Taming the Trolls: Dealing with Negative Blog Comments

17 August 2009 · 11 comments

The key to a great blog is a great community. Readers return to a blog if they believe their comments are valued, and if they receive value from the comments of others. This interactivity is one of the things that sets blogs apart from traditional media, one of the things that makes them more valuable.

But it’s easy to lose control of a blog. One rotten apple can spoil the bunch. One negative commenter, one jerk, one asshole can drag down the level of conversation. When this happens, readers can — and do — leave.

A Taxonomy of Trolls

I’ve been blogging for over eight years now, three of them at Get Rich Slowly. I’ve been on the Internet for 16 years, and in online discussion forums (or BBSes) for almost 25. Dealing with jerks and assholes is just part of online communication.

That said, it can be tough to take when this sort of negative vibe infiltrates a community that you run. When it’s elsewhere on the Internet, it’s fine. But in your own yard? Not so much. I’m fortunate at GRS that I rarely have Negative Nellys squawking and complaining. All the same, they do appear from time-to-time.

There’s a fellow named Dean, for example, who appears every few months to leave a new nasty comment. In March, during a discussion of “traditional skills”, Dean left a particular gem:

This site is retard. Seriously, goats? Other sites are talking about investing and new tax laws and stimulus bill and you’re talking about raising goats and eggs. Jesus fucking Christ this blog is fucking stupid.

To be honest, I usually publish Dean’s comments because I find them entertaining (and don’t feel hurt by them). But that’s not always the case. Sometimes I withhold comments because I feel they’ll cause problems.

I’m holding “tryouts” for a Staff Writer position at Get Rich Slowly right now. When I asked my readers for feedback, Ben thought it was acceptable to write, “Pick April, she’s hot.” This was the third comment I’d fielded — and nuked — about how April was “hot”. What the hell does that have to do with her ability to write about and convey personal-finance information? Why is it acceptable to write this sort of stuff about women writers and not about men? Sexism like this has no place at Get Rich Slowly.

Perhaps the most extreme example, though, came after a guest post from The Motley Fool’s Robert Brokamp. A reader named Kevin left a long rant attacking Brokamp and his advice. Kevin followed up with a rant accusing me of censorship because I refused to publish his first comment. I replied by e-mail:

A blog is not a democracy. It’s a benevolent dictatorship. I am a very benevolent dictator, but I’m still a dictator. There are certain things I don’t allow. You can criticize me and my guest posters all you want, but I’m not going to let you do it in a nasty manner, and I’m not going to let you spread misinformation and hysteria at Get Rich Slowly…Refusing to publish a comment is not censorship. I am not a government. I am not the mass media.

These trolls — and many others — are a blight. There are many earnest, intelligent bloggers contributing quality content to the Internet. It takes time and effort to create useful information. It takes almost no intelligence and no time and no effort to tear down somebody else’s work.

Taming the Trolls

Fortunately, taming the trolls is relatively easy. After years of dealing with problem commenters, I’ve developed the following series of technique for keeping the tone civil and positive on my blogs:

  • Set an example. If you want the tone to stay positive, keep your posts positive. If you want the discussion to steer clear of politics and religion (as I do at GRS), then don’t bring those subjects up in your posts. Do unto your readers as you would have them do unto you. Lead by example.
  • Nip problems in the bud. If you have a new reader that is intent on trolling or who always seems to be harping on the same subjects, take care of the problem early. Don’t let it become a site-wide issue.
  • Let your readers defend you. This one is huge, at least at GRS. I have a tendency to want to justify myself every time somebody complains. It just makes me seem whiney and defensive, though. Instead, Kris has taught me that if the complainer is out of bounds, my readers will defend me. Better to let the community swarm the problem (like white blood cells attacking an invader!) than to try to come off as self-righteous.
  • Take it to e-mail. There are times to engage commenters head-to-head on the blog, but those are few and far between. If I really want to discuss something with a complainer, I try to reply by e-mail. When I do this, the commenters are sheepish and apologetic nearly every time.
  • If you want to defeat your enemy, sing his song. Really obscure music reference there (Google is your friend), but this is a mantra of mine. When somebody complains, I try to see things from her point of view before I do anything else. I try to see her side of the argument. Then, when I respond (especially via e-mail), I lead with empathy, trying to discuss their point of view, and then describing how mine is different. This very often defuses the situation.
  • Edit ruthlessly. Chris Guillebeau taught me something recently that has become a sort of mantra for me: “A blog is not a democracy.” If somebody has infected your site with poison, cut out the wound. You’re under no legal or moral obligation to leave up crap that’s just going to weaken the site and the discussion. Here’s an example: Last week, I posted a short bit about an “accidental slumlord”. A semi-regular GRS reader came in with a snide comment about liberals, which I let stand, and a crack about “Balack Yobama”, which I removed immediately. I also e-mailed him and told him why I was making the edit, but that wasn’t a requirement. Remember: A blog is not a democracy.

One final tactic is to take the complaints and respond to them in a blog post. If you do this, it’s important not to make this a power play. Don’t use your position to denounce your critics and to build up your own position. Instead, try to spur a thoughtful discussion. Present your argument and present the other side and discuss the pros and cons of each. Then open it to the readers for discussion.

