1. Shlomi Fish
  2. taming-trolls-and-flamers

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taming-trolls-and-flamers / internet-trolls-cure / dealing-with-trolls-summary.xhtml

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<title>Dealing with Internet Trolls - the Cognitive Therapy Approach</title>
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<h1>Dealing with Internet Trolls - the Cognitive Therapy Approach</h1>

<p>
You have probably heard various opinions about how to deal
with people who write insulting or provocative remarks on various Internet
forums (also known as <a
    href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Troll_%28Internet%29">"trolls"</a> or
people who "flame"). The most common of which is "Don't Feed the Trolls",
which says that all the people in the forum should avoid responding to the
troll. However, as you will see below, <b>"Don't feed the trolls" is 
also a wrong and ineffective approach</b> for dealing with trolls.
</p>

<p>
Luckily, I discovered a much better way to handle criticism in the book
<a href="http://www.amazon.com/Feeling-Good-Therapy-Revised-Updated/dp/0380810336"><i>Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy</i></a>, which
is an internationally best-selling self-help book by Dr. David D. Burns
for learning how to deal with
<a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Major_depressive_disorder">periods of 
    clinical depression</a>. The book teaches
<a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_behavioral_therapy">cognitive
therapy</a>, which was proven to be effective in dealing with a variety
of mood disorders. The book has helped me a lot both in learning the cause of
my psychological conditions, and in giving me tools to overcome them.
</p>

<p>
<a href="http://www.amazon.com/Feeling-Good-Therapy-Revised-Updated/dp/0380810336"><img src="http://www.shlomifish.org/philosophy/books-recommends/images/feeling_good.jpg" alt="cover of Feeling Good" /></a>
</p>

<p>
This post will focus on a certain chapter in the book called "<b>Verbal
Judo</b>: learn to talk back when you're under the fire of criticism", as
adapted by me to the world of online, Internet-based, communication. The
super-executive summary for this post is: "On the Internet, <b>don't be
right - be smart</b>."
</p>

<p>
One final note: I am not a mental health professional and this is not
professional psychological advice. I believe anyone is allowed to give such 
insights from their knowledge and experience, just like
everyone is allowed to give their opinion on computing or on legal
matters, while stating the usual disclaimer. So don't blame me if this thing 
back-fires, and use your reason and judgement with what I'm saying here.
</p>

<h2>Case Study</h2>

<p>
Someone joins a Python IRC channel and says "Perl rocks my socks
and Python sucks balls, LOL. Python programmers are incompetent imbecile
losers, ROTFL…"
</p>

<p>
(I'm giving it about Python to avoid Perl-elitism on my part. I'm also using
"him", "he" consistently, though the troll might be female. )
</p>

<h2>What not to do?</h2>

<ol>

<li><p>
<b>Criticise his judgement</b>:</p>
<ul>
<li>"Python does not suck, and you are being
rude."</li>
<li>"WTF are you saying? Everybody knows that Perl sucks."</li>
</ul>

<p>
Saying sentences like that will make him madder, will likely yield an even more
aggressive response from the troll, and will only escalate the heat in the 
conversation.
</p>
</li>
<li>
<p><b>Don't feed the troll"</b> - i.e: ignore him. Someone will "feed" 
him eventually and the troll may continue trolling and feeling he's right
and superior or alternatively that the Python people on the channel
are being "jerks" for not responding.</p>
</li>
<li>
<p><b>Ban him / call for banning him</b> - a great way to get another enemy,
and can also possibly start some "was it right to ban him" converations. Will
also negatively contribute to the channel's atomsphere among the channel
members.
</p>
<p>
The troll may also prove to be a useful resource in the future, or can be
taught to love Python eventually.
</p>
</li>
<li>
<p><b>Tell him not to troll.</b> - you're labelling him and insulting him
and he's feeling like he's alienated. Some people may still respond harshly.</p>
</li>

