Wikipedia:Vandals versus Trolls
The distinction between vandals and trolls and the question as to what constitutes vandalism and trolling is an ongoing issue of concern for the Wikipedia community. Though the two terms are similar and are often used interchangeably, they are nevertheless different and distinct. For the most part, vandalism and trolling is most often exemplified by newcomers, and care must be taken to differentiate vandalism and trolling from new users simply making common mistakes. Blocks should only be made in cases of unambiguous vandalism and trolling after live interaction with the user has been attempted. Wikipedia relies on the contributions of newcomers and it is important to recognize the difference between merely misguided and intentionally disruptive edits.
A vandal is an editor who intentionally makes unconstructive edits to Wikipedia's pages. Test edits are distinguished from true vandalism in that, while nonconstructive, it was not the editor's intent that they be nonconstructive. Caution should be taken to give users, especially new ones, the benefit of the doubt.
"Troll" is a slightly narrower term than "vandal". Like a vandal, a troll is an editor who intentionally makes nonconstructive edits to Wikipedia; however, a narrower set of motivations are behind trolling than are behind general vandalism. Specifically, a troll makes nonconstructive edits to Wikipedia with the intent of provoking an angry reaction in other users. This leads to the common advice "don't feed the trolls" which implies that by not reacting to trolling you deny the troll the thing that motivates them.
One can conclude then that all trolling is vandalism, but not all vandalism constitutes trolling, as not all vandalism is necessarily directed against other users. An example of vandalism that does not constitute trolling is adding nonsense to a page that one finds funny without regard to how it affects other users.
Identification and solutions
Vandals are usually easy to identify; however, incidents may arise where the person who appears to be a vandal is actually a misguided editor who is ignorant about certain policies. That is to say, it is possible for good faith, but poorly conceived edits to appear as vandalism, so editors and administrators need to be careful when issuing the appropriate warnings and/or blocks. For example, compare two edits which were made to Paris Hilton:
- Also she has been very successful despite being flat-chested.
- In a recent interview in Elle magazine, Paris exclaimed her happiness at being flat-chested and showed her puzzlement about women who want bigger breasts.
Edit number one was reverted three times as vandalism, and the user who added the information was given multiple warnings, but at no time did the editors or administrators issuing the warning ever explain why the edit was unacceptable. Edit number two was added into the article by another editor and was left unquestioned. The difference? Editor number one was unaware of the no original research policy, and how to cite reliable sources.
But ignorance does not automatically make an editor a "vandal". Great care must be taken when evaluating edits and the editors behind them. If you suspect ignorance is the motivating factor, instead of issuing boilerplate warnings, take the time to contact your fellow Wikipedian and explain how they can improve their edits within the framework of existing policies and guidelines. Your efforts may prove fruitful and will make Wikipedia a more welcoming place for newbies. Always remember that you were once a new user, and the potential of being a constructive editor lies within the heart of every newbie.
Trolling is far more complex, as it involves subtle, but disruptive behavior that may not be obvious to all parties. Always assume good faith and ask for a third opinion if you aren't absolutely sure.
Please do not bite the newcomers
New editors are the foundation that Wikipedia is built upon, and it is the responsibility of established editors to make newcomers feel welcome, even if they go astray.
Ironically, the chasm between a new and seasoned Wikipedian may not be as wide a gulf as it seems. In many ways, a new editor has a significant edge over established editors. The new editor approaches Wikipedia with a beginner's mind, ready to learn and embrace new concepts. The newcomer's passionate willingness to contribute to the project is an admirable quality. The Newcomer is in a position to bestow the most innovative ideas on what has inevitably become a closed group instinctively circling the wagons around their most cherished beliefs that they defend from the outgroup. This is the nature of the human mind; it attaches itself to ideas and refuses to let go, even when those ideas are no longer relevant. The newbie, who by definition has not been fully initiated into group behavior, is at first able to think about old ideas and replace or discard them at will without consequences. Over time, the newcomer becomes faced with positive reinforcement as competing factions seek to modify newbie behavior; vandals and trolls are warned for their transgressions, reverts are made, and blocks are imposed. Those who do not conform are sent to the bitbucket.
Vandals and trolls are considered outsiders, violators of the rules that bind the wiki community. Whether this behavior is the result of ignorance or willful disregard, the time spent "fighting vandalism" and "slaying trolls" is time that could be better spent writing an encyclopedia – and what if it was? Could vandalism and trolling be an effort by misguided newcomers to become a part of the community? After all, a good percentage of time spent on Wikipedia is devoted to fighting vandals and trolls, giving them the attention that they so desperately crave. Technological solutions could eliminate vandalism altogether, but Wikipedia maintains itself as the encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Bad behavior is controlled through bots, editor patrols, and administrative action, all under the rubric of "denying recognition" – but is that truly the case? Perhaps in that renunciation of acknowledging the newcomer lies the problem. Vandalism and trolling can be construed as a mournful plea, a shy knock on the door, a whisper for admittance. On the one hand, Wikipedia is squandering its greatest asset – newcomers – by blocking vandals and trolls instead of reforming them. If administrators spent as much time talking to vandals and trolls and convincing them of the benefits of joining the community as active members, we might see vandalism and trolling disappear. If the incentive to be constructive members of Wikipedia was greater than that of destroying it, why would anyone vandalize or troll? On the other hand, without vandals or trolls, what would administrators do with their free time?
Long-term contributors should try approaching the wiki as if they were new editors to see what the experience is like. Not only will one reap the rewards of fresh viewpoints and new ideas by viewing the world as a newbie each morning, but insight will be gained into their thought processes. The unspoiled, freethinking neophyte is the greatest asset. Whether vandals or trolls, each must be nurtured as a unique individual, not molded into rank-and-file editors whose only value is in their unflinching support for the group. The true value of newcomers rests in their future contributions, the potential of which can change the direction of the unthinking herd heading towards an unseen cliff. The collective intelligence of collaborative communities demands that the vandal and troll alike should not perish, but rather must rise above the muddy water and blossom like the lotus, flowering in the light of knowledge.
- For several months, until it was removed by another editor