Last month the popular public radio program and podcast This American Life featured a story by writer Lindy West about her rather amazing encounter with an Internet “troll,” an anonymous individual posting nasty things about her online.
West said she was accustomed to this kind of abuse but the Tweet she received last summer struck her at her core. The troll had created a Twitter account in the name of West's recently deceased father, posting a message about how ashamed he was of his daughter.
“Conventional wisdom says never feed the trolls,” West said on the broadcast. “Don't respond. It's what they want. I do that. It doesn't help.”
And in the case of her father's impersonator, she couldn't ignore it. So against everyone's advice she used her next column to talk about how deeply the troll had hurt her.
Then an amazing thing happened. The troll emailed her, apologizing profusely. This American Life arranged to record a telephone call between West and her former tormentor, which it included in the program. You can listen to it here.
West, of course, is not the only person on the receiving end of online torment and abuse. It's rampant on both social media and dating sites, so Netherlands-based TagDates, a hybrid social media platform and dating site, gets to see it up close.
Introducing clean mode
To enhance civility on its site, TagDate this week launched “clean mode,” a feature that automatically changes the language – and obviously the writer's intent – when the message or comment turns nasty.
“Content of inbox and status updates are subjected to the default 'clean mode' which convert high frequency foul language and dirty words into cheerful and positive-spirited alternatives,” the company says.
Imagine a troll's horror at firing off a nasty message to someone and seeing their words transformed into something like “you look like a very nice person!” A smiley-face emoticon would be a crowning touch. The company makes clear it is trying to strike a blow for Internet civility.
“The new feature is one key step for TagDates towards building a healthy community where men and women alike do not have to be subjected to harsh languages on visiting landing page sent to them by others,” it said.
Clean mode is used by default but TagDates says users may turn it off when they would like to know what was written in the original messages or statuses that were modified.
Part of a trend?
Some of these tactics may soon be adopted in the effort to stem online bullying. Embrace Civility in the Digital Age, an organization promoting what its name implies, is among the anti-bullying groups thinking outside the box. It says what schools are doing to combat the problem isn't working.
Meanwhile, a 2013 survey suggests Americans are getting fed up with rude behavior. The survey found respondents reporting personal experience with incivility twice a day, on average.