Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Art of Counter-Trolling

Today I want to talk about trolling. What it is, why people do it, and how to counter it.

I highly recommend listening to this aural masterpiece in the background while you read to set the mood.

What is Trolling?

Trolling is the art of playing with the emotions of other people for personal gain. There are many variations of this definition, but that's pretty much the gist of it. Messing with people to anger them.

This is especially frustrating in games where teamwork is required. When playing a game, (most) players agree to enter into a magic circle and abide by the rules of the game world. This allows them to compete and have a good time. Trolls enter the same magic circle but will often ignore the rules on purpose to piss people off for their own personal glee.

If you wanted to categorize the troll into a type of player, you could use Richard Bartle's character theory chart:

Bartle postulates that every player can be categorized into one of 4 roles based on how they play the game. Here's some working definitions copy/pasted from a great Gamasutra article:
  • Killers: Interfere with the functioning of the game world or the play experience of other players.
  • Achievers: Accumulate status tokens by beating the rules-based challenges of the game world.
  • Explorers: Discover the systems governing the operation of the game world.
  • Socializers: Form relationships with other players by telling stories within the game world.
You can open all kinds of worm cans and jump through all different forms of rabbit holes trying to categorize players, but let's keep it simple with these four for our purposes. Trolls fit into the killer type.

Not a troll

There are some killer types that live to show superiority over other players through superior play. These are not trolls. This is the basketball player playfully talking trash after a big play. This is the poker player that would rather bluff every hand and outplay his opponent instead of running the numbers and relying on statistics to win.

This is very scary trolling

Trolls act against other players with the sole purpose of ruining their game experience. They win when other players get upset. Their trash talk is a lot scarier. The hate mail Jackie Robinson got from other players and "fans" is an extreme example of trolling. This type of garbage erases all fun from a game. This is what trolls do, in varying levels of severity.

Why Troll?

So what makes a troll tick? Well, they want something.
Could be attention.
Could be the outrage and tears of other players.
Could be anything. Generally, it isn't what the other players in the game desire.

By understanding what the troll wants, we can tap into the best ways to stop them. Here are a few trolling examples I grabbed from youtube to show differences:

MacLaren's Pro Player Anivia Pro Guide Pro

This is a satire guide made by a professional league of legends player making fun of popular shoutcasters as he plays his champion incorrectly and stops his team from doing anything useful. This was done for fame and internet glory, but backfired when the player was blacklisted from the professional gaming scene.

Here's another example from Minecraft where the troll digs an elaborate tunnel system under a house to steal other players' hard earned loot. He then shifts the blame on a friendly player for everything that happened. This troll is driven by the desire to piss other people off while outsmarting them.

Trolls come in all shapes and sizes, but become easier to understand once you can zero in on their motivation. When you figure out what their goal is, then you can figure out how to shut them down.

Countering the Trolls

Here are some surefire ways to stop trolls in their tracks and even take advantage of them.

Tactic #1: Ignore them. This works 100% of the time and is the best way to make a troll impotent. Mute buttons and block buttons exist for a reason. Use them. If the troll can't get a reaction out of you, they will get bored, lose hope, and eventually stop. Think back to those two video examples. What % of the footage was composed of other people REACTING? Would they be funny if no one reacted? Would I even be using them as examples? I'm pretty sure no one would care or even give them the time of day. Ignoring a troll deprives them of the attention and reactions they crave, and takes away all of their power.

My password is usually "<InsertTrollName>IsADumbTroll" for these.

Tactic #2: Do the opposite of what the troll wants. This one is fun. Figure out the troll's game and give them the exact opposite of their goal. In that Minecraft game, maybe instead of being angry and freaking out they could have filled their chests with some pixelated crap and thanked the troll repeatedly for being a good garbage man. Similarly, maybe they set a bunch of traps in his tunnel system and laugh when he gets caught (Especially since this troll wanted to show how smart he was).

If they're looking for malice, give them compliments. Anger, give them jokes. Outrage, give them indifference. Nothing is more infuriating for a troll than to be proven ineffective. Just be careful and don't take it too seriously. At the end of the day there is a real person behind the troll, and they may be going through some serious crap. Never turn into a troll when dealing with one.

Sometimes you can fight fire with fire.

Tactic #3: Manipulate the troll to work for you. This one is my favorite. Here you essentially weaponize the troll for your own use. There are a couple of ways to do this, but you basically play along and bait the troll to do something you want.

For example, I wanted an example for this blog post, so I responded to a troll on twitter (normally I ignore these kind of jerks). Check out my conversation here. Now, I'll agree that I egged them on a little, but I wanted to showcase a few different characteristics of the common troll and only stopped once I got them.

Here's the start of it all. I'm interested in having a conversation and some random rudely jumps in and exclaims the opposite. Usually, I'd ignore something like this since his sentiment isn't very polite, but decided to engage for the sake of your enlightenment, dearest reader. :-)

I'm not sure if this is a real troll or not yet, so I check. I offer up some supporting evidence to my statement, and see what he does with it. Another account bumps in and then calls me a troll. At this point, I think I have a bite, so I play along.

