Online Social Mores

If there has been a thing that as been fundamental in teaching other people how to moderate an online community, it has been talking about social mores. It is an ancient word, and I only know about it because I studied at such a traditional university like Leiden University. However, it is very fundamental.

So, first of all some theory about communities. David McMillan talked about how to define communities, pinpointing  the important elements of the sense of any community, online or not, as membership, personal investment, social norms, trade and a shared social connection through symbols and storytelling . Watch this video for some more background. Howard Rheingold defined this for the online environment, with his famous definition that defines a social contract online. Want to learn more? Check out my free online workshop “Build Your Online Community”. The summary? You don’t have a community unless you have some norms that people agree to.

Now, having covered the academic basics, can we move to the fundamentals? In all places where we interact as a community, we need to reinforce our social mores, which in effect are our norms & values. That means, yes, defending academic free speech. It also means being stern when there are violations of the academic methodology. You are out of turn when you use logical fallacies for instance. In a pub we would throw beer at you, but in the digital space that tends to ruin your laptop. Hence online community guidelines, or social media codes, or what have you. They simply translate old mores to new ones that can be implemented online.

Is it normal for teachers or management to check if people stay within boundaries? Yes, absolutely. That is not infringing on your rights, it is only checking them for validity. We do that all the time. If you have a student stending up during your campus lecture, sprouting nonsense and calling names, you’d have the janitor remove them, and rightly so, for disrupting education. The same is true for similar instances at campus, whether that is during a lecture, or during a more grey scaled whats app group clearly associated with the university and people are made to feel uncomfortable in an unacceptable way. Mores apply everywhere where the community is.

Doxing and other Troll accidents

I have written and published about this often, but trolling is no laughing matter, no matter how amused we can be about it (especially if our teenagers do it and we recognize ourselves in it). Whether the motive is just a prank or something more sinister it is never a walk in the park for the victim to start with. In fact, it can cause PTSD, just like a real life violent incident can cause trauma. Sadly often it is women that are the target, but not exclusively. Racism, Homophobia, Ableism, etc. are also frequently evident.

The cause of the PTSD? As research in neuropsychology shows, strong negativity triggers our Fight & Flight response. It doesn’t matter if it is online or real life. That means that extreme negative reactions in any online environment lead to a downward spiral where people are reacting with even more vehemence or try to hide, sometimes literally by locking their social media accounts. You can see a whole online community go down in a matter of hours. Yes, Twitter and Facebook can be that dangerous.

Extreme examples not only include strongly worded messages in social media or email, but a phenomena called doxing: stalking the victim with messages at their real life home or work addresses, sending them prank gifts, trying to hack their accounts, sending emergency services to their doorstep. Really? Yes, really. Like many bad habits online it sadly orginally hails from the gaming community, where in online games opponents started pranking each other to distract them and so win a game.

After GamerGate the methods of the gaming world have been turned on the rest of us, in the last 5 years or so, including methods that the Alt Right employs. I am not going to dive into a full explanation of that, including the US political situation, as there is ample research demonstrating this. However, we still need to deal with the effects of this in our own environment.

So, really, what can we DO about it? How do we create environments that are safe for employees and students of Dutch universities?

First, support the victims. Reach out to them, reassure them of your support. Just like Ineke Sluiter, president of KNAW wrote in her keynote at the Leiden Dies. Simply the recognition of the issue behind the scenes is a start that is a warm bath.

Second, make sure the victims are safe and remain safe by offering extra resources, for instance by providing monitoring of their email & social media accounts as a filter (only the serious reactions actually get through), practical support from the janitor at their workplace, legal advice, offering psychological & social support services etc.

Third, in any non-public space of the workplace provide moderation of the online space, and make sure that is backed up by a code. Yes, house rules help. They redefine the social contract participants feel, and moderators can refer to it when taking actions to uphold them.

Fourth, for public spaces like social media, where employees or students are attacked for their status as being part of an academic environment, also give guidance on what is normal and what isn’t, what you expect all members of the community to do. Setting norms, or social mores, is extremely powerful and defines a community.

If you want to talk about any of these isses or solutions, please reach out to me in the comments or through email (

Online Trolling: Definitions matter

Just about everybody with a bit of negative behaviour is being called a troll these days. It is leading to a very annoying watering down of the definition, making past research quite useless. I urge my readers not to do so.

So what is a classic “Troll according to Tanja” ? A troll is a person who makes a deliberate choice to provoke others with inflammatory remarks out of a distorted sense of fun. It might, or might not reflect their true opinion, but that is not the point. The agitated, negative reaction they get is. The bigger the flare up, the better. In the past such rants were also known as flames, sometimes ending in full flame wars. Research shows these classic trolls to be of a sadistic, narcissistic nature. They really are into this for their special brand of fun. Earning a bit of money on the side sometimes is a nice extra. The best way to deal with a troll is not to feed it with negative energy as that is what they are after. So dealing with them privately, while ignoring them publicly is the most effective. Hence the saying “Don’t Feed the Trolls“.

The rest? I have a few categories for you:

Hater – extremists on all side of the political spectrum will take their deeply held convictions to such a level that you can hardly distinguish them from trolls (they do suffer from similar misogny and biogtry) , but the difference is the intent. This also means you need to treat them differently from classic trolls. Ignoring them will not make the problem go away. Sometimes a deliberate journalistic reveal of the intent coupled with more private legal action might be effective. Some well known academics have been able to confront their haters and come to a resolution. One has to admire Mary Beard for instance.

Agent Provocateur – All (!) governments have them, and they serve their national goals in a covert manner. Disinformation, confusing the enemy, causing discord, splitting them into different groups, making them lose respect in the international forum. Quite frequently they work in groups, often controlling a whole herd of fake accounts or bots, or sometimes simply a few “sock puppets”. Their deliberate intent shows in their coordination, the same messages they are spreading etc. Well known example: the Russion Troll Farms. A sad word that hides what they truly are: state funded agents. How to deal with them? Bring their origins to light.

Money schemers – just your regular criminal trying to make a buck, sometimes by providing a seemingly innocent story that gets you all rilled up. Exposing them often solves the problem, until they show up under a new guise.

Literature – I don’t intend to leave literature in every blog, but let me do it here, because it is about definitions. Yes, I am also using wikipedia. They know a thing or two about trolls.  with particular interest for the references given, including some examples.


Shachaf, P., & Hara, N. (2010). Beyond vandalism: Wikipedia trolls. Journal of Information Science, 36 (3), 357‐370.

Erin E. Buckles, Paul D. Trapnell, Delroy L. Paulhuys  “Trolls just want to have fun” in Personality and Individual Differences (september 2014)