Dealing with Trolls

A few comments from experience.

I just finished writing a pretty lengthy article about blog comment moderation for Maria’s Guides, the site where I’m putting most of my tech content these days. The piece, which will appear tomorrow, has a lot of tips and advice for bloggers.

But it also touches on the topic of Internet trolls — you know, those people who use the veil of anonymity to disrupt forums and blog comment threads with offensive, controversial, or off-topic commentary, mostly to get a rise out of other commenters.

Trolls aren’t new. In the old days, we referred to them as flamers and the exchanges that resulted from their behavior were flame wars.

I’ve dealt with trolls and people who just don’t have any courtesy at all on this site and elsewhere. I have since learned and confirmed that the only way to deal with trolls and other offensive commenters is to (1) prevent them from having a voice on my blog, (2) ignoring them on other blogs/forums, and (3) in extreme cases, avoiding blogs/forums where they comment.

In other words, ignore them and they will go away.

June 30, 2014 Update
I’ve finally gotten around to writing up the site comment policy on a regular page (rather than post) on this site. You can find it here: Comment Policy.

You would not believe some of the crap people attempt to post on this blog. “Offensive” is putting it mildly sometimes. But I have a strict comment policy — thanks to the abuse I put up with in the past — and I stick to it. Post a comment that violates the site comment policy and your comment will never be seen by anyone on this site.

What does this do? Well, the casual troll who doesn’t come back to reel in his victims doesn’t even notice that his comment has been deleted. And since the offensive comment never appeared, no one replies in kind or in defense of what was said. No more trolling, no flame war.

The hard-core trolls — those folks who actually use their offensive comments to get under people’s skin and then feed upon the responses — they do notice that their comments didn’t appear. Sometimes they try again. Other times they complain in a comment or in email. Sometimes they get even more offensive. Guess what? I delete that crap, too. And after a while — after they have wasted minutes or even hours and days of their pitiful lives trying to cause trouble here — they give up and go away.

Yes: Ignore them and they’ll go away.

After all, there’s always other more fertile ground for their efforts: blogs and forums that aren’t moderated by people who care.

Result: there are no trolls here. This blog remains a civil discourse zone.

Now, apparently there are a handful of bloggers who doubt the “ignore them and they’ll go away” concept. These people have evidently spent too much time on blogs where trolls are allowed — or perhaps even encouraged — and have likely been victimized. Some of these people have also been contacted by email and offended there. These people have begun speaking up, whining and complaining on their blogs and elsewhere. They seem to think that we somehow need to fight back against trolls — perhaps by stooping to their level and getting just as offensive in our responses.

Each time these people post one of their whining complaints against trolling they are feeding the trolls. That’s right. They’re just letting the trolls know that their offensive comments are hitting their marks and giving them plenty of ammunition to keep up the trolling.

I maintain that the best way to fight back against trolls is to…well, I already said it above. Do I really need to repeat it here?

Get a grip, folks. This isn’t high school. Stop acting like it is.

Comments? Let ‘em rip. Just remember the Site Comment Policy. I take it seriously here.

Update: @Beeclef on Twitter shared this link. Very funny.

Internet Trolls Impress NOBODY

Sound familiar?

I think the second and fourth panels on this excellent comic strip by Scott Meyer can easily be applied to Internet trolls — you know, the dickwads who always have something nasty to say in online forums and in comment threads. Do read the whole thing to get the full message.

How to Impress NOBODY

Image embedded with the author’s permission.

Battling Comment Spam

An interesting — but unfortunate — statistic from this site.

One of the biggest challenges to bloggers who allow comments on their blogs — other than dealing with immature, know-it-all asses who can’t write a civil sentence — is comment spam. It generally comes from three sources:

  • Automated spambots that are programmed to post comments on blogs. This accounts for more than 90% of the comment spam out there.
  • Real people who manually post comments that promote their products, services, or websites.
  • Pingbacks from blogs built by scraping content from other blogs, primarily to attract hits to other links on their pages.

I wrote about comment spam extensively on my Maria’s Guides site when I was regularly providing fresh content about WordPress. If you’re a blogger, you might find the following posts there interesting:

Spam vs. Ham on An Eclectic MindWordPress’s anti-spam tool, Akismet, does an excellent job of catching and filtering out spam so I don’t really need to see it at all. It also provides statistics about comments. This morning, while looking at these stats, I discovered that a full 98% of all comments posted on this blog are spam — or about 4,000 to 10,000 spam comments a month — leaving only 2% as legitimate comments (or “ham,” a term used by Akismet).

