Thursday, February 25, 2010

Is The Age of the Troll Over?

There was a really interesting article in the New York Observer a few days ago about the new trend towards  civility. Don't get me wrong--there are still plenty of haters out there--but this point in particular struck a chord with me:
With all due respect to the Internet, it has not often been described as a "lovefest"; indeed, it has been better known as a forum for fire-breathing, semi-literate personal attacks. But suddenly, wide swaths of the Web have become bastions of support and earnest civility, where community-members "retweet" or "reblog" each other's bon mots, promiscuously proffer thumbs-up, help sell perfect strangers' books, drive traffic to each other's blogs and real-world events and even defend one another.
I have to say that I totally agree with the author--it honestly does seem that the internet has recently become a lot "nicer." I personally attribute it to several things:
  • Less anonymity. A few years ago I had the pleasure of being an occasional guest blogger on the Washington Post's "On Balance" blog. That was back before people were required to login to leave comments--you could just create a lil' nickname and fire away. And trust me--fire away they did. Some of the readers of those posts pretty much tore me limb from limb--thankfully usually my writing wasn't the target of their jabs, but me personally. If you have a few minutes and want a laugh/shudder, go read the comments in this post and this one. "Maggie clearly has issues." "Her last guest post was as loopy and insecure as this one." Etc. And my personal favorite "Not for nothing, but Maggie's actually pretty hot"--and the ensuing comments about how I was probably a former cheerleader. Anyone who knew me in high school would be laughing their asses off over that one--suffice it to say that cheerleader or Queen Bee I was not. Ok--sorry--back to my point--the readers of that blog did the same for every post--their daily joy was picking apart whoever was up at bat--the nastier and snarkier the comments, the better. It was actually an online community where the same people posted every day and had conversations with each other--all behind the safety of their nicknames. The Post subsequently changed their policy and required all commenters to register with the site...and lo and behold, the On Balance blog faded into non-existence. Without their shroud of anonymity, the commenters had no incentive to read or comment.
  • You can't hide online anymore. I blogged about this concept back in the day: "I have to wonder what it would be like if everyone had their photo next to their "screen name," or even if they had to use their real names; would they still be as aggressive as they are in their safe anonymity?" Fast forward to today when a lot of the time people DO have their photos next to their names--and, not so surprisingly, are a lot nicer. You also can't hide online as easily as you used to. Of course, there's nothing stopping anyone from using made up online identities, but most times when you're commenting on a blog post these days, your name--real or not--is tied to at least an email address and, if you have one, the url of your blog or website. Commenting on blog posts is now a way to attract blog readers and/or to call attention to yourself in a positive way. Of course, there is still plenty of online nastiness to be sure--but there's more accountability. More people are interested in what you're doing online these days: potential employers Google you; marketers and creditors may well scrape information from a number of sites to get as much information about you as possible, or use services like Rapleaf or 123People (hat-tip to the Community Roundtable and the awesome call with Lauren Gelman yesterday for making me obsessed with this issue now!)
  • Online reputations have tangible value now. Not only is it harder to hide online these days, but there is lots of potential gain from NOT hiding. Amber Naslund makes about the most compelling argument possible for this with her post about how she made $100k using Twitter. I know I've gotten speaking engagements--even job offers--just through my interactions with people online. Sure, I could skulk around using a fake name, blog anonymously, and get out all my hostility by blasting people like the On Balance commenters did back in the day....but why would I--or anyone else--waste my time doing that stuff when there is so much potential benefit from using your real identity online? It doesn't matter what line of work you're in--a strong online presence is basically part of your resume. I have a friend who once had a series of great interviews and was one of the top contenders for a position--only to be told that she didn't get the job because when they Googled her name, not enough stuff came up. 
What do you think--is "nice the new black" online? Or are there just as many trolls as ever and I'm just blind?

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