I offer up hard evidence that what I say is true, and then do something important. I put the impetus on the two troll accounts to reveal who they are (their twitters have no identifying information tied to them) and ask for a conversation. Trolls lurk in the shadows, they have no power once they're pulled out into the light, so this is a fantastic tactic for taking away their leverage. In this case, the troll wanted to get people all riled up by saying the opposite of the original post. My focus was to play with that motivation and see if I could get them to troll me.

This is paraphrased a little, but pretty much the troll wouldn't reveal themselves, and kept trying to back pedal into their flawed argument that "the opposite of reality is true". They blabbered on for a while trying to bait me back into a meaningless argument. I didn't bite.

Here, I responded and said that I wasn't going to play their game anymore. At this point, I blocked both of these accounts from my twitter so I wouldn't have to see any more of their messages. The two accounts spammed more meaningless crap at me for a while after this and then gave up since I ignored them. Check and mate.

For some context, the two accounts are probably the same guy (they both responded simultaneously to everything), and they are probably a mean player that recently got banned from playing League of Legends for being a complete scumbag to others. @RiotLyte is the head behavioral design guy at Riot and has the impossibly fun job of making strangers play nice together on the internet. Lots of disgruntled trolls like to complain at him on twitter. Check out his team's work here and here if you're interested (I think it's pretty fascinating).

So in this example, the troll(s) were playing one game, I was playing another. By manipulating their motivation a little, I ended up getting what I wanted (a good personal troll example for this blog). If you can figure out how a troll works and what makes them tick, you can then use their motivation like a carrot on the end of a stick to make them play by your rules. This is what I call counter-trolling.

Even trolls come with instruction manuals.


The next time you're being trolled, take a step back and evaluate the situation. Trolling is a system just like everything else, and if you understand the rules you can pull the strings and influence the outcome in a more favorable way. Figure out what they're after, then figure out the best way to deal with them. Take their goal off the table by ignoring them or providing the exact opposite. Or if you're feeling dangerous, see if you can have some fun and use that motivation against them.

That said, always be aware that there is a real person behind the troll facade. They could be a complete psychopath stalking their next victim. They could also be a little kid that was bullied at school trying to re-inflate their self esteem. On the internet, you're never really sure who you're dealing with, so assume it's the little kid and treat them accordingly. I always prefer to think of people at their best, even when they're behaving at their worst.

So hopefully now you know the basics of trolling and how to deal with it. Good luck!

Wanted to thank @The_Mormonator for suggesting this week's post!

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Power of Why?

Today I'd like to talk about the single most important thing I've learned in my career.

Whenever someone asks you to do something...
Whenever you try something new...
Whenever you're analyzing a problem...

Ask why.


Because more often than not, we don't think all the way through to the end goal or what we need to get there.


Because it's very easy to blindly follow orders and get caught in details that don't matter, or because it's the way things have always been done.


This is why I have a job. As an analyst, I cut through the bulls#!t, figure out what matters, and then find the best solution for a given problem. Asking "Why?" over and over again is the most effective way I've found to do this.

So why does "Why?" work?

Asking "Why?" let's you figure out the ultimate goal and focus on what's truly important. This cuts out any distractions or vanity metrics. Let's say someone asked me to evaluate a presidential candidate's success probability using social media data like number of twitter followers. I could be a good solider, do the analysis without thinking, and be completely wrong since sometimes 92% of a candidate's followers can be fake. OR I could ask "Why?" and pick a smarter approach, like how Nate Silver correctly predicted the outcome of the presidential election for each state.

Asking "Why?" also let's you figure out the impact of your work. Would you rather spend your 40-hour work week focusing on a decision that will make $10 or $10 million for your team?
(I know what I'd rather work on!)
I get asked to answer maybe 30+ questions in a given week. Each one requires a little bit of coding work or strategic thought. I don't have time to work on everything. "Why?" let's me decide what I do work on.

"Why are we doing this? What decisions will you make once you see the results?"

If the answer is "I don't know" or insignificant, I work on something else. "Why?" will free you from meaningless work and empower you to focus on what counts.

Asking "Why?" let's you question the status quo. Never do something because "It's the way we've always done it!"


Figure out why things are done the way they are, and then see if there's a way to improve. One day I spent 30 minutes investigating why a system worked a certain way, and discovered a logic flaw that was costing us ~$950k per year (we fixed the flaw very quickly). Sometimes the most profitable changes come from challenging the status quo.

Asking "Why?" helps everyone involved understand what's going on. So many times someone will ask me to do some complicated data wizardry to find an obscure number, but have absolutely no clue what they're going to do with it. I refuse to do any work until I understand why it's important, and what decisions it will drive. Asking "Why?" aligns everyone on your team with a common goal, and stops the message from getting lost in the noise of everyday life.

