Attrition vs Shock and Awe in the Online World

Anyone who’s spent time in any online communities will be aware of the feuds and fights that take place between users of those communities.  Whilst some degree of conflict is inevitable, there always seems to be a few people who move it form debate and discourse in to abuse and harassment.  I’ve concluded that there are two forms that this takes – attrition and ‘Shock and Awe’. 

What’s motivated me to raise this at this time?  Firstly – personal experiences and observations, secondly the return of Channel 4’s Big Brother to the TV screens and finally a piece of legislation from Scotland, which, although aimed primarily at sexual harassment, may have implications for anyone running an online community.

So…let us begin…

Let’s take a look at what I mean by attrition and ‘Shock and Awe’ in the context of online abuse and harassment.  The former is very easy to spot and most online communities are geared up to deal with it.  After all, when a few people go absolutely mad, openly libelling and abusing individuals and groups, starting flame wars on every thread they can lay their hands on and generally behaving in an ‘uber-trollish’ manner even the most laid back Moderator or facillitator will press the ‘Ban’ button and remove the crud.   In fact, on most Forums that are moderated with any degree of effectiveness, such ‘Shock and Awe’ assaults on individuals or groups are pointless; the abuser(s) get(s) thrown off, the abuse gets tidied up and typically steps are taken to point out to all and sundry that a similar performance from anyone else will result in similar consequences.

Attrition, on the other hand, is the tool of the individual or clique determined to make someone else’s life a misery.  It’s the online sniping, the gossiping, the poison pen behaviour associated with the schoolyard or the near-libellous campaigns of the tabloid press.  In many online communities such behaviour is notoriously difficult to detect and police.  Even when someone is bought to book about it, one can guarantee that a response will fall in to one of the following categories:

  • It was a joke
  • It’s free speech, innit?
  • I didn’t mean anything by what I said?
  • I wan’t referring to ‘x’

There will also typically be a reaction of doe-eyed innocence – ‘Who, me?  I’m shocked! I don’t abuse or intimidate people!  I’m the victim here, you’re all biased against me!’

The expulsion of Alex from the Big Brother House is a classic example.  Having spent a week indulging in some behaviour that one might generously describe as provocative and challenging, she ends up making the comment ‘I’m talking about my gangster friends. They got some instructions to follow out”.  Now, when pulled on this she fell in to a couple of the excuses above, and seemed staggered that any of her housemates could be concerned by her comments.

From personal experience on the receiving end of such stuff, and from attempting to police the situation – these are very difficult personal interactions to get to the bottom of.  Even in ‘well regulated’ communities there are always people who will know how to ‘game the rules of the house’ – behave in a way that is just the right side of the community norms whilst still getting the opportunity to put the knife in.  I regard it as the community equivalent of card counting in a casino or ‘diving’ on the football field; not necessarily forbidden but not at all playing the game.

The advantage of the attrition approach is that unless someone really overdoes it, they can keep it up for a very long time in any online community that has a defined set of rules and where the management team attempt to play fair by them.  and during that time these people poison the atmosphere and relationships with great effect – so much so that I regard such people as being a major threat to the ongoing survival of any online community.  The recent case of

This isn’t just an online forum problem or one of spoof facebook and MySpace profiles, of course; the stupidity of ‘happy slapping’ and abusive texting, ‘practical joke’ phone calls, all serve to provide low profile ways of abusing and harassing individuals for long periods of time.

So…what is to be done?  Which brings me to that piece of Scottish legislation.  This is a piece of legislation with it’s heart in the right place but it’s head…er…somewhere else.  Any law that potentially allows someone to be sent to prison for an abusive email or text message is rather over the top.  Similarly, attempts to use existing laws, like this case in the US, need to be handled VERY acrefully.  I’ve never believed that laws should be written on the back of single cases; it makes bad, very un-enforceable pieces of legislation.

These laws are, in my opinion, highly unsuitable for dealing with these problems, either because they offences are difficult to prove or the resultant punishments are of the ‘crush a butterfly on a wheel’ variety.  Even if the butterfly is a foul tasting, toxic creature online abuse shouldn’t get offline jail-time.

So, what’s to be done?  I remain unconvinced that laws are the answer.  Restricting myself to teh online community domain with which I’m most familiar, my thoughts on how we might start to deal with the ‘attrition abuse’ scenario are as follows.  I’m assuming that you’re in a position where you can make such policy.

