Off-topic and rude newsgroup posts by trolls

This document copyright Herbert R. Johnson (c) 2009. First written in 2003. Last updated Mar 11 2010. Don't copy or publish without explicit permission, but a Web link to this document is fine.

This page began as a "Frequent Question" on my S-100 Web page of such questions. To go to my S-100 frequent questions (FAQ) page click here.

Off-topic and "troll" posts in comp.os.cpm, a Usenet newsgroup, is a subject on this S-100 Web site, as that newsgroup is a prime resource for S-100 owners. I'd appreciate reasonable comments and corrections, but if you greatly disagree with some specific opinions below, you are welcome to search the Web and newsgroups as I did and draw your own conclusions. - Herb Johnson


Usenet newsgroup comp.os.cpm has from time to time threads that are off-topic, rude, excessive and/or obnoxious. They may be cross-posted to other newsgroups as well. This behavior is contrary to common practices in that and other newsgroups, it wastes time and resources, and it is discouraged by recommendations contained in Internet RFC 1855. (RFC's are the defacto rules of the Internet.) Generally these threads are started by or continued by a few people who only want to start, participate in, or can't avoid, an argument or excessive discussion - they may be TROLLS, or at least they are acting like trolls.

To determine if some person is a "troll", use "Google Groups" to review their previous postings under their name. The essential behavior of a troll is persistant and/or repeated posting of subjects or content, often becoming controversial. Their posts result in debates or arguments, or simply long and repeatative "threads", which ultimately become personal, off-topic, and negative. The goal or endpoint of most trolls is to get a lot of "chatter", or argumentive responses to their posts, or to get others to fight or argue. Consequently, the most effective way to stop their posts is DON'T RESPOND TO THEM.

By not responding, the thread will die, the troll will not be "fed", and he/she will either go away or return to more acceptable practices. Arguing about this with the troll, also gives them the argument they are looking for, so that is usually (but not always) counter-productive.

Posting arguments or discussions against trolling - especially as a personal challenge to a troll - carries the risk of turning YOU into a "troll" as that is also off-topic and negative posting. However, trolling can take over discussions, scare away good posting behavior and become "normal practice". Sometime trolling must be challenged. The contraditions of such responses are not easy to resolve - I welcome discussion about that.

The rest of this document provides more details about troll behavior.

Do some homework - Web searching - on these topics and become informed. It will be easier to ignore these threads when you realize that ANY answer is exactly what the troll wants - they are trying to manipulate you! Responding directly to a troll, may make YOU look like a troll, and for some trolls that is ALSO what they want!

The rest of this Web page describes "practices to avoid", "how to identify a troll", "what to do", and some history of how I came to write this Web page.

- Herb Johnson

Newsgroup practices to avoid

I've gathered here some bad practices I've found in comp.os.cpm, as per as per my comments at the end of this Web page. For those who need an authoritative reference for Usenet newsgroup or discussion group "rules of use", RFC 1855 (a on "netiquette guidelines" is a useful although lengthy and dated (1995) guide for reasonable use. I believe is consistent with what I present below. You might also check a Usenet newsgroup, "News.newusers.questions". It is a "newsgroup whose purpose is the dissemination of questions and answers about Usenet and the Internet." They have an official Web site with some guidelines at this link. For another perspective on use of Usenet newsgroups, here's a Frequent Questions page of a Usenet access provider,

In general, rude or off-topic or excessive posts are a misuse of a newsgroup's resources, and the resources of all those millions of computers which "host" that content, and megabytes of transfers necessary to distribute that content. The purpose of a newsgroup is to support a particular topic, whether moderated (human filtered content) or not. By common use, participants agree to work within rules of decorum, topic, and scope. For other topics or uses, or for personal goals and intentions, there are other newsgroups, Web sites, chat groups and similar resources readily available, at small or no cost.

Off-topic posts Trolls like to go off-topic in order to move a discussion to their expertise and thus gain control. Reasonable practice is to stay on-topic. What is "on topic"? Just look at prior messages in the newsgroup or FAQ or other descriptions of the newsgroup (via Google's "groups" access) and use reasonable judgement.

Cross-posting is simply posting a message to more than one newsgroup. It is discouraged because it is generally redundant, the content may be confusing or inappropriate for one newsgroup, and it can be misused by trolls. More often, those who respond from one newsgroup may not realize their posts are becoming off-topic or out-of-character when read in another newsgroup. Most newsgroup readers allow you to "turn on headers" to see where a thread is posted. Check to see if a long thread is posted other than where you expect before you reply, so you can have the option of directing your reply to specific newsgroups.

