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.