On naming names and calling out trolls

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Late last week, Gawker’s Adrian Chen followed through on a promise to “out” a prominent, but anonymous member of the Reddit community — “Violentacrez,” the creator or moderator of many racist and misogynist subreddits including “Creepshots” and “Rapebait.” Chen’s article “Unmasking Reddit’s Violentacrez, The Biggest Troll on the Web” is an important story, one that highlights the complexities of free speech; the beliefs and practices of the Reddit community and how these shape and reflect the Internet-culture-at-large — and how they decidedly do not; and the necessities and the limitations of privacy and anonymity, on- and offline.

It’s an important story, and it’s a difficult one. It’s a difficult one to read as a woman (and as a woman in tech) who’s been the object of the sorts of misogynist derision and harassment — again, on- and offline. It’s a difficult one too as “outing” of people against their will — even creeps like Violentacrez — gives me great pause. There are repercussions for all of this. (The person Chen outed as Violentacrez has purportedly lost his job since the Gawker article was published.)

But I am glad Chen wrote the story. I am glad he exposed some of the inner workings of Reddit, an incredibly popular and influential website with over 40 million unique visitors a month. Reddit wraps itself (Redditers wrap themelves) in the rhetoric of free speech and democracy. (But it’s worth noting that since Chen first said he was going to publish the article, the community has banned from the site all links to Gawker or any of its associated Web properties).

Chen writes

When it comes to mods, the political model of Reddit is not so much a vast digital democracy, as it’s often framed by fans and users, as online feudalism. Moderators like Violentacrez are given absolute control over their turf in exchange for keeping the kingdom of Reddit strong. Moderators become more or less powerful in direct relation to the number and popularity of the subreddits they moderate, so they try to take over other subreddits to boost their profile in the community. Inevitably, Reddit’s administrators develop relationships with the most influential moderators. Like feuding medieval lords vying for the king’s favor, moderators form alliances or wage epic flame wars over power struggles.

Does “unmasking” the troll Violentacrez destabilize this power structure? For now, it seems to have done so as the Reddit community works through the fallout — and does so now with more light shed on its norms and practices. If indeed Reddit is “the front page of the Internet” then the more transparency, the better.

There are trolls in academia too of course. That’s not to say that their online persona are always as disgusting or violent as Violentacrez. But their tactics can be similar. Be contrarian. Be abrasive. Be abusive. Try to elicit an emotional outburst from others. And it’s not just about “the lulz” either. It’s deadly serious, and there are offline practices and offline consequences as well. (See Whitney Phillips’ article in The Atlantic today for more thoughts on the Internet troll subculture and how it’s changed as it’s become more mainstream.)

What will naming the names of academic “trolls” do? I have “troll” in quotes here because it’s not quite the right word, or perhaps even the right comparison. In academic circles, this clearly isn’t “just a game” the same way that some trolls explain their actions.

I write this with Stanford math education Jo Boaler in mind, who on the same day as the Gawker article was published, posted her own story about “when academic disagreement becomes harassment and persecution.” She writes that she has “suffered serious intellectual persecution for a number of years and decided it is now time to reveal the details.” She names names (James Milgram and Wayne Bishop, both mathematicians) and details the steps they’ve taken to aggressively thwart and subvert her research.

I also write this with a friend in mind who’s told me about some of the harassment she received at the hands of her (very well known ) dissertation advisor — harassment that eventually led her to drop out of her PhD program. I have told her to name names. I’m not sure it’ll have much of an impact, but just as the Reddit community now must deal with the increased scrutiny on its machinations and culture, I’d hope that a little more transparency and openness about academia’s own culture will do it a lot of good.

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