Excessive copying of previous text in a reply is not a good idea, it just takes up a lot of space and can be confusing. Anyone who wants to read the prior posts in full can generally do so by using archives of those messages (Google archives Usenet messages for instance.) When you reply in a thread, take a moment to EDIT OUT unnecessary prior discussion in your reply.

Arguing about definitions of words or rules becomes trolling when it becomes excessive, is directed to specific people, and when it leads to inappropriate responses such as personal insults or off-topic references.

Arguing about controversial persons or practices becomes trolling of a different kind. Sometimes the troll argues directly about the person or practice. Other times, they "innocently" mention the person or practice, as *bait for others* to get into the argument. Every newsgroup has a list of such topics and persons, familiar to experienced participants. Again, a review of archives will reveal these topics. Reference to these persons or topics are easy ways to start an argument which runs for many messages, until the handful of participants are exhausted, discusted, etc. Again, the "troll" need only START the thread, in order to sit back and enjoy the consequences.

Using a newsgroup for private email exchanges or as an archive is simply a misuse of that newsgroup and the resources of the computers and the exchange of email across the Internet. Just as spam taxes those resources by its sheer volume, such inappropriate uses crowds out good and valuable discussions. Anyone who has sufficient Web access to post messages can also obtain email and Web site resources for little or no money; or if their cause or interest is reasonable they can find support from others to obtain these resources.

Asking an endless series of small or basic questions. It is reasonable for some person "new" to the subject to ask a few fundamental or basic questions. But trolls often launch a series of such questions, claiming various justifications for doing so. It's simply inappropriate to use a Usenet newsgroup to teach fundamentals, or as a way to avoid doing reading and study. One test for such trolls: they get defensive if you suggest they read manuals, or if you ask about their actual projects or "work" (and there is none). Few people consider themselves as trolls. But these persons may simply have personal and/or learning issues. In any event, they are not following reasonable rules of use of newsgroups.

Identify a Troll

A "troll" is, briefly, someone who posts or encourages off-topic, often obnoxious, or otherwise excessive newsgroup messages. These messages are not posted to encourage the exchange of information, they are posted to argue or chat. They post for the sake of posting, and their posts are such that they encourage more obnoxious replies: their goal is simply to CONTINUE THE THREAD (discussion), often in an abusive, rude, inflammatory manner. Again, a Web search on the topic of "troll" will provide a wealth of information, terminology, and discussion for anyone not familiar with the practices of trolls. Some of those Web pages are amusing.

To stop a troll, it helps to have a sense of humor, as well as and understanding that trolls are out *to manipulate you*. The only effective way to stop a troll? Don't respond to their posts.

To determine if someone is a troll or is "trolling", simply review their postings and determine their general practices. Do they start off-topic threads often? or change the subject of a thread to go off topic? Are they abusive and offensive (or defensive) at times? Do they tend to post a lot in those threads? Often trolls work together, posting in response to other troll's remarks, especially when those remarks become personal and negative.

My own observations suggest that some people are trolls on a regular basis; some only "feed" trolls by arguing with them; some regularly argue with other trolls. Put another way, obnoxious and off-topic messages tend to encourage more of the same when they appear often. That is why such practices are discouraged. Also note: YOU may be a troll, sometimes, and not know it! (I wrote this Web page, so I could simply post about trolls with a Web link to this page, without arguing with or about them.)

For examples of discussion threads with trolls, or started by trolls, look in long-standing Usenet newsgroups (like comp.os.cpm, the subject of this document) and see if you can find some discussion threads of the sort described here. Then look back to who started them, or who redirected them, or who "hijacked" them. See if you find patterns by subject, or by name, or by methodology, etc. etc.

"Google groups", accessed from, gives you a way to search and review Usenet newsgroups and Google groups by poster, subject, and monthly number of posts. Yahoo! and other email list providers may have similar tools.

What to do about trolls and off-topic threads

If trolls trouble you, then take some time to review the Web for information about trolls; learn what their methods and strategies are; and act (or avoid) accordingly. Not responding is simple, but responding on occasion may be called for. Here's my considerations.

First, it's a matter of judgement as to the intent of the posters. If they are simply uninformed, you can suggest (perhaps privately) where they might get more information or assistance. If you know they are just "trolling" for an argument or discussion, they are easy to ignore. If you respond reasonably, but the respondant become obnoxious or inflammatory - you've found a troll!

