Higher Education’s Troll Hunter
Great teachers always seem to have command over their classroom, but what happens if your classroom meets online and has thousands of students? Even the greatest teachers in these situations might need the help of a troll hunter like Tanja de Bie.
While Tanja dubs herself a troll hunter, she’s also a mediator and a teacher in her own right. She recognizes that in higher education communities, it’s often the responsibility of the moderator to teach students how to put their emotions aside and have civil, fact-based discourse. Easier said than done, right? As Tanja would say, grab a cup of tea and hear out her moderation techniques.
At this point, you might be wondering how Tanja became such a prolific master of trolls. If you’re a gamer or writer, you’ll find yourself nodding along as she discusses the friendships and moderation skills that she forged in RPG communities. I personally love how she discusses RPG forum guidelines as a rubric to encourage positive behavior, not as rules that dissuade negative behavior. Later in the episode, she discusses how negativity can silently destroy communities, which is a great reminder for those of us writing community guidelines and doing the moderation, as well.
Patrick and Tanja also discuss:
- The storytelling, meaningful conversations, and friendships found in RPG communities
- Demanding higher quality participation from your community
- The science behind fight or flight reactions
Our Podcast is Made Possible By…
If you enjoy our show, please know that it’s only possible with the generous support of our sponsors: Higher Logic and Structure3C.
“If you want to do meaningful things online … go out there and create a space and then curate that space. And there’s nothing wrong with saying that for instance, we’re going to make it a little harder to sign up. We’re going to ask people questions before they join and pre-qualify people. There’s nothing wrong with saying that we’re going to cap it at this number of people or let people in at a slow rate.” –@patrickokeefe
“[Downvotes are] used for bullying and used to express all kinds of things that [you] don’t want in the community. … Basically, you downvote somebody you dislike and all the power-play that can come with it. These engineers [at Coursera] were genuinely surprised because they had never encountered it before because they were just using up and downvotes to see if a piece of coding was the correct piece of coding. But in the [course] forums, that became something entirely different.” –@bietanjade
“This is higher education so we want people to express themselves in an academic way. They need to be able to remain respectful and they need to be able to use sources and facts and evidence because this is the game that we call science, and you’re not allowed to just to give your opinion. We keep challenging the users and explaining to them what we expect. Surprisingly, that works.” –@bietanjade
“One of the mottos that we have in the volunteer community is “drink a cup of tea.” What I mean by that is … detach yourself before you reply. Go to the kitchen, make a cup of tea and have a 10-minute timeout. [Then] once you come back, you are calmer.” –@bietanjade
About Tanja de Bie
Tanja de Bie is project coordinator and community manager at the Online Learning Lab of the Centre of Innovation at Leiden University, helping to produce massive online open courses and small private online courses, and other forms of blended learning.
She studied History at Leiden University from 1990 onwards, and later had 3 children and worked in home care for nearly 10 years, as a project manager in charge of care teams, and quality care coordinator. Along the way, she also acquired more than 15+ years of experience running online role-playing communities. And when the intellectual pull of the university was too strong, Tanje brought that experience with her.
She assists professors and other people at Leiden exploring the online space and its many rules. She published some research, mostly practical advice on how to deal with trolls and create safe learning environments online. Her articles are available via open access.
- Sponsor: Structure3C, expert community strategy for large organizations
- Sponsor: Higher Logic, the community platform for community managers
- Tanja de Bie on Twitter
- Leiden University
- The Centre for Innovation at Leiden University, where Tanja works
- The Centre for Innovation’s Digital Learning Lab
- The Centre for Innovation’s Youtube Channel
- Leiden University’s course on terrorism
- Age of Intrigue, an online RPG that Tanja plays and moderates
- Tazlure, an online RPG that Tanja used to manage
- Leiden University’s Coursera page
- Open Science MOOC
[00:00:04] Announcer: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Sponsored by Higher Logic, the community platform for community managers, and Structure3C, expert community strategy for large organizations. Tweet with @communitysignal as you listen. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
[00:00:28] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello and thank you for checking out this episode of Community Signal with Tanja de Bie from the Center of Innovation at Leiden University. We’re talking about Coursera, deep, deep RPG storytelling communities, and how negativity in an online community leads to a fight or flight mentality.
Thank you so much to our backers on Patreon for supporting the show including Serena Snoad, Carol Benovic-Bradley, and Jules Standen. If you find value in the show, please visit communitysignal.com/innercircle for more details.
