are trolls ruining social media?" - a topic that seems to have reared its ugly head once again over the weekend, this time with a specific focus on FriendFeed and the supposed angry mobs that form there. But let's get real for a minute. Although it's shocking that some FriendFeed users post terrible, hurtful things while using their real names, posting angry and mean comments is nothing new to the internet. Other social communities, including Digg and YouTube, also deal with this issue - heck, they're even known for it!Last month, we posed the question "
But instead of continually pointing out the problem, maybe it's time for the innovators in our community to start thinking up solutions. Here's one we just thought up...let us know what you think.
Being Hateful, But Not Anonymously?
The pseudo-anonymity of the internet - or at the very least, the ability to write something cruel without having to face the person eye-to-eye - often leads people to express themselves in ways that are far from how they would behave in real life. In the past, this typically led people to hide behind pseudonyms and screen names so they could post whatever they wanted without fear of repercussions.
That's why I recently proposed that some communities put an end to online anonymity, thinking that if you removed the masks from people's identities, they would start behaving properly. Of course, this led to a lot of debate in the comments. Obviously, I never meant that anonymity needed to be banned from the internet entirely - the world isn't ready for that! - but there are some places where it doesn't serve much of a purpose. (Tech blogs, for instance.)
People still hated the idea.
As a blogger who writes every day using my real name, it's hard to sympathize with the need to post tech blog comments anonymously. Everything a blogger writes, we're held accountable for. Why shouldn't other community contributors be treated the same?
But as it turns out, there was a huge flaw in my reasoning in that post. I focused on whether or not someone should use their real name when posting, but that's not the issue at all. It's not really anonymity that's to blame for the troll-like behavior we're seeing in online communities, it's the lack of accountability.
That's why (some) people seem comfortable posting mean-spirited comments on sites like FriendFeed using their real name and their real identities to do so. You see, when you post on FriendFeed, your comment quickly disappears into the site's "real-time flow" of information. Someone watching the stream sees it only momentarily, before it's replaced with others. Even within the "angry mob" threads themselves, a single comment easily gets lost among hundreds of others.
So although the comment is attached to a real name, it's a single needle in a haystack of opinion. There's no way to see, at-a-glance, what that person's commenting history was like. Were they usually nice and this angry post was an exception? Or did they make a habit of trolling? There's simply no way to know.
What's the Solution?
We don't have any answers yet, just ideas. But maybe it's time that we started focusing on solutions instead of pointing the finger at the web services...as if somehow FriendFeed itself (or Digg or YouTube for that matter) are to blame for this shameful aspect of human behavior.
Jason Kaneshiro of Webomatica proposes that FriendFeed implement threaded comments with the ability to rate comments up or down. While I agree that would be a good first step in helping the community moderate the vitriol, it certainly doesn't stop hateful comments from occurring in the first place (just look at Digg!).
Perhaps what we need is a rating system for the personalities of community participants. Think of it like eBay's "star" ratings, but instead of grading a seller on how quickly an order was shipped, etc., you'd rate each others' contributions to a community.
Imagine how this could work on FriendFeed, for example. People could rate others' comments and the aggregation of the communities' ratings would give overall insight to that person's personality. Was the comment insightful? Kind? Spammy? Mean? Were you helping a newbie feel included? Were you answering a question or participating in a poll? Do you tend to leave positive comments about X company while being negative about Y? The list could go on and on.
The system should also show not just how a single comment was rated, but what that person's overall rating is along with a history of their contributions.
If participants knew that their every action, whether "anonymous" or not, was adding up to paint an overall picture of who they really were, would this be enough of an equivalent to the kind of accountability we have in real life? The sort of accountability where people are judged on their behavior over time, and not for a single uttered statement?
Rating systems are hardly a new idea - many online communities use badges and other methods for rewarding helpful participation. But rating systems that extend beyond simply rewarding good behavior to publicizing the bad, too, don't really exist today...at least when it comes to comments and communities.
It's hard to imagine exactly what a system like this would look like, but that's where UI designers would need to flex their muscles and create something that didn't take away from the overall experience while also encouraging people to rate comments both positive and negative, not just the ones they hated.
Is this a terrible idea? If so, we know you'll set us straight. That is, after all, what the comments are for. But if you think it's awful, at least be so kind as to suggest a better alternative.
Image credit: flickr user takingthemoney