The Troll Tax

One of the rarely discussed downsides to writing a blawg is gaining the attention of the troll.  That’s the “reader” who shows up, usually out of nowhere, with something negative to say about everything.  It’s often couched in highly offensive language, replete with epithets or personal attacks. It’s frequently semi-coherent, just enough to recognize that it’s malicious without making enough sense to be worthy of discussion.  The troll is the perpetual critic, working deep into the night to rip asunder anything constructive and leave only scorched earth in its place.

Marketing philosopher Seth Godin explains the troll this way:

1. trolls will always be trolling
2. critics rarely create
3. they live in a tiny echo chamber, ignored by everyone except the trolled and the other trolls
4. professionals (that’s you) get paid to ignore them. It’s part of your job.

Number 4 is the trick.  As Seth notes, ” ‘Can’t please everyone,’ isn’t just an aphorism, it’s the secret of being remarkable.” 

All the hype about blawging, whether it’s in terms of “business development” or becoming a “thought leader,” tends to puff only the positives, or at least the perceived positives, of putting one’s thoughts and ideas out there for public consumption.  There’s peer review, but there is also exposure to a vast array of others who comprise your unintended audience.

These aren’t the potential clients, for those whose goal is marketing and self-promotion.  These aren’t others who share your interests and concerns.  These can be the lonely, jealous and inconsequential people, who no one listens to in real life or who are actively shunned by those who know them.  These are the misfits of society who have found new life on the internet, inserting their venom at will as the equal of any other commenter.  No longer will they be ignored, as they have been the rest of their lives.  They can command attention by poking real people with sharp sticks through their keyboard.

To say “ignore them” is easy.  To ignore them is often more difficult.  It offends our instinct to fight back when confronted, particularly when confronted by something particularly nasty or stupid.  This, of course, merely plays into the hands of the troll, whose purpose is to get a rise out of his target, to engage them on his terms and thereby exist in someone else’s world.  This is really all it’s about for the troll, whose own world is so small and worthless that his existence there is meaningless.  Allowing the troll to exist in your world is his goal, and he wins when you confront him.

For a blawger, a few issues arise that seem to interfere with the ability to ignore the troll.  The first is that it’s unclear, at first, that he’s a troll.  Perhaps he’s a legitimate commenter who simply disagrees with you.  No serious blawger is troubled by a challenge per se. We learn a great deal from the thoughts of others, and only a fool thinks he’s right all the time. 

But it’s the persistence, the constant and vehement attacks, that distinguishes the troll from the legitimate challenger. 

Some blawgers fear that their failure to respond to the troll leaves other readers with the impression that the troll won, and they are wont to see their work dragged down into the gutter.  While the wiser person will see the troll for what he is, it’s true that some readers will find merit in the troll’s attacks.  Remember, we can’t control the intelligence or depth of understanding of people who chose to click on our links.  Some will be brilliant and other thick as a brick.  They all have access.  That’s the nature of the blawgosphere.

An easy way to address the troll is to stiffen one’s resolve and enjoy the magic of the delete button.  You do not owe any commenter a forum to spout, no matter how much they believe they are entitled or how strenuously they demand their right.  Remember that in the troll’s world, they are the center of the universe.  Your blawg is all about them.  This is one of the reasons that they have no life outside of the internet.  Their social skills tend to be lacking, and their grasp of their relative role in society is weak to nonexistent.

Many blawgers find it very difficult to delete comments.  It runs against our grain of allowing free speech and expression, and makes us feel a little weak in our inability to let the negatives fly and confront them head on.  It’s a form of online machismo, like walking away from a fight.  It smells of cowardice.

Get over it.  There are millions of people out there, far more than anyone can fend off even if they were mere ants.  Eventually, they will swarm you and, itty bitty bite by bite, eat you alive.  To spend your time fighting with each and every one of them is unproductive, and likely futile.  Besides, this isn’t a fair fight, since the troll isn’t interested in considering new thoughts but in getting you to pay attention to him.  You cannot win with the troll.

So it returns to Seth’s list:

4. professionals (that’s you) get paid to ignore them. It’s part of your job.
There is a large measure of courage needed to simply turn your back on those who contribute nothing of value to the discussion.  It’s not  cowardice, but strength and maturity to be able to smile at the troll, click delete and never think about it again.  This is what a professional does.  We are secure in our own understanding of what we do, sufficiently to feel no regret for having chosen not to roll in the mud with every troll who comes along.  We control our fate, our focus, our time.  We choose not to waste it, to sully our purpose, by giving over our decision-making powers to any fool who wants to pick a fight with us.

