Monday, September 24, 2007

Trolls, Civility, and the Right to Challenge the Status Quo

My friend Adam Tinworth, who blogs at One Man and his Blog recently wrote about Andrew Keen's The Cult of the Amateur, and mentioned how some folks call Keen a "troll"---"Well, here's the thing. Many people on the leading edge of the Web 2.0 movement think we should ignore Mr Keen and his polemic about the horrific consequences for our culture of participatory web culture. "He's just a troll," they cry. "Don't feed him."...The problem is that he's far from alone in his views..."

Now, I've heard this myself about Keen--and other than the fact that he's not a tall guy, Keen really isn't a "troll" in the true and traditional Internet community use of the word.

Quite frankly, the term is nowadays being thrown around far too loosely and is being used--along with the "incivility" argument--as a way of silencing disagreement or challenge to thought of bloggers we may find ourselves in disagreement with.

It seems that now, we should only say Nice Things all the time. We must only post comments in agreement--there is no room for Calling It Like It Is...because this is "Incivil" and "troll-like" behavior...

Now, let's get back to clarifying the troll thing.

If you've spent any significant time online, in the pre-"social media" and pre-Sierra Affair days, you'd know that a "troll" was an entity--not a person--who'd come on to a newsgroup or message board or a blog or anywhere where people would gather. There were several ways to know a troll. The first, and most glaringly obvious, is that a troll will never post under his/her real name. Trolls are usually anonymous or pseudonymous Back in The Day when *everyone* used a screen name, telling a troll took a bit of time. If you were a regular part of a community, even a "newbie" could look like a troll. That's part of why there has been so much debate over the years over anonymous comments and transparency (yes, some of it has to do with credibility, but it also has to do with troll-slaying.)

Yet now, even if people are signing real name posts that question or challenge a fellow blogger, they, like Andrew Keen, can find themselves called a "troll." When they are clearly NOT a troll--as in the traditional sense of the word--because they are bothering to reveal their true identity. (please note that there are still a preponderance of anonymous or pseudonymous trolls--it takes awhile to understand a troll in context and syntax. most people just haven't had the requisite amount of time online or in communities to understand these subtleties. hence it makes it so easy to call someone a "troll" who isn't.)

What a "snarky commenter" is, then, doing is challenging the thought of the person who made the post. This person may take serious umbrage over being challenged. Many people cannot handle a challenge (even some very high profile people--who seem to be getting far more sensitive these days) and are now resorting to either calling others "trolls" or claiming "you're being incivil!"

Therefore, the most important reason we should not throw the "t" word around is that it will eventually inhibit discourse. It will create more and more echo chambers because no one will be able to say anything Not Nice. The result will be that we'll have more and more people claiming that blogs are echo chambers--now, with proof that they're echo chambers.

Just because no one disagrees with you doesn't mean everybody thinks your right.

If we cannot disagree with someone's blog post without being called a troll (or without getting attacked, or called incivil, as what happened to me recently) then we're in serious trouble.

So, Andrew Keen isn't a troll--but he is challenging the happy-happy-joy-joy status quo of Silicon Valley. If we don't like what he says, we don't have to link to him, nor to post about him. But he's not a "troll."

Now that we've got that cleared up, I'd like to move on to Aldon Hynes' post letting the catchy and snarky become the enemy of the good”. In the post, Aldon writes why he's taking a break from the political blogosphere:
It [the phrase that is the title of the post] reflects part of the reason I’m spending more time napping on my porch overlooking Fountain Street and less time engaged in some of the hand-to-hand verbal combat in the political blogs. There are some great masters of catchiness and snarkiness in the political blogosphere. Yet I also worry that many of the let their catchiness and snarkiness get in the way moving their causes forward...

Yet Aldon is also concerned with the First Amendment fate of Avery Doninger, a Burlington, CT high school student who was not allowed to run for senior class secretary because she called administrators "douchebags". Is it really criminal to call an administrator a "douchebag" on your blog (which, btw, even on LiveJournal, is public information)? So far, the judges think so. But Norm Pattis points out on his blog post that it wasn't necessarily the use of the word "douchebag" inasmuch as "she appears to have violated a school policy about civility and the proper means of working out disagreements with administrators. And in part because her off-campus speech had an impact on school activities."

So, Avery Doninger challenged the status quo in a rather inelegant manner, actually got a rise out of some fellow students (ah! the keyboard is mightier than the sword!")was deemed "incivil," and silenced.

I guess, then, that Florida law enforcement was justified when that douchebag of a student who dared challenge John Kerry was brutally tasered for his "incivility" towards a public figure....

Actually, I never thought being an ass in public was a crimial--or torturable--offense. But, I guess in a "civilized" world, Order is more important than challenging a public figure.

Which leads me back to some criticisms I've been dealt lately. When I posted a serious (post lost due to Blogger error)

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