Thursday, August 5, 2010

Concern Trolls: A useful idea

If the first rule of the internet is Do not feed the trolls, it follows that the second rule is Know thy trolls. Gotta know it's a troll to know not to feed it, right?

Usually trolls are easy to spot because they don't bother to hide their trolling. They're the loud, obnoxious assholes of the internet. They tend to get banned and blocked quickly. But there's another kind of troll that is more insidious, and sadly, not always recognized as a troll: the concern troll. I'm pretty familiar with these from queer, feminist, and fat acceptance discussions, but as unschooling is becoming more well-known, they're quickly cropping up there, too.

According to WiseGeek:

"Concern trolling is a form of Internet trolling in which someone enters a discussion with claims that he or she supports the view of the discussion, but has concerns. In fact, the concern troll is opposed to the view of the discussion, and he or she uses concerntrolling to sow doubt and dissent in the community of commenters or posters."

In other words, a concern troll does not want to understand your perspective. They just want to mock you and piss you off, but they're doing it passive-aggressively. So how do you tell them from people who are actually misunderstanding you and need clarification? A concern troll frequently:

- Has only just recently joined the site of the discussion, perhaps having joined specifically to post in the current thread. This is mostly applicable to forums and email lists, but concern trolling also happens on Facebook, blog comments, sometimes even Twitter.

- Persistently attributes ideas to you which you have not expressed, even after you have reworded your position multiple times.

- Claims to be a subscriber to your same philosophy, except for [insert idea which is incompatible with said philosophy]. For example, "radical unschoolers" who believe children must be controlled at all times.

- Relies very heavily on fallacies such as strawman, slippery slope, ad hominem, and so on.

- Invokes Godwin's law for maximum emotional impact, especially early in a discussion.

- Has no problem making ad hominem attacks (subtle or otherwise) which clearly apply to you, your family, or your friends, often while insisting that they think you are just lovely and they're only worried about those other people. When called on the fact that their attack applies to you, they continue to insist they did not mean you.

- When cornered, complains that we should all be entitled to our own opinions, after spending the entire discussion making it very clear that they do not feel you are entitled to yours.

- Leaves virtually the same comment on everything you post, even if your posts are not all on the same subject.

- Uses extreme worst-case-scenario examples in a persistent and insistent manner. This tactic is designed to convince you that your beliefs are "fair-weather" and that you'd drop them in a heartbeat when Shit Gets Real.

Now, not everyone who uses one or more of these unpleasant tactics is a concern troll. Some people are just bad at arguing. But when a discussion is going nowhere, draining your energy, and distracting you from things that are more important (including the original point you were trying to make - concern trolls are good at that), it's worth taking a step back and asking yourself: "Does this person actually care about my ideas?" A person who is worth engaging in a discussion, whether they ultimately agree or not, genuinely wants to understand where you are coming from. A concern troll does not. They are trying to undermine you. And you have no obligation to feed them! Go have fun. Let them feed somewhere else.

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