Software Engineers Must Socialize with ‘Trolls’

Who would’ve thought software engineers would have to socialize? Whether we like it or not, we interact with dozens or hundreds of people — including trolls.

Group chats within the company, professional mailing lists, group meetups, open source projects and their bug lists, public wikis, Stack Overflow and other forums…. the list of ways we interact is far larger than it was twenty years ago. For the most part, this is a positive change for software engineers. It’s a lot easier to get or to provide help; it’s faster to get people to use the cool new tool you built; and there’s a lot more open discussion of ideas.


This kind of communication is a bit risky. For the most part we’re not talking to people we know very well. We’re also communicating in writing, across space and time. These factors make it more likely we’ll put our foot in our mouth and offend someone, or violate some cultural practice. Most of the time it’s completely innocent; we didn’t mean to be offensive, or to bad mouth someone, or to imply something terrible. We apologize and move on. And then there are the trolls.

Trolls are the people who enter discussions with the purpose of upsetting people. They want to cause mischief and strife, and pretty much start fights by provoking an emotional response. Most forums with more than a few dozen people — whether it’s an active open source project, or a discussion forum — attract trolls eventually. Generally, they want attention, and they want to see just how much havoc they can cause.

Fortunately, when studying the troll in the wild, we can identify their characteristics and use those to determine how to handle them.

  1. Trolls are funny. So are the Three Stooges, but I wouldn’t want to live around them. Trolls are frequently witty and sarcastic, and the ten year-old in all of us responds to that. It’s okay to laugh as you’re reading these things, as long as you laugh privately. Just don’t laugh publicly. That feeds the troll.
  2. Trolls are forever five years old. “Hey, mom! Watch this!”, “Hey, mom! Watch this again!” Trolls want attention. If you give them attention, they’ll keep seeking more. If you ignore the troll, he’ll get more and more extreme, but he will eventually give up and go away.
  3. Trolls operate on emotion, not facts. Keep your discussion factual and you’ll know that you’re not trolling, and you’re not giving trolls ammunition. Watch out particularly for personal insults or the idea that any discussion is about a person and not the actual topic of discussion: “I beat him” should never be a consideration.
  4. Real humans look like trolls occasionally. We all have bad days. We all misspeak sometimes. When we’re frustrated and tired, sometimes we can make a comment that looks like a troll. Those of us who aren’t trolls will come to our senses and apologize, or at least we won’t make a habit of emotional and provocative attacks. Don’t call someone a troll based on a single comment; trolls will make a habit of being nasty, real people won’t.
  5. Trolls can be stopped with fences. Banning a troll is a good way to preserve a community. Getting the troll off the forum not only stops the attacks, but it also sends a message that the moderators care about the community and want it to be a good place for discussions.

How about you? How do you handle trolls?

One Response to “Software Engineers Must Socialize with ‘Trolls’”

  1. At the risk of sounding “trollish”, one man’s (or woman’s) perception of troll might simply be a dissenting viewpoint. This is especially likely if the subject matter is politics or religion. I can’t say I’ve ever met a troll during a technical discussion, although I have encountered strongly held views about the best O/S, programming language, etc.