Robert Hampton

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4th April 2013

The Argonauts fight a Troll
Posted by at 7.59pm | No responses | In the News, Web

I’ve been on the Internet since August 1997. When I first got online I had an Acorn computer running RISC OS. Setting up Internet connections on these machines was a long-winded affair – you either forked out for the professionally-developed ANT Internet Suite (which cost in excess of £100) or cobbled together a solution with the freeware apps available. After much fiddling with settings, you might (if you were lucky) find yourself with a working connection. It was doable, but an onerous task for a networking newbie.

An enterprising company called VTi spotted a gap in the market and created a package called ArgoNet – a complete internet access solution, including a modem and pre-configured software, all bundled up in an AOL-style, user friendly package called Voyager. Simply install the software from the four 3.5″ floppy discs, plug in your 33.6 kbps modem and go.

I still have the software discs – I came across them recently while having a clear out. ArgoNet is long gone (as are floppy disc drives) so I don’t think this will be very useful:

ArgoNet Voyager Software

The manual, with references to the BBC A3000 computer and a painstaking explanation of how e-mail works, is a great little time capsule. The best bit, though, is towards the back, as the final six pages are devoted to the concept of “Netiquette”.

ArgoNet's 1996 guide to Netiquette

In those pre-Facebook days, the biggest online community was to be found on Usenet, a giant network of servers hosting many thousands of newsgroups – discussion forums for everything from C++ programming to The Simpsons. The system dates back to the early 1980s, when the main access point was through computers at educational and scientific institutions, or through bulletin boards such as Arcade BBS.

As home dial-up connections became more popular throughout the 90s, Usenet faced an influx of newbies, who sometimes had no concept of the appropriate way to behave online and annoyed the “old hands” with their inadvertent bad manners. The ArgoNet netiquette guide is clearly designed to help the ISP’s users – many of whom would be Internet novices – avoid some of these pitfalls.

The advice is fairly sensible stuff – don’t jump into discussions without thinking; don’t post spam; be polite; keep on-topic; that sort of thing. The whole guide is six pages long, but really it is a statement of what would later become known as Wheaton’s Law: “Don’t be a dick”.

There is also guidance about dealing with trolls. You can be forgiven for thinking that trolls are a new phenomenon. The mainstream media seem to think that trolls were invented around the same time as Twitter and Facebook. That’s not the case – they have lurked on Usenet, and other online hiding places, for years, since before Mark Zuckerberg was potty-trained. It’s hard to believe, but heated debate and angry insults existed before Guido Fawkes. Take this impressive flamewar from comp.sys.acorn.misc in 2005, for example.

In 2013, of course, the Internet is part of everyday life and is accessed by people without any prior computer knowledge, or “muggles” as I like to call them. Usenet has faded in favour of social networking sites such as Twitter, but the trolls are still very much active on the new platforms, and there is whole influx of newbies who are unprepared for them.

Last month, around the same time as I discovered the ArgoNet discs, I read a story on the Guardian web site about boxer Curtis Woodhouse, who confronted a troll that had been harrassing him online for months:

The boxer was so enraged with the tweets that he offered his followers a £1,000 reward if they could help him locate the culprit. Woodhouse’s growing number of Twitter followers chipped in and managed to track down his troll.

Woodhouse set off to find his troll, tweeting a photograph of the street on which Jimmyob88 lived. “Right Jimbob, I’m here,” he wrote, adding: “Someone tell me what number he lives at or do I have to knock on every door #itsshowtime.”

Woodhouse never actually met the troll, but the person in question backed down and apologised.

From reading the comments on that Guardian article (I know, I know, I’m sorry) there’s a lot of people who now regard Woodhouse as some sort of loveable hero and think that the “troll” got what he deserved.

I take the opposite view. It’s impossible to judge from the quoted tweets just how serious Woodhouse was about tracking down his troll – and I seriously doubt that a confrontation, if it had happened, would have turned violent – but, if it is genuine, I think it’s troubling that he’d go to such lengths. Isn’t that quite a disproportionate response to some anonymous hatred being spouted online?

I could be accused of not understanding Woodhouse’s position. I live in a safe non-celebrity Twitter bubble of 244 followers. I’ve been on Twitter for over four years and have probably had three or four insulting Tweets in all that time. Maybe my views would be different if I was getting abusive comments every day, as Woodhouse apparently was. However, in my opinion, the advice in ArgoNet’s guide (from 1996!) still holds true today:

Perhaps you will make an innocent comment which someone will take violent, irrational and abusive exception to. Or you will take violent exception to someone else’s comments (beware, there are “Trolls” out there making contentious or offensive statements just to see who they can draw into a “flame war”). Or someone will be extremely offensive about you, and you will react emotionally (those Trolls again).

So, what can you do? You can don your asbestos underwear and your paranoia and wade in with all guns blazing. Others will join in, on both sides, and hey ho, another flame war. Keeps the adrenalin flowing, the heart pumping and the brain at Pentium temperatures. And by the time all the arguments come round for the twentieth time, it can become incredibly boring.

The best response to an insult or an offensive comment is to ignore it completely. Without fuel to keep it going, the argument will soon die. If you appear to have offended someone (however innocently), and the complaint has substance, then swallow your pride and apologise. If the complaint has no substance, ignore it. Patience, tolerance, and a determination not to be provoked can pay dividends in these situations.

I love Twitter, but things like this just make me depressed. I couldn’t imagine tweeting an abusive comment at someone, as Woodhouse’s original “troll” did, and equally I’m disappointed that the boxer felt the need to respond in that way.

How I wish that social networking site users (especially “celebrity” Tweeters and would-be trolls who wind them up) had that ArgoNet Netiquette guide by their side when they were at their keyboard.

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