It’s an old piece of advice, supposedly tried and true. Presented to kids as a solution for bullies, to oppressed groups of all kinds to rid them of their oppressors and of course to Internet users as a solution to unwanted or annoying trolls. In this case, a “troll” is a person or group of persons who posts with the intent of getting a reaction from other posters or just a person who wont stop spewing his favorite mantra of trash.
When I hear the “Ignore it and it’ll go away” solution I am always reminded of the tragedy of Usenet. It was one of the first open modes of communication on the Internet. Posters would post information, interesting files or just opinions. It when worldwide very quickly and it pulsed with information from millions of users. Usenet developed much of the Internet vocabulary we employ today, including the word “Troll” in reference to posters who are seemingly unstoppable.
Trolls finally killed most of glorious Usenet, because instead of going away when they were ignored, they stayed always ready to pick right up again or find new victims, making everyone else (or just about) go away instead. It was the first real Internet war, and the good guys lost. Even though Usenet forums were fiercely protected by forum managers and editors, most got overwhelmed and eventually just closed the forums down. Then Usenet developers came up with a cute trick, a setting that allowed users to ignore all posts from certain other users. Now good users didn’t even have to see posts from the trolls, they were invisible, filtered out. However a critical component of active forums is new users. Newcomers to a forum were often blinded to any value by thousands of trollish postings, which they did not have the experience to filter out. Consequently, they left quickly and never knew of any value at all.
So, once valuable and fascinating exchanges slowly faded to a few die hard threads, and then fell silent to the victorious trolls. I have personal experience with this both on Usenet and the Google financial forums (google took over Usenet eventually). When they began, the Google financial forums were packed with investors, experienced and new, young and old, as well as quite a few Wall street market makers. It was wonderful, a kind of intelligencia of the financial markets, ready to teach and willing to listen.
Then the trolls arrived. People who wanted to push down a certain stock, or raise another up. People with an axe to grind against a certain company or for a company. People who just wanted to be the center of attention. I watched it all explode into chaos and most of the sharper minds just left, not willing to put up with all the noise.
However some people stayed. Some fought back and developed techniques for handling Trolls even in unsupervised forums. Sometimes they out-posted them, shoving their missives down the list, down, down into to oblivion. Sometimes they fought them message for message. Sometimes sophisticated tricks were employed to change the trolls messages or employ programs to wait for a certain troll to post and then post over them. A few of the original members of the forums hunted the trolls down all across the Internet, posting against them where ever they went. These were the anti-trolls. Just as committed as the trolls they hunted, they often drove them out within days. However, some of the more “trollish” stayed for years until eventually they were chewed up, driven off or exposed. It’s surprising how easy it can be to find out someone’s real identity. Releasing that to thousands of annoyed users can work wonders. I often wondered how exposed it felt to suddenly receive a pizza delivery from “MarketMaven” or a lily from “DollarForDollar.” How quiet and unoffensive trolls become when their anonymity is lost.
It’s hard to find the Google forums these days, apparently Google got tired of letters from lawyers, threats of litigation and cross filing of complaints. They didn’t want to expend the expense and energy to manage the mess they created. So they hid them, moved them to other areas and let us all fight it out. The forums are much quieter these days. I check in from time to time to see what everyone thinks about a certain piece of news or a turn in the price of a stock. I can because we stood and fought, outlasting the trolls.
The point is sometimes you have to take action to protect what you like, the Jews and Gypsies of Europe put up with being systematically destroyed, trying just to live their lives, waiting for time to take care of it, but the danger didn’t go away. It had to be destroyed. Good things like freedom have to be protected and it’s everyone’s job. So, the next time someone tells you to “just ignore it and they’ll go away,” wonder if that really means the person giving the advice is going to go away when it doesn’t work.
Copyright Prentiss Gray 2011