Taming the Trolls: Dealing with Negative Blog Comments

The key to a great blog is a great community. Readers return to a blog if they believe their comments are valued, and if they receive value from the comments of others. This interactivity is one of the things that sets blogs apart from traditional media, one of the things that makes them more valuable.

But it’s easy to lose control of a blog. One rotten apple can spoil the bunch. One negative commenter, one jerk, one asshole can drag down the level of conversation. When this happens, readers can — and do — leave.

A Taxonomy of Trolls

I’ve been blogging for over eight years now, three of them at Get Rich Slowly. I’ve been on the Internet for 16 years, and in online discussion forums (or BBSes) for almost 25. Dealing with jerks and assholes is just part of online communication.

That said, it can be tough to take when this sort of negative vibe infiltrates a community that you run. When it’s elsewhere on the Internet, it’s fine. But in your own yard? Not so much. I’m fortunate at GRS that I rarely have Negative Nellys squawking and complaining. All the same, they do appear from time-to-time.

There’s a fellow named Dean, for example, who appears every few months to leave a new nasty comment. In March, during a discussion of “traditional skills”, Dean left a particular gem:

This site is retard. Seriously, goats? Other sites are talking about investing and new tax laws and stimulus bill and you’re talking about raising goats and eggs. Jesus fucking Christ this blog is fucking stupid.

To be honest, I usually publish Dean’s comments because I find them entertaining (and don’t feel hurt by them). But that’s not always the case. Sometimes I withhold comments because I feel they’ll cause problems.

I’m holding “tryouts” for a Staff Writer position at Get Rich Slowly right now. When I asked my readers for feedback, Ben thought it was acceptable to write, “Pick April, she’s hot.” This was the third comment I’d fielded — and nuked — about how April was “hot”. What the hell does that have to do with her ability to write about and convey personal-finance information? Why is it acceptable to write this sort of stuff about women writers and not about men? Sexism like this has no place at Get Rich Slowly.

Perhaps the most extreme example, though, came after a guest post from The Motley Fool’s Robert Brokamp. A reader named Kevin left a long rant attacking Brokamp and his advice. Kevin followed up with a rant accusing me of censorship because I refused to publish his first comment. I replied by e-mail:

A blog is not a democracy. It’s a benevolent dictatorship. I am a very benevolent dictator, but I’m still a dictator. There are certain things I don’t allow. You can criticize me and my guest posters all you want, but I’m not going to let you do it in a nasty manner, and I’m not going to let you spread misinformation and hysteria at Get Rich Slowly…Refusing to publish a comment is not censorship. I am not a government. I am not the mass media.

These trolls — and many others — are a blight. There are many earnest, intelligent bloggers contributing quality content to the Internet. It takes time and effort to create useful information. It takes almost no intelligence and no time and no effort to tear down somebody else’s work.

Taming the Trolls

Fortunately, taming the trolls is relatively easy. After years of dealing with problem commenters, I’ve developed the following series of technique for keeping the tone civil and positive on my blogs:

  • Set an example. If you want the tone to stay positive, keep your posts positive. If you want the discussion to steer clear of politics and religion (as I do at GRS), then don’t bring those subjects up in your posts. Do unto your readers as you would have them do unto you. Lead by example.
  • Nip problems in the bud. If you have a new reader that is intent on trolling or who always seems to be harping on the same subjects, take care of the problem early. Don’t let it become a site-wide issue.
  • Let your readers defend you. This one is huge, at least at GRS. I have a tendency to want to justify myself every time somebody complains. It just makes me seem whiney and defensive, though. Instead, Kris has taught me that if the complainer is out of bounds, my readers will defend me. Better to let the community swarm the problem (like white blood cells attacking an invader!) than to try to come off as self-righteous.
  • Take it to e-mail. There are times to engage commenters head-to-head on the blog, but those are few and far between. If I really want to discuss something with a complainer, I try to reply by e-mail. When I do this, the commenters are sheepish and apologetic nearly every time.
  • If you want to defeat your enemy, sing his song. Really obscure music reference there (Google is your friend), but this is a mantra of mine. When somebody complains, I try to see things from her point of view before I do anything else. I try to see her side of the argument. Then, when I respond (especially via e-mail), I lead with empathy, trying to discuss their point of view, and then describing how mine is different. This very often defuses the situation.
  • Edit ruthlessly. Chris Guillebeau taught me something recently that has become a sort of mantra for me: “A blog is not a democracy.” If somebody has infected your site with poison, cut out the wound. You’re under no legal or moral obligation to leave up crap that’s just going to weaken the site and the discussion. Here’s an example: Last week, I posted a short bit about an “accidental slumlord”. A semi-regular GRS reader came in with a snide comment about liberals, which I let stand, and a crack about “Balack Yobama”, which I removed immediately. I also e-mailed him and told him why I was making the edit, but that wasn’t a requirement. Remember: A blog is not a democracy.

One final tactic is to take the complaints and respond to them in a blog post. If you do this, it’s important not to make this a power play. Don’t use your position to denounce your critics and to build up your own position. Instead, try to spur a thoughtful discussion. Present your argument and present the other side and discuss the pros and cons of each. Then open it to the readers for discussion.

