I have one thing in common with Ta-Nehisi Coates


He has a Horde? One difference is that he was more ruthless in culling that horde. And that made it difficult to sustain — this resonated with me.

He doesn’t sound optimistic about the future of the comment section. Instead, he sounds tired: of deleting and banning trolls, of trying to police and curb an online community’s worst—and, it often seems, most natural—instincts, all in the name of a goal he doesn’t feel he’s ever achieved. “To be honest, I can’t say how long this will go on for,” he told me, addressing the possibility that he might someday close comments entirely, like his colleague James Fallows. “It never quite became what I wanted it to be. I never really figured out how to get people from different perspectives in a place without defaulting to these usual conversations.”

Sometimes comments work, sometimes they end up being self-destructive. It’s a hard thing to balance.

It’s also the case that those damned trolls have a strategy that is sometimes effective — no matter what you do, there are assholes who make it their obsessive, petty hobby to tear it down.


  1. boof says

    And if you remove the comment section they will crow elsewhere about how it was their wonderful reasonable, rational argumentation that you couldn’t handle and how you are now scared of exposing your arguments to criticism.

  2. Matt says

    Coates has only had 2 or 3 posts with open comments in the last 6 months, and it’s been more than 6 months since he actually commented on any posts himself. I get the sense that he’s done with that format, or at least on extended hiatus. (He’s quit Twitter before too, but is back to using it again.) He doesn’t have his co-moderators anymore and his posting volume has been way down recently (though that may be because he was writing a #1 NYT Bestselling book.)

  3. redwood says

    One reason I went into education was because I liked to build things up rather than tear things down. I don’t quite understand the mindset of making others hurt or unhappy. What does the person doing the action gain from that? A feeling of superiority? Lack of empathy rides again.

  4. says

    redwood @5:
    I suspect you’re looking at it from the wrong perspective. This is from earlier in 2015, but it’s still an illuminating peek into the mind of a former troll who spent time trying to hurt Lindy West and make her unhappy:

    On Friday, public radio series This American Life dedicated an episode to stories that revolved around anonymous Internet complaints and abuse. Titled “If You Don’t Have Anything Nice To Say, SAY IT IN ALL-CAPS,” the episode touched upon online feedback in various forms: some sent to the operators of a “momzilla” zoo webcam, some sent to This American Life’s producers, and some sent by a robot to its creator.

    Most of the stories focused on the recipients of “bile and hate,” but one turned the tables by calling an apologetic ex-troll on the phone, at which point he catalogued and apologized for his use of anonymous, hurtful speech.

    In 2013, author and former Jezebel columnist Lindy West wrote an article about Internet trolling—an issue she said is “part of her job” due to responses to articles about such topics as feminism and rape jokes—that included an intense accusation: Someone had gone to the trouble of creating a fake Twitter profile for her recently deceased father. Her segment on Friday’s TAL episode explained that she’d received at least one tweet from that fake account. “I didn’t keep a copy for my scrapbook, but it was mean, and my dad was never mean, so it couldn’t be from him,” West said. “Also, he was dead.”

    The Twitter account’s level of detail indicated that its creator had done his homework about West’s family, including a real photo of her father and a bio that read, “Embarrassed father of an idiot; the other two kids are fine.”

    Once she saw the account and its tweets, West said she thought about taking the typical advice: “Don’t feed the trolls.” But after considering issues that other trolling victims have dealt with, including having home addresses posted by antagonistic imageboard users, West concluded, “Silence is what the trolls want.” She chose instead to describe the trolling at length in a Jezebel column. “I wrote candidly, angrily, about how much that troll hurt.”

    The following day, West received a surprise in her inbox: a confession from the troll in question.

    “I’m attacking someone who never attacked me”

    “I don’t know why or even when I started trolling you,” the e-mail read. “I think my anger from you stems from your happiness with your own being. It served to highlight my unhappiness with myself.” The e-mail went on to confess “multiple anonymous accounts,” including the one named after her father, that had since been deleted.

    “I can’t apologize enough,” the letter concluded. “It finally hit me: there’s a living, breathing human being who’s reading this shit. I’m attacking someone who never attacked me.” The e-mail also included an attachment confirming that the troll had donated $50 in West’s name to the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, where her father had received care.</blockquote

    How an Internet trolling victim bonded with her worst troll

  5. Thumper: Who Presents Boxes Which Are Not Opened says

    As a black man speaking out, in strong terms, about white supremacy in the US, I imagine TNC is the target for some particularly nasty trolls, too.

  6. redwood says

    Tony! @ 6
    Thanks for that passage–I hadn’t seen it before. It’s good insight into how trolls think. In real life I’ve noticed that unhappy people want to tear down happy people. One difference is that in the physical world we can put physical distance between ourselves and people we don’t want to be around. That distance doesn’t really exist in the cyber world.
    I did notice that the above troll’s empathy kicked in–“it finally hit me: there’s a living, breathing human being who’s reading this shit”–so it really is a matter of consideration of others’ feelings and situations that’s important in how we interact with said others.

  7. says

    redwood @8:

    so it really is a matter of consideration of others’ feelings and situations that’s important in how we interact with said others.

    Yup. Now if only there was a way to successfully teach others how to be more empathetic.

  8. petesh says

    With all due respect, I think a bigger difference between this joint and T-NC’s is the simple volume of comments. He attracted hundreds, maybe thousands (they were already called The Horde when I first saw them), when he was blogging regularly. Threads would get so long that it was hard to jump in without feeling you’d missed some vital aspect of the discussion. He must have spent hours moderating, and I don’t blame him for backing off, he has better things to do with his time. For a while there, though, he did seem to be working out his thoughts and feelings and the feedback likely helped.

    Krugman, by contrast, lets comments run and gets lots, but (he wrote lately) almost never moderates them himself, and very likely does not read them. I don’t have any sense of a community around his blog, but it’s always interesting to read what often turn out to be the first drafts of his columns.

  9. Thumper: Who Presents Boxes Which Are Not Opened says

    @ Tony! and Redwood

    I really do think that’s the root of most internet trolling. You get to pour all your anger and frustration out; it’s cathartic, and no one get’s hurt because it’s just words on a screen!

    Except of course it is a real person, but it’s easy to forget that when you can’t see them, just some text and an avatar. There’s a reason these trolls don’t act like that to people’s faces; because with a person right in front of you your empathy kicks in.

  10. says

    @redwood 5

    I don’t quite understand the mindset of making others hurt or unhappy.

    It’s because if you make other people feel hurt or unhappy enough they will change their behavior. Maybe they were mad unhappy for good reasons (shamed racists) or bad reasons (People supporting taking global warming account) but that does not matter as much on the level of just “making people change their behavior”. On a meta level it’s about making people do things that you want.
    “Trolling” is a complicated thing. On the face of it basically means “this person is disrupting my social space and I don’t like it” as it is normally used. Completely honest people can be thought of as trolls.

    @petesh 10
    Comment volume matters too. It’s not an easy thing but at some point criticism becomes harassment.

  11. JoeBuddha says

    One of King Ashoka’s successors supposedly asked a wise man how he could be as famous as his great ancestor. The answer was said to be: There are two ways to make your name. One is to be very good. The other is to be very evil.
    Since it was hard to be good, but very easy to be evil, he chose the latter. As have the trolls. End of lesson. ;)