<li>
<p><b>Cancel the project, or close the channel</b> - may seem very far-fetched 
but in a project I was involved in and made some suggestions which were 
perceived as annoying, I was told that they actually considered to cancel
the project. Naturally, this is throwing the baby along with the bathwater, so 
you certainly <b>must not</b> do that.
</p>
</li>
</ol>

<h2>What to do instead</h2>

<p>
So what should we do instead. It's very simple:
</p>

<ol>

<li>
<p><b>Ask him what he means.</b> ; interrogate him:</p>
<ul>
<li>
"Why do you feel that Python is so bad? What do you find wrong with it?"
</li>
</ul>
</li>

<li>
<p><b>Agree with him</b> (but use a softer language):</p>
<ul>
<li>"Yes, Perl is a nice language, and I agree that Python has its downsides
and/or trade-offs in comparison to Perl."</li>
<li>"It's OK to prefer Perl, we'll still accept you here."</li>
</ul>

<p>
This will make the troll lose steam and help you find a common ground.
</p>
</li>

<li>
<p>
And eventually <b>negotiate a common ground:</b>
"Would you agree that some people like Perl
better and some like Python better? (And some may like both equally.). Maybe
you can still write Python code and be productive in it while still not in
love with it. Who knows, maybe you'll even grow to like it. Feel free to stick
around and ask questions."
</p>
</li>
</ol>

<p>
(After I originally read that in Feeling Good, I immediately thought that it
made immediate sense, and that it will likely work in most cases. However,
later I thought that I probably would not have thought about it myself.)
</p>

<p>
Repeat that a few times and the troll will eventually calm down and will
become more friendly and hospitable. Some people who've read a draft of
this article claimed that such a person will probably troll further in the
future, and so one should get rid of him as quickly as possible. While this
may often be the case, one should understand that it is not always the case
for all trolls, and moreover you should learn to tolerate people that
have some bad personality traits which you don't like, instead of deciding
right away that you hate them and don't want to have anything to do with them.
I have decided to do that, and often found this Internet people to be of some
value, whether in entertainment, knowledge or technical help.
</p>

<p>
On the other hand, if you dismiss every one as a "troll" for any small
problem, your community will not grow a lot and you'll leave people with a
lot of bad taste in the mouth.
</p>

<h2>Practising</h2>

<p>
The rest of this post is about some more useful advice for communicating
with people who are making provocative statements, and can be read at your
own leisure. After you've read that, you may wish to practice what was said
here using role-playing, by one of the following scenarios:
</p>

<ul>
<li>Someone comes on a FreeBSD channel, and claims that Linux and the
GPL have "won" and that the BSD licence and the BSD clones have no future.
</li>
<li>
Someone joins a channel of the <a href="http://www.gnu.org/">GNU project</a>
and claims that the GPL licence is an "evil", anti-capitalistic and
anti-commercial licence, that does a lot of harm to the open source world.
</li>
<li>
You are talking on a Perl channel, when someone joins and says that "Perl is
dead".
</li>
<li>
You are chatting on a mailing list or chatroom dedicated to development
of open-source software when someone says "Why are you people spending
so much time making sure your programs run on Windows? One should prohibit
running FOSS on Windows! Everyone should avoid porting their software to
Windows? By providing Windows users with great FOSS software, you make
sure Windows remains popular and are working against the cause."
</li>

<li>
You are discussing Emacs when someone joins and say "Emacs is a bloated 
operating system that lacks a good text editor. Only losers use it. vi FTW!".
</li>

<li>
You are on a Vim channel, when someone say "Everybody knows that vi sucks! 
Emacs is the only one true editor. Vi users are lamers.".
</li>

</ul>

<p>
You can probably think of others.
</p>

<h2>Some Advice for Communicating with Trolls Properly</h2>

<ol>

<li><p><b>Relax</b>: don't worry if you don't get 
everything exactly right.</p></li>

