Are you an Internet troll? Or maybe you've just encountered one. No. You've encountered more than one. What can be done about these people? Surely, they can be defeated?
Video game designer Mike Drach thinks some of the Internet's biggest trolls just need a hug, but that is not his sole means of dealing with them. No, he's got 10 tips for dealing with Internet trolls. Ten ways to manage the unmanageable. Ten ways to live with our unruliest Internet neighbors and maybe even love them.
First, never take it personally.
Before we get too into this, though, let's talk about this guy's troll-fighting, advice-giving credentials. Drach is the writer and producer of ForumWarz, a computer game that is all about arguing on message boards. He described the game last week in San Francisco at the Game Developer's Conference, before providing his 10 tips: "You attack people in game forums by flaming them," he said, adding that ForumWarz is "not unlike World of Warcraft with really crappy graphics."
The game has more than 200,000 registered users. Players assume the role of Camwhore, Emo Kid, Noob, Troll or Hacker before battling it out on the fake boards. Most players play as Trolls, not surprisingly, because Drach advertises his game on places like SomethingAwful and 4Chan, sites he describes as "the armpits of the internet." The game's Troll class, he said, "most closely represented the persona of the target audience: basically Internet douchebags."
ForumWarz players have played as Trolls for years and, sure enough, many have turned out to be trolls in their "real" Internet life, too. On ForumWarz's forums, they hacked, they bullied, they cruelly attacked other players and the people making the game. "We were at war with our own players in our forums," Drach said. And its from that battle that his survival tips emerged.
The tips that follow were aimed at game developers, but if you dwell on the Internet or run any blog or message board, I think you'll find ways to make them apply. All of these slides and quotes are from Drach's presentation, which he kindly shared with me.
Tip 1: Be strong. Don't take it personally
"Sometimes the Internet can seem like a very negative place. Everyone gets bashed eventually. The moment you take it personally you've already lost. That negative feedback can just be coming from someone who's been having a bad day or they're just trying to get a rise out of you, or, in our case, they might be role-playing."
Drach said some of his users once banded together to make every message in the ForumWarz forum the word "poop." A tough experience! "In the early days I would get really upset and demoralized and demotivated by that kind of thing. Once you get used to it, you realize that the only way to handle it is to just laugh it off. Get in on the joke, because it is a joke.
"If you show that you are lighthearted, players will enjoy themselves more, and you can concentrate on the important stuff like making your game less crappy."
Tip 2: Don't show any weakness, but don't show off about your lack thereof.
"If users know you are affected by their behavior, it will motivate them to do even more. The worst thing you can do is to appear butthurt in the eyes of their community. According to Urban Dictionary, 'butthurt applies to an inappropriately strong negative emotional response from a perceived personal insult.' Users get off on this response…
"The caveat is don't show off about how unflappable you are. Claiming that your buttocks is not in a state of discomfort will simply make them try harder. At least this was the case with our community, and it got ugly sometimes. Sometimes the best response is just no response at all. And never try to stoop to their level by flaming or trolling or back.
"One strategy is to kill with kindness. Be the sweetest person on earth. Hug a troll today, because their mothers obviously never did."
Tip 3: Choose your mods wisely
"A good mod is like a gift from the heavens. These are true advocates for your brand who often make better decisions than you ever could about your own site… "
Drach said that when his team cast out for mods, they found good ones among their lurkers, non-commenters who are passionate forum members who cared about the community.
Tip 4: Have the right tools
"You need a system in place where people can report problems, flag posts and have means for the mods to confer with each other or fix and escalate the problems."
Drach's team uses a program called Lighthouse to track problems. They also dole out rewards: "You need to make your mods feel important, useful, and appreciated by motivating them often. Give your mods perks by giving them freebies, exclusive privileges and achievement badges—or e-peen, in the formal vernacular—this is a coveted golden banhammer, exceedingly valuable and rare e-peen."
