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Accredited gurus and mountain trolls

These days, trolling seems to be everywhere. Not long ago, predatory trolling (the extreme species) was discussed in a couple of mailing lists; at another group, we talked about “professorial trolling”, the habit by some well-accredited community members to refuse to deal with other members’ opinions as if they were equals… and be offensive on the way. It is one reason for the Macuarium policy of avoiding giving any formal preeminence to domain gurus, and forcing an egalitarian field of debate (OK, so it’s reasonably egalitarian, yes) where the owner’s accreditations don’t grade the opinions stated. I.e. you can be Einstein, talk about marine physiology, and state a load of crap. Being Einstein should not allow you to believe your crap won’t be legitimately challenged.

I’ve witnessed a few instances of this. A close fit to the model could be Dave Snowden’s (Snowden being a rusty old hand in the KM field, originally married to the “storytelling” concept and sometime backed by serious industry office). He’s undeniably sharp and cultured, but he also apparently enjoys playing the loose gun: distractedly elbowing into a conversation and dropping half-cooked disqualifications on one of the parties… then inmensely enjoying the rowd, calling names and trying to bury the contrary views with ethical arguments (i.e. he doesn’t just pretend to hold the high ground in knowledge, he’s the arbiter of what it is right to think also). Or at least that is how I perceive much of his activity, including these days at ActKM; your own perception may be different.

Such loose wits are common in communities; they usually travel the borders of civility and rules, trying to spark flame wars they delight on, being nimbler than most in the word play. The problem with this “mountain troll” type, though, is that they combine this delight in annoying and an inflated self-esteem with a wide perception of accreditation. Meaning, some members think “well, if he said that, surely he has a point. Don’t quite get what he said, but the other guy must have made a mistake”. Or “Woof, that was an uncivil and denigratory low blow… but since he wrote it, it’s probably high rhetoric that I’m unable to grasp”. This saves them from instant community denigration.

There is a fine line between forceful debate and flame-baiting. You can’t tell a good troll from his (or her) first conversation, but a pattern eventually emerges: someone who routinely baits, and then abuses, other community members, is not a forceful debater, but a troll.

Even when his (or her) skill at fencing is at the service of an irreproachable ideological background, the community groupthink, or the management’s prejudices. And let me tell you, those cases exist.

When a “guru” (someone held in high regard for historical domain competence, who also usually has a school of thought to his -or her- name) indulges in trolling, conversations are disrupted, normal debate becomes impossible, contrarian views are buried in scorn, and the rules of civil engagement become too blurred. More and more members refuse to engage in the conversations thus contaminated, which (being prolific flame wars) nevertheless smother more constructive threads.

Community management that allows such asymmetry of the rules (bending them for the guru, in short) is responsible for the consequences. Often that happens because of fear for the community (“he would leave, and that would lower the level of debate”, and he has followers) of even for the image of the manager in the domain: it’s a fact that squelching a guru can bring you some bad press :-D. But it’s also a fact that making sure all members have to abide by the same code of conduct that precludes baiting and trolling as well as insults… eventually results in a much more vivacious, constructive conversation.

I know, I’ve done the experiment a few times… and yes, while 90% of community members enjoy the new environment, 10% sulked for about two days (and complained vocally in the near and far abroad) before returning. And many more in the domain felt newly welcome.

A community’s forum is their own, of course. But having a mountain troll (TM) trying to disenfranchise members from a right to their own opinion is no way to build it.

IMHO, of course. Your mileage may vary, and your moderation options too.

And yes, I’m aware that using a real person’s name to illustrate a destructive behaviour is not nice. But then, that is my own personal and fallible opinion… and I don’t believe in being nice to trolls, even when they hold some sway in the industry.



5 comentarios en “Accredited gurus and mountain trolls

  1. Thats OK Miguel, you’ve never taken criticism well in our two encounters and I think your approach to KM is far to top down. If you need to spin this sort of story and indulge in name calling to feel better about life that’s fine with me. My concerns about crude hierarchical classifications and the ethics of story telling are real ones and if anyone wants to see the exchanges they are freely available for people to judge for themselves if your little rant have validity or not.

    In the meantime my “rusty status was well oiled by the Academy of Management Organisational Development Division this evening with the prize for the best practitioner paper of 2007 (the HBR cover feature in November last year). Given that I can take the odd brickbat

    Publicado por Dave Snowden | agosto 12, 2008, 7:06 am
  2. Hi Dave, all,

    thanks for your kind permission and for reassuring me about your solid, oiled and accredited self-esteem :-), as well a for a beautiful piece of your usual debating style.

    In order to find your footsteps, anybody can look into your latest ActKM exploits (which actually put you in line as an exhibit here) and form an opinion. Or look further in the lists and find the pattern.

    However, this piece is about an “archetype” that you happen to fit into rather well, not about you. As a “guru troll” in a very specialised arena (however much you muscle into neighboring areas, true to form), you affect a very small number of people compared with some other instances observed in wider communities. It’s especially easy to find them in prosumer photography forums, for instance, even if they’re probably most harmful in scientific forums or lists.

    An interesting variant (same operating model, different origin of the accreditation) can be straying “old community hands” or “sacred cows”: people who retain a high reputation due to the role played in the community in past eras, but later act as if entitled to make hay of the common community rules. Emotional ties with the management can make it harder to stop.

