It’s difficult to escape the fact that running a forum would be much easier if it weren’t for all the users. Over the years I’ve encountered innumerable problem users, and there are some common tactics to deal with them. Be warned; while broad archetypes certainly exist, problem users will constantly find new and innovative ways to surprise and infuriate you.
The first category of users to worry about are the much feared and maligned “trolls”. Troll is an often misused epithet; its original meaning is a user who posts deliberately inflammatory material for no reason other than to elicit a reaction. Recently it has been used in mainstream media to simply indicate a mean person who says mean things.
This definition is not a useful one.
Trolls are an inevitability, and one of the most important skills in a community manager is the ability to tell a troll from a fool. There are, for instance, people who genuinely believe the moon landing was faked. When they post this in a thread about NASA, they may not mean to bring the kind of flames that will inevitably result.
They’re not trolling, they’re simply foolish. The mark of a troll is one of intent; you should be able to ascertain that the user is acting in a deliberately annoying way rather than honestly trying to participate and simply getting it wrong. The only way to tell the difference is experience and intuition.
Trolls are a double-edged sword. Having someone around to play devil’s advocate and stir things up can actually be a good thing. Whatever the subjects your forum discusses, threads will quickly become stale if no one ever shakes things up by expressing an opposing point of view. As hated as regular trolls might be, there is value in keeping a few jesters on retainer to keep everyone on their toes.
If a troll is adding value to your forum, don’t be afraid to keep them around as long as you can keep them to heel. If a troll outright refuses to follow the rules or tone it down when told to by a moderator, kick them out the door. Don’t be sentimental about your trolls, another will be along shortly.
The fool is another matter. You will occasionally (and depending on the phases of the moon not so occasionally) encounter users who display a complete lack of social aptitude, intuition or self awareness. Often all three. This type of user is almost the opposite of a troll; rather than a capable person deliberately acting badly you have an incapable person who is possibly trying very hard indeed.
Depending on your compassion levels, these users are a huge hassle. You can save yourself a lot of hassle by showing them the door after a few demonstrations of disruptive stupidity, but it’s a slightly callous way to handle the problem. A more time consuming (but rewarding) tactic is to try and guide them into becoming better members.
Many of the fools you encounter will be young, in their early to mid teens, and willing to listen to any advice you have on how they can participate better in the community. Over time, these users can turn into solid contributors, but it will require a great deal of patience from both you and the community in general.
There will be users who come along that simply can’t or won’t understand why their behaviour is disruptive. Just as you would a troll, a fool who refuses to listen to you or follow the rules should be kicked out. A critical point in community management is the understanding that it is not your job to fix people.
A critical point is missing in this discussion of the troll/fool dynamic: the other users of your forum. A troll can only live if it is fed by the other members of your forum. Without attention, a troll dies on the vine. The real problem is never the troll. It’s the reaction of your regulars. The same is true of fools. Their sulks, temper tantrums and anguished ranting will almost always follow an enthusiastic haranguing from the more capable members of your forum.
This is a problem that needs to be worked from both ends.
Do Not Feed The Trolls should be a central tenet of any community.
Members who insist on engaging in flame wars with mischievous interlopers should be sternly warned against doing so, and punished just as harshly as the troll if necessary. They are, after all, causing a minimum of 50% of the problem. The head shaped dent in my desk will attest to the fact that you will never successfully persuade your users not to engage with trolls. Indeed, you might never completely get the hang of not engaging with them yourself. You can however significantly cut down on your problems by making it clear that this behaviour is not acceptable. Take away the righteousness of the self-appointed forum vigilantes and save yourself a lot of headaches and cleanup.
Even categories as broad as Trolls and Fools can’t begin to categorise every problem user you’ll encounter in your community. In coming weeks, I’ll be looking at some other frequent problem users you’ll encounter, including some of the more serious problems that with luck you will never have to encounter.
Guest post by Patrick Groome. Patrick is the Administrator of the Penny Arcade forums. Penny Arcade is one of the most popular and long running gaming webcomics and organizer of the PAX gaming conference.