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Journal Journal: Flaming trolls

Slashdot has an ugly underside. This is the world of trolls. Trolls come in several flavors. The classic definition of troll is "an electronic mail message, Usenet posting or other (electronic) communication which is intentionally incorrect, but not overtly controversial." FOLDOC makes a distinction between "troll" and "flame bait", which is a less subtle post intended to incite. On slashdot, the idea of a troll has evolved to subsume classic trolls, flame bait, and off-topic posts.

Any front-page story on slashdot will inevitably be bombarded with trolls. Simply changing the moderation threshold to -1 reveals a whole new world of crude, even hateful posts. Many of these are immediately moderated down by the site editors, and others are quickly caught by community moderators, but occasionally such a comment slips through the radar, giving the slashdot community an edge rarely seen in mainstream journalism.

Perhaps the most notorious troll is the hideous goatse link. Someone has apparently registered the domain "http://goatse.cx" and used it to host an obscene image. I won't include a link here, but if you're brave, type the url into your browser address box to see it. Trolling comments would include a link to this site in an otherwise innocuous statement. Venemous flame wars ensued.

Because slashdot makes it easy for anyone to post a comment anonymously, and because of the site's popularity, these acts of vandalism are probably inevitable. Like the red-light district of a city, the world of trolls is an intriguing place to visit. I'll probably spend a few more entries discussing them.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Moderation and slashdot

Slashdot uses a unique community moderation system to determine which user comments are most valuable. The basic idea is that each comment starts with a certain "value," expressed in points ranging from -1 to +5. Anonymous posts start with a value of 0, and signed posts generally start with a value of 1. Users can then choose which comments they see by selecting from a "threshold" menu button at the top of the list of comments. That's when the fun begins!

Moderators, chosen from the pool of registered users based on their previous contributions to slashdot, are periodically given five "points" with which to moderate the comments of others. They can use the points to moderate a comment up or down. They can also choose from a set of descriptive words ("insightful," "interesting," "funny," "off-topic," "troll"). Users build "karma" by having their comments rated highly. "Karma" used to be an actual numerical value which was increased for positive moderations and decreased for negative moderations. However, it is now represented only as a qualitative value ("good," "positive," "negative," "excellent"), apparently an effort to reduce the number of users who view slashdot as a "game" you can "win" with more karma ["karma whores," in the slashdot vernacular].

Okay, now let's see how this system works in practice. I've chosen to analyze a portion of a discussion about a news story describing a successful test of a military laser capable of destroying artillery shells in flight. Here's a link to the archived conversation:

Laser Shoots Down Artillery Shell In Flight

The first poster starts off with a relatively interesting question: wouldn't the momentum of the projectile still carry it forward to its target? The first respondent, "kbonin," offers a fairly reasonable response--the laser would cause the explosives within the projectile to detonate, completely destroying it. The next response, by "Anonymous coward" [respondents who post anonymously are automaticaly given this shameful moniker], mentions that s/he has seen a television show explaining that lasers destroy missiles by igniting the fuel that propels them. The fact that this comment was posted just two minutes after kbonin's response probably means that "Anonymous Coward" was in the process of writing his/her own response when kbonin's response was posted.

The conversation really starts to get interesting with ceejayoz's response to Anonymous Coward. "*sigh* Insightful?" is a dig at the moderation of Anonymous Coward's response. Then ceejayoz corrects the factual error in Anonymous Coward's response--we're talking about artillery here, not missiles.

MonadicIQ takes the conversation in another direction with a joke about Captain Kirk. Apparently the moderators weren't as impressed with MonadicIQ's original comment as they were with charlesbakerharris's response: "That's a *phasor*. Lasers are so 2280." But in the end (not the end of the conversation, just the end of the small portion I've arbitrarily selected), the moderators are most impressed with TheSync's observation that missiles kill with shrapnel, which the laser would cause to fall short of the target.

What's interesting about slashdot is that the conversants are aware of the varying levels of expertise of the individual participants, but also that they have enough confidence in the slashdot system that they believe the correct response will eventually be generated. The system works because the participants have implicitly agreed to a set of conventions.

What complicates the scenario for online discussion is that the "discussion" itself is not the same as a normal discussion--rather than two participants, there are thousands, and there is no assurance that anyone is "listening" to anything you "say." Indeed, in the snippet of slashdot discussion I examine here, no one person speaks more than once. What's most striking to me is that even though it's clear that the online discussion is very different from a "real" one, the participants instinctively act as though it is real, and they trust the moderation system to out those who flout the conventions of actual conversation.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Time in slashdot

In the slashdot community, the concept of "time" is unusual. On slashdot's home page, news items appear at a rate of about one per hour. The "news" for the most part, isn't new at all--it consists of links to news stories previously published on other Web sites. Yet because slashdot's community has come to rely on slashdot as a source of news, readers frequently complain when a story is "old" or a "repeat." The notion that slashdot repeats itself is so commonly held that in today's discussion about the new game The Sims Online, an anonymous reader jokingly complains that The Sims can't actually be like slashdot because it can't "simulate repeat stories."

Another reader, dtml-try MyNick, attempts to point out that this story is a duplicate of a previous slashdot article. The moderators aren't buying this one, however--the previous article on slashdot linked to a different outside news source.

Within the comments section on individual articles, time can be an even more confusing concept. As the default, articles are displayed in the threaded mode. In this mode, the oldest comments are displayed first, which makes some intuitive sense from the reader's perspective. Reading from top to bottom, the comments play out like a conversation. The reader gets the sense the ideas are being built and developed. This chrono-logic begins to fall apart when we realize that slashdot has thousands of users, each of which may be replying to the same story simultaneously. Consider the following three comments, each posted to a story about Microsoft's attempt to preserve the brand name "Windows."