The most common advice about stopping trolling is "do not respond". If you are unsure if someone is a troll, then do some checking on their prior posts. If you find that the purpose of that person's posts is to argue, to start or to continue arguments; then it is a LOT easier to decide that ANY rebuttal, factual reference, or well-regarded opinion you post in response is a waste of effort, and you are in fact doing what the troll wants you to do. Any reply you provide is "food" for the real goal of a troll - to engage in argument for its own sake.

Some say you should respond to trolls, but in a positive way, to "steer" the conversation back on topic or to appropriate practices. If you choose to respond in this way, it's a lot of work (in my opinion) to carefully edit your remarks to avoid "feeding the troll". Again, check their prior posts and responses to them: maybe others have tried this already. And, maybe, the troll is also "fed" by helpful, positive responses too!

Some trolls may stop posting when confronted. For example, some trolls claim to be "new" or unfamiliar with a subject and seeking advice from the "experts" - yet they avoid looking at books, reference pages, and other self-study. When these trolls are revealed, they generally leave with a bitter and self-serving (but temporary) farewell, accusing both the revealer and the "experts" they initially solicited. But if a troll considers themselves an "expert", or simply anti-authority, confrontation is exactly what they want.

People who are responding to trolls, may stop if you confront the overall content. Trolls start or change discussions, to create contention or to further their adjenda. A post which says "this is off topic" or "this post is inflamatory", etc. may remind otherwise well-intended persons to drop their participation. But discussions about trolling, inflamatory posting, or about rules and "moderators" - can be another form of trolling, too. Good people can become trolls or troll-enablers in that fashion, myself included. On the other hand, if trolls and their threads go unchallenged, they may become "normal". There's no easy answer to when and how to say "enough!".

Past a certain point, ALL these kinds of discussions are simply off topic and at best should be done privately. If the poster posts anonomously, even if only to stop spam, it's still up to them to provide some private means for reply - if their interests are serious. But to assert common goodwill and common practice, some kind of public response is also useful. How to respond publicly, is not clear to me.

Why so much fuss over some rude people's posts?

In 2003, there were a series of off-topic and at times RUDE postings in the Usenet newsgroup (discussion group) comp.os.cpm. The "bad practices" regarding these posts included long quotes of prior text; profanity and personal insults; threads posted to two, three, or more other newsgroups (cross-posting); and threads solely devoted to clearly off-topic subjects (and rude opinions about) history, language preferences, controversial persons, etc. In addition, some posters used comp.os.cpm excessively for what amounts to personal email exchanges; or to inappropriately post long material for archiving and distribution. In later years I found posters who wanted to use the newgroup as their own "blog" or Web site - for arbitrary discussions, lengthy descriptions, etc.

The key considerations I noticed were excess, rudeness, and disregard for general practices or rules.

Each of these practices alone is merely an annoyance; when these practices occur often or at length, they are a persistant misuse of the newsgroup. Since the posts last forever, others assume such practices are OK and it encourages more of such posts. To date only a few people are responsible for these behaviors. In the case of threads of discussion and misuse of newsgroups, such people are often called "trolls". Making that identification provides you with a hint about how to respond to their activities - namely DON'T respond and let their threads (and bad behaviors) stop.

It is easy to review newsgroup threads, old and new, using Google's ( "groups" features. Having done so in year 2003, I listed here some features of these obnoxious threads. Some users of comp.os.cpm may not be aware of "trolling" or "off-topic" use; or simply not taken stock of who is posting what; or even know that cross posting has occurred.

So I've created this document so I can refer my colleagues to these considerations, without posting at length about the subject (and then become a troll myself!) You may have your own opinions about all this, so I encourage you to review the newsgroup's archives, search the Web regarding "trolls" and newsgroup practices, and draw your own conclusions.

Additionally, in the last several years, many people simply have no idea what "netiquette" means. (It's the etiquette of using classic Internet resources like Usenet newsgroups.) So many modern discussions, blogs, maillists are unregulated or poorly regulated, that some find ANY regulation of what they post as "unfair". In other words, they see their posting behavior as "normal"; and rules as a threat to their "rights". For many others, "chat" itself is a desirable end and activity.

For those people, this document provides a means to inform them of 1) the historic and unique nature of Usenet newsgroups including comp.os.cpm and 2) the impact of their posts on others. By simply posting a link to this document as a reply, it moves the debate off the discussion thread, and is less personally threatening than posting "here is why you are a troll".

Herb Johnson
New Jersey, USA
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Copyright © 2010 Herb Johnson