Nick Mango

What Separates Us From The Trolls

Unless you’ve been living under a System 360 (aka rock) these last few weeks, you know that Michael Arrington, founder of TechCrunch and current venture capitalist, has left TechCrunch (which is now owned by AOL) and started a new blog called Uncrunched. The whole story leading up to this move has been well documented, so going into here on my little old tumblr blog, is probably not necessary, or even that interesting. What I do find interesting is the information one can extract from the very public cross pollination of Arrington’s new blog and TechCrunch’s still active news site. A very odd and completely out of the ordinary thing is going on right now with these two sites. They’re existing as separate entities, but they're promoting each other and trading employees, almost like they’re one entity. For example MG Siegler, one of the main reasons I read TechCrunch, has joined Crunchfund, which is Arrington’s VC firm. Yet he still writes for TechCrunch. Huh? Yeah, I said it was odd. Well, between the promoting and the employee sharing, it makes me think that readers of the old “Michael Arrington” version of TechCrunch, are still reading TechCrunch, but are now reading Uncrunched as well. Why else would they continue to send you back and forth unless it was working? This brings me to the point on my post. Commenting.

Back in March, TechCrunch removed it’s Disqus commenting system and switched over to Facebook commenting. There were many pissed off people. I don’t think I was pissed, more like annoyed. I liked commenting on TechCrunch articles, but since I didn’t have an account with Facebook(or Yahoo, AOL, Hotmail, cause they’re available as well. Yeah I don’t get that either.), I couldn’t do it anymore. In their pros and cons article they stated one of the great things about FB comments was it allowed people to automatically post their comment to their FB page. Which they said was increasing traffic for them. But a week later, they said that it really isn't affecting traffic. Which makes me think most of that autoposting was by accident. To their credit, they did say that adding facebook commenting was not an attempt at getting more traffic, it was about something entirely different. Trolls. Trolls that come to the site just to puke negativity all over the comments area. TechCrunch thought the best way to curb the trolls was to make it more difficult to post anonymously. Anonymity is what TechCrunch believes to be the root of all negativity in the comments area. And in a way they’re right. Sort of.

I’ve had a lot of experience with Trolls over the years. Message boards are obviously still a huge part of independent music. One because they’re free, and two cause they’re very easy to setup. But they do create the ultimate place for anonymous garbage. The interesting part is these people aren’t even anonymous. They have signatures and links to their website, blog, twitter, etc. But they still rev up their feigned ego and take a shit on anyone they feel like. In fact, you could make a completely anonymous post on a message board by creating a fake name, but people don’t. You know why? Because then no one will know it’s them. It’s like playing a joke on an enemy, but not telling anyone. What good is that? The truth is anonymous posting is not the root of the problem, it’s just the fruit the plant bears.

The real reason people are able to consciously shit publicly on news sites like TechCrunch is because of separation. If posting anonymously was the real problem, then a post like the one Arrington released last week would have received the full force of the assholes. Not found? That’s because he deleted it. Let me explain. About a week ago Michael ran a post about an incident that happened on an American Airlines flight, and because of this incident, twitter was block by the airline. Michael got his information from a friend or an acquaintance, I’m not sure which one. But after the story ran, the comments area blew up with a discussion about how this was impossible. It was a hundred intelligent comments, by 40 intelligent people. Then the icing on the cake. The person who gave Michael the info retracted their statement in the comments area. Guess what happened then. The entire comments area ripped Arrington to shreds? Nope, nothing happened. The story just died and I guess seeing that it turned out not to be true, Arrington deleted it. Imagine that story ran on TechCrunch. WOW, it would be chaos. People wouldn’t debate the possibility of this incident happening, they’d tear TechCrunch a new asshole for not fact checking enough. Could people have posted anonymously on Uncrunched? Yep, he uses a wordpress plugin that allows “Guest” comments. So where the hell are the trolls? They’re still in the comments area, but now there’s less separation because only one person is running the blog. It’s just Michael. Insults are directed at him, not an organization. It’s not even that they know who’s behind the curtain. It’s that there is no curtain. On TechCrunch you knew who was behind the curtain. You knew who wrote the column. You knew who ran the company. But you didn’t know the politics behind the story. Who made them write the story. Who’s really at fault. And that’s enough to protect an asshole from embarrassment. On Uncrunched, there’s no protection. It’s just you and Arrington. And that changes the game completely.

Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist and professor at Duke University, did a presentation on a related topic a couple years ago at the Ted Conference (starts at 4:00).

If you haven’t watched it, I’ll summarize some of it for you. Dan wanted to find out what made people cheat, so he gave a test out to a bunch of students and said he’d pay them for every right answer. Most people got 4 answers right. Then he started to let people tell him how many answers they got right, and not bother showing him the test. People suddenly started getting 7 answers right. Then he did a few more versions of this experiment. One was making people swear on the bible, or recite the ten commandments before taking the test. Cheating went down. Then instead of paying them in cash, he gave them tokens which they could exchange for cash. What happened? Cheating doubled. He did a few more interesting experiments using the test, but long story short, what he learned was that people have a moral code, but only when they’re reminded of it. When you put the subject further and further away from what would remind them about their moral code, like for instance giving them tokens instead of cash, they tend to act very different. He gives us a very simple example too. Taking a pencil from work, or taking 10 cents out of the petty cash draw. It’s the same thing, but we don’t think of it that way. It works the same with internet trolls. When you put them further away from face to face contact, they tend to feel like they can say whatever the hell they want. It’s exciting for them. It’s like giving someone the middle finger when they cut you off. Inside your car you feel safe. There’s separation from the outside world. We’re bold and care free. Laymen call it road rage. TechCrunch might call it strength of anonymity. But if you two were outside your car, you’d still be anonymous. Would you give them the finger then? Probably not, since there’s no way to escape without looking like a coward and running for the hills.

So what does all this garbage mean. It means that if TechCrunch and other news sites want less trolls, the solution is not make it more difficult to comment, it’s be more personal with your readers. Remind them about their moral code. Remind them that you are human beings behind that story, not some faceless news organization. I have an experiment. Go back and look at all the guest posts done on your news site and see how much negativity is in the comments. I’ll bet you anything there’s virtually none. Why do you think that is? It’s because they’re a “guest”, and “guests” should be treated with respect. Least that’s what my mom told me.