Tanja de Bie is project coordinator and community manager at the Online Learning Lab of the Center of Innovation at Leiden University, helping to produce massive online open courses and small private online courses and other forms of blended learning. She studied history at Leiden from 1990 onwards and later had three children and worked in home care for nearly 10 years as a project manager in charge of care teams and quality care coordinator.
Along the way, she also acquired more than 15 years of experience running online role-playing communities. When the intellectual pull of the university was too strong, Tanja brought that experience with her. She assists professors and other people at Leiden, exploring the online space and its many rules. She has published some research, mostly practical advice on how to deal with trolls and create safe learning environments online. Her articles are available on open access. Tanja, welcome to the show.
[00:01:45] Tanja: Thank you for having me.
[00:01:46] Patrick: It is a pleasure to have you. I was really fascinated by your diverse background, as I saw it community-related in three stages, your previous career, working at home care and your hobby of building communities, and then transitioning at Leiden University to a role that is community facing. But I wanted to first talk about the time you spend in-home care and managing caretakers. Because I think there’s probably some interesting parallels there that you see in your work, now with digital communities, what do you take away from that time that you apply to your work today?
[00:02:19] Tanja: Well, it’s all about being a team coach. There’s a lot of rules on how to approach a team, how to encourage them, how to be positive. Positive coaching is really a thing. I think that really applies to communities as well. Negativity creates a spiral where your community will get smaller and smaller as it downgrades and that’s truly realized as well. I always find in digital technology, you need to make a translation between real life and virtual life. But really, once you find that translation and rights and comparisons, it’s really the same. We’re still human beings, so we act the same to certain stimuli. If you’re being negative, then people will react with negativity in response and it’s true in the classroom, it’s true with patients and it’s true when you’re coaching a team.
[00:03:08] Patrick: Caretakers have an emotionally challenging job. In community, we certainly talked a lot about self care. I would say personally, that, being a caretaker or dealing with home care, is probably more stressful on the average than managing online community would be because a lot of us work and as you did previously, kind of discovered this work, you worked in a hobby community or a community that you’re really passionate about. Yes, people can be awful. You have to deal with things as a moderator. But the level of emotional strain is different. Still, was there anything that you feel prepared you for that side of working with online communities?
[00:03:48] Tanja: Well, the caretakers have emotional stress with the patients as well. They deal with a lot of patients because they’re stressed, they might be angry, and then make an angry customer call. You learn how to give feedback in a sandwich, how to bend negative responses into a positive outcome so people will feel they’ve been helped in a good way. That experience certainly helped me with approaching people that had a complaint and making sure that in the end, they’re still satisfied with the community. There’s certainly that comparison. It is a stressful job being a caretaker because you see life and death basically in all its phases. Not so much in my hobby because there when you have a troll, you just say goodbye and [crosstalk]. But in education, there really was some fresh for the teachers as well because they were not used to dealing with certain online behaviors and also because some topics are quite risky.
One of our first courses that we did online was about terrorism and then you had the very real situation where activists came into that course that were Islamophobic, some prominent members from the Tea Party that came in and sort of challenged the professor. We had Salafist, a potential terrorist come in, and discussed their motivation. I would say that was pretty stressful as well for the team dealing with that comparable to caretakers that really want to do their best in that situation.
[00:05:17] Patrick: The way you put it, it’s not funny, but I thought the way you put in the questionnaire, it was a funny story of how you got involved in the community side. I want to talk about that a little bit since you brought it up. You were already at Leiden University in another role before moving to a community facing one and that’s switch was taken in motion by a co-worker who asked for your input on moderation. Tell me that story.
[00:05:38] Tanja: I was drinking coffee with a co-worker and she was telling me about her project, which was online courses for free on Coursera and she talked about, “Well Tanja, they have forums and you have a lot of experience with forums. Do you think we should moderate?” I was like, “What kind of community is it, do you expect trouble?”, and she was like, “Nah, well, it’s about the EU and then the next course will be terrorism.” I paused a little and then I said, “Well, do you know what a troll is?” and she was like, “What’s a troll?” I explained to her what negative behavior a troll could display and potential triggers that will be in any course on the European Union or on terrorism, or on any other controversial subject. She thought, “Well, that’s interesting.” Basically, I then didn’t sleep very well because I thought, if my university is going to do this without any protection, they will have image damage and they will be trolled out of the universe.
I went to my boss, and I told him, “Do you know what a troll is?” and he didn’t know. I went to the board of directors and I asked them, “Do you know what a troll is?”, and they didn’t know. I was like, “Under what world are you living?” But for me that there was a total normal phenomenon for more than 10 years, but they have never heard of this. Nowadays, when you ask somebody do you know what a troll is? They say, “Oh, yeah, you mean Donald Trump.”
