Monday, August 04, 2008

The hero that Gotham needs right now?

This NYT profile of trolls has caught attention from some of my favorite bloggers. (I have been mulling over a long and detailed response to them, but in the meantime here is something dashed off and flippant.) The article examines a dark internet subculture that delights in hacking websites to induce seizures in epileptics, harassing women, and deceiving readers of personal ads into providing titillating information and then distributing the information far and wide, as well as more conventional criminal activity. The internet has made it possible for sociopaths to find like-minded compatriots and act in concert.

Belle notes that this is a conflict between competing norms and asks how to counter the new, evil norms. Megan McArdle has one answer:
The internet has allowed the deviants to find each other, to construct a community with shared norms that tolerate, even celebrate, the pain of others. And it cloaks them in sufficient anonymity to get by in the outside world. If people knew what they had done, I doubt they'd survive two weeks--no one would sell them food, rent them shelter, or for that matter, permit them to merge into the exit lane.* But no one knows.

I doubt that the solution is, as the author suggests, just to learn to live with it. Rather, I'd expect that countertrolls will emerge--hackers who put as much energy into harassing these people as they put into harassing us. Evolutionary biologists call people like that "altruistic punishers", and they serve an invaluable purpose in any society.
Which mode of conduct will survive online is in part determined by the numerosity and energy of the adherents of each norm. Witness any moderately controversial Wikipedia article: unless it's frozen by mods (the long arm of the coercive state, in our model), the content will reflect not the most accurate conception but that of the most single-minded proponent with the most free time. One of the reasons that the AutoAdmit boards were so toxic is that law students and aspiring law students have a lot of spare time and often have very aggressive personalities (at least the wannabe litigators).

So how to counter trollish behavior by individuals with no other hobbies or interests? You really need a few obsessive anti-troll crusaders: people with the skills to become evil, but who use their strengths for good instead. Note that one of the women in the NYT article prevails upon one powerful troll for rescue from the predations of another band. This is like asking the godfather for justice when you are wronged by another criminal. What she really needed was a Batsignal.

* If someone posted Jason Fortuny's whereabouts online, how long would he last? Is this on Intrade?
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