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Goodbye, Mr. Wolfson (or, How Not to Let the Turkeys Get Your Down)

Sadly, it seems that Adam Wolfson has given up the ghost. That is, Cicero's Ghost, which is no more. It seems that after Adam posted an entry about him getting a summer job, several anonymous authors took it upon themselves to call him an ass, a braggart, and probably some less savory things.

To a great degree, thus is life online. There's already been discussion of this at En Banc, and Heidi excoriates the 'Little Green Anonymous Monsters' as well as I ever could. [1] But for all that, the problem is not going to disappear. Critics, and especially anonymous critics, peppered WWIV bulletin boards and NNTP, and they're not about to disappear from the web anytime soon. So I'd like to offer a practical guide for some of my fellow law school bloggers, from someone who's skinned a few trolls [2] and has a few flamewars under his belt:

1. Use the Delete key: I don't know where the idea became popular, but some bloggers believe that because we open up our comments sections to the public, anyone has the right to say anything they wish on our site, and that not allowing them violates some ethic of free speech. To which I urge you to answer: bollocks. You're the proprietor of your site, and if someone is being abusive, mean, or otherwise distasteful, there's no harm in using the delete key. If the person is persistent, you can use IP banning or .htaccess (assuming your system allows this) to make it even more difficult for them to post.

Just like a barman can ban disruptive patrons, there's no reason for you to let someone else make your life miserable. So long as you're blogging for fun, no one should get to take that away.

2. Invite a Buddy on a Troll Hunt: Out in the deep, dark forests of the internet, it always helps to have friends. When some anonymous critter decides to start having a go in your comments section, it's a perfect time to send that friend an email inviting them to go troll hunting. Tell them that someone's being ridiculous, and give them carte blanche to let that person have it with both rhetorical barrels. You get some of your best comments that way.

For instance, my frequent readers will be familiar with Martin, an old friend and co-worker of mine who is easily as far to the left as I am to the right. Whatever our political views, he's usually quite civil. But I take a lot of comfort in the fact that I can wake up in the morning, find that someone's been an idiot, and there'll be Martin saying something like, "Would X's mother please take his crayons away from him?" Priceless.

3. Use it as a moment of self-reflection: There are mean, spiteful, cruel people in the world, and the truly horrible thing about them is that sometimes they're right. One thing to consider whenever you receive hurtful criticism is whether, in the midst of the vitriol, there's a grain of truth. For instance, earlier this week, Carey decided to post his grades in his blog. He got a lot of flack for it.

Now, I most explicitly don't condone anyone who sent hate mail to Carey. That being said, I'm not sure what he did was right, and it probably made some people feel pretty badly, since he was disappointed with a GPA which was, frankly, pretty damn good. (Congrats, by the way, Carey.) The very forcefulness of the language thrown back at him may have made him stop, think a bit, and reconsider. Knowing him, he probably didn't change his mind (and I'm not certain he should have), but those moments of injured reflection sometimes make us better people. And the rest of the time, we can be satisfied that our subsequent fury with such trolls is rightfully ours.

I've written a lot of things on here that I've later regretted, and I've said some things online I wish I could take back. A lot of what prompted me to rethink what I say and how I say things was spurred on by quite vehement reactions from readers that shocked me and made me rethink my position. It would be nice if the people who pointed these things out to us were always nice people, but the world doesn't seem to provide every Emperor with a kind little girl to show him that he has no clothes.

4. Consider the source: In contrast to the advice above, if you get a particularly hurtful commentator who doesn't add much to your thoughts but does hit you pretty hard, consider this: there's a reason they call cheap shots cheap. If you've enabled anonymous posting, then many of your commentators will have precisely nothing to lose by cutting you down, and they'll think they've got everything to gain.

Well, look at it this way: they're reading you, aren't they? You're not reading them. You didn't come to some work of theirs, prostrate yourself before them, and beg for mercy from their wit and intelligence. Most of the time, they don't have the backbone to give themselves a name. They're trying to make themselves feel big, but they can only do it by slicing at the kneecaps of people bigger than they are.

Or to put it another way, 'a man can be judged by the caliber of his enemies.' I consider to be an enemy to be someone inimical to my interests who has the power to change what I can or wish to do. So really, it's just a matter of asking yourself if this person is worth accepting as an enemy. Does he add to your caliber? I mean, if Eugene Volokh or Larry Solum were to show up in my blog and call me an idiot, it would be worth engaging. Even if I lost, the game would be worth the risk. But an anonymous poster leaving the single message, "That was pretty idiotic?" Not worth calling an enemy, really, is he?

Anyway, that's my four point suggestion for living with the fact that trolls will never really be eliminated from the Blogospheric ecosystem. As always, constructive commentary and further advice is appreciated.

[1]: Quoth Heidi: "So learn to be constructive now. It'll save you a Harley and a wooden love affair in thirty years."

[2]: I don't know if it's still current parlance, but 'troll' used to refer to someone who roamed about USENET boards looking to get into fights and disrupt things.


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You know, I agree with most of what you said. (By the way, I'm flattered to have made it as the inspiration for a post) ;) However, I'd add a fifth point: Remember why you blog. In my specific case, I just got tired of having to watch what I said because of the tiny nature of the law school community. I started up the blog to have some fun in writing and maintaining the site, but it just lost its lighthearted nature for me because of this last instance and others that I didn't really talk about much on the site. So, I'd say that one should keep up a blog as long as it is fulfilling the reason they started it in the first place. You, Mr. Rickey, like to point out the follies of us misguided liberals. :) I liked to be more personal and emotional with my posts. My perspective is that I'm just tired of having to watch everything that I say. While I'll debate the hell out of an issue, I mainly blogged to just while away the time during study breaks and hopefully entertain others. Since that became a burden, I figured I'd end the blog experience and pick that Great American Novel back up and finish it. Regardless, people should definitely learn the pitfalls and warnings about blogging. Some dude in my Corporations class started blogging under a pseudonym a few days ago and slammed the professor and other students pretty harshly. Today, at the beginning of class, the prof took a second to mention to the class that weblogs aren't as anonymous as we might think and that there are very easy ways to determine who is saying what. Just food for thought, you know? (I think you had a post on this very subject a couple of months ago) Anyway, this comment is getting ridiculously long. Here's to a couple more years of debating on your webspace (you overly moralistic, narrow-minded conservative). :)
Adam: I absolutely agree that if you weren't enjoying what you were doing anymore, don't do it. The post was intended for folks who do enjoy it, but are worried about the turkeys. And yes, I have written on anonymous blogging, and why I think it's a false sense of security. (The links are in the article above.) As for liking to slam the misguided liberals: looking at the articles currently on the homepage of my site, I've got two slams on conservatives, a compliment to the libertarians, and a single slam on liberals. And that last is only in the context of the comment on libertarians. I'm falling behind on my quota, Adam. Stop reminding me!
Your point about looking at criticism closely is a good one, and one that doesn't get made often enough. Assuming that you blog because you want to mix it up (only one reason among many good reasons to blog), you've got to be prepared to take some hits from time to time. Many of these criticisms will be juvenile and completely useless, but some will inevitably be on target. And that's great by me. In my experience so far, the occasional direct hits have more than compensated for the useless flamebait. But of course, if this balance should change, I'll try to implement some of the great suggestions you've given here...
I really struggled with the whole idea of deleting offense comments on my blog. Not that I, er, have one. I didn't want to be a blog Nazi. Then I realized it was MY blog, not the latest installment of Crossfire. And everything has been much happier since. :)

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