The Fruits of My Labor

I’ve received a lot of complimentary e-mail about the way I handle the GRS community, particularly negative commenters. (And The Wall Street Journal praised the level of discussion at the site.) To be honest, though, I don’t get many bad apples, primarily because I’m pro-active in plucking them from the barrel before they can spoil everything.

I like to think that my own blogging style discourages negative responses. (Don’t mean to sound arrogant here; this is just something I really work at, and I think I do a good job.) I’m proud that some of my worst critics have become my most ardent supporters through the use of these methods.

1 nickyt August 17, 2009 at 12:23

JD, Thanks for some great information. I am very new to the blogging community as I started simply as a therapeutic release in dealing with a new health issue. However, I am enjoying my adventures in discovering new and interesting blogs. It is true that there is something out there for everyone. I have been following GRS for the last couple of weeks and have thoroughly enjoyed your “competition” for a new staff writer. The information you provided here was extremely informative and I look forward to what you will share in the future.

2 Kristen@The Frugal Girl August 17, 2009 at 17:52

Thanks for this post, J.D. For the most part my commenters have been really positive and kind, but then again there are the not-so-nice commenters that pop up every now and then.

I think my biggest problem is that I’m a recovering people-pleaser, and so I let it bother me too much when someone is unhappy with something I’ve written. Blogging is probably good therapy for me, though…hopefully it’ll help me grow a thicker skin.

By the way, I do think that a blogger’s style will have a lot to do with the way the readers respond. If you blog in a humble way instead of a know-it-all way (which I think you do), your readers won’t be as prone to being critical and defensive.

3 Tyler Karaszewski August 17, 2009 at 17:53

I hope I’n not one of the people towards which this post is targeted. I know that sometimes my criticisms can get a bit on the ‘scathing’ side, often without me fully realizing how they might sound to the person on the other side of the screen. I also know that I’ve annoyed or angered some other commenters on the site in the past. At the same time, I’ve seen plenty of people agree with my and praise my comments, too. In general I’d rather be provocatively controversial than ignorably pleasant, but sometimes I do look back over my comments and find that they sound a little harsher than I had really intended.

4 Daniel August 17, 2009 at 18:40

I think it’s worth being even more aggressive than you suggest with comments and deleting/removing anything that even hints at trollery. For example, I would never let a comment stand like the one you cite above (even though it is admittedly amusing!). It drags down the standard of discussion and it suggests to other potential trolls that the door is open for them too.

I think a zero-tolerance policy is the best way to go, and thus I’d nuke a comment like that in a heartbeat. As you say, this is not a democracy. Fortunately, I’ve been extremely blessed to avoid any serious trollery at all over the nearly three years that I’ve run my frugal food blog. Uh, knock on wood of course.

Dan
Casual Kitchen

5 Mike Piper August 17, 2009 at 18:55

Thanks for posting this. I’ve been struggling with a similar scenario for a few months now. (In fact, my post from today is a perfect example.)

“A blog is not a democracy” is very much what I needed to hear.

6 a.b. August 17, 2009 at 19:31

That e-mail you wrote about a benevolent democracy was priceless. Thank you for sharing some of your hard work behind the scenes at GRS. I think some people think that blogging isn’t as involved as it really is.

7 Wing Wong August 17, 2009 at 19:36

Reading this post reminded me back to the days when I was a heavy ready and poster on Usenet. It seemed like it was as close to being telepathic and having absolutely no filtering capability… the term “mind vomit” comes to mind.

The sad thing is, the more popular and visited a site, the higher likelihood of spam(commercial and immaturity posts). I learned this the hard way when I published my first blog towards the beginning of 2001 and literally was greeted with hundreds of posts from spammers and anyone else who wanted to dump their verbal garbage. Back then, it was such a pain, I just closed the commenting doors.

Having said that, with good comment moderation tools for the various open publishing/blogging platforms, I’ve once again opened my sites up for comments and the spam still comes, but now, it isn’t just immediate displayed to the public. It takes a little while, but being able to have real comments on my sites is worth the effort.

And… yeah, it’s a benevolent dictatorship… but a dictatorship nonetheless. Especially given how the laws have slowly taken more and more of the blogger and site owner’s protections away.

Wing.

8 mapgirl August 18, 2009 at 05:08

Excellent post. I respect your high-quality dialogue at GRS and really appreciate the audience and their comments. I struggle with publishing comments no matter how hurtful they are and deleting them wholesale. (especially after a scary quasi-stalker incident early on)

Keep up the good work!

9 FFB August 18, 2009 at 05:46

Thanks for the advice! I’ve found, in my limited experience, that when you approach a negative comment in a positive way and try to understand where the person is coming from then they usually back down a bit and even apologize for their words. Many time an article caught the commenter at a bad time or they didn’t see the whole context of the site.

Other times people just want a soapbox and want to be mean. What gets me are the comments that could be parts spam, mean, or just looking at an opinion differently. But I like your statement that a blog isn’t a democracy. I’ll have to remember that my site is mine and I can allow whatever discussion I feel fit for the site.

10 The Muse August 18, 2009 at 18:22

Excellent.
I had a horrible, yes horrible comment. I could barely discern if they really had read the post. SIGH. I took it to heart (which I know now~to delete them and move on), but it was the very first personal onslaught and I admit it put me in a deep dark place. I almost stopped blogging.
Great post.

11 jammer(six) August 23, 2009 at 14:04

Pick Baker, he’s hot. ;-)

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