[00:06:56] Patrick: Oh. [laughs]
[00:07:00] Tanja: In 2013 that was like poking a new question and nobody in the university knew how to deal with that. They needed somebody who was a practitioner and a hobbyist, basically to help design community guidelines and approaches that help prevent things spiraling out of control.
[00:07:19] Patrick: I find that funny for two reasons, obviously, being about you, and terrorism, being inherently political and religious topics. In many ways, obviously, in moderation but also I can just imagine you going up to people and saying, “Hi, my name is Tanja, do you know what a troll is?”, over and over again. I just think that’s a funny opener to get people to think about things.
[00:07:39] Tanja: Yes, I used to pull up this picture of a Norwegian troll with all nasty unhygienic pictures that you have, because it really related to me, to my background in fantasy role-playing. I really had this whole collection of troll pictures that I could use.
[00:07:55] Patrick: I want to talk a little bit more about Leiden University, but first I want to go back a little bit to your time with, and you still work with RPG communities because they are a unique type of community. How would you describe, for example, Age of Intrigue, to someone who has no experience with these communities?
[00:08:13] Tanja: I would explain to them that it’s creative writing and there’s a storyteller. Sometimes if they know what Dungeons and Dragons is, that helps, but it’s still not the whole story because if you’re role-playing in a group and you throw a couple of dice, you focus on those dice and you’re chatting away. In the forum community, role-playing really is about getting into your character and thinking about the emotions and the thoughts and not just I take my 200 sword and I attack. It’s much more into the motivation of your characters, it’s much closer to writing. In fact, a lot of our players at Age of Intrigue have gone on to write books or were already writing books when they joined us. There’s a very strong creative writing push. Sometimes I compare it to improv comedy which has, aspects of the storyteller throws you a curveball, and you have to react instantly, more or less. You can take a day to reply. But you still have to improvise what your character would do in that situation. `
[00:09:11] Patrick: That’s a really interesting comparison. Like, someone will visit Age of Intrigue, and they’ll see it, and it’s characters, and it’s storytelling, and it’s creative writing, as you said, I think that’s a really smart way to look at it. These different characters, these people, is it more than one person that is a character or is it one person per character? Or where do you fall on that?
[00:09:30] Tanja: Well, we tend to be careful with not having too many characters per player because we want to be dedicated to certain stories, but basically, there are about two characters per player.
[00:09:42] Patrick: Let’s take a moment to talk about our great sponsor, Higher Logic.
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It’s interesting because there’s like this slow bubble to the goal, right? It reminds me years ago I used to play baseball simulation called Baseball Mobile. We would play out seasons and, anyone who is on a baseball sim knows I’m talking about. But you play out seasons and, there are games that you can play that give you instant gratification. Obviously, most Playstation or modern video games are that way. But in the case of a simulation like this, like you are and they’re not even a particularly deep simulation. But still, it would take weeks or a month or months to play a single season out, to play the games, to make it to the playoffs, to make transactions and trades and sign free agents or build your team and all these things and it would be simulated maybe once a week and then we’d all download the file, look at it, submit our changes and then be simulated again a week later and you play it out to get to the end goal.
In a way it’s a story. Some of the leagues would treat it that way. Like they would have like mock journalists or sportswriters to write about the teams and follow the stories throughout the year and so there’s this slow bubble to the goal. I guess it’s really about the journey more than it is the destination, kind of as the old saying goes.
But I was looking at the sidebar on Age of Intrigue and it said, “The posting rate is two plus a week originals only.” What does that mean? Is that two posts per week total? How do you moderate and mediate so that the story is told at a pace that makes sense?
[00:11:44] Tanja: That’s the difficult issue in role-playing in forums is the pace. What you don’t want is somebody posting maybe once a week, maybe once every two weeks and then holding everybody else in the story up. You encourage people to post at least twice a week and if they don’t, well the story moves on and the storyteller parks your character somewhere in a corner and it gets written out of the story if you don’t keep up.
[00:12:09] Patrick: He got sick. [laughs]
[00:12:11] Tanja: Then we play with seasons as well. We say, “Well, we have a Christmas season and we will be in Windsor for about four weeks,” and we tried to play that out and then you have a leap ahead in time and say, “Okay, our next season is spring and let’s find out what London in spring is in where are we now, 1677.”
