The Trouble with Trolls

June 7, 2007 at 7:37 pm 11 comments

Seattle’s famous Fremont Troll

One of the challenges every community will eventually face…if not continuously face… is the disruption of “trolls.”  Trolls are a particularly disruptive force in online communities.  You could probably create some categories for types of trolls in online communities (those with a grudge against you, those with a grudge against a group of other community members, those with a grudge against everything, those who are just plain obnoxious, etc).  Thinking through the categories could be fun and I might think on that more for another day. 

Communities that don’t force authentication offer uniquely harder challenges with trolls as pure anonymity and difficulty of consequences (banning) embolden some of the worst behaviors.  Given the option, a community without some sort of registration and authentication (at least in order to post/comment) is not the best practice.

In general, trolls will hi-jack conversations with off topic and often outrageous claims on controversial topics.  In the end, the single best tactic for managing trolls (and hardest to do it seems) is ignoring them.  Keep in mind the following principles:

  • The Troll’s goal is to draw you into debate and argument – a single response from you is victory for the troll.
  • A troll is a troll is a troll is a troll is a troll – you do not have the power to bring them from the dark to the light.
  • If you must, type out your response to the troll, save it for 24 hours, and then delete it – that process of writing was your opportunity for therapy!  Posting it will not help.

So…some do’s:

  • Ignore, ignore, ignore (to a point)
  • Moderation is important, especially to new forming communities (we have not always done this – and still don’t in many cases)
  • Moderators who have credibility/status in the community are critical (no “drive by moderation”
  • Post guidelines for your community and be consistent about them
  • Consider providing tools to your top contributors to handle some poster problems
  • Use authentication and no anonymous posting
  • Consider providing a “wild west” forum – a place where off-topic and random is ok. 
  • Do NOT get confused or drawn into a “freedom of speech” debate – make no mistake, if your community is hosted on your servers, that is your property, you can be held liable for what happens there – freedom of speech is a brilliant principal, but does not apply here.

What had me thinking about this is that we recently had some issues in some private communities with some of these kinds of problems.  It was in a private/”walled garden” community and while I’m not a moderator, I am a pretty well known participant in the space – I guess it helps to mention that I run the program that ultimately entitles the members to be in that community.  Now, I’m pretty pro “letting things go” in this scenario, but there comes a point where lines are crossed and a stand has to be made. 

I consider part of the purpose of this blog to share practices (they may not always be the best practices…but they are examples from my experience).  In this case, I had hit the wall and writing and deleting my post was not the right response (given it was a private community).  So, for sake of sharing, here was my very personal post to the community.  I have only made minor <edits> to preserve some people and program privacy.

Thinking out loud – NOT making a policy decision.  I chose this part of the
thread as I like what <name removed> says here.

I’m not inclined to create more private NGs – don’t think it will help
I don’t want to moderate – seems a horrible waste of resources to me
I can’t ban users from the private NGs the way they are configured – you are
either a <member> and have access or you are not a <member> and don’t have access.

I like the notion of values/principles.  As a leader and as a person, I have
to ask myself every day if I am living my values – what do I value?
#1  My family (this is both my home and my work family)
#2  Integrity/honesty/respect
#3  Accomplishment – I like getting things done

These aren’t all my values, but they are core to me and they have to apply
in both my work and my personal life.  If I don’t feel like I’m living them,
then I am failing – not someone else, but failing myself.  So, I work hard
to live these values in everything I do and I feel pretty good that I do it.
However, that said, when I look at the kinds of conversations that seem to
occur at times in the <name of specific community>, that is where I do feel like my values are out of sync with what is happening around something that is part of my work and “family”.  I don’t think I can continue to allow these values to be out of sync.  I don’t know what to do about it and I’m quite certain not everyone will like any decision I make, but having everyone “like” my decisions is not on my list of values.

What would I like?  Everyone treated by default with dignity and respect.
If you can’t do that…don’t be here.   If you can’t resist, then I guess
ultimately you’d be making the decision mine – and that decision is not
likely to be one that treats a person differently, but one that says that
person is perhaps not aligned with the values of this <program> as embodied by the current leader of the program.


This is probably one of the strongest and certainly most personal posts I’ve made in my history with community – reminder here – when I post in that community it is as an official representative of my company (and myself).  On the whole, I think this response was very necessary and overall very well and respectfully received.  It was a turning point as well for some recent troubles.  Whether the turn lasts or not is to be seen, but either way I have stated where I stand and communicated that action would be taken. 

