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Social contact on the Internet – Where trolls troll

February 14, 2013

It is known that Internet trollers troll for a number of reasons – most simply to be friendly (kudos trolling) or nasty (flame trolling). This article explains the different avenues on the Internet available to trollers to make social contact with others. These are not ‘types’ but ‘genres’ – they are called genres because they a formed based on rules about their structure as opposed to specifications of their technologies.

Genre Advantages/Disadvantages
Personal Homepage Advantages: Regularly updated, allows people to connect with those that they know through leaving messages and joining circle of friends

Disadvantage: Members often need to re-register for each site and cannot usually take their ‘Circle of Friends’ with them.

Message Boards Advantages: Posts can be accessed at any time. Easy to ignore undesirable content.

Disadvantages: Threads can become very long and reading through the messages is time consuming

Email Lists and Newsletters Advantages: Allows a user to receive a message as soon as it is sent

Disadvantages: Cannot always access an archive of messages.

Chat Groups Advantages: Synchronous. Users can communicate in real-time.

Disadvantages: Posts can be sent simultaneously and the user can become lost in the conversation.

Virtual Worlds Advantages: 3D metaphors allow a user to get more involved in the community

Disadvantages: Requires certain hardware and software that not all users have

Weblogs and Directories Advantages: Easily updated, regular content

Disadvantages: Members can’t start topics only respond to them

Wikis and Hypertext Fiction Advantages: Can allow for collaborative work on literary projects

Disadvantages: Can bring out the worst in people, such as their destructive natures

Understanding the different ‘genres’

It is important to understand the different genres of online community. Not only can it help you know which ones to stay away from if you don’t like certain trollers, but they can also help you understand how to use each one differently.

The Personal Homepage

In simple terms it can be seen that on a personal homepage it is only the owner that can start content, unless they leave a guestbook. One could think of your Facebook profile page like a personal homepage – people can leave comments on your wall (like a guestbook), they can look at your photos, keep up-to-date with your thoughts and activities, and see other personal information about you. Facebook could therefore be seen as a network of online communities made up of individual homepages. A troll can troll on this genre of community by leaving nasty comments on the wall or in the guestbooks, and on some websites they can insert code into posts which impairs its functioning. In this UK these are illegal under the Communications Act 2003 and Computer Misuse Act 1990 respectively.

Message Boards

Message Boards are one of the most established genres of social contact on the Internet. They are easily understood as anyone can start a topic and anyone can response to the topic. They are distinct from chat-groups because the messages stay there and are responded to at a different time to when they are posted. Trollers can be abusive on these by posting nasty replies or links to offensive content, or by ‘embedding’ indecent images. In the UK these are illegal under the Malicious Communications Act 1988 and Communications Act 2003.

Email Lists and Newsletters

Email Lists and Newsletters are quite an established genre also. What makes them distinct is usually that anyone with permission can start a post and they can be responded to but only that the response goes to everyone on the list. These lists are usually not persistent as when a message is deleted from one’s email box it is gone forever. Exceptions include Yahoo!Groups which work both as email lists and message boards. Trollers can abuse this genres characteristics by sending emails that try to fool you into handing over personal details. This technique is called ‘phishing.’

Chat Groups

Chat Groups are one of the easiest to understand genres. Contributions can be made by anyone, they are sent and seen immediately. and can be responded to immediately. Many people call Twitter a micro-blog, as the posts are made from a dedicated account and people are invited to comment on it. But there is another side to Twitter that makes it more like a chat group. It is possible for anyone to send anyone else (who isn’t blocked) a tweet, and to get an immediate response to that tweet. In chatrooms trollers can be easily abusive by posting in the moment comments which hurt someone and get others to laugh at them.

Virtual Worlds

Virtual Worlds have existed for a very long time. The most popularised one in the 1990s was the MUD – Multi-user Dungeon – and this century has included the Massively Multi-User Online Role Playing Game (MMPORPG). These make a quite distinct genre. The users are expected to adopt an identity and persona different from their real one, living in a fantasy land of make believe. They use ‘avatars,’ which are what they pretend to look like to have fun, and if these use stereotypes, it helps people work out how they would like to be seen and treated. In virtual worlds it is easy for trollers to hide their identity and to pretend they are someone they are not. If it is an older person trying to get in touch with a younger person this could be ‘grooming’ (see Crocels News). This is illegal under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 in the United Kingdom.