The Fruits of My Labor

I’ve received a lot of complimentary e-mail about the way I handle the GRS community, particularly negative commenters. (And The Wall Street Journal praised the level of discussion at the site.) To be honest, though, I don’t get many bad apples, primarily because I’m pro-active in plucking them from the barrel before they can spoil everything.

I like to think that my own blogging style discourages negative responses. (Don’t mean to sound arrogant here; this is just something I really work at, and I think I do a good job.) I’m proud that some of my worst critics have become my most ardent supporters through the use of these methods.

The Sausage Factory: Thoughts on the New Media and the Old

I’ve been working a little with a PR rep lately, and it’s given me a glimpse into a new world — a world I don’t particularly like.

From my experience, sound personal finance tips are timeless. We may get tired of hearing them, but that doesn’t change the fact that they work. The reason they’re repeated so often is because they’re effective.

As a result, when I write about various aspects of personal finance at Get Rich Slowly, I tend to cover the same themes repeatedly. That’s just the nature of the beast. I try to explore topics from new angles or give added color, but there are only so many ways you can write about “buy low, sell high” or “spend less than you earn”.

In Search of the New…

The PR rep I’m working with feeds me potential interviews with reporters for major media outlets. I’m happy to provide help when I can. But some of the requests from the reporters drive me nuts. There’s a certain group that is after new! tips. I get that they want to have original content and share new ideas. That’s great. But a lot of this seems forced.

Here’s an example of one request I saw recently:

I am writing an article about money-saving travel trends for the Los Angeles Times.

These must be new, very different, a little over-the-top/fun, perhaps (not necessarily) green must haves an in this down economy angle travel-related ideas/services/products of interest to readers who may no longer have as much (or any) disposable income.

They can be related to hotels/restaurants/transportation, you name it, I’ll look at it if it fits my protocol above.

Please note: a little over-the-top, new, different are key requirements. For example, I dont want to hear about hotels that are offering a third night free type thing. Ideas that are creative, that might wow readers, are what I’m looking for.

I don’t mean to pick on this writer — which is why I’m not naming names — because this is indicative of the way many reporters approach stories.

The Forest for the Trees

I think this approach misses the point, and in a big way. When you emphasize novel saving ideas, when you go for over-the-top, you’re ignoring the methods that have been proven to work. Again, just because we’ve heard the same tips 20 times before doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hear them for a 21st.

I’m also bothered by how the financial media manufacturers its stories. (It’s not just the financial media — I’m just using that as an example because I’ve seen it first-hand.) Some outlets — especially television — go into a story with the end in mind: “Let’s write about somebody who bought a house and was duped into a subprime mortgage and now is facing bankruptcy!”

Again, maybe that makes for a compelling story, but it’s also sensationalistic. And it’s not telling the truth — not in the larger sense. That is, the media is telling the truth about that individual, but by focusing on him, they’re ignoring the 98% of the population who are in different circumstances. They highlight the extreme in an effort to shock us.

On the Money

I saw this first-hand a couple of months ago when I made a short appearance on a major business television network. They asked me to write my story for them. It had to be something I could read aloud in under sixty seconds.

After I submitted my copy, one of the show’s editors worked with me for a couple of hours to refine the script. “Can we say this?” she’d ask, as she altered sentences. What she wanted me to say was true, but it was emphasizing all the wrong things.

When we were finished with the revisions, there was nothing in the piece about Get Rich Slowly, which is the single most important factor in my financial turnaround. It was like telling the story of Little Red Riding Hood without mentioning the wolf while emphasizing the fabric of the hood.

The Sausage Factory

Earlier this year at the old Foldedspace, I wrote about this experience:

These stories are manufactured, just like a cardboard box. They’re not reported. The “journalists” create the story they think their audience wants, and when they contact me, I’m just an ingredient

Bill, one of the fellows working with me, listened to my complaints, and then he said, “J.D., you can’t look at it like that. You can’t expect it to be straight reporting because it’s not. You have to think of it like sausage. What they’re producing is sausage. The media is a giant sausage factory. You don’t want to know what goes into the sausage or how it’s made. You just have to trust that what comes out at the other end tastes good.”

The more time I spend interacting with the traditional news media, the less I trust it. I don’t trust the liberal media, I don’t trust the conservative media — I don’t trust any of it. I don’t believe I’m being told the Truth.

Turning to Blogs

If I want the Truth, I turn to blogs. I know that I may not be getting truth from them (meaning they may be disguising bits of info, like names and dates, in order to protect friends and family), but I’m getting the Truth (meaning they’re not lying to me about the Big Picture). To me, this is more important.

Traditional media often gets on its high-horse when talking about blogs because “bloggers don’t have to meet rigorous fact-checking standards”. I’m sorry, but that’s bullshit. What does it matter if you get the facts straight, but you’re totally distorting what they mean? Plus, I’ve had enough reporters screw up the facts I give them to know that they’re no more reliable than bloggers.

Old media is dying. I, for one, will not mourn its passing.

Update: Via Nicole: The corporations that own our largest media outlets are controlling and censoring the content of their news organizations based on the unrelated interests of the parent corporation. It’s not exactly what I wrote about above, but it’s pretty damn close. It’s another type of processed meat.