Toxic behavior — trolling, threats, bullying, releasing the sensitive information of other users — seems to be a chronic problem on social networks. Many sites are working earnestly to make their sites less prone to abuse. But how many solutions are there to the problem?
Recently Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the internet, noted that Twitter’s user environment is having some problems:
I wonder about Twitter and the way it’s made, and that people tend to retweet stuff that really gets them going, and that’s not really great […] So I think we have responsibility to think how to build systems that tend to produce constructive criticism and harmony as opposed to negativity and bullying.
However, creating these systems is easier said than done. Reddit has received criticism for trying to ban behavior but not speech, by shutting down problematic subreddits. Some argue that the issue with Reddit is the anonymity and the ease of mobbing content up or down through the voting system. These problems probably stem from the structures of social sites and the user base they attract.
Gaby Hinsliff, columnist for The Guardian, points towards a startup called Civil Comments that may solve many problems by altering the very structure of comment systems and instilling a sense of community in users. When users go to comment on an article, they must first rank random comments from other users for civility, then reexamine their own comment. Hinsliff points to the success of Uber’s passenger-driver rating system:
Asking humans to judge each other can be a surprisingly powerful thing. Take the Uber taxi app’s rating system […] a way of creating a reciprocal relationship between two strangers, where each has a reputation to lose. The company doesn’t spell out the consequences for passengers who get bad reviews because, frankly, it doesn’t need to; passengers go to surprising lengths to keep a good rating without really understanding why it matters.
Even if users don’t have a sense of community towards the other members of a site, it’s possible they would be presented with this system, which could lead to more constructive dialog. Technology itself can be a helpful indicator of trolling behavior but an integrated solution could bring us closer to a more respectable comments section.
There are still significant challenges to a generally kinder and more constructive Internet. Regular users can often whip themselves into a frenzy and get lost in mob mentality. It’s also possible that the trolling diehards will never tire, and will continually add to their ranks.
There may be a nicer internet somewhere in the future, but until we begin trying new moderation methods, we’ll be stuck with the what we have — for better or for worse.