That allows you to move through time a little bit faster than if you play out every day. Obviously, as the time goes. That helps the storytelling because sometimes you want a fresh story right? You want to renew something in the setting and explore new angle, maybe lift through a certain period in time versus a historic game and I would really love if in fact, one day, I was able to play out the Glorious Revolution. Well, I think that will be in 20 years time perhaps, but fantastic to play that out.
[00:13:00] Patrick: You’re already 10 years plus there. You theoretically like it’s a separate issue, I think about what a community I have KarateForums.com; it just turned 17 in May. How long does this community exist, right? When you start getting past 10, and you start counting the years 15, 16, 17, and honestly, obviously you have to take yourself out of it at some point, because the community can certainly outlive you if it comes down to that. But it’s really kind of interesting to think about these communities because once you get into that, even 10 plus I would say. You’re in rare air. A lot of services and a lot of online communities, hobby, personal, whatever, profit motive, whatever, no, but a substantial portion 90%, let’s say 9 out of 10, probably actually more, if you just break it out to every community ever started by someone who had an idea for two seconds. You’re looking at 99% of communities probably don’t make it past a year or five years. This long-term creation of something is pretty special.
[00:13:59] Tanja: Yes, but it’s also about loyalty. If you have a good solid group that really doesn’t fall apart with infighting, or jockeying for power, or so if you have some solid ways of behaving, that can really extend. Previously, I had a community called Tazlure, which was a fantasy game with random more or less the same kind of roles that we have at Age of Intrigue, and that also ran for nine plus years, until we decided as a team that we didn’t have enough time for it anymore, and that we would rather close it then hand off to the next generation. It was a personal choice. In other cases, you hand over the community to somebody else if you no longer want to run it and the game can continue. In other words, it’s bittersweet to close the game but we’re lot of people are located in the Netherlands. We went for dinner with everybody that was in the neighborhood.
[00:14:48] Patrick: That’s awesome.
[00:14:48] Tanja: I’m still in contact 10 years later with people that I met in that game. If I go out to a certain area I might still meet up with people from that game. But those are very solid friendships also that start to develop in a community like that.
[00:15:01] Patrick: When I saw posting two times a week. I was thinking it’s like we’re limited but actually, it’s to encourage people. You have to stay engaged and continue moving the story along because if you don’t then you’ll fade away. If you’re going to jump in, you need to participate. These stories get to be so mature. Also, you mentioned you reset them. We reset seasons in my baseball simulation example. Can someone new join in Age of Intrigue? How many new users do you receive, say in a typical, I don’t know, whatever period of time makes sense, quarter, a year, a month, whatever.
[00:15:32] Tanja: Yes, people join in all the time. The storytelling helps writing them in. I would say over a year you maybe have 20 new players and then about five or 10 leave and there’s a circle going on with the people traveling. I must say that recently I’ve been in contact with the community but has not been actively play myself. This is all my work. I’m not sure of the current numbers, but I know the average is about 20 a year.
[00:15:58] Patrick: If there is one, what do you think is the maximum number of users that something like Age of Intrigue could reliably support until maybe the experience isn’t what it is to the current users?
[00:16:09] Tanja: Well, because it’s an intricate story, we haven’t put an exact number on it, but I think we have discussed it before and I think the number would be about 35 max. So XXX which had a different scale and far more storytellers and dungeon masters. At some point in time, it had 400 users and that was very difficult to coordinate because you have all these layers of game designers and storytellers and assistant storytellers. That was part of why we stopped was that it became too much as a job instead of enjoying the storytelling. I think with the 35 number, the much smaller community of Age of Intrigue, it’s easier to overview and to remain part of the story instead of that you just mentioned everything.
[00:17:36] Patrick: I’d like to stop here and tell you a little bit about our great sponsor, Structure3C.
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I think it’s really interesting to think about and for people to think about community in a sense of more than just bigger. More than just, “Let’s grow monthly active users,” or whatever it is and recognize the tremendous value that exists in focused communities, smaller communities. There are cases to be made for that professionally, but especially personally in areas where you want to have meaningful anything online. Meaningful art creation, meaningful storytelling, meaningful conversation. People go to places like Twitter and Facebook and I think sometimes they’re surprised when they can’t have a great conversation. The reason at least I would say, part of the reason is because it is mainstream communications platform come one come all. It’s not necessarily focused, there’s no consistent standards applied to it. If you want to do meaningful things online, whatever meaningful means to you, it might be different for you and for one person, it might be deep storytelling for another it might be having a conversation about politics without having to curse or use profanity. I think no matter what it is, go out there and create a space and then curate that space and there’s nothing wrong with saying that for instance, we’re going to make it a little harder to sign up. We’re going to ask people questions before they join and prequalify people. There’s nothing wrong with saying that we’re going to cap it at this number of people or let people in at a slow rate. If your goal is focused on these standards and I think it makes sense and so we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that this sort of thing is definitely an option and is more than just open the door, put her register, link up and let everyone in.
