Stay Classy, PennLive

Jersey Mike posted an outstanding comment today that I wanted to call out for the attention it deserves.  You can read the entire comment here, but the part that I really want to point out follows:

One: don’t be disappointed in the people who wrote negative comments about this story. You, as a PN employee, should take this issue up with the higher ups because the “Comment” sections of this site and the forums are CHRONICALLY littered with negativity. If there are ten items posted in a day, you can bet your bottom dollar that nine of them will have diatribes from armchair quarterbacks who know all of the answers but have no other outlet than an unmoderated and anonymity-encouraging site to express themselves on.

This has been a MAJOR issue with the Advance Media sites for some time now. So, essentially, if you’re going to take the comments about Mayor Twelve Percent’s son to heart, you must view all of the other comments equally the same.

If you’ve ever been to PennLive, you know that any given story — no matter how innocuous — will generate an avalanch of trolling.

For those not familiar with the term (which I’m assuming is a fairly high number, given how effective it is in this area), “trolling” refers to posting content that is deliberately false, defamatory, offensive, or otherwise defective in the hopes of invoking an emotional or spirited response from others.

It’s an epidemic on the Advance sites (Advance is the for-profit corporation that oversees PennLive and a slew of other identical newspaper sites).  Read through any given story with more than a dozen comments, and you’ll see it.

Someone blaming Obama for a traffic accident?  That’s trolling.

Someone posting a false dichotomy of either ignoring the homeless or handing tax dollars to crackheads?  That’s trolling.

Someone using barely-veiled racism like “that’s what you get for electing one of THEM”?  That’s trolling.

In no case does a troll actually believe what s/he’s saying.  Nor do they care about your well-crafted response in which you dismantle their position point-by-point.  They just want you to post, and ideally, to post furiously.

Why?  Who knows.  Trolls have been around since long before the days of the web, when Usenet dominated online social circles.  Most of us learn to ignore them.  And most websites maintain active moderators to shut them down.

Sites like Digg, Fark, Slashdot, and The Awful Forums — all of which see more posts in 60 seconds than PennLive sees in a day — all maintain fleets of unpaid, volunteer moderators.  For the sake of making the community better, they patrol the threads, deleting comments with no redeeming value.  The important distinction here is that posters can disagree with each other all they like, but the moment the comments become uncivil, unintelligent, or blatantly trolltastic, the post gets axed and the user gets a probation (posting privileges suspended for xx hours).

To negate the users who create accounts just to argue with themselves (yes, trolls really do this), some sites ban new accounts from posting for the first 24-48 hours after signing up.

So why doesn’t Advance media do any of this on their sites?  I have a few theories.

  • It’s profitable not to.  When you come back to the site to argue with that guy who just called Bush the antichrist with indisputable theological evidence that this is not the case, PennLive’s traffic goes up a notch, which in turn allows them to charge higher advertising rates.  Arguing with trolls is just good for business.
  • They can’t afford to.  Even though most moderators are unpaid volunteers, Advance might be in such dire financial straits that losing the spike described above may kill them.
  • They (Advance employees) are doing it.  It wouldn’t be the first time that a content provider shilled itself for the sake of traffic.  And, see the above two points.
  • They don’t want to.  Really, why should they care?  As long as they’re under contract with the Patriot-News (and other newspapers), what motivation do they have to care about the quality of their content?
  • They’re misinformed.  There’s a long-standing misconception that editing a poster’s comment makes the hosting party (in this case, Advance and/or the Patriot) responsible for the content of that comment.  Over the last few years, numerous court cases have established solid precedent that this is not the case.  Editing or deleting comments falls under “fair use” and does not alter the protections afforded under Section 230 of the CDA.

Nothing infuriates a troll like a lack of responses.  And nothing’s funnier than a troll having a meltdown because nobody’s listening to him.  Oh sure, there will be a few posts where the troll smugly believes that he’s “won” agreement because nobody bothered to argue his post that Linda Thompson’s son is secretly responsible for the sinking of the Titanic.  But after a few ignored posts, he will cry.  And he will leave.

I’m all for heated debate and spirited conversations.  Conflicting viewpoints mixed with passionate discourse can make fascinated reading.  And from time to time, they can even inspire a reader to see things in a different light by exposing him or her to ideas they haven’t seen before.

But when a user responds to a story about a kidnapping with “how’s that hope & change working out for u liberals” and gets five dozen responses, that’s just mighty successful trolling.

2 thoughts on “Stay Classy, PennLive”

  1. Well said, some smart analysis here about the unfortunate existence of trolls. Pennlive is certainly thick with them, and it’s comical to see all the negativity that flows from the lightest and cheeriest stories.

    We need volunteers to police pennlive trolls, need it need it.

  2. It’s my belief that the newspaper sites don’t police their comments because they feel they don’t need to. It’s really bad when you get better discussion and interaction from sites like Fark than you do on the original site.

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