Update: Michael Sean Wright sent me the follow-up broadcast that took place after the apology. Very interesting to listen to.

I completely missed out on the bitchmeme of the weekend, which apparently was a confrontation and apology between Mike Arrington and Leo Laporte that took place on the Gillmor Gang. I won’t analyze that much here – there was a pretty in depth post on it over at Techcrunch, Valleywag, Bwana, and on Friendfeed.

If you missed the whole debacle, there’s not much I can say that wouldn’t be better said in this video of the even.

The most amusing part is Kevin Marks (?) leaving just as it heats up.

In his response to the podcast’s abrupt end and in a followup from MG Siegler, the newest addition to the Techcrunch team, they both mentioned in some detail the great deal of trouble Techcrunch gets from their trolls.

From MG’s post:

I hadn’t really gotten to involved with it personally until I was working at VentureBeat, where as we grew in size, the trolls started coming out. Now that I’m with a site that gets even more traffic, TechCrunch, the situation is getting ridiculous. While still at VentureBeat, my usual approach to trolls was either to not respond, or to be a complete and utter jackass with the most sarcastic responses possible.

Unfortunately now, it’s gotten to the point where we simply have to moderate out comments. These aren’t just any old comments, they’re either completely out of line personal attacks, or straight up threats. While I have been threatened in comments both on VB and TC, I’ve never really felt any fear for my safety — they just make me mad. But as most people know, my current boss has. The situation is so ridiculous. We write news and opinions about technology. Technology. And that’s leading to threats. Absurd.

Several folks have said that there were over 600 comments moderated out of existence at Techcrunch, and the mob scene over at Friendfeed was supposedly so bad that it lead to them shutting down the account completely.

image There are two angles on this I want to address before moving on any further:

  1. On Techcrunch Trolls: There are quite a few people who don’t really believe that there are actual threats against Mike Arrington’s life, either in real life or to the extent he says they occur in online comments.  I personally don’t closely monitor things enough to form a personal opinion. I can’t say that they don’t occur at all, since he moderates them out of existence.  I do know examples of the type of stuff he’s moderated out of existence in the past – and from personal experience, I can tell you that it doesn’t need to be a negative comment at all.  If he doesn’t like you or the company you work for, your comments will be un-published.  I don’t begrudge him that, but I’m also saying that if you want to go down the rabbit hole of the state of trolling on Techcrunch – there’s a lot to it, and it’s not all one-sided.
  2. On Friendfeed Mob Mentality: That there’s a Friendfeed mob around something isn’t exactly surprising to me. Long time readers of my site will remember the great Rizzn racist-branding of 2008. Flash mobs occur around a lot of really stupid stuff on that site.  I’ve long since stopped trying to understand the ridiculousness of it all.  It happens, and deleting your Friendfeed account doesn’t stop it from happening, as I found out – it just stops you from seeing it.  Fortunately for me, at the time when I quit Friendfeed (before re-joining several months later), I was more interested in being shielded from stupid election-year debate, rather than not being talked about.  Michael’s decision was for the other reason – and I’ll say it was an ill-thought-out decision, since people will still talk about him and Techcrunch, they just won’t say it where he can see it.

I’d like to focus a little bit on why Mike Arrington and Techcrunch attract threats, if you buy into that storyline, which I do to a certain extent.

Before I do that, I’d like to stress that I in no way endorse any threats on anyone’s life, regardless of whether you side with Mike or Leo in this debacle.  It’s taking things too far, and it’s punishable by law if you get caught.

imageI’ve always been puzzled by the sort of negative attention Mike gets, though, in contrast with the sort of attention I generally get.  You see, unlike Mike, I’m generally at home with the fact that I’m occasionally an asshole.  My job, at Mashable, was to on occasion raise the trolls to get a little bit of excitement going in our comments area (in fact, we had a recurring “Mashable Troll” contest with actual prizes).

But there’s a certain method to the madness I executed in my occasional posting of troll-bait.  In general, most of my posts aren’t troll-bait.  I, like Mike, like to imagine that the bulk of my work has redeeming characteristics.  Sometimes I tried to push the envelope in my troll-bait and see how far I could go with an unpopular position before I got ridiculous push-back.

In general, though, I tried to have good humor to dull the edges of my harshest criticism, and more importantly, I crafted a body of work that showed my true intentions of not someone who simply wants to have a constant argument, but also likes to evangelize cool tech and extend a hand up to those looking to learn the ropes.

Michael Arrington and most of the Techcrunch crew don’t have this reputation.  Things like maintaining the deadpool and s
ometimes running with unverified stories at the top of their lungs have given them a reputation for being pageview hunters and muckrakers.  Certainly, their actions should speak louder than their words.  They’ve given a leg up to a lot of deserving (and sometimes, in my not-so-humble-opinion, undeserving) companies through their conferences, meetups and general coverage.

Despite this, he attracts a whole other level of troll that I tend to get.  Occasionally, I get my doozies – my favorite are the wingnut crowd. There’s nothing better than being called a proto-fascist or a neocon new media whore.

In general, I tend to spark engaged discussion or at least a good natured laugh when we go off the deep end. I’m not sure exactly why, but I think it has something to do with the fact that I’m just having a lot of fun with my work, and my intent is not to move markets. Even when I wrote at Mashable, and comments would range into the 80 to 120+ category, there were only one or two occasions when I had to delete comments (not for their threatening nature, but because I didn’t really care to have some of the content they linked to one click away from my post – things of an offensive, pornographic or racist nature).

Still, as any avid blogger will tell you, when a comment thread gets up into that range, it’s pretty difficult to manage regardless of whether the trolls have taken up residence. It’s difficult to manage not just as a site owner, but as a image reader. I’ve been toying about with a number of WordPress plug-ins and I haven’t found exactly what I’m looking for, but ReadWriteWeb and Ars Technica have the closest implementation of what I’m talking about as a viable solution – converting the comment threads into a message board once they reach a certain threshold.

Beyond that, and more germane to MG’s concerns, hiring moderators either as full time or on the cheap isn’t a difficult proposition.  Often, in tight-knit communities, moderators work for free.  When they don’t, they can be outsourced cheaply to a Mechanical Turk-style situation – paying pennies for hordes of people to read comments and determine the level of offensiveness to the comments, and whether they should be pulled.

That, more than anything else, is what makes the claims of threat comments on Friendfeed or the Techcrunch site itself hardest to swallow – this is the company that came up with the Crunchpad, but they can’t come up with a viable crowd-sourced moderation solution for their bread and butter – the blog?