My colleague on the Meili 2.0 Team, Aaron Genest, has written a blog post about the level of animosity that he’s observed in the Sask NDP Leadership race so far.
The topic of how we talk to (and about) each other has been on my thoughts as well for a variety of different reasons – thinking of Twitter, my own blog posts about the leadership race, Ryan’s Official Facebook page, and some of our internal communications on Team Meili – plus how they all inter-relate.
Although I don’t think I’d categorize the tweets or exchanges on #skndpldr as “shocking” or “flame wars” like Aaron does, there have been a couple flare-ups (including some I’ve participated in, against Team Meili’s Social Media Guidelines (which I wrote for godssake!) and with my wife sitting beside me saying “You shouldn’t do that!”. To which I say, mea culpa and saints forgive me! )
A lot of this discussion comes down to a fundamental question of when is the line crossed from an honest exchange of differing opinions to “trolling”?
A troll is (currently) defined by Wikipedia as: “someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as a forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.”
I’d be hard pressed to find more than a handful of tweets in #skndpldr since this contest began that I’d personally classify as out-and-out trolling, especially by those who are clearly identifiable as supporters of one leadership candidate or another. Even the most provocative tweets or those targeted specifically at one candidate by a supporter of another, tend to have some basis in legitimate criticism even if the tone may leave something to be desired (after all, whoever wins is all but guaranteed to need the down ballot support of other candidate’s supporters to win.) And by far, the majority of tweets tend to be supporters of one candidate or another promoting their own chosen candidate.
It’s also important to remember that the line for when a dissenting opinion becomes a troll is different for everyone, whether on Twitter or in another forum. To use the analogy I shared with another colleague, some people tweet as if they’re writing for the New York Times, some tweet as if they’re writing for their hometown weekly and some tweet as if they’re writing for the National Lampoon (of course, you hope those Lampoon tweets have a smiley face at the minimum to help clue you in that the comment is at least meant somewhat tongue-in-cheek or humourously though that’s not always the case.) Depending on the circumstances, people will often write tweets in all three styles – maybe even within the same tweet!
Beyond Twitter, there’s other places online where people can be provocative while walking the line between “all positive all the time” to “constructive criticism” to “criticism for criticism’s sake” to “trolling” with many steps in-between and beyond these broad categories. These include blogs (and blog comments), comments sections of media outlets and so on.
I admit that I struggle with this line myself and how it fits with my own blogging. I try to be “mostly” positive but in all honesty, I don’t know if I could ever embody the “all positive, all the time” politics that Ryan represents and fulfills so well.
But that’s not who I am and not being true to myself if I tried to be. Especially on my own blog, I feel like I have the right to be a bit more pointed in my criticism. And even when some may read it as an “attack” on another candidate – such as a recent post where I observed that all leadership candidates except Cam Broten had previous professional careers that would make them naturals for certain cabinet posts – my point was not to undermine Broten but to highlight something that jumped out at me when listening to how all three framed their answers during the first Regina debate and what previous life experiences they drew mostly heavily on.
In fact, the response I’d make if I was a Broten supporter and read something like that is: “Well, if there’s no natural cabinet spot for him like the other three, the only thing left for Cam is to be Leader. Thanks for your endorsement!” (But if you respond like that, someone will inevitably label you a troll!)
There are other areas where people regularly straddle the line of what’s acceptable. Even with names attached to comments, Facebook is another space that’s filled with drive-by attacks that are often of a trollish nature. For example, we’ve seen a real uptick in the trollish comments appearing on Ryan’s campaign Facebook page recently (I haven’t been closely watching the other candidate’s pages to know if they have been as well . And even if I was looking, there’s no way to know if their policy is simply to delete any trollish comments.)
Frankly, I almost take the increase in trolls coming to Ryan’s page as a compliment since it means that others who disagree with Ryan’s message are targeting him more actively than they have in the past. If Ryan represented no threat to their views (and/or no threat to win the leadership), I doubt they’d waste the time pipe bombing his Facebook page.)
For the time being, our team’s approach is to let the dissenting comments stand as it serves no one to delete comments just because they present a different viewpoint that we don’t agree with or are stated in a less than constructive manner (a recent one simply said “I don’t support communism!” on a post that, as far as I could tell, said nothing about communism. Whew, glad you took the time to share that, ma’am! )
That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to let all comments stand and we’ve had internal discussions to find some common ground for our many social media team volunteers to make sure we have at least some internal consistency about when we know that line is being crossed.
That leads to the other place where dissenting opinions can cross the boundary into, if not trolling, then to a place where honestly intended constructive criticism can be taken as attacks, intentional or otherwise. In your internal discussions among a team, it’s important to have a positive, trusting working relationship but at the same time to be able to openly disagree with one another. The approach I try to follow (again, not always successfully) is to take it to a private forum when I feel that line is crossed – even beyond the shared spaces we have as a campaign team. Chatting with someone via e-mail or Twitter Direct Message or a private Facebook Message means, at a minimum, you’re not putting on a show for others – whether internal team members or external observers – as you discuss your differences of opinion.
There’s even one of our team members who’s smart enough to recognize that picking up the phone and calling someone when they have something important to discuss is often way better than trying to navigate the nuances of the written word no matter the online forum.
Wanna guess who that is? I’ll give you a hint – he’s running for Leader!
Positive, inspiring and adult enough to not get drawn into flame wars with people – how can you not support a guy like that?
[Edit: Here's an interesting article on Trolls and what makes them tick.]