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There’s Always a Better Way

April 22nd, 2012

troll-webI was out with a friend the other day and I was reminded of a “creative” solution we implemented to an age-old problem. We had set up an online community for a client, and as is too common in communities, there were a couple of users that trolled the community annoying the remaining 99%.

We tried all of the usual methods to resolve it. Sending warnings to the offenders, manually editing and filtering, and finally banning the offenders. Of course, with the ease of getting a new email address and re-registering, the trolls kept coming back and it turned into a kind of “whack-a-mole” game.

Finally, I took a page from Philip Greenspun (author of the classic “Philip and Alex’s Guide to Web Publishing“) and got creative with the situation. Instead of trying to ban the users, we decided to just frustrate them into leaving on their own accord… without them knowing.

When a troll was identified, they were flagged in our database and we flagged the account. The next time the user logged in, they had a 1 in 3 chance of actually being able to log in, or getting a “Server Timeout” error message. If they did actually manage to log in, every page refresh had a random delay of 5-30 seconds, and even then, they would occasionally get a timeout message. The flagged users generally just got frustrated with the “poor quality” of our site and moved on.

One of our developers actually took it a step further. Trolls live for stirring the pot. They post abusive and over-the-top posts and wait for the firestorm. What if the firestorm never arrived and the other users just ignored their posts? The developer set the database so that when a flagged user posted a message, he would see his post in the thread, but no other users would see it. He would sit back and wait for his comments to start a flame war, but the other users would just carry on with their own discussions, unaware of the flame-bait posted.

The number of trolls dropped dramatically. Users were thrilled that their conversations continued without disruption and there were no more warnings issued by the moderators. And, of course, no one was aware of what was going on behind the scenes to clean out the disruptors.

It just goes to show… the tried and true methods sometimes don’t work. Looking for a creative solution based on the habits and motivations of your users often yields far better results than going with the textbook approach.

Categories: Strategy
  1. Ida
    April 24th, 2012 at 20:29 | #1

    Love it. As a former forum administrator, we implemented some of the exact solutions you mentioned after the old methods did not work. The trolls got frustrated and/or bored and left and the users were happy once again.

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