It won’t stop trolls from existing, from coming around, from bothering serious and thoughtful people.  But it will prevent you from letting the troll dictate your efforts so that you can spend your time on matters more meaningful to you. 

10 thoughts on “The Troll Tax

  1. Norm Pattis

    Good piece on trolls. I’ve attracted a few recently and have decided not to publish them any longer. I wonder whether the same gremlin is snipping at both of our heels?

  2. SHG

    I know we share some overlap.  I’ve got a few at the moment, not to mention some cyberstalkers.  It comes with the territory, as you well know.

  3. Deborah

    This commentary is troubling. As a healthcare professional, I see clients
    and families adversely affected by Life stressors that affect cognition. Serious mental illness strikes families indiscriminately. I’m sorry you are so affected as to react with distain at what you call ‘tolls’. Every human being needs validation. The troll could be benefited by a response that is kind and supportive. If you believe we are all put here by chance and life is over at death, perhaps your view as merrit. As a hospice nurse, I’m moved to disagree. No, an act of kindness will not often generate an instant reward but at the end of life all we have done on this earth is reconciled. I’m not inferring that your deleting without response to a troll with have any impact at the end of your life; only that perhaps it might be a missed opportunity to help someone in their time of despair. I use to contemplate why attorneys and Judges I’ve worked with in hospice have such despair at the end of life? Being victimized by the Injustice System these last three years, I have better insight into this
    question. Your profession on the whole is considerably more callous. You work in the criminal justice system that is more transparent than tort law and especially family law where egregious
    violations of law are perpetuated for the purpose of profiteering. The Guardianship Racket scam is a National epidemic and a national disgrace bilking taxpayers of trillions of taxdollars annually while exploiting vulnerable citizens and ripping families apart. Ending the billable hour and holding Judges accountable would go a long way in bringing credibility back to the Judicial system.

    Please delete as this is a personal comment to you alone. I hold you in high esteem and value your insight expressed in your commentaries.

  4. Turk

    “Don’t feed the trolls” has been a long standing mantra on many a discussion board.

    They troll for attention, and ignoring them is the worst thing you can do to them.

  5. SHG

    If it’s okay with you, I would rather leave your comment up because it raises an important point.  I believe myself to be sensitive to mental illness and the cognitively challenged.  Whether that’s true is up to others to judge, but that’s my self-perception.  That said, it remains the case that not every venue or discussion is subject to being reduced to the lowest common denominator, or perhaps simply the nadir, because a troll decides to introduce himself into the mix.

    Do we respond with loving reassurance, to ease their life stress and validate their existence?  We could, but then that would be the end of discourse.  Trolls don’t, by definition, post once and then move on. They obsess, overbear and attempt to seize control.  There are people and places designed to help these people, and certainly better equipped to do so, but this isn’t one of them.

    You are likely right that there are lost opportunities to help sick people by acknowledging their existence when they chose to appear as trolls.  But this can’t be all things to all people.  I allow many (and I mean many) incredibly stupid comments from people who are just plain crying for attention.  I see it as cathartic and, in the scheme of things, harmless.  But I will not cede control of this blawg to a troll.  It’s not for lack of wanting to do an act of kindness toward someone clearly in need of psychological help, but that this isn’t the place to find it.  And if I was to alter the focus of Simple Justice from law to assuaging the stress of mental illness, it would do neither well.

    I’m just a simple trench lawyer trying to do the right thing every day.  Someone else will have to be in charge of the mental health of trolls.  I’m not up to the task of doing it all.

  6. SHG

    One more thought.  I remember when you first started posting comments here. You were very angry, particularly toward lawyers.  I suspect you came to pick a fight, and my guess is that you were surprised to find that your complaints were not only welcome, but taken seriously.  I realized you needed both the catharsis of being able to tell a bunch of lawyer how you felt, but also the validation that you weren’t nuts when you expressed yourself.  And you weren’t.  Your complaints were absolutely valid, and the lawyers here were only too well aware that some (many?) of our brethren are undeserving of the honor and responsibility of representing human beings.

    It’s a big tent here.  Not unlimited, but bigger than some might expect.

  7. Buford Gooch

    Is a threadjacker a form of troll, or a totally different kind of character (balrog, perhaps)? Many of the blogs I read end up with nearly half of the comments going to dispute some threadjacker, whose sole purpose seems to be to change the subject to one of interest to him or her, usually diametrically opposed to the leanings of the blogger.

  8. SHG

    I think it is, and I don’t care for threadjackers either. They can have any discussion they want. Just not here.

  9. Bill

    Not in your line of work but I have to say this is an excellent treatment of the troll issue. A very helpful explanation from a professional services perspective. I’ll definitely be recommending.

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