One of the first questions I’m asked whenever I stand up to talk about online community engagement using our Smart Forums is, “Isn’t this just another way to hear from the same people we always hear from?”
And we all know who “those” people are: the man who yells out his thoughts at random from the back stalls during Council meetings; the serial pest who drops into the office at 5.30 every Friday afternoon when you are getting ready for office drinks; the blacklisted letter writer who insists on submitting hand-written diatribes about anything and everything on a regular basis; the serial FOI applicant who wants to know when each member of staff took their annual leave; or the bullish saboteur of public meetings who drives the rest of the participants to distraction.
It would be funny if these weren’t real people that anyone who has worked in government for any length of time will have come across. They eat up time and resources. They stifle conversation. They present an inaccurate (and more often than not ill-informed) version of community opinion. They distract from the task of sensible policy development and real community engagement. Occasionally they have been so destructive over such a long period that an entire organisation can be “gun-shy” of launching new attempts at genuinely engaging their broader community in constructive conversations.
These people are also, on occasion, the heroes of our tenuous democracy. They keep our public institutions scrupulously honest and, it could be argued, have driven the transparency agency. More than one governmental institution whether local, state or national has been laid low by the keen eye, diligence and perseverance of community advocates.
The question I want to discuss here is what role do these people have to play in the 300+ online discussions we have hosted.
The commonly used term in online forums for people consistently displaying the kind of behaviour described above is “troll”. Why troll? Good question and one I can’t find a particularly good answer to. It seems to be loosely derived from a combination of a cave dwelling dwarf with its origins in Scandinavian folklore and a more contemporary slang term used to describe a person who lives under a bridge. The Wikipedia description is an entity which involves itself in discussions purely for the purpose of disturbing other users and making itself feel important. Trolls are deliberately, provocatively and cynically disruptive.
Of course, not all provocateurs are trolls. Indeed, a forum without a provocateur may be a very boring forum indeed. If a conversation is a little flat or there is very little activity, the provocateur can spark interest by suggesting radical options as a deliberate strategy to provoke a reaction.
The provocateur playing the role of devil’s advocate can add enormous value to the quality of a discussion by interrogating the suggestions and positions of other forum participants forcing them to express themselves more cogently, to justify their assumptions or explain the values that lie behind their position. If this role is played with a good heart, the purpose is to test the quality of the argument; in which case it is a useful role.
If however the role of provocateur is played out with a bad heart, the purpose may be harass, bully or overwhelm the other participants – which is why thoughtful, disciplined, timely and independent moderation are so important.
A troll, by definition, does not approach the conversation with a “good heart”. As noted in Wikipedia the troll usually has little or no interest in contributing to the development of the site in question and is interested in:
- Deliberately angering people.
- Breaking the normal flow of debate/discussion.
- Disrupting the smooth operation of the site.
- Deliberately being annoying for the sake of being obnoxious. For instance, using abusive names to refer to all the members on the site.
- Making itself the main topic of interest or discussion.
It has to be said that we see very little behaviour that could properly be defined at trolling. It seems to be much more of an issue in un-moderated or community-managed sites where there is less oversight of the moderation rules. However, it does happen, and we have had to ban more than one account holder for effectively being a troll. We have also seen people leave the discussions because they can’t cope with the fact that their comments keep being moderated out of the discussion. So used to being given a free voice to say whatever they like whenever they like that they cannot cope with having to operate within a set of very straightforward and very reasonable set of social norms.
The other thing to note of trolls and a key difference between unmanaged community sites and the kind of sites we manage is the kind of behaviour that would be considered trolling is slightly different. Trolling in a community lead forum may involve simply disagreeing with the predominant opinion of participants in the forum. For example, if a Pro-Life person joining a Pro-Choice forum to argue with participants could be considered trolling.
The sites that we manage are all, in one way or another, about creating new public policy. They are, therefore, about the contest of values, belief systems, ideas and solutions; which means that we don’t ban someone simply for disagreeing with the majority. In fact, we encourage it. The whole point of engaging broadly is to unearth as wide a diversity of opinion as possible and to give as many people as possible a voice in the conversation. So, as long as the divergent view is argued constructively, and as long as the holder of that view doesn’t engage in provocative “baiting” or “hectoring” and remains respectful of other participants, their view is just as legitimate and they are welcome to contribute to the conversation.
The provocateur can also help to disrupt any group-think that may be taking hold of the conversation; that unhelpful state in which everybody is simply agreeing with everybody else without any deep analysis of either the problem or proposed solutions. As Edward de Bono has helpful articulated in his book, Six Coloured Hats, the ability to don the black hat is just as critical to successful strategic thinking as is the comfortable blue hat.
Photo Credits: Amanda Mabel
Thanks for getting all the way to the bottom! Subscribe to our monthly digest newsletter if you’d like to be kept up to date about community engagement practice globally. Take a look at our two product websites: EngagementHQ if you need a complete online engagement solution, and BudgetAllocator if you need a participatory budgeting solution. Or get in touch if you have a story idea you think is worth sharing.