There is no such thing as a stupid question. As long as the question moves you closer towards understanding the big picture.  The smartest people I know are the ones that can go from zero to 100% understanding with the least amount of questions. "Why?" is almost always the first word they speak. Ask questions until you're out of questions. Understand the "whys" behind what you're doing, and everything you touch will matter.

Monday, August 4, 2014

No One Is Perfect

A Realization

I am never satisfied. I always want to become better and improve at everything I do. And there is always room for improvement.

Take my favorite video game as an example (Talking about League of Legends again). I want to understand the game better, so I can play better, so I can rise up the competitive ladder. Improving is a lot of fun with League, since they literally have the largest active player base of any game in the world. So being one of the best is a big deal. Here's a look at the ranked player distribution for some context (courtesy of LoLSummoners.com):

So of League's ~67 million active players, ~8 million play competitively against one another. Your ranking shows where you stand compared to everyone else, with Challenger at the very top and Bronze at the very bottom. I'm currently around Plat II and want to hit Diamond this season.

So why do I bring this up?

I was watching a very good player get coached by one of the very best players on youtube. Watching the video, it becomes pretty obvious that the very good player wasn't the sharpest tool in the shed. He struggled with very basic concepts, panicked under the pressure, and often ignored the coaching/feedback from the best player (who he was paying real money for advice). Check out a few minutes of the coaching video to see for yourself:

This was painful for me to watch. The player getting coached is ranked Diamond IV. Out of those 8 million or so League players, he is in the top 1% when ranked by skill. A lot of things went through my mind while watching:

  1. I am doing something seriously wrong in my games if this guy is ranked higher than me.
  2. Diamond players aren't that good.
  3. There is literally nothing holding me back but myself if this is my competition.
  4. Wait, is this happening in other areas of my life?
  5. Is this happening everywhere?
And it is. No one is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes.

There are mistakes happening all around you right now, but most of the time they go unnoticed. These mistakes are essentially missed opportunities. Even the very best are not perfect, and you should feel good about this.

Poker Face

Let's look at poker as an example. I grew up playing poker and gambling with my friends. The mathematical and psychological components of the game fascinated me. I studied the game, figured out probability distributions, and learned a lot about risk management. Frustratingly, as I got better at math and understanding the game, I performed worse.

Took me a while to realize why, but it actually makes sense if you think about it a little. This is how I used to envision my competition:

Cold, calculating, and a stone facade hiding all emotion. I always assumed everyone was a shark, playing the odds and baiting me to misplay. If I'm putting this much time into understanding the game, everyone else must be doing it too!

I couldn't have been more wrong.

Actually, this is 99.99% of your competition when playing poker:

No one around me was doing the same math. No one I played against was looking at things like pot odds, or drawing probabilities. A lot of players barely understand the rules, and some pretty much play randomly. I was giving these players a lot of credit, when they definitely didn't deserve it. The way you play the game changes dramatically once you realize you're swimming in a sea of fish instead of sharks.

An Epiphany

The best aren't perfect. Even the top 1% of whatever are making mistakes. Now I'm not saying you could pick up a basketball and beat Lebron James 1 on 1. But if you dedicated a comparable amount of time to the sport, you might be able to go toe to toe with him. This metaphor also works better for things like video games where you don't need to be a genetic colossus to ensure success.
(But you see what I'm getting at, right?)

Still skeptical? Let's look at a few million dollar mistakes as examples. Most people will tell you that playing the lottery is throwing your money away. They're wrong. A few very smart people figured out that if you play at the correct time, you can almost guarantee a win. They ended up walking away with $8 million because they figured out a loophole in the Massachusetts lottery. Even a system like the lottery, designed by smart people to make money off of other people, can be beaten.

Scratch offs are beatable too. A statistician figured out a way to differentiate winners from losers without scratching them off. He found a pattern in the way certain types of scratch offs display their winning numbers, and could win almost every time. Mistakes and opportunities are everywhere.

Let's look at stock market trading as a final example. This is the big leagues when it comes to using math, algorithms, and smarts to make money. A firm called Knight Capital Group ended up losing $440 million dollars in 30 minutes due to a glitch in their code. Another way to look at this, other people made $440 million dollars in 30 minutes due to recognizing Knight Capital's error. Even the big boys can make mistakes, and they tend to hurt a lot more at this level.

No one is perfect

Do not be intimidated by your opponent. Ever. Your opponent could be the person interviewing you for a job, your business partner at work, or someone simply trying to one up your joke at a party. They are people just like you and me. They will make mistakes just like you and me. Realize this. Don't let them bluff you with a poker face of competence. Don't give them credit until they've earned it. If the very best can make mistakes, everyone can make mistakes, and that leaves the door wide open for success. No matter what your game, always play to win. Because victory could be one mistake away.