which she shared with her readers.

    What was worse was another blogger whom she is an affiliate for did an entire video post on dealing with ‘crappy clients’. So, without realizing I was being a Troll, I left a comment that was ‘not very nice’ on her blog. But I just felt like I was standing up for myself. While blogs are privately ‘owned’ by the blogger, does that give them the right for this kind of behavior when I clearly knew that I was the ‘crappy client’ being discussed?

    At any rate, I’m glad I’ve found Copyblogger as it seems to have a level of professionalism that I aspire to in my own work, which I’m in the process of restarting due to this experience. Thanks for sharing this and any responses are welcome.

    • Jeff Sararas :

      Very interesting for sure! But I’m not sure I understand what you’re looking for Jessica- Are you seeking advice on the unwritten rules of blogging engagement (Ie, is it ‘okay’ for them to post about you), or are you looking for opinion/judgment on your interaction with the blogger, as in who’s in the right/wrong?

      Either way, I think anyone would need to see the thread(s) in order to offer any advice or opinions. And not just because we want to see some juicy conflict. Honestly.

  62. I guess I should just stop commenting altogether. Some sort of empathy would be nice, but as it seems that everything I post lately is just trollish. I’ll stop.

  63. I’ve had the misfortune of encountering a troll on a discussion board. I was posting about a technical problem regarding internet traffic, but didn’t post a link to my website because I didn’t want it indexed in the discussion. I did provide some background info about the site including my Google PageRank, MozRank and some other information to establish that my site is authoritative.

    Two people joined the discussion to offer some advice. One of them asked me if I could give a link to the website, before I could reply a TROLL came in and posted the url and made some rude comments to boot. I told the individual that he didn’t have my permission to post the url. The troll said that he’d remove it if I ask him “nicely”. I responded saying that I wasn’t going to feed the troll. The next thing that happened was that the troll posted links to several of my site categories.

    I checked my site analytics and found out where the troll was posting from and the pages that he was accessing on my site. Interestingly, in his attempt to insult me, he read my About page but did not post a link to it. The reason was because he was attempting to undermine my credibility and if he had posted my About page it would have defeated his attacks.

    The way I responded was not to complain but instead to post a link to my About page on the discussion forum. This action took all the power away from the troll. He made one final snide remark but that was it. Unfortunately the troll did accomplish part of its goal which was to disrupt the discussion (the two people whom had come into the thread to offer assistance abandoned it right after the troll showed up.)

    I don’t like internet forums because they’re rarely moderated. With that particular forum, the employees look in but don’t respond often. Prior to posting my question I had looked at various threads and that troll appeared on a lot of them.

    There is an ongoing debate as to whether comments should be moderated and whether or not people should be allowed to post anonymously. I advocate the use of registration prior to posting where the person must provide a valid email address (and depending on the type of online community) a first and last name connected to their profile. Internet trolls can easily cross the line to more severe forms of cyber harassment i.e. stalking which can pose very real dangers to people who post online (several of the comments on this article underscore the seriousness of trolling). If online public forums are require members to provide their real identities, it would have a huge impact on the number of trolls posting online.