For years the picture painted of trolls was pretty straightforward: while most members of online communities are good people, there are a few horrible, unchangeable, malicious people called “trolls” who live to make everyone’s life terrible. Our job was to try to keep them out, ban them when they showed up, and sigh and accept that they were an inevitable part of any online community.
What has become clear is that we were wrong; most trolls are regular people.
Two recently released studies have shown that the majority of “troll” behavior is actually generated by normal people who have been triggered into acting negatively, usually through a combination of their own mental state (i.e. having a bad day) and social norms (e.g. seeing other people troll and get away with it).
- The famously toxic League of Legends found that only about 1% of their players were consistently toxic, and those produced only about 5% of the toxicity. “The vast majority was from the average person just having a bad day.”
- Scientists from Cornell and Stanford found that people are more likely to troll if they were in a negative mood, late at night, and if the first comment on a thread was a “troll comment”.
This is a game-changer for several reasons.
One, it means we may have been banning or punishing a large number of normal people who were just doing what they saw others doing. It’s likely that we only reinforced their negative behavior, rather than helping them adjust it.
Two, it means there’s a lot more we can do to prevent trolling. A recent experiment on Reddit found that rule posts stuck to the top of a thread increased rule following by 7.3 percentage points and increased newcomer participation by 38.1%. League of Legends found that some simple priming “reduced negative attitudes by 8.3%, verbal abuse by 6.2% and offensive language by 11%”. Some people are further down the rabbit hole of negativity, but even they may be saved. We are not helpless to decrease trolling, and continuing to act like we are is irresponsible.
Three, it means community managers are even more important in any organization that has an interactive online space. We are no longer just reactive janitors, apologizing for the mess. We can be proactive social designers. (Be sure to go seek out some behavioral psychology books and classes, folks.)
To me, this is extremely exciting. It means our online communities can become more positive, safe places. And it means that our work is far from done. Complacency happens in every industry. The community industry has finally started pushing through our complacency about ROI. Next, let’s tackle trolling.
It’s important that I note that these findings don’t mean there aren’t real, horrible people on the internet. It doesn’t mean we need to put up with harassment just because someone had a bad day. I’m not condoning bad behavior – I’m just optimistic that we can change much of it.