Trolls no longer live under bridges. The trolls of the twenty first century reside in bedrooms and internet cafes. Their goal is no longer to collect tolls from unsuspecting travellers, but to enrage people with vicious, offensive comments over the internet.

The internet was developed to be something of an information utopia. It was designed to be – and to a large extent still is – a medium through which knowledge on nearly every topic, matter or problem could be found. Such a concept is the height of idealism, but it is patently flawed. Unfortunately, not all human beings are engaged by the consumption of unlimited knowledge. Some, it would seem, are only interested in making other people’s internet-trawling experience unpleasant.

User-generated content (UGC) – which can take numerous forms – is the domain in which the troll thrives. Posting disparaging comments through message boards, forums and comments sections is what the troll does best, and so momentous has the problem become that most people have at least some experience of being trolled themselves, or are at least aware of instances of trolling somewhere online.

The internet was developed to be something of an information utopia

Trolls have been the scourge of online communities for many a year, but recent events – namely IMDb’s decision to shut its message boards – have once again thrust the issue into the spotlight.

So, are trolls killing UGC?

The end of IMDb as we know it

Towards the end of January, the Internet Movie Database – more commonly referred to as IMDb – announced that it would be closing its message boards. From 20 February movie lovers will no longer be able to post comments, ask questions or provide trivia. And, while many film fans have been left dismayed by the news, many commentators have called it the inevitable consequence of a prolonged and committed troll infestation.

For many years IMDb’s message boards have been a place for people to discuss silver screen minutiae, analyse plot twists and debate symbolism. However, on 3 February, the website, which sees around 250 million monthly users, issued a press release stating the company’s belief that the forums ‘no longer provide a positive, useful experience for the vast majority of our users worldwide’, before adding that ‘customers have migrated to IMDb’s social media accounts’.

While it’s true that IMDb’s social media outlets do indeed have a passionate and dedicated following, there are hundreds of thousands of people that contribute to and browse the website’s message boards. So why shut them down? Why remove such a valuable mine of material? The answer, it would seem, is that the troll pandemic has become too toxic to manage. It doesn’t take much to infer from the press release that IMDb is simply doing the only thing it can to terminate the problem.

The troll pandemic has become too toxic to manage

Of course the company could have invested money in technology or staff to prevent undesirable posts, but to what end? The boards contain content that many people regard as valuable, but too often these pieces of gold have been hidden beneath thick layers of muck. Unwelcome posts have given IMDb’s senior staff years of headaches, and to me it seems only natural that they would eventually move to eradicate such an irritant once and for all.

What started life as an unassuming way for people to discuss movies with likeminded folk from across the globe has subsequently mutated into a beast that cannot be managed. The message boards have come to be a stain on IMDB’s name, and that’s a rather sorry assessment of a concept that has, through the years, given so much to so many.

Community spirit

Creating an online community focused on expanding people’s knowledge is, on the surface, sociable and good-natured. The idea is simple; get people to post an interesting factoid or discussion point and then watch the dialogue expand. In reality, however, it’s a model that’s as straightforward as it is defective.

The key problem lies in the fact that the internet affords individuals the ability to hide behind cyber pseudonyms. You’ll rarely find yourself in a face-to-face scenario with someone who’ll insult you just for the sake of it, but give that same person a digital veil behind which they can shield their true identity, and you’re far more likely to incur their wrath.

Another issue is that trolling necessitates moderation, especially when it comes to sites that are visited by large numbers of people. Moderation costs money – either in terms of technology or members of staff – and even then there’s no guarantee such measures will be entirely effective. Put up one type of troll defence, and determined provokers will likely just find an alternate form of attack.

It’s a sad state of affairs, but one that is by no means exclusive to IMDb. Reddit, The Daily Mail and a host of dating sites are regularly inundated with troll-generated content. Just take a stroll through the comments on any Mail article and you’ll find one aimed at upsetting or offending.

Trolling necessitates moderation

However, trolling is perhaps most notable on social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. These platforms, which give users access to millions of people and allow individuals to remain anonymous should they so wish, are plagued with people who want nothing more than to harangue and abuse.

Online abuse is a problem that is affecting individuals and companies alike

In fact, increased levels of cruelty and overt nastiness have caused numerous high profile individuals to quit social media. Lindy West, Leslie Jones and Kurt Eichenwald have all announced breaks from Twitter in recent months, with all three citing prolonged trolling campaigns as the primary reason.

Online abuse is a problem that is affecting individuals and companies alike, and is serving to highlight that there is undeniably a dark side to UGC.

A growing trend

Though IMDb’s decision to remove its forums has gained plenty of press coverage, it’s by no means the first big name to bar users from posting comments. Reuters, Above the Law and Vice, amongst others, have all concluded that comments sections undermine, rather than bolster, their content offering, and have consequently stopped users from contributing.

In fact, Jonathan Smith, editor-in-chief at Vice, went so far as to say that comment sections ‘often devolve into racist, misogynistic maelstroms where the loudest, most offensive, and stupidest opinions get pushed to the top and the more reasoned responses get drowned out in the noise’. Given that Smith was one of the people tasked with moderating and monitoring such comments, it’s hardly surprising that, having been witness to troll comments for an extended period of time, he strongly backed the decision to cull reader-generated content.

Trolling is something that many websites – most notably Facebook and Twitter – have attempted to tackle, but with little success. Posting disparaging, insulting and incensing comments is very difficult to police, which is why no one solution is yet viable. For one, it’s all but impossible to stop an individual creating numerous online profiles; ban one anonymous persona, and they’ll likely just fashion another.

Also, there’s a very thin – some would argue impossible to determine – line between what can be deemed too offensive, and what is merely someone stating their opinion. Comments sections are an invitation to speak openly and freely, and once you make the decision to delete one post but keep another, you’ll find yourself on a slippery moderation slope.

UGC can be a fantastic resource with the ability to give your content additional colour

When giving users the ability to add comments or create content, there’s always the chance that trolls could be drawn in. It’s by no means a certainty that your website(s) will be targeted, but it’s undoubtedly something to remain mindful of. UGC can be a fantastic resource with the ability to give your content additional colour, but remember that not everyone publishes comments with good intentions in mind.

Is UGC right for you?

When it comes to user-generated content, it’s not all doom and gloom. Last month our Head of Content Tor Goldfield took a gander at The ABC of UGC, and looked at the numerous ways that information and opinions provided by users can benefit a brand.

Amazon, Airbnb and Glassdoor are three examples of organisations that have pretty much built their business on the back of UGC. Reviews and ratings from peers are powerful, and giving people the ability to air grievances or declare appreciation makes other users feel they are privy to in-depth, reliable knowledge.

When it comes to user-generated content, it’s not all doom and gloom

Research has found that millennials are especially fond of UGC; studies suggest those between the ages of 18 and 34 trust UGC 50% more than any other media, and rate peer reviews as more trustworthy than professional reviews. There is certainly appetite for UGC, but the simple truth is that it’s something not all companies will be able to benefit from equally.

UGC comes in many forms. Forums, message boards, social media posts, blogs, reviews and videos all have their place, but it’s important you remain aware of what will benefit you most. Do you have the resources to deal with trolls should they decide to rear their ugly heads? Are you willing to dedicate time to moderation and comment management? Does UGC have a part to play in your overall content strategy?

Research has found that millennials are especially fond of UGC

There is no one answer that is right for everyone, and it’s worth taking the time to assess both the pros and the cons. Be aware of the possibilities and the pitfalls, but also don’t be afraid to change your point of view once you’re equipped with more information.