    Last but not least, there’s the “ingrained” case, in which the troll is actually the manager or community leader. This can happen and leads to very dysfunctional, group-thinking communities… or fast splits. When the split can’t happen (officially sanctioned management, for instance) it probably can get very disagreeable. Not that I’ve observed any such.

    Any further ideas about this type of trolls?

    Best regards,


    Publicado por Miguel | agosto 13, 2008, 9:27 am
  3. The ActKM postings are an excellent counter to your point Miguel and I encourage people to read them. If you check the rest of the exchanges you will see other participants agreed with my concern about simple and hierarchical categorisation of community. Denning is hardly an innocent likely to be intimidated either, although I was disappointed that he countered with ad hominem positions.

    You seem to be playing an innuendo card or two here by the way, not 100% clear so I will not rush to judgement. You are certainly confusing robust criticism with Troll like behaviour.

    Given that my work over the years has been in decision support and strategy (which has encompassed knowledge management), I’m not sure what the narrow field you reference is. I think I will reject the word Troll as I have always rejected the word Guru. Sacred Cows on the other hand exist, and they are generally unable to take a challenge, resorting to wounded pride or name calling.

    As you know I believe in self-managed communities on line, so I have no experience of your final stereotype (you are talking about stereotypes by the way not archetypes)

    Publicado por Dave Snowden | agosto 13, 2008, 8:59 pm
  4. Again…

    Dave, I’m surprised that you set so much store by my opinion, and yet not enough to put forth a single reason whereby your systematic “robust criticism” is not akin to trolling. The way you just went about it in ActKM was so constructive and positive that you have gone out in a huff and stated that you would drop mailing list participation indefinitely.

    I’ll give you two signs of troll-like “criticism” that can be easily observed in your wake (lastly but not specially in that recent ActKM thread, and also in your words here):

    – First, using ad hominem argumentations (dropping judgements on the person, his/her reasons to state what he/she states, or the ideology instead of the opinion being debated) and being unable to accept that you’re doing it.

    – Second, ignoring the issue to go after the public victory: shifting the debate, picking on peripheral or lateral issues, are common rethorical tricks to unbalance the opponent and make him/her seem incompetent… or worse, lose sight of his/her point.

    Both of those tactics often infuriate and unbalance the opponent, thus shorting the debate. This does not help to reach a constructive conclusion, just to “score points” by “winning”. Only trolls participate in a debate as if it was a fencing contest.

    A defining character of the “mountain troll” or “guru troll” subspecies is that he/she tries to pull the weight of past achievement in his/her field into the conversation. This means trying to get his/her opinions judged on the “quality of the emitter” and not on their intrinsic quality, and it’s sad.

    It’s sadder when that achievement is in a different field and the “guru” still tries to leverage it: as in the Einstein example of the original article (by the way, I’m not aware of him actually ever doing so) or in the many instances in which you have brashly spoken out regarding communities of practice from an almost complete lack of experience in them.

    Your work had some bearing in knowledge management: well, any work on management topics has a bearing on this, however more or less explicit it may be. It so happens that KM is an enormous domain that can be stretched to cover any human activity. That does not mean you have deep insight in every human activity.

    And just as I would never presume to tell off Patrick Lambe concerning taxonomies (and I don’t quite like them), I find it quite irrelevant to read (again) that you believe in “self-managed” communities. If it’s a community, it’s self managed. Goes with the territory.

    This post is about “mountain trolls” or trolling by gurus. You just tried to bait me into a debate on your views on communities of practice, since you know that I strongly disagree. It will not go there.

    /Begin digression/ But to give it some context… You fail to recognize the role of the underlying resources used by the community and their proprietors; the role of community promoters and initiators; the role of external stakeholders. Communities do not happen in a vacuum, nor are managed in one. Your opinion would be a harmless delusion if you hadn’t also often “robustly criticised” the opinions of serious, real-world community practitioners, presuming not just that you know better than people who actually know, but also that your inexistent model communities are ethically right, and the rest intrinsically wrong.

    By the way, our clashes have been over issues related with knowledge models, not CoPs. /End digression/

    I’ve seen you strangle many interesting exchanges in Com-prac (for instance), a community dedicated to a topic you may have a legitimate interest in, but are not an expert… and yet presume to talk down opposing opinions and views.

    That is why I think you fit in with the archetype of a “mountain troll”.

    About your last digression/bait… “in a strict linguistic sense, an archetype is merely a defining example of a personality type”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archetype

    And now, if you insist in answering, please be aware that this is a moderated blog: either you stick to the topic or you don’t participate. I won’t be answering baits unless they serve me to further the point of the article :-).



    Publicado por Miguel | agosto 14, 2008, 9:36 pm
  5. I think I will let the words of the ActKM exchange stand for themselves Miguel in respect of who was engaged with the argument and who was using ad hominems. Evidently from the above you are no stranger to their use.

    Remember that you chose to name names in your post so you should not really be surprised to get a reaction

    Otherwise I’m not aware that I have gone off in a huff from any listserv so I don’t know where you got that one from. I’m also much more interested in current than past achievements but never mind.

    By the way – I have never censored comments on my blog, but then censorship was one of our first disagreements so I will leave you to it …

    Publicado por Dave Snowden | agosto 15, 2008, 11:09 pm


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