How to Train Your Trolls

Sixteen years later, I can still feel the flames.

When the commercial Internet was still young, I may have been the first editor to take a storied magazine brand web-only. In 1998, the much-loved MacWEEK magazine (where I’d been news editor) traded its Mac focus to become a cross-platform book called eMediaWeekly, and I became the head of a small team tasked with carrying the MacWEEK torch online.

As soon as the news hit, I posted a column to promising that while the site wouldn’t clone everything that made the big print operation so great, we were committed to delivering Mac news and opinion that would do credit to the MacWEEK brand that had launched my own professional career and earned many devoted fans who eagerly awaited each issue. And I encouraged them to ask questions that I’d answer honestly, even if that meant admitting I didn’t have the answer yet.

It’s standard operating procedure today, in a world where virtually every tech magazine has gone digital-only. But in 1998, this sort of statement was unheard of. Add to that the legendary dedication of the Mac community, and it’s not surprising that the reaction was… heated.

Our MacWEEK/eMediaWeekly alumni still meet periodically as the F*ks Club, in honor of one particularly salty e-mail sent to eMediaWeekly’s editor after the announcement. It was one of many; I personally spent the first couple weeks of our online-only foray fielding a lava flow of fiery reactions from MacWEEK fans, many of which directed their anger over the move at me personally. I was called a liar, a corporate shill, and a Canterbury Tales‘ worth of guttural Anglo-Saxon names—all while we were scrambling to keep the MacWEEK torch burning.

However, it turned out to be an experience that forged my approach toward the loudest negative voices in any crowd: engage them in conversation, and trust that some of them will focus their considerable energy towards a more worthwhile endeavor—very possibly one that will benefit you personally.

Of course, no sort of conversation will ever divert commenters who are purely focused on sowing destruction and pain for others—but outside that group at the furthest margins, most contentious correspondents can be reached by playing to their strengths and redirecting them.

And so, I took the time to respond to every email, even the ones that seared my screen. I didn’t convince everyone of our success, but I do think I convinced most that we were serious.

We went on to double the site’s traffic in a single year, never pretending that we were a one-to-one substitute for the print magazine. The most gratifying KPI, however, was two separate emails from two readers who’d been among my harshest accusers on day one. Both apologized for the charges they’d leveled at me, both acknowledged that we’d done what I said we’d do—and both thanked me for taking that time to acknowledge their feelings of anger and betrayal.

Troll patrol

That early trial by fire came in handy a couple years later, when ZDNet put me in charge of turning its reader comments into an opinion section in its own right. This was a decisive moment for me in learning an interesting truth about online commenters: The loudest and most aggressive voices had most of what it took to create great user-generated content. The trick was to respond to provocation with the right mix of firmness and respect, learning about the person behind the bluster and channeling their provocative opinions towards a useful end.

I remember one poster who was an absolute terror on the ZDNet message boards, going on the attack on every thread that had to do with Napster and digital music rights. He was confrontational, abusive with other commenters, relentless about our coverage, and frequently half-coherent as his passion outpaced his writing skills. The community moderator had considered 86ing him completely, but I wanted to try a different approach: I reached out and asked him to tell me his story.

Reversing the flow of the conversation had a dramatic effect: It turned out our antagonist was a struggling musician in San Diego with plenty of insight into the challenges facing the little guy at the dawn of digital distribution. I worked with him to polish up his prose, and he became a regular contributor. All the passion he’d put into tearing us down was now invested in building his own brand, and the interest he earned from readers transformed him into a fierce guardian of our content.

I recalled my interactions with this and other online contributors in the wake of recent coverage about encounters between celebrated British historian Mary Beard and Twitter users who’d hectored her over her statements about sexist abuse of social media. While she was unafraid to “name and shame” abusive tweeters to her 47,000 followers, she also used the opportunity to engage with the same detractors and turn the conversation in a positive direction.

Consider the case of a university student named Oliver Rawlings, who had labeled Beard a “filthy old slut” in a tweet. After she retweeted his message to her followers, Rawlings took her to lunch to apologize. Their interaction spawned an unlikely relationship that included Beard writing job recommendations for her former tormenter.

“He is going to find it hard to get a job, because as soon as you Google his name that is what comes up,” Beard told the Guardian. “And although he was a very silly, injudicious, and at that moment not very pleasant young guy, I don’t actually think one tweet should ruin your job prospects.

“In general, I am more concerned to be sure that people don’t use the Internet in this way (or don’t do so again) than to seek ‘punishment.'”

Undeniably, plenty of trolls are determined to destroy, not to build up. Many of them will never be convinced to channel their energy in a healthier direction. But by reaching out instead of pushing back, you may be able to turn your most implacable detractors into your strongest supporters.


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