The value of a troll.

Often the tendency with the web is to think about things in a binary fashion, engineering around the notion that everyone uses a smartphone or everyone has facebook.

What about those that don’t? The outliers.

Who are we leaving behind? Is this important? What are we missing on this trajectory?

Venessa Peach (@venessapaech) planted this seed in my head last month at Swarm Sydney Online Community Management Conference  and it’s been growing ever since.

Her work on trolls as community exiles offers a fascinating insight into why we need to re-consider the place of these outliers online, and the important role they play keeping humanity in our technical algorithm.

For a community manager, trolls reflect what lies outside the very thing we are creating, consequently making us better at what we do and signaling success.

“True community takes time, this means that along the journey, trolls are part of this. If you find a troll, you’ve succeeded. Without a tribe, you cannot have an outcast.”

As a community establishes itself, it seeks out roles for people to play; expert, mentor, newbie, and villain. You’d see this in any community, from your workplace to your family. The same as the role-playing occurs in the natural world, predator and prey, cosite and host.

A special role in the community, the invested exile/troll.

Bear in mind the role of the troll Venessa describes is no ‘drive-by’ troll. We all know and have experienced the troll who is focused on a getting a reaction, online meltdown, or inflicting chaos, no matter where they find it. The ‘community exiles’ which Venessa refers to are different. They are the well-established members who know the ins-and-outs of the community; they find where the intimacy is occurring and fire neatly at members where it hurts. They are as knowledgeable about what makes them tick as the Community Manager.

And they are rare.

It’s an interesting space to lean into. So few established communities exist today that could attract such a level of emotional investment from a troll, that

a) their status is not transferable to another community

b) they have a heightened sense of ownership over the community.

Lonely Planet’s Thorntree forum, over a decade in existence, is one such place.

Exiled trolls at Lonely Planet’s ThornTree would create 50-100 identities a day’ Venessa explained, ‘or stockpile accounts so they can keep coming back and wearing you down.

It goes against our nature, as a Community Manager, to let someone disrupt the very space we have created. Yet despite the frustration, Venessa argues we need these type of figures in our world, online and off.

A community at maturity has established rituals, and trolls are a part of this experience.

They do not fit, are difficult to deal with, and they are the last things we think about in the early stages of building a community.

But maybe we should be considering if the theatre they bring is worth something. They certainly know how to unpick what’s built, and that acknowledges you have in fact built an invested community. If they to serve to highlight diversity, and draw attention to dark corners of your community then they serve to remind us that humanity is not neat, and no algorithm, design or technology can ignore it.

I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of  Digital Dialogues and community 2.0: After avatars, trolls and puppets by Tara Brabrazon where Venessa Paech’s chapter on community exiles features.

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