Weblogs and Directories

Many people see weblogs as new – they became mainstream around 2004, but had existed long before. Jakob Nielson for instance posted a weekly opinion section from 1995 called ‘alertbox’ to reflect its timeliness. Weblogs are included with directories for a very simple reason. If one were to look at Amazon.co.uk it is very similar to a blog. The product pages are created by the owner of the website, and people are invited to leave comments – in this case reviews. It is possible to sort the pages into lists  (e.g. through searching) and have them ordered by date. It is possible for people to find related posts through tags made on the pages. It is very easy for people to be trolled on this platform. Authors can have untrue things said about their books, called defamation (see Crocels News), and people can be nasty to others they disagree with.

Wikis and Hypertext Fiction

It is quite common for novices to not understand this genre – it is not immediately obvious how Wikis and hypertext fiction are related. Some commentators have no such problem.  Stephen Colbert for instance edited a Wikipedia page on elephants to say that the African elephant population had doubled – it hadn’t! There are a number of distinct factors of this genre. Almost anyone can change and make links between pages. Each individual page may be edited by many people, but there is usually only one finished version of the page at the end.

Tutorial – Determining Genres of Internet Websites for Social Contact

One thing that is certain about the Internet is there will always be new ways coming along to allow social contact. It is never certain what these will be, but it is very likely they will fit one of the genres in the table above. For instance; hyper-text fiction was one of the first collaborative means of multiple users working on a joint version of a creative work. As discussed above it is easy to see how Wikipedia has many of the same elements, meaning they fit into the same genre. The method below explains how to work out which genre a particular Internet platform is.

Stage 1 – Analyse the mise en scène and montage of the Environment

Film makers have to decide what to shoot, how to shoot and how to present the shot, with the province of the later statement being montage and the two former being mise en scène (translated as: everything in the scene). Assessing the mise en scène should be able to reveal what genre of online community a particular website is, and assessing the montage should give some clue as to what the sub-genre is. In simple terms this means looking at all the components that make it up.

  • Is it in date order? (Like blogs and message boards)
  • Can people comment after the main post? (like blogs and message boards)
  • Is there just one final article after users have finished contributing? (like Wikis and Hypertext fiction)
  • Are there messages posted immediately one after another which you have to scroll to keep up with? (like chat groups, and Twitter)
  • Can you post a comment to a specific person for them to see and reponse to? (like personal homepages and chat groups)
  • Do you have to use a dedicated program to access messages which you and others respond to? (like email lists)
  • Can you create a persona for yourself different from your real one to interact with others? (like Virtual Worlds)

Stage 2 – Analyse the dominance of actors

Online community users become noticeable by the contributions they make, which is made possible by them making a judgement to contribute.The dominance of users online can be understood by the labels protagonist (the leading character), the deuteragonist (the secondary character), the bit player (a minor character with a background the audience is not aware of) and the fool (a character that uses humour to convey messages).

These labels can be seen to map on to Amy Jo Kim’s Membership lifecycle, as the Novices will be the bit players, the Leaders and Elders will be the protagonists and the Regulars will be the deuteragonists. According to Jakob Nielsen, the dominance of actors can be understood quantitatively, as he found that 90% of the members of web-based communities are Lurkers, who read, observe but do not contribute, 9% of users are Novices who contribute from time to time, and 1% are the Regulars, Leaders and Elders.

The Lurkers and Elders account for most of the contributions Nielsen also suggests that with web-based communities based on the Weblogs and Directories genre the distribution of users is 95% Lurkers, 5% Novices and 0.1% Regulars, Leaders and Elders and for those web-based communities based on the Wiki genre the distribution of users is 99.8% Lurkers, 0.2% Novices, and 0.003% Regulars, Leaders and Elders.

Identifiable from Nielsen’s study is that the protagonists and deuteragonists account for the majority of contributions but are not the majority of users, and the bit players contribute from time to time as Novices, but make up a higher number of the overall users than the protagonists and deuteragonists. Those most likely to do what they want are the Regulars, Leaders and Elders, those who most often are doubtful are the Novices and those who do not take part often are the Lurkers. Assessing the dominance of the actors should reveal what genre a particular online community is.

Stage 3 – Analyse the nature and structure of artefacts

Research methods such as content analysis can reveal a great deal about how different people use the different components of online communities, known as ‘artefacts’. Analysis of the the nature of such elements, such as terms used can give some clue to the sub-genre a particular genre of online community fits into, but the structure of these elements needs to be assessed to fully determine the meaning behind their use and what thoughts and opinions they originated from. For instance:

  • You might PM (personal message) on a message board, DM (direct message) in a chat group, or ping (in an email community)
  • You might comment on a blog, reply to a message board thread, sign a guestbook or write on the wall of a personal homepage.

More information

If you would like to find the original research paper discussing this topic, please follow this link. If you need to cite it, please use the following citations:

  • Bishop, J. (2009). Enhancing the understanding of genres of web-based communities: The role of the ecological cognition framework. International Journal of Web-Based Communities, 5(1), 4-17.

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