1
2
3

Comments 1 and 2 were posted at 12:17 p.m., with comment 3 posted at 12:18. Certainly the authors were writing their comments simultaneously--each had an "original" comment--yet the third commenter (Captain BooBoo) acknowledges that his comment is already "redundant" in a subsequent post!

A further wrinkle is added when comments are displayed as "threaded." Any response to a comment appears directly below the comment. Generally this makes a lot of sense--then we can follow a "thread" of conversation about a particular aspect of a topic. But what it means for the sense of "time" in the overall discussion is important. I could post a comment at 1:00. Someone else can then post a separate comment at 1:15. Then at 1:30 a third person can respond to my original comment. This third comment actually appears second in the list of comments. Of course, experienced users know to look at the time stamp appearing on each comment, but with often dozens of replies to a single comment, breaking down the timing becomes more complex. The "simple" act of reading through a list of responses to an article becomes more difficult, and what seemed like an intuitively sound way to organize comments starts to look more like a labyrinth than a coherent conversation.

Though readers [and moderators] typically are able to keep track of all this fairly reliably, savvier users (such as Captain BooBoo) above acknowledge the difficulty of keeping track of conversation, and offer cues to other readers: important both for saving face--showing that they understand the "rules" of the "game"--and for preserving the illusion that a "real" conversation is taking place.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Basic description of slashdot

It seems a bit silly to be posting this to slashdot, but according to the methods described by Geertz, it's a fundamental step. Geertz's method relies on "thick description"--careful description of even the most seemingly benign aspects of a community.

Slashdot originated as a technology news web site: editors would post links to other interesting technology sites, providing a sort of central clearing house for tech news. The difference was that slashdot allowed its readers to post comments about the story being covered. Eventually thousands of computer nerds began to virtually congregate there to discuss the latest news on technology and science. Often the most popular news stories would accumulate hundreds of comments. For the most part, comments were interesting, informed, and on-topic, but after a while, a few troublemakers began posting deliberatly misleading or off-topic comments.

Being nerds, the slashdot editors developed a very technical way of managing online discussions to separate interesting comments from worthless ones--in technical terms, they described it as separating the signal from the noice. Here's the system they came up with: comments are "moderated" by the site's regular readers. The best comments can be ranked as high as 5, with the worst comments moderated down to -1. Moderaters can also add descriptive words, such as "interesting," "insightful," or the damning "troll," signifying a comment that is obviously only looking to pick a fight. The trick to this community-level moderation is that a given reader only gets a few "moderation points" at a time, and they can only rate a single comment one time. Otherwise, moderaters themselves might abuse the system. There are many more rules to moderation, but this is enough to give you the idea.

The more important point is that moderation allows Slashdot to "shape" knowledge. Highly rated comments carry more authority, and so a reader can use the ratings to sift through hundreds of comments, with the option to choose to view only comments rated at a certain level--say 1 or 2. Does it work? Though there are frequent disagreements, it's generally true that by the time an issue has been thoroughly discussed, the reader comes away feeling that they have a good sense of the "truth," or at least the range of opinions on the issue.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Ethnographic Analysis of Slashdot 2

After 10 years as an editor and writer of college textbooks, I have decided to return to the fray: I'm now back in graduate school, as a master's candidate in rhetoric and composition. In graduate school, you are asked to do bizarre things like "ethnographic analysis." Since it is one of my favorite communities, I have decided to do an ethnographic analysis of Slashdot.

All right, first question. What is an ethnographic analysis? Frankly, at this point, I don't have much more of an idea than you do. However, a quick Google search points to an article which appeared in JAC: an interview with Clifford Geertz, the most famous and vocal of the proponents of enthnographic research.

Here's my 99-cent summary of the method, based on what I gleaned from the interview, as well as what I found in a book I happened to find on my shelf: The Interpretation of Cultures by -- you guessed it -- Clifford Geertz [I don't know where it came from -- I certainly didn't buy it. Maybe it was required for one of my wife's college classes. Oddly, the spine hasn't even been cracked :-) ]. Geertz is critical of earlier anthropologists who claim that a ethnographic researchers should attempt to be completely unbiased, making as minimal of an impact on the community they observe as possible. Geertz argues that this proposition is preposterous. How can a nerdy, milk-white professor-type visit a balinese village and not have an impact on the community? It's impossible for such research to be objective, so rather than throw his arms up in dismay, Geertz chooses to embrace the subjectivity of the method.

Geertz says in the interview that his description of a balinese cock fight is his most famous example of ethnographic analysis. Fortunately for me, this episode happens to be included in The Interpretation of Cultures. I've just read a good chunk of it, and it truly is a fascinating read. Geertz takes pains to point out how the people of the balinese village he visited didn't really accept him until the entire village had been raided by the police for conducting a cock fight. Geertz and his wife were questioned by the police in the presence of some of the village elders, who rose to an eloquent defense of the couple -- despite the fact that everyone in the village had ignored them for weeks before. Clearly their impact on the village had been profound, even before anyone had officially taken notice of them.

The slashdot community is a much more vast and sprawling one than the tiny village Geertz observed. In this sense, I doubt my research will have the same level of impact. But you never know! My plan is to keep my "field notes" in the form of this slashdot journal. That way, any visitor to my journal can easily see what I'm up to and (if they care enough) even comment on each entry. Should be an interesting ride.

Christmas Cheer

Journal Journal: Ho. Ho. Ho.

Jazzman's cafe at UNCC has already started playing Christmas music. Nonstop. In November. What used to be a cool hangout now isn't much better than a mall. What a grinch I am!

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"Your stupidity, Allen, is simply not up to par." -- Dave Mack (mack@inco.UUCP) "Yours is." -- Allen Gwinn (allen@sulaco.sigma.com), in alt.flame

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