[00:19:12] Tanja: Well, I think if you put in some limits and also ask more contribution from participants that you really deepen the quality of the community that you end up with. Because it’s so focused on a particular subject and whether that’s history or role-playing or just some class, there’s nothing wrong with demanding higher quality participation. Really, I think people are too quick to dismiss forum communities which are still going strong after all these years and decades, really. Right now, I think there’s still a lot of value to be had.
[00:19:43] Patrick: At Leiden University, your community efforts focus on Coursera, which is an educational platform which includes some forum-like functionality. Actually, I’ve never used that part of it, but I found it interesting that you mentioned before the show that you have Facebook groups for some of your larger courses to “provide alternatives to users who are not comfortable with the Coursera forums.” Why aren’t they comfortable with the Coursera forums do you think?
[00:20:06] Tanja: There are a couple of reasons. One of them is that this is an international audience. People in forums feel like they need to be able to communicate in very well-spoken English and they’re intimidated by Anglo-Saxon participants and so if there are more Spanish oriented or Russian or Chinese…Well, not the Chinese on Facebook.
[00:20:27] Patrick: Point taken. [laughs]
[00:20:30] Tanja: They might feel more comfortable really in a more informal setting. To them, Facebook is more informal and they don’t have to perform so much. They’re also afraid that the teacher is watching in the forums, so they want to communicate somewhere away from the teacher. I think that that’s part of it. Also, it has forums like quality as you said, but it’s not a perfect forum at Coursera. It’s just one of my frustrations. You miss some key features that you have in a forum, like the ability to move threads, the ability to see what thread was last posted in, some basic navigation things which makes it less comfortable to use. Sometimes people feel they’re simply more comfortable with Facebook because they know Facebook, they know how it works. It’s difficult, I find, debating in Facebook groups because you have no chronical order in which things happen. Just the latest thing that’s posted in gets pushed to the top. That makes it, especially in larger groups, very uncomfortable following discussions in a Facebook group. I would like a more structured forum community and where you can make sub-forums and control the narrative a bit more.
[00:21:36] Patrick: Yes, Facebook groups are a mess. They just struggle under scale. It’s immediately apparent when you get in a Facebook group that has any level of activity that they just suffer, but it’s also unfortunate what you mentioned about the Coursera platform missing. But most of us…I think you run a version of pHpBB on Age of Intrigue for example, unlike my easy example for Facebook groups, there’s always like, or even in this case Coursera, it sounds like since you can’t even move a thread is, we had these things in forum software like 20 years ago, it’s like why do we not have them now? Facebook groups functionality-wise. I use them every single day. In my day job, we run substantial Facebook groups and so it is immediately apparent that Facebook groups do not have most of the core functionalities of forum software back in 2000. In the case of Coursera, what kills me about that thing is that I think it’s the curse in a way of all in one platform or the platforms that do one thing really well and then tack on other things to keep you on the site longer.
Of course, you have online courses, people are going to talk about those courses, it makes perfect sense. Let’s have a discussion section as part of there so we can keep people on the website. It sounds like from what you’re saying that it’s almost treated like a fossil or just like, here’s the thing that we have because it makes sense let’s tack it on but really it’s not that strong of a forum software. In this case, you’re offering people the opportunity to go to Facebook groups for few different reasons, but one of the reasons is because the platform just isn’t terribly efficient. When people have that situation where they do one thing really well, i.e. courses and then they tack on the discussion, I think they sometimes it takes the users for granted. Like, you’re here anyway. We don’t necessarily have to have the greatest software because we’re not a forum software platform or vendor, which is unfortunate.
[00:23:26] Tanja: Yes. It is also because Coursera was created and originally they had a better integration with forums but they created a platform and then never thought it would take off so well. They created it from the standpoint of artificial intelligence. The first courses were about artificial intelligence and they had simply never thought about forum communication and how they operate and what’s important to them, so it had to come from outside. Before I started at Leiden University with the community management, there were nearly no voices at Coursera saying, “You need to have community guidelines.” They were just basically not moderating any of the forums, including very controversial topics and then they were surprised that some of the teachers thought they had a very negative experience because in humanities and social sciences you will have discursive conversations instead of just up and down floating, what a good piece of coding is, so that’s totally different. They hadn’t built the platform for that.
