Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Trolls and the Broken Window Theory


“University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”

– Henry Kissinger

Why are people so nasty on blogs?  

Why aren’t some people able to have a discussion about the merits of a candidate, or strengths and weaknesses of a specific strategy without getting personal or mean about it? Are the stakes really so low in some parts of the blogosphere, that people feel the need to be nasty about everything?

Short answer.


For many people, flaming and hostility are the only reasons to get online. These are folks who suffer from a chronic case of assholicism.



One who purposely and deliberately (that purpose usually being self-amusement) starts an argument in a manner which attacks others on a forum without in any way listening to the arguments proposed by his or her peers. He will spark of such an argument via the use of ad hominem attacks (i.e. ‘you’re nothing but a fanboy’ is a popular phrase) with no substance or relevence to back them up as well as straw man arguments, which he uses to simply avoid addressing the essence of the issue.

It’s much easier to criticise and inflame than it is to be creative and stimulating.

This is as true for the blogosphere as it is for the real world. Not all trolls are loud, obnoxious and obvious though. One of my favorites subset of trolls is one that does not fit this specific criteria.

The “polite” troll. You know exactly what I’m talking about. These are usually the ones railing against opression and all about their right to spew whatever nonsense they are peddling that day. They usually offer up blisteringly polite, well written ‘snake under the rose’ posts that are perfectly within the bounds of decency, but create unrest and dissatisfaction with cutting accuracy.

Disruptive people, who keep themselves just at the edge of acceptable behavior. They can drive away the sane people just as much as the loud and obnoxious obvious trolls.

These are the posters all too often cry innocence and hide behind the very worthy excuse of  open discussion, but are frequently just trying to stir up trouble. Those are usually the ones accusing trusted and long time users of promoting censorship and trollish behavior.

Blogs have to walk a fine line though.

– Heavy handed mods find themselves with a dead community, because people do not want to be dictated to.

– Mods that exercise too little input also find themselves with a cobweb, because trolls come in and run people off.

This last point is the one in which I’ll expand in this diary.

I came across this very interesting article.

Which tries to apply the Broken Window theory to the blogosphere.

The book is based on an article titled “Broken Windows” by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, which appeared in the March 1982 edition of The Atlantic Monthly.[2] The title comes from the following example:

“Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.

Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars.”

A successful strategy for preventing vandalism, say the book’s authors, is to fix the problems when they are small. Repair the broken windows within a short time, say, a day or a week, and the tendency is that vandals are much less likely to break more windows or do further damage. Clean up the sidewalk every day, and the tendency is for litter not to accumulate (or for the rate of littering to be much less). Problems do not escalate and thus respectable residents do not flee a neighborhood.

The theory thus makes two major claims: that further petty crime and low-level anti-social behavior will be deterred, and that major crime will, as a result, be prevented. Criticism of the theory has tended to focus only on the latter claim.

Original in The Atlantic (1982).

This was in the news again because of a recent article in The Economist in which the theory is proved correct in an experimenal setting.

A PLACE that is covered in graffiti and festooned with rubbish makes people feel uneasy. And with good reason, according to a group of researchers in the Netherlands. Kees Keizer and his colleagues at the University of Groningen deliberately created such settings as a part of a series of experiments designed to discover if signs of vandalism, litter and low-level lawbreaking could change the way people behave. They found that they could, by a lot: doubling the number who are prepared to litter and steal.

How does this theory apply to blogs you ask?

Kottke says a bit like so :

Much of the tone of discourse online is governed by the level of moderation and to what extent people are encouraged to “own” their words. When forums, message boards, and blog comment threads with more than a handful of participants are unmoderated, bad behavior follows. The appearance of one troll encourages others. Undeleted hateful or ad hominem comments are an indication that that sort of thing is allowable behavior and encourages more of the same. Those commenters who are normally respectable participants are emboldened by the uptick in bad behavior and misbehave themselves. More likely, they’re discouraged from helping with the community moderation process of keeping their peers in line with social pressure. Or they stop visiting the site altogether.



Unchecked comment spam signals that the owner/moderator of the forum or blog isn’t paying attention, stimulating further improper conduct. Anonymity provides commenters with immunity from being associated with their speech and actions, making the whole situation worse…how does the community punish or police someone they don’t know? Very quickly, the situation is out of control and your message board is the online equivalent of South Central Los Angeles in the 1980s, inhabited by roving gangs armed with hate speech, fueled by the need for attention, making things difficult for those who wish to carry on useful conversations.

I wonder if we could test this theory out.

Maybe track a blog and see how things develop over time.


Other than the quasiracist South LA dig I agree with the author 100%. I get a more Medieval vibe from it though.

Kind of Braveheart meets The Warriors meets 9/11 truthers thing. We all know what the end result of a poorly moderated blog is. But few people know their is a Law in monetary economics that can be applied to this phenomena as well.

Gresham’s Law

Gresham’s law says that any circulating currency consisting of both “good” and “bad” money (both forms required to be accepted at equal value under legal tender law) quickly becomes dominated by the “bad” money. This is because people spending money will hand over the “bad” coins rather than the “good” ones, keeping the “good” ones for themselves.

Gresham’s Law of trolls:

Trolls are willing to use a forum with a lot of thoughtful people in it, but thoughtful people aren’t willing to use a forum with a lot of trolls in it.

Which means that once trolling takes hold, it tends to become the dominant culture.

What do you say Moose?



  1. i just had one of these moments:

    but im kinda frustrated that the troll slaying ignores the venican/reily defenbacher’s of the world.  and take it from me they are as trollish as the others.

  2. Jjc2008

    knows that trolls exist in real life.

    Over the years I have seen them:  in the classroom, on the playground, they are there to “stir” things up.  You know it, they know it.

    The extreme trolls are also known as bullies.  In many ways, they are easier to deal with.  But the “border” trolls can be so frustrating.

    They know what buttons to push to get the rest of the class going.  They are ready, willing and able to set off a mess of nastiness and make life miserable for certain kids.

    On the net, the trolls can drive people off bbs.  But in the end, except in extreme cases, it is easier to deal with the trolls in the cyber world. In your class room, you have to deal on a daily basis.  

    I wish I knew the answer.  

    I was a part of the discussion on the picture.  Once again I saw a huge divide in reaction between the genders.  And while some crossed over, some younger women making light of it, it seemed those most angered were women; those thinking it was just a joke and calling for others to lighten up, get over it, or get a life, were younger males.

    Favreau is a 27 year old in a public job.  If he had chosen teaching as a career and pulled that stunt using a student’s picture, a colleague’s picture, or a superior’s picture, he would have lost his teaching job, and possibly his teaching license.  I started teaching at age 22.  I was considered the ADULT in charge of 25 children.  If in fact, I was able to be responsible, I would lose my job.  I know young teachers who did lose their jobs for being stupid and irresponsible.   His age is no excuse.  His experience is more vast than many at his age.  

    Whether or not he is fired, I really don’t care but to trivialize this as “he’s just a young guy having some stupid fun” is insulting to me.  Why is mocking another person this way considered fun, anyway?

  3. KLRinLA

    very well written diary.  ‘Tis truly wisdom.  Similarly in sports, it is interesting how sometimes an amazing team or player can play down to the level of the opponent.  I found that to be true in tennis, some very psychological goings on.  

    BTW, My new favorite new nugget is from Mr. Blask, fuck those fucking fuckers

  4. spacemanspiff

    … in my diary over at the D.

    I knew that it would be obvious troll bait but still …

    … pretty funny that they would be so obvious about it.

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