Guns and Trolls are not Weather
When people say nothing can be done, they’re wrong.
Two big things happened this week. On the surface, they have nothing in common. But something in my head clicked between them.
On Thursday, a 19-year-old walked into a high school in Florida with an AR-15 and killed 17 kids. The most notable thing about the latest mass murder was how unsurprising it all was. Another disturbed person, another weapon of war, more body bags, and the same old arguments.
On Friday, Mueller’s probe in the Justice Department indicted 13 Russians for a well-orchestrated campaign to influence the 2016 election with trolling, ad buys, identity theft, and lots more. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are all implicated. The Russians weaponized our social media to make us all angry and help Trump. It worked.
These two events have little in common. The overlap was in the reactions.
The usual A-rated NRA politicians, all Republicans, came out to remind us that now was not the time to talk about gun control. Ted Cruz’s speech was well rehearsed by now: “Someone who has decided to commit this crime, they will find a way to get the gun to do it.”
They talk about gun deaths like weather. So we can say “19 kids dead today” like it’s the same thing as “it’s stormy out there.” It’s just weather. Whatcha gonna do?
The responses to the indictments were similar. Once you got past the partisans crowing about how this proved their side was right, you got the usual “it’s Chinatown, Jake” responses.
It’s just the internet! There are always trolls. Can’t be helped! A bad person who wants to make trouble on the internet will always find a way. And besides, free speech. Whatcha gonna do?
It’s the same argument. These bad things, they’re just weather. Unavoidable. No point trying to stop them.
Now, I’m not an expert on guns. I’ve fired some and they scared the shit out of me, as they should. I was raised on the same “hero solves problems with guns” media and video games as everyone else. I’ve studied the evolution of the 2nd amendment. I know it’s complicated, and that I’m not an expert.
But I am an expert in online community. I spent two decades doing it. I wrote a book about it. I charged some of the biggest tech companies by the hour to talk about it. I’ve created and run these communities from scratch. And here is a thing I know to be true: you can create an online community without trolls. It’s possible. I’ve done it. More than once.
There’s lots of ways to do it, and you have to do all of them. You have to set up a high barrier to entry so that it’s not worth the time or money for trolls to bother. You have to use human moderators, because community problems are as weird and specific as humans are. You have to prioritize your members over your advertisers or sponsors. You have to disallow bots and automated member creation. You have to prioritize the health of the community over any individual member. You have to create systems that encourage community wisdom and discourage mobs. You have to design with empathy and compassion for how the system makes people feel. It’s hard, really hard, but it’s possible.
Here’s a concrete example: I once worked with a community that was created just for women who were second wives. They needed to talk safely about incredibly personal things. So we set the barrier to entry high. You had to put in a credit card in order to join — not to pay, just to confirm your identity. The whole site was behind a login, so it was safe from being indexed by search engines. Your real name followed you around on everything you posted. But we made exceptions for areas that were very intimate, where the members could choose to disclose who they were or post anonymously (note how you still had to be a member to post anonymously). We used direct messages to take conversations away from community view when things got tense. And more, lots more. It was a lot of work, but the community deserved that work.
There were no trolls in this community. No bots. People worked hard to get in, and were grateful to be there, so the flameouts were rare, and when they happened, people were talked down by friends. It was a real community.
Now of course, every community is different. That kind of extreme barrier to entry wouldn’t work for everyone, nor should it. But you can lower the barrier to entry and still create a strong, healthy community. You just need tools for people to manage themselves and each other. You need to prioritize the health of the community at every step.
It can be done. I’ve seen it done. I’ve done it. I know for a fact it’s possible.
I’ve spent my whole career listening to people who don’t want to try say that it’s impossible. “That’s just the internet, man.” Well, maybe. Or maybe that’s just the internet we’re building because we care more about growth charts and ROI than the communities we build. And when the community we’re discussing is The People of the United States of America, don’t we deserve better?
So when I hear people say that nothing can be done about guns, that sacrificing children on the alter of the 2nd amendment is just the way it is, I think of all those same people who say that there’s nothing to be done about trolls.
And I know they’re both wrong.
In the end, the real division in our country is not Republicans vs Democrats, Boomers vs Generation X vs Millennials. The real division is between people who see a problem and want to fix it, vs people who sit in the trash fire and say, “whatcha gonna do? It’s fire season.”
I’m with the fixers. And it’s time for us fixers to get to work. We will fix the gun problem. We will get Russia out of our social media. We will make communities better than Facebook and Twitter. We will do the work. Because nobody else will. And our community deserves the work.