Right now I'm sitting in my comfortable leather chair listening to the new Bad Plus + Joshua Redmond album on my Jambox. The music is good, really good. I know it's good because I have good taste in music, and I'm bored of music that doesn't have such melodic density and rhythmic sophistication. I don't need Reddit to tell me that it would be good, but I might have found out if I went there. I know enough Jazz to be a decent critic, and if there were 50000 ranked jazz critics in America I'd be in that number. If you wanted to get the consensus of the top 100 jazz critics on this particular album, you'll never find it on Reddit.
How do you rank a jazz critic?
Well one thing you don't do is rank them by novelty or popularity. You have to read them and listen to the music they listen to and engage in a decent discussion with them. It's something that can be done on the internet, but it is not the kind of process that is supported by the lame, one-dimensional chat systems that are the majority of webchat systems that exist.
If you've ever graded term papers, you have an idea of how that process works. Let's call it peer review. I don't consider myself an expert or formally familiar with academic peer review processes, but I do know something about decision making systems. I've been involved with building such systems for nearly 30 years now. I do know that you won't get the 100 top jazz critics on Reddit doing peer review because those rare jazz critics, experts as they would be, would not have the stomach for dealing with trolls. In short, trolls are not the peers of experts, and most every webchat forum on the internet assumes that we all are peers or that we want to be peers.
This wasn't always the case. Once upon a time on the internet there was a phenomenon called blogging. You may have heard of it. The best blogs were group blogs and the best individual blogs had blogrolls or belonged to blog leagues. We called it the blogosphere and we had a great system called 'trackback' that allowed us, for moments of insight to attach our ideas and remarks to other blogs which might be outside of our designated blogrolls or blog leagues. The most important thing about how these blogs worked was that we allowed authors to choose their own peers. The second important thing about the blogosphere was that authors retained the right to ban commenters. These are controls that were vital to maintaining the willingness of people who knew what they were talking about to engage with the anonymous public.
If you were a commenter at Little Green Footballs, you would never bother to try to comment at Fire Dog Lake, and vice versa. There were Red and Blue blogospheres and each kept the other in mind, yet stayed out of each other's hair. As apart as they remained, they easily found a way to stick to the same range of topics.
Now we know that blogs have failed to retain popularity in the wake of the signing of major bloggers to larger, more mainstream publications as well as the creation of megasites like Huffington Post. Surely Facebook has taken a lot of comment traffic away from traditional blog/salons like Cafe Utne. Surely Reddit has eaten away at Salon's readership. Slate gave up on comments altogether, so it seems. All of these places have their own character and temperament. Authors, editors and commenters all have their levels of patience with each other. So it comes as no surprise that megasites that have aggregated all of the previously more well-situated commenters and their eyeballs into their virtual streets are going to have more muggings in their virtual alleys. So long as the people who run these sites refuse to use their panoptic powers to block miscreants, they will suffer.
If you ask me, it takes a lot of nerve to suggest that a site with 50,000 members is stifling free speech by getting rid of 1000 trolls. It's not as if the internet is suddenly going to miss an argument about any subject when there are literally hundreds of online publications and hundreds of thousands of blogs out there. Yet today we hear that 'the trolls are winning'.
Now I know that some fraction of America wants to know, since I'm standing up on my hind legs and saying so, that I would probably still be on USENET's Soc.Culture.African.American if the blogosphere hadn't emerged and given me the control I need as an author to kill trolls dead. I say so as black American blogger who has won the award for best black blog, and as a host at Cafe Utne, a well known commenter at Slate and Salon, and as a member of the legendary online community the WELL. I've dealt with trolls from day one.
Here's how to get rid of them in one word: Discriminate.
One. Personna Non Grata.
If you give people the opportunity to boot people they don't like, then those people will be booted. Simple. A community is not a community if membership means nothing. Good fences make good neighbors, and since we're human beings, sometimes we have to call the cops. The best cops are the people themselves. Let commenters vote other commenters off the site. Make it a topic. Let people vote.
Two. Charge money.
I have yet to see any website that asks for everybody's two cents in the comment sections do so much as charge two cents. I can use a credit card or Apple Pay or PayPal to buy an order of french fries at McDonalds, and McDonald's believe it or not gets billions of french fries sold. If I can troll people for free and lose no money for doing so, why not?
Losing money is easy. Some people will actually find it worth it to pay a membership fee if they get to troll at will, get kicked off and troll again. So erase the content of the troll. Poof. Online graffiti should be erased.
If your webchat is big enough to have a wide enough diversity of opinion such that people will get on each other's nerves. Let people self-select themselves into houses of like-minds and temperaments. If people want, therefore, to be in the Nazi house, then let them have that house which is read-write for members and read-only for non-members. Nozi comments stay in the Nazi house which can be ignored by anybody who chooses. The Nazi house can have it's own standards and can PNG anyone who isn't pure Arayan.
You cannot wish for a better public. They're going to be who they are. Let people say what they will say and make a real community, not some unpoliced anarchic 'public square'. It's awfully presumptuous to think that discrimination against trolls results in the suppression of the free flow of ideas in an open society. All you have to ask yourself is one thing, is a troll your peer?