Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Of Trolls and Talking

I just finished reading this New York Times article about trolling on the Internet. The whole thing is fascinating, but I was especially taken by the philosophical implications of Postel’s Law: “Be conservative in what you do; be liberal in what you accept from others.” (Don't worry, it's not another politics post! :)

Postel's was speaking in terms of computer programming. If you want computers or programs to speak to one another, then your program has to both be precise in expression and be broad in the expressions it can accept/recognize/respond to.

Surely there is truth to that in our interactions as well. I see that as a teacher every day, for example. If I want students to succeed, the clearer I am with my directions the better the assignments I'll get in return. That's hard at times when the assignment I give calls for free thinking, but the more clear I make my expectations, the more students rise to the occasion.

Similarly, when moderating student behavior, I think some amount of liberality is required. I can crack down on every single law, but I think exploring and responding to other forms of expression can be useful--especially for teenagers who are both exploring their identity and testing boundaries. Not everything has to be a fight. I don't have to take every student expression of dislike for reading as a personal insult. That's not to say I believe in throwing out the rule book and having us all sit in a circle and sing "Koombayah" when we're supposed to be analyzing poems, but it does mean that finding ways to encourage interaction--even when students answer a question in a flatly wrong way--tends to open more communication lines rather than shutting them down.

Am I making sense? I'm not sure.

Anyway, the NYT article is a pretty interesting look at the dark side of Internet communities--trolls who think it is their job to test boundaries or push buttons. I think it's worth a read.

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