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March 27, 2007

How bad are the trolls?

by Josh Bernoff

By now many of you are aware of the threats that Kathy Sierra is receiving on her blog Creating Passionate Users -- sufficiently nasty that she has decided not to present at the ETech conference as originally scheduled. Steve Rubel and Seth Godin have already weighed in on the issue along with dozens of others.

I don't know Kathy but I feel for her -- partly because I suffered an onslaught of criticism myself in the wake of a post I did on Apple iTunes. If you want to read hundreds of nasty, nasty comments, look   here. And this doesn't even include the worst and most personal ones, which I moderated out. The whole experience left me shaken, and it's not even a shadow if what's happening to Kathy. People said I should be fired and I should be shot, and I brushed it off figuring, that's what people do on the net, because they can.

As a researcher, I deal with this partly by stepping back and asking, "how big is this problem?" And you can help with that. A smarter guy would set up a poll but I'm just looking for an unscientific sampling. So please comment here and if you wouldn't mind, answer these questions in your comments:

1. How bad are the worst comments on your blog?
a. death threats
b. really nasty
c. pretty bad
d. Not so bad

2. Do you ever take them seriously?
a. Yes
b. No, but I'm thinking differently after today
c. No

3. Have you considered giving up blogging as a result?

Then tell us your story.

Update (March 30): LA Times coverage of the issues here. Quotes me, but comes to no conclusion, since there is no simple solution. I'm concerned more high profile bloggers will turn off comments.

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Josh, I think this is a great post and should begin a dialog on the topic. As I just blogged about your post on my own blog, I think it is important to clarify your question, "how big is this problem?" What "is" the problem should first be defined, since only once we know what we are facing can we then offer some responses to address it.


I've had no bad experiences. But this is really disturbing. Really disturbing.

Josh Bernoff

Thanks for your note, Jeffrey. To clarify, by "the problem" I mean, how much threatening and intimidation is happening in the blogosphere.

While there are a lot of possible "causes" for this phenomenon (e.g. anonymous posts, society condones violence, etc.) I'm just trying to figure out how much it affect serious bloggers.

John Koetsier

1 - b, 2 - a, 3 - no.

I called out a spammer; he played nice cop, then bad cop, then DMCA'd me for mentioning his name and website (!!!), then sent all kinds of threatening and derogatory emails and comment spam to me.

I put a couple of samples in this post:

It was a bit stressful for a while.


Paul Kedrosky

Hey Josh -- All the time. I just ignore it though, rightly or wrongly. I've a high enough profile and have been around long enough that I know this offensive inanity just goes with the territory.


A slightly different perspective here. Manage the blogs over at TV Guide.com and we see all sorts of comments. Mostly it's harshly snarky, though there are personal attacks. Anything like a death threat has to go. We've got reader and editor blogs and the comments can get heated in both, though editors get hit a bit harder, I believe.

Part of that is just that people expect "official" bloggers to be used to criticism and dish it out accordingly.

But this type of anonymous attack and vitriol has been part of the online landscape since at least the 1200 baud modem.

Tristan Louis

Very nasty comments come with the territory, when hosting a blog, which is part of the reason I moderate my site comments. As a minor blogger, it probably doesn't get as bad on my site as it does on more popular ones but really nasty comments have not been that uncommon (I've been lucky in that death threats have only happened in the past and none as a result of my blog).

Do I take the hate mail seriously? It depends. If it goes into specifics as to my whereabouts (address, phone number, current movement) then yes. Otherwise, no.

Have I considered stopping blogging as a result: Not yet (though my blogging been so slow lately that some people would argue otherwise :) )

I think that there's a lesson there for all involved:
for "famous" people: You have to take the good with the bad and develop a much thicker skin. The anonymity of the Internet means that your positions will be taken the wrong way by certain people and others will expand from there (I think I'm still listed somewhere out there on Usenet as a flaming bully with calls to disturb me and my address and phone number at the time, all the results of my having been an admin against usenet spam back in the days)
for everyone else: The veil of anonimity is not an excuse for being uncivil.


Good post. My responses: 1-d., 2-c., 3-no

As a food blogger, I occasionally get folks disagreeing with me on a review, but usually in good taste (excuse the pun) or harmlessly snarky. Frankly, I get more e-mail from PR types questioning my reviews than anonymous comments.


In case you or your readers would like to vote on polls on this subject, I have set up the polls for you on Vizu.com.

You can easily export the polls from Vizu to your site if you'd like. (Send me a note if you'd like some assistance.)

The poll ID #'s on Vizu are: 28830, 28832, and 28833.

You can go to the polls directly by following these three links:


I'd feel remiss if I did not also point out that polls are a great way for bloggers to gather feedback and provide interactivity for their readers in a more controlled way than comment fields.


Where is my second post? I posted 2 comments to your question yesterday, but only see one of them here. Was my follow-up comment removed?


We've got your polls up live now at http://vizu.typepad.com/vizuble/.

The Prophet

I haven't had any real bad trolls on my blog but I've had my share during my 10 years plus of running a website. I got death threats for writing a bad review of a Harry Connick, Jr. CD, and for making fun of a couple of Mormon girls picketing Nordstroms because they were selling "immodest" prom dresses. I've got some other funny stories that I'll relate when I get more time ; )


A disproportion of the disturbing hateful comments on Forums and blogs comes from young men and adolescents in the UK who despise America. It's like a video game to them and they are extremely dedicated and delight in taking us down.

Ron Shevlin

I can't believe you're equating the death threats that Kathy's received to criticism you got from your questionable analysis of Apple sales.

Shame on you.

Josh Bernoff

Thanks for your comment, Ron.

As I said in the post, I don't feel what happened to me is even a shadow of what is happening to Kathy Sierra. I am not "equating" myself to her situation.

That being said, I did get threats which, if you took them seriously (and I didn't) were very disturbing. Regardless of what you think of the research, the appropriate response is not threats of violence.



I can't believe you're equating the death threats that Kathy's received to criticism you got from your questionable analysis of Apple sales.



I have been bashed on the net and it has caused me to lose sales, for something I didn't do. Don't take it lightly. There are companies out there that claim they can restore your reputation. Not sure if they can do anything more then I can just do myself.

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