Saturday, November 15, 2014

Wisdom of the crowd or rage of the mob?

Thanksgiving at the Trolls by floodllama, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by floodllama

A recurring theme in the media is the abusive tone of so many online arenas and the destructive power of trolls. We've all seen how online discussions can turn nasty and I have withdrawn from many when the trolls take over. A BBC article, Twitter and the poisoning of online debate, looks at recent abuses on Twitter and worries that real discussion is being forced away from the public arena.

And there is wider concern about the future of online debate. Where now are the places that reasonable people can go to find discussion that does not quickly descend into abuse and flame wars? Anonymity is undoubtedly a vital defence for vulnerable people under oppressive regimes - but it has also allowed others to express themselves in language they would never think of using face to face with their targets. This kind of behaviour rapidly has a kind of malign network effect - once forums become occupied by noisy sweary folks, more reasonable voices quietly depart.

I think the main issue here is management. There are many excellent discussions on the net completely free from insults and abuse but you need active managers as well as a community spirit to quickly extinguish any flames that may occur and this means warning and then removing abusive users whenever they overstep the mark. An online discussion must have a set of basic rules and by signing up you agree to abide by them. When an arena gets as massive as Twitter and is used for a myriad of purposes it becomes difficult to police effectively. What is blatantly offensive in one group may be quite normal in another. The more diverse the community the harder it is to administer. What is sad is that the trolls are forcing many people away from the public arena and into safer more exclusive discussion spaces. 

However I don't think this is solely an online issue. If you want to have a discussion and you sit in the middle of the town square where any passer-by can join in you would probably attract a few people who will try to disrupt the conversation. If you gather a group of friends in a room and close the door you will not be disturbed. A colleague of mine remarked in a seminar recently that the net is like an amplifier when it comes to education; a good course can be great online and a bad course can be really bad online. The same amplification effect can be applied to online discussions. In a well-managed environment we can harvest the wisdom of the crowds but without curation the trolls are loose.

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