Trolls and Effective Communication Skills (Postel’s Law / Robustness Principle)

Mattathias Schwartz recently wrote a great investigative piece for the New York Times Magazine,  Malwebolence: The World of Web Trolling:

It’s great to see that even the most misanthropic sociopaths can be propitiated by serious journalistic attention.  As for the rest of us amateur bloggers, we should avoid making eye contact and keep our heads down.

One tangent brought up in the article reminded me of a core lesson in Effective Business Communication Skills (all caps because, like,  it’s a course I teach sometimes): 

In 1981 [Jon Postel] formulated what’s known as Postel’s Law: “Be conservative in what you do; be liberal in what you accept from others.” Originally intended to foster “interoperability,” the ability of multiple computer systems to understand one another, Postel’s Law is now recognized as having wider applications. To build a robust global network with no central authority, engineers were encouraged to write code that could “speak” as clearly as possible yet “listen” to the widest possible range of other speakers, including those who do not conform perfectly to the rules of the road. The human equivalent of this robustness is a combination of eloquence and tolerance – the spirit of good conversation. Trolls embody the opposite principle. They are liberal in what they do and conservative in what they construe as acceptable behavior from others. You, the troll says, are not worthy of my understanding; I, therefore, will do everything I can to confound you.

In the surprisingly brief Wikipedia article describing Postel’s Law, there is another great quote, which also applies to Effective Business Communications Skills: 

Postel’s principle is often misinterpreted as discouraging checking messages for validity.

An effective communicator carefully listens, asks relevant questions and checks for understanding.  That’s a big part of being “open” to different kinds of input.

Postel’s Law is also known as the Robustness Principle… this is a nice coincidence, because just a few days ago, I chided a colleague for using the word “robust” about 4 times in a single conversation.  It’s one of those special words — like usurp, furlongvacillate, exacerbate and ornary — great to gain attention and add zest, but to be used sparingly.  Not that furlong pops up too often in phatic interlocution.



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My blog is at: My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on August 8, 2008, in Communication Skills, Diversions, Social Media. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. awesome article! (the mattathias one – hard core name!) makes you wonder how much of what’s presented to him is fluff and how much is actually real…

    not to mention the stuff that’s not even presented. (negative space) lol 😉

    i like that fortuna guy… too bad his social consciousness had to spawn from so much pain. (assuming it’s true.. which could very well not be – the abuse thing)

    i also like how this loosely ties to the earlier posts (on here) about not believing everything on the internet, no matter how high it ranks on google.

  2. Another awesome part of the article is where “Weev” is fronting, oh-so-lamely, with the Rolls Royce driven by his girlfriend(?)… lol… for that and that alone he should get his butt kicked.

  3. that’s exactly what i was thinking.. rented rolls royce.. gf driving.. big mouth..

    if you are part of a big organization that makes money, u keep ur mouth shut.

    ppl like fortuna have more of a future, cuz what he’s doing transcends the tool. the internet is just a medium for him… he could piss ppl off over any medium.

    ppl like weev are useless without the net.

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