They had to get used to these different fields that they previously hadn’t considered as they were expanding. They built a new platform to better scale and have far more courses. Coursera now has over 3,000 courses. Then they forgot the importance for discursive conversations and the role that forums play in that. They’re trying to improve that. There are many new features. I’ve seen some options within Coursera appear that might improve things even more in the future. I’m the account manager for Coursera for Leiden University. I get to see behind the scenes sometimes so I know exciting things are coming up, but it’s been an uphill struggle convincing the engineers at Coursera what’s important about a community.
One of the things that I struggled with most was in the beginning days they still had downvotes. I don’t like a lot of things about Facebook, but I was really with Facebook on not having a downvote button because that really wreaks havoc. It’s used for bullying and it’s used to express all kinds of things that they don’t want in the community. I try to explain to them what a downvote does and what kind of tactics people use to put somebody in their place. Basically, you downvote somebody you dislike and all the power-play that can come with it. These engineers were genuinely surprised because they had never encountered it before because they were just using up and down votes to see if a piece of coding was the correct piece of coding. Like Stack Overflow for instance. In the forums, that became something entirely different. I was very glad that on the new platform that they created that one of the first things to go was the downvote. That felt like yes, they’re finally listening.
[00:25:58] Patrick: That’s a good thing. You mentioned one of the reasons some students migrate over to Facebook groups is because they felt the teacher was watching in the forum. Are teachers not watching in the groups?
[00:26:07] Tanja: No, just the mentors. They are aware that the teachers are not there, so that helps them relax. I also think the teachers are not necessarily watching in the Coursera courses and then they tell me to watch their course. I think it’s unnecessary fear that they have for authority, but it can be intimidating if you think Professor Barker is watching my every move and you might not be aware that Professor Barker might turn his attention to his course every six months. That might be intimidating. It’s like asking somebody to stand in front of class and do something. People are a bit scared of that.
[00:26:40] Patrick: That makes a lot of sense. A lot of what you shared in the pre-show questionnaire was tied to negativity online and trolling specifically and how those behaviors manifest for universities. Thinking of universities and a university like Leiden, what are the primary things and trends or behaviors that you see when it comes to negativity that a university has to deal with?
[00:27:05] Tanja: There are a couple of behaviors that are interesting and that we also research in. The first is a classic troll. A classic troll is somebody who just wants to have fun by creating upsets. If you’re trolling a community, you’re basically a not so nice person, but you’re trying to have fun so you’re just trying to see what you can trigger with people by, for instance, flaming or attacking somebody. That’s just a playful form. You do have people that are activists, also known as haters because sometimes they can be very negative. They have a political agenda or social agenda, so it can be from an NGO or it could be from a political party or as I said in the terrorism course we had some Tea Party people come in and trying to run a campaign. What you also can see, especially in the courses that focus on international relations and we have a couple of that, is that you will see some, I hesitate to call it cyber warfare. There are some agents from governments that try to put out some propaganda. They might be telling you how great China is and that nobody in China wants Taiwan to be independent and it’s like, “Yes, I know you’re talking for the party right now. You’re not being your genuine self.” They do that and there’s a pattern to it. There will be three people and one person will say something like, “Taiwan needs to be independent”, and then two other Chinese people will say, “No, you’re not talking for the people.” This is a pattern that you see repeated. There’s been research done to show just how cyber armers basically operate. Not just in books but in forum communities and also in other kinds of communities online to…well, it’s basically cold war propaganda. Of course, Russians do that too. I suspect, but I haven’t discovered the exact pattern yet, that the British and the Americans are doing the same thing. It’s just the spy level if you will. There’s also people that are just genuinely upset and create negative behavior without realizing what they’re doing. Sometimes if you talk to them, if you just express yourself in a different way it’s more respectful, you would get more out of the conversation. Make sure it doesn’t get out of hand and they might change their mind and adjust their behavior.
It’s not all lost. Classic troll, I would just immediately ban as soon as I find them. I’m like, “If you don’t respond to my warning and you do it for a second time, you’re just out.” The cyber warfare people are ultimately not going to change their behavior, but the activist and the genuine people that simply do not know how to express themselves academically because that’s sort of issue here. This is higher education so we want people to express themselves in an academic way. They need to be able to remain respectful and they need to be able to use sources and facts and evidence because this is the game that we call science, and you’re not allowed to just to give you our opinion. We keep challenging the users of that and explain to them what we expect. Surprisingly, that works. I think since we started moderating those communities and also teach other communities how to moderate.