Tip 5: Be timely, but not too timely
"If there's an honest-to-god uproar about some change in gameplay, pricing, features, etcetera, don't wait too long to respond to your community. A lot of the issues will pop up in the most inconvenient of times, like when you're asleep or out on the weekend. If you're an indie developer and you're not moderating your community 24/7, the best you can do is ask your mods to contact you with emergency calls, when an emergency comes up, which might mean giving away your personal e-mail…
"This might sound kind of scummy but don't bee too timely. If you start responding immediately to complaints, your users will expect that all the time."
One more note on the timing of responses: "While your users will have no qualms with drunk-posting, I find that decision-making is badly hampered [if you've had] one drink. So my personal philosophy is don't put anything on the Internet if you've had any alcohol and that includes business e-mails. Your community won't abandon you if you take some time to react and they'll probably forget about it the next day."
Tip 6: Be human, but present a unified front
"Having personality is a good thing because you want your users to empathize with you. Still, you want to present a unified front. That means mods and admins should never appear to argue in public. That weakens your stance...That said, if you've established the routine ahead of time, you can sort of play good cop/bad cop...
"You might want to consider setting up fake moderator accounts and you can post under or share them among numerous mods and this allows you to say things like, 'I thought this tweak was a good idea too, but the admins say there's no time.' And this keeps you from getting into arguments with your users. We never did this but some of our mods said they would have liked to have been able to post under aliases to avoid looking like flunkies Mods seem to be in a position of power and that affects their friendships in the community. "
Tip 7: Let the haters hate
"If your community has tools, give them the opportunity to be themselves... Have a place just for trolls. We split our forums into civil discussion and role-playing sections. These were clearly delineated and different sets of rules. The RP forums were like the wild west where anything goes. The idea is to encourage creativity. Realistically it's a no-go zone where we don't have to read what they say. Plus, if users have serious issues, they can bring it up in civil discussion so that we know they're sincere. "
Tip 8: Throw the book at them
Make rules. Lots of rules. And publish them. "Even if no one reads it don't' be afraid to bombard [users] with unambiguous rules. Be transparent about it. Announce that a decision has been made…and memorize the golden rules because players will call you on the inconsistencies."
Tip 9: Keep your enemies close
"Sometimes you want to keep your enemies close. Let's say you have a particularly offensive troll. [Your first instinct] might be to kick them off the site and ban their IP address… First of all, like I said, be patient. Meditate on it. What's the best way to punish someone?"
He's considered some options: Community ban? (User can play but not communicate), Hellban? (The player thinks they can post but no one actually sees their posts), Gawker Media's disemvoweling? (Note: not available anymore!)
"Sometimes just politely reach out to your players and ask them to stop. You'd be surprised about how effective this can be. "
Tip 10: Don't underestimate your users
They will try to screw with you. But it's mostly harmless.
"Just remember that they're vocal, but a minority. Most of your players love your game and your community, they just haven't bothered to say so. You want to jiu-jitsu those energies and channel them into something positive. "
Drach's concluding words of encouragement for those who are bedeviled by Internet trolls: "Hug your trolls and you might find that they give you way more than they take away. And also remember that you can't satisfy everyone. Even if you give them everything they ever asked for, wonderful impossible things, like a pony—a pony that shoots chainsaws out of its mouth—this is clearly the greatest thing in the world. And we gave it to our users and they still found things to complain about. 'Why is it purple?' 'This game sucks.'
"Gamers are fickle, demanding people, and when when it is all said and done, community management is the unpredictable roller-coaster of drama on the Internet. Just do the best you can and don't let them get you down. If they're still there and bothering to engage you, it's because they still care."
A couple of days after Drach gave this presentation I ran into him at a party. I asked him how things were and he mentioned that some of his users laughed when they heard about his presentation. We followed up again over e-mail, because I wanted to know how bad the backlash was. Not too bad, it turns out: "There wasn't as much of a backlash as I expected," he told me, "although one player (who had to be banned for using a racial slur in Civil Discussion) suggested that I was indeed butthurt about something. Pretty much the expected reaction, but I think deep down they're grudgingly impressed that we got to take the stage at GDC."
Thanks to Mike Drach for his slides and insights. And good luck to him for wanting to "wikify a game community code of conduct (contact him on Twitter if you want to help). Or... just go play ForumWarz.