<li><p><b>Communicate clearly:</b> write in the best spelling, grammar, 
punctuation, capitalisation, idiomatic speech, etc. that you can, no matter 
how bad the troll's message were in this respect.</p>
<p>
It may be a good idea to avoid too high or complicated words, because
many foreign speakers of English often have poor language.
</p></li>
<li><p>Don't criticise what he says directly or the way he says it
(Style over substance etc.)</p></li>
<li>
<p>Avoid <b>logical fallacies</b>: see 
<a href="http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/">the Nizkor project
about them</a> and
<a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fallacies">the List of
fallacies on the English wikipedia</a>.</p>
<p>
Especially avoid <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ad_hominem">ad hominem</a>: "You're under age and much younger than me and not a
lawyer, so you're not qualified to give your opinion about open-source
licences."
</p>
</li>
<li><p>Be <b>polite and friendly</b>.
</p></li>
<li>
<p><b>Don't be too terse.</b> Write coherently, and explain what you
want.</p>
<p>
Proper human communication has a lot of redundancy, but people prefer it this
way. Even in Information Theory, you cannot compress an arbitrary amount of
data to a message which is too short.
</p>
<p>
<a href="http://www.socialsignal.com/image/short-and-sweet"><img 
    src="http://www.socialsignal.com/system/files/images/2008-06-23-microblogging.gif" 
    alt="Short and Sweet Cartoon" /></a>
</p>
</li>
<li><p>On the other hand, <b>don't be too verbose</b>, as people won't bother
reading you. It may be better to put a claim and reiterate.</p></li>
<li><p>If using E-mail, always do bottom-inline post and never top-post
(unless you know better than that, which you probably don't). When top-posting,
the one who responds can often reply not to the point or miss many important
posts:
</p>
<ol>
    <li>
    Quote a selected message
    </li>
    <li>
	Disarm the troll using the methods above.
    </li>
    <li>
	Repeat.
    </li>
</ol>

<p>
See the <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Posting_style">wikipedia
    article about posting style</a> for more information.
</p>
</li>

<li>
<p>
Don't selectively trim the message without leaving enough context.
</p>
</li>

<li>
<p>
Don't mis-interpret or jump to conclusions - ask the troll what he
means if you don't know.
</p>
</li>
<li>
<p>
Try to avoid using aphorisms, proverbs, "famous" quotes, rhymes or verse 
etc. Instead use free-form, coherent speech and say what you want in your own 
words.
</p>

<p>
The problem with aphorisms, and their ilk are that they tend to project 
authority, and usually backfire because a person intuitively knows that.
</p>

<p>
Sometimes they may lead to an aphorism war or for "correcting" the 	
aphorism or discussing its larger context and origins.
</p>
<p>
All of these can sometimes spice up a friendly conversation and add 	
humour to it, though, but your kilomterage may vary.
</p>
</li>
<li><p>Don't make fun of the troll. Respect him and try to avoid unnecessary
humour. Be pleasant - not funny.</p></li>
<li><p>Don't be rude; use soft words such as "I think", "I believe",
"In my opinion", "I find that", etc.</p></li>
<li><p>Don't label: "open-source and creative commosn are Socilism"
(So what if they are? They are still something beneficial.)
</p></li>
<li><p>Always start the conversation with a "Hi [name-or-nick],"
and possibly thank him for what he says or otherwise start with a compliment. 
This will better allow disarming him.
</p></li>
</ol>

<h2>Further Reading</h2>

<ol>

<li>
<a href="http://www.amazon.com/Feeling-Good-Therapy-Revised-Updated/dp/0380810336">"Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy Revised and Updated"</a>
by David D. Burns.
</li>

<li>
<a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZSFDm3UYkeE">"How to
Protect Your Open Source Project From Poisonous People"</a>
- by Ben Collins-Sussman and Brian Fitzpatrick of Subversion fame.
A Google Tech Talk - not sure if there are subtitles or a transcript.
</li>
<li>
<a href="http://producingoss.com/">The Book "Producing Open Source Software"</a>
- by Karl Fogel (of CVS/Subversion fame).
</li>
</ol>

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