I wrote a moderation handbook which was taken over by Coursera and spread in other courses as well. Coursera now also trains their own mentors. The whole moderation thing has spread over Coursera and since then has been done and things like downvotes have been removed, I think the instances of communities totally spiraling other’s control has been reduced. I don’t hear that often anymore. It’s like we found a solution to handling this. In the past, we had the most contentious community by the way, it was on equine nutrition. They were like horse fans that were fighting each other to the death on how to feed your horse properly. Apparently, that was community that really sort of had to close down because it got out of hand. It’s not all terrorists.
[00:30:48] Patrick: Right, right. Yes, you’ve mentioned free-to-access courses, what percentage is sort of the offering at Leiden University is sort of free-to-access online? We’re talking about a lot of courses that pretty much anyone can just join in and participate. It’s just like an open and freely accessible online community, right?
[00:31:04] Tanja: Yes. Well, we currently have like 25 courses and more are being produced. Some of those courses are also being taught at Leiden University. We use material from that MOOC, massive open online course in the campus education. We might use some of the films or we might use all of them, sort of depends on the teacher, how they want to use the material. Some are purely made as a public service in a way to educate the public about the state of the art of research, some of that point. It varies widely, we have courses about evolution and evolution today. How is evolution still going on in the city for instance. We have courses on checking the economy of metals. How do you recycle metals so that we don’t run out of that material. Of course, already mentioned our terrorism course. It’s very wide, diverse, like our university because we have seven faculties, all with different fields. That’s one of the things that we like to show what Leiden University stands for and show that very diverse subjects that are being tackled at our university.
[00:32:05] Patrick: The reason I asked is it because I think some folks might hear, ‘University’ and think that everyone is coming or it’s tuition-based. I feel like a lot of the interaction that you have with students online is no different than a lot of us would have managing our communities. Meaning that we know what the user tells us about them, they’re not coming to our office in person. They are visiting an online platform, A portal of some sort, they’re logging in, they are learning that way. They are engaging in a forum. We might not know a whole heck of a lot about them so it is much like any other platform that’s structured that way. It is highly possible for someone, you’ve mentioned like bad actors, foreign governments and so on, to decide that they would like to influence this thing and then just sign up for that thing and try to influence it.
[00:32:53] Tanja: These are huge communities, right? We are talking about not just 10 students doing a course but we have a course on academic backgrounds of mindfulness, demystifying mindfulness, which has 80,000 enrollments so far for a year. We have a course on linguistics which has more than 100,000 users. We are talking big numbers and that’s true for the entire move phenomena, is that all these courses really attract big numbers. They are accessible for free for everybody in the world. So there’s also a teach the world thing to it, which doesn’t mean that there’s no business module. Certificates are being sold where people are trying to build online degrees that you do pay for, there’s tuition fee for that but a lot of the material can be accessed for free and help in combat the sustainable development goals of the United Nations, which among other things is about educating everybody to a certain level. That’s part of the social mission of university space group.
[00:33:52] Patrick: You mentioned before people coming into big communities that are, I guess I would say, ideological extremists. Some of them, you mentioned this, just don’t know how to participate in a way that meets the standards of academia. You’ve had some success getting some folks to do so no matter what kind of spectrum of ideology they might be on. I guess my question is, is it just simply the old school community work of having standards and moderating to the standards or is there any kind of specific tactic or tip that you have found useful in bringing people to the standards of academia in those conversations?
[00:34:33] Tanja: First of all, yes it’s very old school. The interesting thing is that in gaming communities, we’ve been doing this for ages but now it comes to high eradication. What we’ve done is we’ve developed an academic toolkit where we get links to where people can learn more about rhetoric, for instance, logical fallacies and etiquettes. We are trying to give them the tools that if they don’t understand how to behave, that they can quickly catch up and get up to those standards and trying to explain why we demand that they quote sources. Why they only use credible sources and what is a credible source. How can you determine that? How can you spot if you’re citing a news article from a propaganda machine basically. It’s not just about news, it’s also about where do I find open access and scientific material or scholarly material for instance, just by using Google Scholar. We try to do that in every course so we have a standard module where we’re teaching students how to be academic and that has helped in bringing up the level of conversation.
[00:35:33] Patrick: Sticking with negativity, the last thing I wanted to ask you to talk about a little bit is, you had told me before the show that negativity in online communities leads to a fight or flight mentality. That’s the way that people respond to negativity and that both are harmful to online communities. Can you walk me through that?
