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“The Elusive Face of the Web Hater”

I was quoted in the Lincoln Journal-Star this past Sunday in a nice article by Micah Mertes on trolls and anonymity:

With few exceptions, Web sites adhere to the 1 percent rule. This is the principle that 1 percent of Web users create the content, 9 percent comment on it and everybody else just hangs out and observes.

“A somewhat predictable side effect of this ratio is that the 9 percent who comment must be impelled by some stronger motivation than the rest of the lurkers,” said Damien Smith Pfister, University of Nebraska-Lincoln assistant professor of communication studies. “When strong opinions collide in an anonymous forum, it’s not unusual for trolling and flaming and all the other nasty stuff we associate with the rough and tumble of the Web to happen. It should be noted, though, that sometimes these argumentative collisions can be productive.”

The anonymity, then, becomes a double-edged sword: It allows for immediate, honest, unhindered discussion, but it also opens the door for the kind of unchecked aggression that deters kinder conversation.

I think I’m going to regularly post press like this and follow it up with the full text of my emails to give more context. So here is what I originally wrote Mertes in response to his query about causes of trolling behavior:

First, the “1% rule” might explain some trolling behavior. This is the principle that 1% of internet users will make content, 9% will comment on it, and everyone else just lurks. Different communities have different levels of participation, of course, but this percentage roughly captures the participation distribution in online communities. Now, a somewhat predictable side-effect of this ratio is that the 9% who comment must be impelled by some stronger motivation than the rest of the lurkers–they might, for example, have a particularly strong feeling about what a political blogger just posted and feel obliged to add their two cents. When strong opinions collide in an anonymous forum, it’s not unusual for trolling and flaming and all the other nasty stuff we associate with the rough and tumble of the web to happen. It should be noted, though, that sometimes these argumentative collisions can be productive–not all anonymous argumentation devolves into rudeness.

Second, digital media have produced enclaves where people of like-minds can get together and discuss issues. What tends to happen with like-minded groups is they tend to become more extreme over time (much of this research is presented in Cass Sunstein’s Republic.com). Imagine someone who wakes up to conservative talk radio, follows conservative bloggers and Twitterers throughout the day, and watches Fox News at night. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that this person would be in a kind of conservative information cocoon, exposed to very particular interpetations of the news without the benefit of hearing the other side’s rebuttal (obviously the same kind of information cocoon could be created for liberals and other political persuasions). Contrast this digital environment with the broadcast news, which purports to be neutral and objective and thus tries to interview, for example, competing sources when developing a story. Showing both sides is not above criticism, though; especially for scientific controversies ‘both sides’ might not merit equal time.

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