Signal and Noise – on Trolling Pen Reviewers

(Dave Rea is an engineer and die-hard pen-thusiast from upstate NY, and the developer of @getindxd. His addiction dates back to middle-school quests for pens that could vanquish the dreaded lefty smudge-palm. He succumbed to fountain pens and Field Notes after discovering this blog in 2012; you can find him on Twitter @mtbkrdave.)

Trolling has become a bit of a trending topic in the online pen community of late. We’ve seen thoughtful, well-reasoned posts on the topic from a pair of PhDs: Stephen BRE Brown and Jonathon Deans. Brad discussed it with Azizah Asgarali on a recent PenAddict podcast episode. It also came up in the most recent episode of Dowdy and the Doctor – an excellent short(er)-form podcast for Pen Addict members.

There’s been a lot of talk about the sorts of trolling that pen reviewers experience. There’s been plenty of theories on why these commenters might be slinging their particular brand of vitriol. There’s no shortage of thoughts on how reviewers should respond. But for all this good discussion, there’s been precious little guidance for how we – the mostly-silent majority – ought to address trolling on our favorite pen blogs, YouTube channels, subreddits or forums.

I’ve got a proposal for us…

Signal-to-Noise Ratio

In electronics (my day job), we’ve got a term called signal-to-noise ratio, or SNR. If “noise” is all the random energy a circuit doesn’t care about, then “signal” is what it’s looking for. The “signal strength bars” on our cell phones are one familiar instance: More bars = Better SNR.

To the content creators of the pen community there’s plenty of “noise”, and precious little “signal”: those times when the audience actively engages. While “noise” can be just about anything unrelated, the “signal” is the feedback: comments, likes, favorites, thumbs (up or down), retweets, subtweets; the list goes on.

The problem, as The Oatmeal so wonderfully illustrated, is that negative feedback can be much a louder signal than supportive voices, and in a very noisy environment, the loudest signal might be the only one that makes an impression. Ever have a microwave oven blitz your WiFi connection? Then you’ve experienced this too.

Tipping the Scales

Let’s face it: trolling isn’t going away any time soon. So long as our favorite pen reviewers continue to work hard creating content for us, they’re likely to be on the receiving end of some occasional negative attention. We also know that troll-shaming doesn’t work, and in many cases even makes things worse. Even the most well-established platforms struggle, endlessly-controversially, with how to deal with harassment.

So what can we, as a community, do to change the balance of power? I believe the answer is to change the signal-to-noise ratio – to turn up the volume on the positive feedback, constructive criticism, and all-around support we send to those we follow. There’s almost zero downside to doing so. If not feeding the trolls is our status-quo, we need to drown them.

To do this requires a conscious shift from passive consumption of content to active engagement. Given our shared interest in “the analog tools we love so dearly”, reviews likely evoke some reaction in us – be it enthusiasm, desire, appreciation, wonder, zeal, or myriad others. We ought to share these reactions with the reviewers we follow! Even if our reaction to the product or the review is critical, it’s worth sharing in a constructive way – because even these additions to the conversation let the reviewer know you came, you saw, and you cared enough to react.

Case in Point

Let’s take a look at an example – a well-trafficked review of the TWSBI Vac Mini by Matt Armstrong on his Pen Habit YouTube channel this past January:

In about two months, Matt’s video has been viewed over eleven thousand times – but only about 2% of those viewers left a thumbs-up, and only six-tenths of a percent left a comment (supportive or otherwise). Of the comments, only 1 or 2 border on negativity. Yet Matt has been on the receiving end of enough trolling that he went on hiatus back in 2014 (the 173 supportive comments on that post aren’t lost on me, either!).

I hope that the the SNR of the feedback Matt receives has improved since he returned from that break; if this video’s comments are any indication, it has.

Still, the numbers leave plenty of room for improvement: as an audience bloc, we have the leverage to significantly increase the amount of appreciation our community’s content creators experience.

Remember Not to Hold Back

If you’re like me (and the vast majority of Internet consumers) you read posts, watch videos and listen to podcasts, and – absent a specific question, complaint or reaction – you probably don’t engage much. In light of the trolling we’ve been hearing about, I’ve been actively trying to hit the “thumbs-up” button and its siblings on various platforms more frequently. Even if I’m just one in eleven-thousand, I want to actively contribute to whatever small stream of thanks the audience provides for the hard work that invariably goes into creating good content.

I also believe in putting our money where our mouths are: the stationery community enjoys a nearly-endless stream of content, much of which discusses some pretty expensive products. If a review gives you the confidence to pull the trigger on a pen that costs $50, or $150, or $500, is contributing a relative pittance to the reviewer an undue burden? That’s up to each member of the audience to decide, and not all creators have the infrastructure in place for this, but it’s certainly another way to remind them that we appreciate their hard work.

Ultimately, though, changing the signal-to-noise ratio doesn’t have to cost a penny. Just remember to use whatever mechanisms a given platform offers to engage with the creators you follow. Whether you dole out subscriptions, likes, comments, faves or upvotes, don’t hold back. That small gesture, multiplied by the numbers our community wields, might just have the power to push trolling down into the noise.

Posted on May 2, 2016 and filed under Guest Post.