Troll Tolerance

Eliezer Yudkowsky offers an argument for tolerating dissent:

Wait until substantially after it seems to you justified in ejecting a member from the group, before actually ejecting. If you get rid of the old outliers, the group position will shift, and someone else will become the oddball.

It’s the articulate trolls that you should be wary of ejecting, on this theory – they serve the hidden function of legitimizing less extreme disagreements. But you should not have so many articulate trolls that they begin arguing with each other, or begin to dominate conversations. If you have one person around who is the famous Guy Who Disagrees With Everything, anyone with a more reasonable, more moderate disagreement won’t look like the sole nail sticking out.

His analogy starts with cults or theories whose adherents become more fanatical after having been proven wrong. All the sane and moderate people left. I am considering how this applies to blogs, forums, and games.

I moderate blog comments very lightly. I cannot recall deleting a comment based on its content, even directly insulting ones. Tell me how very wrong I am. (I do have an undying hatred of bot spam, and I covet moderator access to other blogs just to delete the eighty posts advertising Chinese viagra.) The worst political blogs tend to delete and ban opposing views, often with a special hatred for heretics over heathens.

Many forums are fairly tolerant. A worry is that prolific posters will drive off the loyal opposition. If no one is there to protect the Devil’s Advocate, you quickly arrive at an echo chamber. Gresham’s Law applies to forum posts, a process sped by moderators who wish to eliminate voices of dissent. This is rather common on our gaming forums, and it tends to drive games into niches, blind alleys, and failure. Reference Vanguard or what happens whenever Lum comments on PvP games (over 400 comments on those links right there).

Finally, we have the games themselves. If the forum cartel is successful, it can lead to the silent majority’s wandering off as the game changes, and forum feedback rises to orgasmic bliss as the game simultaneously approaches perfection and sheds all those whiners.

PvP games have the problem of losing sheep. If you can win, someone will win, and very few want to join the losing team. Being the underdog is only fun if you can win upon occasion. If new players get crushed or must endure 60 levels of ganking before they can pretend to be competitive, the game eats its young. Maybe the rulers of the empty empire can fall to fighting each other.

Small games have had problems with a favored in-group. WoW is too big for cliquishness to matter much, but a server or game with 1000 paying customers can be dominated by a small core, particularly if some resources can be monopolized. If you need a group to advance or need access to a controlled area, being an outcast means you should just find a new game. Did I mention that you only have 1000 paying customers? How many can you afford to lose?

This problem is worse when the GMs can play favorites. I will not cite games, since I am in no mood to verify which accusations were fair, but there are certainly cases where developers favored one faction, gave their friends items, or passed along inside information. Some accusations are unfounded and some abuses are tolerated, but you can set off a death spiral that costs you a large chunk of your playerbase.

If your game is your own private sandbox, maybe you can afford to crush the ants who will not tunnel where you like. If your blog exists for your personal aggrandizement, go ahead and remove the nattering fools. If you are trying to make a commercial success or work towards useful ideas, however, coherent opposition is a rare and valuable resource that must be protected and nurtured.

Of course, crush spam and useless trolls. But are you sure you can tell the difference between trolls and intelligent people who disagree with you?

: Zubon

3 thoughts on “Troll Tolerance”

  1. Coincidentally, my handle is “Coherent”. Maybe I should change it to “Coherent Opposition” after reading that next-to-last paragraph.

    Other similarities apply. I tend to respond with a low modicum of tact when I have an issue with a post or commenter. I don’t intentionally flamebait, but if someone is being stupid or missing an iceberg looming over their argument, I will forcefully point it out. I noticed this personality trait in myself a long time ago; I suppose it’s a product of the blog conversation process in which 95% of all blog comments are completely ignored by the participants, as opposed to a face-to-face discussion where responses are mandated.

    So I fit the description of the intelligent troll. Not surprisingly, I completely agree with your interpretation. You simply can NOT get rid of the intelligent responses who happen to irritate you. They represent the voice of opposition, and without them, conversation and intellectual exchange will quickly die. Even irritating people get things done.

    Of course, irritating people need to find consensus as well, so this doesn’t excuse the people who DO descend into flamebaiting, no matter how articulate. The point of a discussion is to present viewpoints, reconcile methodology, then come to an acceptable compromise that addresses the concerns of all participants. If you argue against _everything_, even a possible solution to the problems you’re arguing about, then out with you. You’re flame bait and not to be tolerated.

    Sometimes it’s a tough decision. But you need to have a thick skin to moderate successfully. Even people you don’t like are sometimes valuable contributors.

  2. I think the responsibility falls on the commenter to distinguish himself between trolling and intelligent commenting. If the moderator is not sure whether the comment in question is legit or a troll, it should probably just be deleted.

    It’s entirely possible to disagree or raise a different point of view without resorting to trolling. If, in disagreeing, you come so close to trolling that people aren’t sure whether or not it was a legit comment, then you just became guilty of trolling.

  3. The problem there is that censoring becomes a method of work reduction for the moderator. By not allowing an opposing viewpoint to spark debate, the moderator has significantly reduced the number of posts they have to scan for actual trolling. If called into question, they can just call trolling on the spark post.

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