[Air-l] Trolls

Charles Ess cmess at drury.edu
Thu May 17 12:46:03 PDT 2007

Thanks, Julie, for your (as usual) most helpful and insightful comments.

I would, however, like to respond in turn to one of your central points:

> As I'm lawyering today, let's
> take the facts in the light most favorable to the "accused": someone who
> believes that he is an internet researcher and that list membership will
> assist him in pursuing his professional interests, and who wants to stop
> trolling and conform more closely to the etiquette of the list, might
> feel that he had done himself such irreparable harm the first time
> around that pseudonymity is the way to go.  Unless you are someone who
> believes that trolls are trolls, forever and for always, that ought to
> be defensible.  That doesn't make it the smartest choice; for myself, I
> would have preferred an apology to the list and a statement of intent to
> try harder not to insult people and waste their time.  Two caveats,
> though:  It's amazing how often otherwise-fully-functioning adults have
> difficulty doing this.  It's also amazing how unforgiving other adults
> can be. 

No doubt - and this is why, as I remind my students on a weekly basis, why
every major world religion (and most of the "minor" ones I know anything
about) insist that forgiveness and compassion are primary virtues.

Three comments.

1) Many of us tried the forgiveness and understanding route early on - I
would be happy to share with you off-list some of the vitriol we got for our
Beyond what those responses may suggest regarding the chances of needed
changes in behavior -
what I find interesting is that we now have a kind of in-between the two
poles you suggest - i.e., once a troll, always a troll vis-a-vis trollish
behavior that can be amended and forgiven.
>From my perspective, a useful name for this is the pseudo-troll - both
because the one-time troll both now strays into troll-like behavior and
because the one-time troll hides behind a pseudonym.
>From the standpoint of ethical analysis, this is a helpful point to make
because it points us beyond the either/or that lurks - however
unintentionally - behind your manifestly well-intentioned distinction,
leaving us with the pointed question: what to do with the in-between of the

2)  While I'm generally inclined to head in the direction of forgiveness and
compassion - more than once, but not, sorry to say, the "70 x 7" commanded
by Jesus; and thereby open to the possibility of helping a recovering troll
learn and practice better behavior -
where I find an ethical complication here has to do with the use of a
As lots and lots of studies articulate what many of us know from long
experience - trust is essential in communication per se, and in the online
environment, trust is even more essential while simultaneously all the more
Many of us have plenty of war stories - and I can also cite studies, if need
be - of lists being destroyed by pseudonymous writers who gain the trust of
participants: once their real identities are discovered/revealed, oftentimes
a critical mass of participants lose the trust essential to further
participation in the list, and the list simply dissolves.

My concern, then, with pseudonymous "participants" - whatever their
intentions and hopes for recovery - is that it seems abundantly clear that
pseudonymous "participants" threaten the trust levels required to sustain a

3) Moreover, if we're genuinely concerned about forgiveness and compassion
fostering a movement beyond destructive behaviors - then, as most ethical
and religious frameworks recognize (and, FWIW, AA rightly emphasizes) - such
recovery will only begin when one takes clear and public responsibility for
one's behavior.  
Hiding behind a pseudonym, it seems to me, does not encourage movement in
that direction.

Hence I worry that opening up the list to participation from behind a
pseudonym, however right and noble the motives are of justifying this in the
name of helping someone move towards more appropriate behavior on the list,
is countered by the risk of such participation to the trust levels essential
to fruitful conversation online.

What the are the chances of recovery, on the one hand?  What are the chances
of damaging trust levels, on the other hand?

Suggestions for how we might decide in the face of the these two competing
possible outcomes of allowing pseudonymous participation on the list would
be welcome!

charles ess

Distinguished Research Professor,
Interdisciplinary Studies <http://www.drury.edu/gp21>
Drury University
900 N. Benton Ave.              Voice: 417-873-7230
Springfield, MO  65802  USA       FAX: 417-873-7435
Home page:  http://www.drury.edu/ess/ess.html

Information Ethics Fellow, 2006-07, Center for Information Policy Research,
School of Information Studies, UW-Milwaukee
Co-Editor, International Journal of Internet Research Ethics
Co-chair, CATaC conferences <www.catacconference.org>
Vice-President, Association of Internet Researchers <www.aoir.org>
Professor II, Globalization and Applied Ethics Programmes

Exemplary persons seek harmony, not sameness. -- Analects 13.23

More information about the Air-L mailing list