This aside, it’s an exceptionally important reminder that I am a very present, visible and credible (at least I think so:)) individual in this community.  If I was just another corporate representative who suddenly took a stand I would have been chased off and thoroughly dismissed.  I have authority in this community not because of my role, title, employer or responsibilities – but because of my consistent, open and honest presence there.  Turns out online respect is earned just like offline respect.

So, I hope this example is of some use.  Good luck with your communities and don’t forget to share your stories.  I suppose if there is one take away here, it’s that no matter the situation you need to address in your community, you must be a credible and respected presence there…so go engage!

Sean tags: , , , ,

Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

Thank you Forum One for organizing the Community Unconference… What books are in my computer bag right now??

11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Patrick Plawner  |  June 8, 2007 at 10:20 am

    I always keep this picture close to me, when I post on some forum 😉

    Not sure the HTML above will work so in case, here is another link

    See at

  • 2. Sean ODriscoll  |  June 8, 2007 at 10:31 am

    great picture (and supporting content)…thanks for sharing!!

  • 3. Jorge Díaz Guzmán (MVP)  |  June 8, 2007 at 2:23 pm

    Excelent content!
    Unfortunatelly, we have some Trolls in our communities.
    Good recomendations.

  • 4. Kerry Brown - MVP  |  June 8, 2007 at 5:00 pm

    I agree with what you are saying. The problem is that not all trolls are the same. I had an experience where a troll was following me around to various newsgroups and forums calling my integrity into question. In these days of search engines being used by business contacts or possible employers to investigate you, you have to respond to refute some things. I would politely state my case then exit the conversation. There are also trolls who may cause harm to an innocent 3rd parties. There is an infamous example in the Microsoft XP newsgroups who often posts bad information that could cause an unsuspecting newbie to suffer data loss. You can’t ignore someone like this. I like your suggestion of a “wild west” container where a moderator can move conversations that cross whatever boundary is appropriate for the community. I used to be against moderation. I thought of it as censorship. Then I started my own forum. I changed my mind on moderation.

  • 5. Sean ODriscoll  |  June 8, 2007 at 8:09 pm

    That’s a great point…some are very persistent to the point of trying to tarnish others…it would be great to hear some stories from others like yourself and how you handled…both good stories and those that went badly:)

  • 6. Bill  |  June 8, 2007 at 9:23 pm

    The definitive list of the different characters would have to be:

  • 7. John McGhie  |  June 9, 2007 at 5:52 am

    Your response was “enthusiastically and appreciatively” received by many — we just forgot to tell you that at the time.

    I think there are two broad groupings of trolls. The first (perhaps the largest) is obtaining some kind of gratification from their activities. They’re pushing some kind of viewpoint, or they are trying to damage something they do not like, or they are deriving amusement from the pain they cause. This group can be effectively dealt with by ignoring. If you ignore them, you cut off their gratification, they will move on to some other place where they can get the attention they crave.

    However, I believe there is a second group of trolls: the psychopathic trolls. They’re not as common, but far more intractible, because they lack normal social empathy. These people cannot understand (and never will understand) that they are doing anything wrong. Since they do not experience an emotional engagement with the community, they are unable to connect the statements they make with the mayhem that ensues.

    For them, only removal will work. These are the ones for which authentication and access denial are necessary.

    Everything else you mention: Values, Principles, Consistency, Respect and Courtesy, are necessary for and effective with the “other” 99.99 per cent of community members.

    But psychopathic trolls are intractible: they canot reform, they cannot be cured, because they lack the ability to understand that they have done anything wrong.

    So I agree with you: you get to the stage where you either lose the troll or lose the community. Who was it said that “one person’s freedom ends at the point of another person’s jaw”? The psychopathic troll is like any other kind of psychopath: if you give them the freedom to kill, they will!

    Fortunately, they are extremely rare. But that does not allow us the luxury of failing to protect our communities from them.

    Well done!

  • 8. Sean ODriscoll  |  June 9, 2007 at 8:16 am

    Thanks for the great additions John…it’s sad to know that’s true, but it is and you provide a good reality check to community leaders about the differences and requirements to address both.

    Thanks for joining the conversation.


  • 9. Jorge Díaz Guzmán (MVP)  |  June 11, 2007 at 7:29 am

    Here in Chile we have a Troll that put some bad words in my blog :S
    He is a psychopathic trolls

  • […] interacting in online communities I strongly recommend you read Sean’s Community Group Therapy Blog.  I have learnt so much from Sean’s […]

  • […] Find ways to encourage the 1 % that love participating. These are the people who will drive your community.  Listen to Sean O’Driscol’s (Manager of Microsoft online communities) share his knowledge on creating thriving online communities and check out Sean’s blog!  […]


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