Confession; I was a troll

In my (internet) youth I was a troll, I did it for fun.

I’d pick a cryptic handle such as birds_of_paradox, and tease the other regulars on a forum. I once posed as Mrs_God to counter-troll an unpleasantly bossy Mr_God. I wasn’t ever nasty or abusive, OK maybe occasionally a low grade of mean. So for me it was adopting an anonymous handle and teasing a bunch of people. I’ve moved on, most of the stuff I post on the internet now is in my own name.

Of course I’ve encountered more sinister forms of trolls; some were simply out to challenge political views, some would play devil’s advocate against whatever the discussion was, some posted irrational statements to draw attention to themselves, some posted porn images deceptive titles, and there was the inevitable Rickrolling. I’ve even had one troll want to meet me. Er, no thanks.

But those were the good old days. Trolling seems to have gone high octane, with certain twitter posts including threats to a celebrity or their family, an Olympic athlete was abused via twitter last year, and this year’s Women’s Wimbledon champion was abused for not looking like Sharapova (interestingly a number of those twitterers have now locked or closed their account). The people doing this are using the seeming anonymity of the internet to abuse someone who doesn’t deserve it… seriously; who abuses someone for winning a grand slam tournament?

The meaning of the word has shifted in a second way, it’s not longer about teasing regulars on a forum, or challenging a collective viewpoint, or even getting an angry reaction from a message board. It seems to be used to describe anything that annoys someone somewhere on the internet, including something published by a mainstream news organisation such as the Rolling Stone’s cover photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. As Salon quoted in a recent article;

“People have come to use the word ‘troll’ to mean, ‘It made me angry on the Internet,’” said Doyle. “And that’s pretty broad. It’s a big and noisy Internet.”

The meaning of words changes over time; “nice” used to mean stupid for example (and now you’ll be suspicious if I ever use it to compliment you).

But the problem here is we already have some words that work; in the first case how about “abuse” or “bully”. In the second “provocative”. It was a provocative cover, designed to provoke a reaction or challenge perceptions.

Meanwhile I’ve got some new hobbies – I’ve abandoned my troll bridge.

Any other reformed trolls out there?

Image; Troll 

The Law of Cookies

About a year ago the EU directive on the use of cookies online came into effect. The idea was to give consumers a better understanding of what information was being collected about them and how it was being used. Which seems like a noble motivation. Many experts said that the law was unworkable and ineffective – even as they scrambled to implement it on their sites. Others pointed out that it was unenforceable outside the Netherlands.

The Dutch requirements are, it seems the toughest, and implementing them means we now collect more information than we used to, and store it longer. Because the law requires a strict opt-in Dutch sites tend to use splash pages or white boxes before letting you see their content – such as this example from RTL Netherlands. RTL is a pan European company, their other sites do not force this on their visitors – but the cookie law implementation varies across the EU.

The cookies we set on our site serve three functions;

  1. remembers which language you want to use to read the site
  2. remembers your response to a disclaimer (we include some information that is not supposed to be for the US market)
  3. collect (anonymous) data on your visit so we can improve the site

We didn’t want to force people to opt-in so it’s optional. Not surprisingly most people don’t which means that on return visits they may need to re select their language, and they may need answer the disclaimer multiple times – and this applies to visitors outside the EU. We now do not get enough data to analyse the site.

There’s no good solution to this; either we annoy visitors with the forced opt-in, or we don’t collect enough data to analyse our site, or we don’t comply with the law. It’s a frustrating situation to be in. Particularly as we know from other research that 90% of visitors will leave the cookie acceptance on the default setting – even if that is the highest setting.

The ICO, the organisation responsible for the enforcement of the cookie law in the UK, announced a change to their use of cookies earlier this year, effectively moving to an opt-out model. For UK sites the cookie law is a vestigial form; you need to disclose how you use cookies but specific opt in is not required. Here’s a helpful timeline of the developments in the UK.

For Dutch companies the requirement remains unchanged, full opt-in is required and companies must collect proof that visitors have opted-in (that’s the extra data we’re now collecting about you). There’s no indication from OPTA (the Independent Post and Telecommunications Authority – the organisation charged with enforcing the law – part of the Authority for Consumers and Markets), that any change is planned. However Dutch site “Marketingfacts” reported that a bill amending the cookie law was presented to parliament on 20 May (Article only in Dutch). The proposed changes would allow analytical cookies and those needed for the operation of the site to be set based on implied consent provided the data collected did not have an impact on privacy.

The bill has been through a consultancy phase and it will now be up to the minister to decide whether to submit the bill to the lower house. Like many of those working in digital industries I am hoping this bill goes through.

That’s a direct quote from Mark D’Arcy, global director of creative solutions, Facebook as he spoke at an event at the New Zealand High Commission in London last week.

It’s true, by using the internet our memory is now effectively infinite. We can record appointments, birthdays, photos, videos of family events, comments, and store them all forever. We can access all these memories on any device, any time , anywhere.

He went on to say that everything that has ever been known is recorded and you can find it online. Which is only partially true; there is no image of my grandmother online, she died before I was born and there are only about four people alive who can confirm I look like her – this knowledge is not online. There is a record of my father’s parents online – but the date of their marriage is wrong by about 50 years (making all their children born out of wedlock).

Not everything known is codified, recorded and online; and not everything online is correct.

It is true that common questions can be answered with a dozen keystrokes. Midnight, wine-fueled debates on which is colder Beijing or Edinburgh or who makes the best wine are shorter and duller – some whizz-kid will pull out his smart phone and google the question; game over. Our perfect infinite memory may be the ultimate conversation killer.

In contrast, also in London, I saw an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum called Memory Palace. The exhibition imagines what it would be like to walk into a book; the book imagines a future London when the internet has been destroyed by a “digital storm” and structured knowledge is lost. A vision in which the book’s hero tries to recreate memory. Words turn out to be a code, knowledge loses it’s value and in the end human memory is lost.

The exhibition ends by giving you the opportunity to contribute the one memory, just one. As if there may not be room for all our memories, no way to hold all that knowledge, and no way to codify the emotion.

Even with the theoretical infinity of the internet recording our memories; the result is imperfect and vulnerable.


Post Script; If you’re in London take the time to visit the exhibition – it’s brilliantly done, by a group of artists who were each given one passage from the book to inspire their artwork. You can see some of the artists talking about their work on the exhibition website; here’s one describing one of my favourite pieces in the exhibition.


Image; face