Don’t Feed the Trolls, or Be One

Last week, I posted this hilarious article on my facebook page, a critical analysis of the deterioration of a comment thread for a rainbow cake tutorial posted on an Australian Radio Show’s website. What started as helpful tips and clarifications devolved into an outright combox culture war.

Getting a little worked-up here, folks. It’s rainbow cake. Can’t we just be happy that we’ve learned to freeze our numbers first?

Rainbow-Cake Recipe Inspires Comment Apocalypse

… “Facebook balls”?

Rainbow-Cake Recipe Inspires Comment Apocalypse

The infinite regress: It begins!

Rainbow-Cake Recipe Inspires Comment Apocalypse

Yes, lmaooooooo indeed, but you’re not really helping things, guys.

Rainbow-Cake Recipe Inspires Comment Apocalypse

Gavrilo Pincip: [shoots Archduke Ferdinand]

Archduke Ferdinand: [dies]

Jeanette Daniels Benziger: “I enjoy this motorcade and will recommend it to my niece.”

I’m sorry, Jeanette, but it’s far too late for this kind of sentiment.

(Read the rest here)

But that was just the tip of the iceberg. 500 comments later, a commenter actually blamed Obama for the entire thread

Honestly, this post had me in stitches because it was so funny, and so true. Anyone with an internet connection has a seen a comment thread self-destruct like this. I’ve had some doozies on my own blog, but I’ve always been glad that mine usually stay somewhat on topic.

That is, until the next day, when I posted a few controversial links on my facebook page. It was a Tuesday, or a Thursday or something, and I was bored. Apparently so was every else, because one of the comment threads became a tsunami of shark-jumping. After 253 comments containing ad homimen attacks, personal insults, random segueways into the culture wars, images of sewing patterns, and one epic breakdown by yours truly (that had almost nothing to do with the topics being discussed, so it fit in perfectly, really), Elisa won the internet by saying, “Yeah, but how long do I freeze the cake for?”

It was perfect comic timing, and like all the funniest jokes, it was true enough to snap everyone in the thread back to reality.

I was frustrated later that I had lost several hours to that thread, hours that I had planned to spend blogging and baking bread. But I don’t think I would have been as frustrated if an actual dialogue had happened. Instead, a bunch of people did exactly what I had done in the first place, and just started throwing opinions at each other with rapidly increasing vitriol until pretty much everyone left the thread angry, offended, mashed-up and hurt.

Facebook is basically a blank canvas. All social media is. It’s called media because like television, newspapers, and radio, it is a one of the main means of mass communication. It’s specifically social media, though, because it’s designed so that the users themselves are the ones who create and share content. There are endless studies about how social media is making us self-absorbed, envious, rude, and stupid. But it’s ludicrous to blame programs that merely provide forums for social interaction for the way that interaction takes place. Not everyone is using social media to go ballistic in cake-baking comment threads, and those who are can’t blame the medium for giving them the opportunity to show that they are self-absorbed, envious, rude, and stupid.

The thing is, it’s not that easy. One of the reasons people act like total sociopaths in comment threads is because it doesn’t seem like you’re talking to a real person. Mentally, sure, we know there’s a person behind those words that keep appearing, but that’s not the same thing as looking that person in the eye. Face-to-face interaction is fundamentally different, because there are a thousand ways we communicate without words. A raised eyebrow, a wry smile, a wink, a nod, a tear even, and those are just the face alone. What about leaning back and folding your arms? Gesticulating wildly, wringing your hands, or touching the other person? How you touch, too…a touch on the shoulder to communicate empathy, a punch in the shoulder for mock disapproval, bracing someone’s shoulders with both hands to help them get a grip. Even a slap can have its place in human interaction, and can be something other than abusive.

But calling a faceless stranger a “bitch” or a “fag” can never be anything but abusive. You don’t have to see their face when you call someone that online. You don’t have to see the hurt, and we all know from experience that it’s really easy to cover up hurt by typing a biting retort. You can hurt back, and no one ever has to face the actual human being on the other end.

It doesn’t have to be like that. It’s true that social media cannot be the same thing as personal interaction, and will probably always be at least a little bit more vicious because of it. But at the same time, social media really is nothing but what we make of it.

I usually try to remember that there are people on the other end, people with their own struggles and their own pain. I find it much harder to bear that in mind when they do not seem inclined to do the same. Even then, there is often a commonality of communication that is missing…the person that seems not to care about the effect his or her words are having is usually just accustomed to pugnacious, boisterous arguments in which everyone understands that nothing is personal. But for the sake of others, that sort of thing cannot be taken for granted online. Social media will be contentious until every person using it can take into account that the person on the other end likely comes from a totally different background, where even just the words being used mean something different. Add into that all the unseen gestures, the missing facial expressions, and the human connection of eye contact, and it seems that social media requires totally different rules of engagement. Honesty and clarity are not enough to have a conversation with someone…you need to throw in a good dose of gentleness, extreme care in word choice, and charity that often seems beyond the bounds of necessity. You have to lower your own defenses and force yourself to consider the other person’s intentions.

But here’s another thing: none of that heroic effort will matter at all unless both parties (or all parties) are engaging in a conversation in good faith. The Ogre came up with a simple, effective litmus test for that: the two-comment limit. In any thread, on facebook, Twitter, or blogs, you allow yourself two comments. The first, to state your position as clearly as you can; the second, to clarify any misconceptions. That’s it.

If the conversation is going to be a fruitful one, questions from other people will follow that will make you think. You can answer, or ask a question of your own, and begin to actually communicate.

But if your two comments are followed by someone stating their own case and (either implicitly or explicitly) telling you why you’re wrong, the conversation isn’t a conversation at all.

It’s just people throwing opinions at each other, and it won’t end until it’s become a vitriolic battle to see who can shout the loudest, or insult the best. This is where that “like” function becomes so insidious…the “likes” that pile up are essentially the crowds egging you on, until social media becomes nothing more than a bloodthirsty spectator sport, the internet’s equivalent of the Coliseum.

Human beings have proven over and over that we have a taste for blood sports. The baser parts of our nature like to see someone else defeated, no matter the cost, if it means we come out on top. Social media by its very nature can be a great enabler of the human instinct for domination, since it is missing the crucial component of physical interaction. But it doesn’t have to be. In the end, what facebook and Twitter and comment sections the internet over look like is up to us. We literally create it, and we can create for ourselves a haven or a hell. But we each of us have to make the choice — first, to comment in good faith, and second, to refuse to engage with those who don’t. One bad troll can spoil the bunch. And after all, unless we unplug, we’re the ones who have to live in it.


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