[IMAGE] Labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral. Visitors walking on an inlaid stone labyrinth

by Rob Malda

This is part three in our series on the founding of Slashdot, written by Rob Malda. Read part 1: Let’s Begin at the Beginning and part 2:When The Trolls Arrive

Your burgeoning community has started having real growing pains.  

At first, you didn’t have enough readers to warrant much negative attention on your site. But if things are going well, the success of your community creates a large group of passive readers who come to the site only to read and follow the conversation. These readers are seen as targets by angry, annoying, and simply bored people who want to get attention by peppering conversations with low-value, big-reaction comments. At best, these appear as well-intentioned but mediocre contributions; at worst, they are intentional distractions meant to divert your conversation and ruin the experience for everyone, creating havoc to make their creators feel powerful.

As the manager of a community, time is of the essence. That freshly posted story has a lifespan. Initially, you’ll need to be aware of when these traffic bursts happen, and watch carefully for when you need to intervene. Every moment that a trollish post remains in your forum means the chances increase that it will annoy a passing reader who will be put off from ever participating in your community, and/or worse yet, could cause a well-meaning reply that further derails the conversation. Your worst-case scenario is a large, multiple-forked discussion with dozens or more worthless comments. Depending on how your system sorts and displays discussion, this might create a barricade of words that will divert all but the most invested readers, and mean that new visitors never return to your site.

Manual intervention should be as efficient to undertake as possible, since you will often have to do be on hand to moderate, delete, or reply. Your time window to respond to bad actors effectively is a narrow one. The good news: once there are some strong comments leading your community, they will provide a framework for ongoing discussion, as long as you can keep the worst distractions out of sight.

In some cases, you can create automatic solutions. In the earliest days of Slashdot, we experienced the now commonplace “First Post!” phenomenon in our forums. These posts inevitably received replies ranging from insults to pleas to stop. And of course they were then followed by “Second Post!”, “This Post!” and even “Last Post!”  These posts would appear within seconds of a story appearing on our homepage.

It became an arms race among our readers. Some of our more ambitious users wrote polling scripts to determine when a new story was posted, which automated their immediate ‘First Post!’ response. This forced me to undertake some annoying tasks including adding random characters to story URLs so that readers couldn’t predict URLs ahead of time.

Ultimately, I decided to beat them at their own game. For a while, every new story posted on the site already had a first comment attached, systematically generated from a few randomized templates. The comment lived on the forum for a few minutes until real comments had been posted, and then it was automatically purged.

This largely neutralized the arms race. The first post became impossible for real users to achieve, and since the comment disappeared moments after real comments had been posted, normal users weren’t inconvenienced by extra noise in the forum. Best of all, we didn’t have to spend any more staff time deleting meaningless posts.

This script ran secretly for a year or so until a few readers noticed the disappearing comments. Since we had a strict policy of not deleting comments on the forum, people began to figure out what was happening, and so I ultimately disabled the code.

The code itself was trivial to write: a quick script to fake-post a comment, and another to delete said comment a few minutes later. It was an elegant, albeit temporary solution to the problem. It was cheap to implement, required minimal human involvement, left the forum just a little friendlier for more than a year, and allowed us to focus our time on more meaningful work.

Not every solution was as successful, however…

To be continued

Rob “CmdrTaco” Malda is the creator and user #1 of the popular News for Nerds site Slashdot.org. He spent many fruitful years there developing some of the first large scale community driven discussion systems, and crowd sourced news systems. After more than a decade he left and since logged some time working for the Washington Post Labs, and developing a news app known as Trove.

Photo Credit :Labyrinth at Chartres  CC BY-SA 3.0, 

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