If this percentage is about the same on all blogs, it’s easy to see why so many bloggers elect to either turn the commenting feature off or require registration for commenting. (Note that registration doesn’t always help; some spambots can also register an account and then manual intervention is required to identify and delete those accounts.)

Comments are moderated here for two reasons:

  • Aksimet doesn’t catch all spam. It misses, on average, about 10 spam comments a month.
  • Akismet can’t identify abusive comments.

I have a zero tolerance approach to spam and abusive commenters and don’t want to see any of it on this blog. So I manually review all the comments that Akismet approves before allowing them to appear on this blog.

June 30, 2014 Update
I’ve finally gotten around to writing up the site comment policy on a regular page (rather than post) on this site. You can find it here: Comment Policy.

(If you believe that deleting comments is censorship or somehow violates your freedom of speech, read this and this.)

Personally, I’d like to see a higher percentage (and number) of legitimate comments on this blog. I like when good conversations get going among readers. I can think of two posts offhand where reader comments have added real value to what I’ve written: “The Helicopter Job Market” and “Why Groupon is Bad for Business…and Consumers.” I write from experience and my experiences are limited. When readers share their own thoughts based on their experiences, they provide more information for other readers to draw upon. They help round out a discussion. And as long as they don’t get rude or abusive to me or other commenters — or are obviously commenting to promote their own product or service (i.e., spamming) — I don’t care if they disagree. Intelligent, civil debate based on facts is encouraged.

But while comment spam is obviously a serious problem for all bloggers that allow comments on their blogs, I have it well under control here.

Blog for Your Readers, Not for Yourself

It simply isn’t fair to expect your blog’s visitors to jump through hoops to see your content or share their comments.

Yesterday, I followed a link to a Web site I often visit and read a blog post I wanted to comment on. I filled in the form and was faced with a series of options, all of which would eventually require me to set up an account with the blogger’s current choice of comment platform: Livefyre. I didn’t want an account on yet another commenting platform, so I simply didn’t leave a comment.

I should note a few things here. It was this same blog and blogger that was using Disqus, another commenting platform, a few years back. I wanted to comment and set up a Disqus account. Since then, Disqus has become relatively popular and I use the account a few times a week.

(It wasn’t always like that. I distinctly remember the hassle that followed my Disqus account setup when the system kept sending me email messages every time someone else commented on a post I’d commented on. It took a lot of digging to figure out how to turn off that feature — which I’d never turned on. As for Livefyre, it seemed impossible to post a comment yesterday without giving Livefyre permission to post on my behalf on Twitter or Facebook or use my e-mail address for some other purpose I didn’t want but had no choice but to authorize.)

Of course, I still don’t understand why a blogger doesn’t simply use the commenting feature that’s part of a WordPress installation. That’s what I use here. It’s pretty straightforward: enter your name, e-mail address, website (optional), and comment. If the comment passes muster with my spam prevention software, it’s held for moderation by me. If I approve it, it appears. If I don’t, it’s trashed. I could, of course, require each and every commenter to open an account on this blog, but I really don’t think it’s necessary to make them take that extra step. It’s bad enough that they may have to wait for their comment to appear.

And that brings up the topic of this post: requiring blog readers to do something special just for you so they can see or interact with your blog’s content. I’m talking about requiring an account on an obscure commenting system just because you like it. Or inserting content that depends on a specific plugin or Web browser to view. Or requiring someone to create an account or log in just to read a post. (Don’t get me started on paywalls.)

It’s just not right.

Face it: there are tens of thousands of blogs out there and, if you’re an average blogger, half of them are going to be better than yours. Why would you make your blog readers do something special just to read/reply to your blog? Do you really think it’s fair to have them jump through hoops just for you?

I don’t.

If you’re a serious blogger with content you want to share with the biggest possible audience, stop putting up roadblocks or hurdles for readers. Make content easy to find and read. And yes, that does mean not splitting posts into multiple parts, forcing readers to click through multiple pages to read one post. It also means not littering your blog with obnoxious and distracting ads that make it difficult to find content among blinking, flashing, or animated trash. And content that requires plugins to see is likely to be seen only by the few people who have those plugins or are willing to install them.

If you want feedback from blog readers in the form of comments that can start valuable conversations and build a blog community, stop making it difficult for them to post a comment. Not everyone is happy about setting up accounts all over the Web — especially accounts with third party services that might use contact information for their own purposes.

So who do you blog for? Yourself? Or your readers? Look at your blog from their perspective. Is your content worth the bother of jumping through the hoops you’ve set up for readers?

