Becoming a troll whisperer

Becoming a troll whisperer

troll-whispererAaron James posits that assholes feel empowered “to enjoy special advantages… out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people.”

On use internet, more people are assholes.

Of course, that’s no new issue. InformationWeek dealt with it in a 2007 article that still gets strong placement in a search on the subject, but it offers no real plan of action.

An even earlier article on ArsTechnica says ignoring the trolls is “certainly good advice if you can reliably detect when someone is trolling.”

I disagree with that. If trolls are bad enough that they deserve to be ignored, they deserve to be banned outright. The others, I believe, should be reasoned with.

If James is right about assholes, (and I’m right to apply his words to internet trolls) the problem with most trolls is a sense of superiority over the people they’re talking to — the people they cannot see on the far side of the Internet.

In normal, offline life people generally expect to hear another person out and to be heard in return. The troll likely expects no response (Based on experience. Look at Yelp reviews, for example. Few businesses respond to the trolls there.) and as such dispenses with any respectful communication strategies that they might use offline.

Simply put, it is easier for people to be assholes online.

Like James says of power in the hands of a corporate asshole, the Internet “brings out the inner asshole, by deadening one’s capacities of empathy and understanding, telling one there is no need to listen.”

I have already conceded that some trolls are irredeemable, but I will argue that is a minority. Given enough time and resources, a customer service-oriented company should approach the majority of trolls as having legitimate complaints. Not doing so means we’ve fallen into the same trap as the troll and allowed a keyboard to dampen our sense of mutual respect.

To be clear, the irredeemable trolls are those who have a clear violent or obscene agenda that is unmistakable at the outset. Other trolls may later fall into this category for being unreasonable, but they should not be put here immediately.

If you feel like you are removing those comments too often, or if a thread is going down and irredeemable path, perhaps the whole group deserves a message according to the same rules of treatment that I believe can guide us through interactions with most individual trolls.

For most trolls, on most sites, I’ve learned a few tricks that I believe will help to turn trolls back into reasonable humans.

Poynter took a stab at writing their own guidelines (also in 2007… wonder why that year keeps coming up?) but I find they are drastically outdated and oversimplified.

My guidelines for being a troll whisperer:

  1. Count to 10 — don’t let your angry reaction be the one that drives your response
  2. Every stranger deserves one reasoned but kind response
  3. While writing your response, try to answer every point of the troll’s original gripe. Leaving things out or ignoring inconvenient questions will reinforce their opinion of a conspiracy.
  4. Don’t promise anything you can’t deliver. This could put you in murky legal waters and could give the troll a new gripe.
  5. Don’t apologize for anything you didn’t do wrong. If you stand by your work or it wasn’t your fault or the allegation is simply untrue, say so kindly but do not submit and apologize. That gives the trolls a feeling of power for the future.
  6. If you did do something wrong, apologize immediately to everyone and even consider giving the troll credit for catching the mistake.
  7. Explain the details of the problem or decision the troll has a problem with. Don’t spare the minutiae because you think they won’t understand. They’re already expecting to be ignored or treated like a lesser person, so a reasonable explanation may throw water on their fire.
  8. Try signing your name. Just as it is easier to be angry at cars on the road ahead than the drivers you can see beside you, it is easier for a troll to be rude to a brand than a person.
  9. Use their name. Show them the response is not canned.
  10. Remember that you don’t have to make them agree with you. The goal is simply to remind them you or the other readers are their equals. From there, reasonable disputes can be worked out.

The last consideration in troll whispering is the resources it requires. I admit they may be substantial, depending on the size of a company’s business. (I can’t imagine doing this job for an airline)

Given infinite time and money, I do think those guidelines above can provide a return on investment. Smaller businesses, however, will have to pick an choose which trolls to respond to. In that situation, I would suggest replying to the biggest and loudest. Use their volume to amplify your own response.

Here is one recent example where the application of the guidelines in a public forum (Facebook) turned a troll into a supporter: