select all

Could Old Web-Forum Troll Tactics Save Journalism? Jeff Bezos Thought Maybe

Jeff Bezos.

Jeff Bezos has had many bold ideas: selling books over the internet, funding experimental private space-travel, making a phone whose only function was to … buy things on Amazon. But perhaps none of his endeavors have been as risky as his so-far successful attempt at reviving an aging print-media institution — the Washington Post, which he bought in 2013 for $250 million. His secret weapon? He’s not afraid to use forum tactics from the ‘90s web.

Bezos isn’t afraid to think outside the box. A new profile for Fortune demonstrates how Bezos doesn’t let practicality stand in the way of a good idea.

Sometimes Bezos’s creativity gets the better of him. [Washington Post head of tech Shailesh] Prakash says the owner suggested a gamelike feature that would allow a reader who didn’t enjoy an article to pay to remove its vowels. He called it “disemvoweling,” and the concept was to allow another reader to pay to restore the missing letters. The idea didn’t go far, Prakash says, noting that “Marty [Baron] wasn’t very keen.” Bezos, an unrepentant believer in the power of brainstorming, says, “Working together with other smart people in front of a whiteboard, we can come up with a lot of very bad ideas.”

(It’s not just Bezos that calls it “disemvoweling”: The tactic is an ancient-by-web-standards method to deal with trolls, spammers, and other unwanted posts with some degree of transparency. On many forums, certain words would be automatically disemvoweled, or particularly trolly posts would be disemvoweled by forum moderators. For years, early blogs like BoingBoing and Gawker have used disemvoweling to get rid of annoying and menacing commenters.)

Allowing users to pay to alter a news organization’s content, even in silly ways, is — as already noted — a very bad idea. But maybe Bezos is on to something here. Disemvoweling is just one of the many punishment methods that web forums have come up with to deter bad users. Could they also be applied to major publications?

There is the simple ban. Maybe readers could pay a newspaper to ban (a.k.a. “fire”) a writer that they don’t … wait, now that I’m thinking about it, that’s an even worse idea. Instead of an all-out ban, maybe readers could block or mute authors and topics that they don’t like. Sites could charge a premium, allowing users to set up a kill file.

Maybe readers could pay to set up a posting interval. Let’s say, hypothetically, that you don’t like WaPo op-ed contributor Richard Cohen. The company could charge a fee that limits the frequency with which Cohen can shitpost (web slang for, I mean, you know what that means) —  one column every two months, or something. The more you pay, the more that span increases.

In my opinion, though, the best forum-method to bring to newspapers would be the hell-ban, one of the most devious tactics ever deployed on the web. Hell-banning (also known as shadow-banning) hides all of a user’s posts, but doesn’t stop them from posting. The idea is that he or she will just assume that they are being ignored and leave of their own accord. Imagine if you could hell-ban — say — just picking a name at random here — David Brooks of the New York Times, not just for yourself, but for every single reader. Brooks might continue, for years, to file columns that nobody reads; nobody talks about his work; he writes into oblivion. I, a millennial in his prime, would pay $6.99 a month for that.

Can Old Web-Forum Troll Tactics Save Journalism?