If there’s any question, maybe it’s time to rethink your priorities. It just might help get your blog a bigger audience and the kind of reader interaction that sets good blogs apart from the rest of the pack.

There IS Such a Thing as Too Much Business

When that business is being conducted at a loss.

I’ve been deeply involved in the Groupon debate for the past few days.

Earlier in the summer, I’d bought a Groupon from a Twitter friend and had used it to buy some jewelry at half price. Later, in August, I was approached by a Groupon clone company and got the details on what they really cost a small business. I did some math, realized it would never work for my business, and blogged about it .

Only a week or two later, I heard a story on NPR about Groupon in which a friend of mine with a business similar to mine was interviewed. He seemed to say positive things in the interview. When I called him, he gave more concrete information that didn’t seem too positive. I spent half a day crunching the numbers again and still couldn’t see how Groupon could benefit me.

I put that aside and got on with my life.

Back into the Debate

Yesterday, my attention was captured by a story on Plagiarism Today about a photographer who had been caught apparently passing off professional photographers’ images as hers on her Web site. The whole thing blew up in her face when she offered a 1-hour portrait sitting with print and CD of images for $65 through Groupon. She’d sold over 1,000 of these — far more than any photographer could complete in a year — when someone pointed out that photos on her Web site belonged to other photographers. She attempted to say that her site was hacked, but it was pointed out that the same photos also appeared on her Facebook page. Then her site and Facebook page went down; when her site reappeared it had a collection of crap photos that my mother could have taken with a Kodak 110 camera. (My mother is a horrible photographer.)

If you’re interested in seeing how the situation developed, read the comments from the Groupon thread, which were preserved by Petapixel after Groupon cancelled the offer, refunded the money, and deleted the thread. (A little too late to put out that fire.)

This story was picked up by many other sites, including TechCrunch. Their focus was on the ability of a business to effectively service Groupon customers, Groupon’s apparent failure to properly vet the services it features, and the hardship incurred by at least one Groupon merchant, Posie’s Diner. Since I’ve always thought that the Groupon model could be potentially harmful to a small business merchant using their service to advertise, I went to the Posie’s Diner blog post and read the story. It’s an honest and rather sad account by the restaurant owner who wound up having difficulties meeting payroll expenses while accepting the Groupons she’d sold. Each one had a face value of $13 but she’d received only $3 for each one. That meant she’d have to sell $13,000 of product for only $3,000 in revenue. The blog post explains the other related problems, which are mostly customer related.

Some Commenters Are Jerks

To make it clear, Posie’s Diner does not blame Groupon. She admits she made a mistake and takes full responsibility for it. But that didn’t stop the usual bunch of jerks from making nasty comments on her blog post. This one really pissed me off:

Businesses that complain about too much business should not be in business.

Wow. This guy needs to get a clue. If every sale you make comes at a loss, then even one sale is “too much business.”

That’s the situation I would have faced if I went with the Groupon clone — or Groupon. My margins are so low that I’d lose money on every single sale. I didn’t need that kind of business. No business does.

Is Groupon a Problem?

I admit that I resent the idea of a company making money off my hard work while I lose money on deeply discounted sales. Posie’s might have made a mistake going with Groupon, but it’s a mistake they won’t make again. I just won’t make that mistake at all.

To be fair, I read both good and bad comments all over the Web about Groupon from both merchants and customers. Clearly, there are possibilities for using the service with success. I just can’t figure out what they could be for my business. But there’s also a lot of pain in the Groupon model: the financial hardship of businesses with too many Groupon sales, the difficulty for customers being able to redeem Groupon goods and services due to crowds and overbookings.

Back to the “Photographer”

The idiot “photographer” who unknowingly pulled me back into the Groupon debate is truly a fool. Not only did she commit fraud when attempting to use other photographers’ work as examples of her own to sell her services, but she sold far more Groupons than she could ever expect to accept. If she hadn’t been revealed as a scammer in time to cancel the sale, she likely would have been out of business before long. After all, she was making less than $35 on each hour-long session at a client’s home. Between transportation costs and materials costs, she would have been in the red from day one. Would 1,700 sales at only $35 each have been “too much business” for her? I think so.

Then, when customers starting seeing the dismal quality of her work, would Groupon have refunded their money? And what would they have done when the fraud claims starting coming in and Groupon was called out for not properly vetting the offer?

Or maybe she was a true scammer who never planned to do any Groupon work. Perhaps she planned to just take the money and run.

Clearly, there’s some kind of problem with Groupon that needs attention. I’ll continue to watch from the sidelines. But I certainly won’t be giving Groupon any business in any form.