Community Development

The community that permits it condones it.   Any online community that allows this behaviour to persist when it is obvious that harassment is taking place is supporting that behaviour.  If that community wishes to be viewed in that light, so be it – but the community should prepare itself for ongoing similar behaviour from existing users.  Also, as word gets out that the site is permissive in this way, it can expect to get more new users of the same ilk.  Gresham’s Law applies online as well as offline.


Quietly warn the perpetrators that they have been sussed and that they will be removed permanently if they carry on.  Regard these people as ‘clear and present dangers’ to the ongoing life of the community; deal with them as such.

Make policy statements that this sort of bitchiness won’t be tolerated.  You will encounter protests about free speech and heavyhandedness.  Just remind people of ‘The Law of Two Feet’ and that if they don’t wish to play nice they can play elsewhere.

Encourage ‘public politeness’ by closing and removing threads or messages that look like they’re going in this direction.  Don’t argue the case; just kill them off quickly.

In extreme cases (and where possible) a reminder that their behaviour is almost certainly against the Acceptable Use Policies of their Internet Service Provider may help focus their mind.

Preventive Medicine

It’s better to prevent than to resolve.  Development of publication of a community ‘ethos’ from day one is helpful here, as is providing an open community in which people are encouraged to be honest about who they are.  Cutting the anonymity down does appear to cut down the potential for long term abuse, as people tend to be better behaved when their friends and colleagues in the real world can see what sort of horse’s arse they’re being.

Encourage people to value the community they belong to; most people have the ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ approach to online communities, in that, in the words of that song, “They don’t know what they’ve got ’til it’s gone”, so anything that encourages the perception of value to individuals is worthwhile.

Be consistent in application; get people used to the idea of cause and effect, wherein a repetition of a particular course of behaviour by different individuals has the same consequences each time.

Have the guts to ‘pull the plug’ on unacceptable behaviour by popular people.  There’s a saying in natural history circles; a dolphin is a shark with better PR.  Just because Fred is well liked by a number of vociferous fans doesn’t mean that he isn’t being naughty.  Look at what people do, not what people say; character of users is more impotant than intent.  If someone behaves like a horse’s behind then they need reminding that that behaviour has consequences – whoever they are.


Most actions derived from the above are designed to identify people in the community as real people, with a clear mapping to the real world. 

Many practitioners of attrition abuse hide behind a Hotmail, MSN, Yahoo or Gmail account as well as behind a screen name.  Consider adopting Digital Spy’s approach of requiring an email address that is NOT from one of these types of provider, or charge a ‘management fee’; I think this is an excellent idea.  It links an electronic ID to a well defined email address at the level of an ISP or organisation and so creates a paper trail.

Restrict users to single accounts and be ruthless in removing duplicates.  For persistent offenders who hide behind duplicate accounts, remove the prime account and, if appropriate, pursue back to the ISP (remember not permitting anonymous email addresses?  This is why…)

Don’t permit access through proxies; yes, it’s tough if people are tryying to access the site from work but there you go.  They should be working; nailing down proxies is not always easy but ofte very satisfying.

Charge for access – well worth a thought if you have high enough quality and posters of a sufficient calibre.  Radical and possibly restricting of  numbers of users, it has the multiple benefits of forcing people to provide a paper trail, of making people value their involvement and of dissuading the abusers, who now have to pay good money to play their stupid games.

Community Size

There appears to be a size of userbase – typically above about 10,000 on a general purpose ‘social’ forum and higher on more specialised communities – where you will start getting a fair number of vocal idiots who don’t get ‘The Law of Two Legs’ and will cause endless trouble unless removed.  Don’t be afraid to restrict your community’s population to a suitable size – by closing registration if necessary.  Community is what matters, not head count.

 The bottom line

The bottom line in all this is that if you’re a memebr of a community it’s beholden on you to remember that the community becomes what it’s members wish it to be within the constraints set by the owner of the site.

If you’re the owner of the site, it’s beholden on you to remember that you can do anything you like within the law of the land to dispose of these unwanted houseguests.  You pay the bills, you call the shots.  Ignoring abusive behaviour is akin to condoning and supporting it.  There is no God-given right of free speech on an online community; those who bleat about this simply need to be told to go and set their own up where they call the shots; and if they don’t take the hint, be strong enough to push.  Be strong in setting the ethos of the site; it’s your primary responsibility and, along with your willingness to take appropriate action to deal with the practitioners of attrition, will determine what happens on your site.