[00:35:56] Tanja: The interesting thing is I have never thought about it this way, but I was at Coursera conference and I was presenting on why I thought the downvote button should go. This was in the early days and then a professor showed up. He was Professor Boyatzia and he’s a neuropsychologist and he said, “I can explain what’s happening here and it has to do with your brain.” The survival mechanism triggers a lot of negative neurons that makes you want to survive. You have two ways that you can survive, you can either engage, you can fight back and a lot of men generally will take that option, some females too, but it is disposed to men and other people will leave. They will vote with their feet and they will leave. Then it also means that you’re not open for learning because you’re busy surviving. Only when that has calmed down and positivity has returned, you can return to learning. We’re talking about the safe learning environment. A negativity not only destroys your community but it also closes the learner to learning, which is opposite to what you want.
That was really insightful to me and Professor Boyatzis actually starts his workshops by playing some Aretha Franklin. Happy music and you’re dancing around, and then you’ve opened yourself to hearing what he has to say in workshops which is a new technique. We haven’t started doing that in MOOCs, playing music, but it’s interesting way of thinking about it. Because I think negativity really destroys communities in various ways and especially you don’t see all the lurkers that quietly leave.
[00:37:24] Patrick: Yes. That’s a really smart way to think about it. People talk about it in different ways. One way people talk about it is moderation creates a narrative for the community. It helps tell the story of the community. Another is this the environment that it facilitates and when you think about negativity and let’s just say a nasty comment in a forum. Someone said that you’re stupid for believing that more or less. Like, “If you don’t agree with me, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” which happens all the time. The reaction to that for the majority people is probably one of those two things. Either they decide this is not worth their time, or they decide to respond in kind, which in my communities, I have a saved reply or canned message that basically is what we call “report don’t respond.” Where people like you just made it worse, you’ve responded with more negativity and that sent it down this awful path.
Once in a while though, there are members in between who respond to negativity in a way to get things back on track. They’re just maybe not the norm or the majority but when you find those people obviously you have to appreciate those folks.
[00:38:26] Tanja: Yes and make them moderators. Yes, that shows real skill, to bend a conversation like that. Most people can’t, most simply engage and then you get a flame war where everybody’s repeating the negativity. Then it gets out of control, sadly. One of the mottos that we have in the volunteer community is drink a cup of tea. What I mean by that otherwise then it’s a person’s occupation while you’re moderating is detach yourself from before you reply. Go to the kitchen, make a cup of tea and then you have like a 10-minute timeout and once you get back you are calmer. Then you can either give a calm response or say something in a feedback, “Thank you for participating. Maybe you can rephrase your last question. I hope you continue to participate.” Something like that, just a little white bread around the meat of your message. That cup of tea trick that basically stay professional, take a timeout, that really works well. It’s something that I’ve been also talking about with teachers. Because sometimes if they see something happening in the community and they explode, they get really upset. Because of that survival mechanism, a negativity enters our minds five times stronger than anything positive that happens. Because you tend to focus on where something dangerous is happening, “I need to react to that.”
Teachers tend to focus on the negative things if you’re not careful if you don’t talk them through it. I think over the last four or five years, we’ve been able to convince teachers to ignore the troll. It’s online, a very common expression, but it’s something that we really had to teach our professors, to ignore the trolls and instead focus on the conversations that are going well, and then, get more out of the community as a whole.
[00:40:05] Patrick: Tanja, thank you so much for making time for us today. I really enjoyed this conversation. Thanks so much.
[00:40:11] Tanja: You’re welcome. I enjoyed it as well, Patrick. Thank you.
[00:40:14] Patrick: We’ve been talking with Tanja de Bie, Community Manager and Project Coordinator at the Centre of Innovation at Leiden University in the Netherlands. For more on the Centre of Innovation, visit centre4innovation.org. That’s C-E-N-T-R-E, the number 4, innovation.org. We’ll include a link to their YouTube channel, including a primer video on the work they do at the Online Learning Lab in the show notes. Tanja also volunteers with the Open Science MOOC, at opensciencemooc.eu. Mooc is M-O-O-C. This is an online course “designed to help equip students and researchers with the skills they need to excel in a modern research environment.” Follow her on Twitter at @bietanjade, that’s B-I-E-T-A-N-J-A-D-E.
For the transcript from this episode, plus highlights and links that we mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad and Carol Benovic-Bradley is our editorial lead. See you next time.
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