Go Ahead, Feed the Trolls
“Dude, are you feeding the trolls with your Feed the Trolls post? This is so meta.”
Common Internet knowledge tells us “don't feed the trolls”. This post is about when it is okay to give them some tasty snacks, while luring them into your trap to do your bidding. See this Hacker News comments thread as instructional material for this post.
Often when I put something up on Hacker News, or when I see a news story that I am invested in getting to the front page or top ranking you'll hear me say, “Okay… now we need some trolls” in a tone of mischievous delight. But I'm totally serious.
Warning: This tactic is not for the faint of heart, or those with medical conditions triggered by adrenaline.
Bring in the Trolls
On Hacker News, any comments are likely to help your post be more interesting for clicks, votes, and additional engagement. A nasty comment (hence my desire for trolls), or one that asks questions and invites conversation is the best. Each comment can individually be voted up as well, adding to the velocity and overall score of your post.
While a throwaway account is okay, what you really want is someone with a few Hacker News karma points in there.
Protip: Instead of campaigning for votes you might consider campaigning for comments and see if it helps your posts make it to the front page. Don't ask people to be negative, ask them to share what they really think and to encourage more conversation. There's no need to make the thread quality crappy. This post is about how to make the best of it when things are already going downhill.
An Example: My First Post on this Blog
I submitted the announcement of the launch of this blog on Hacker News, and after 10 minutes it only had 2 points. “Well, that's a dud” I thought as I headed out to Taco Bell with my cofounders. Oh well, lots of stuff I post to Hacker News doesn't get voted up - no big deal and on to the next one. I figured it didn't matter if we tripped the voting ring algorithm since it wasn't going to make it to the front page anyway, so I asked my cofounders to vote it up. Hmmm… that actually worked, 4 points at #17 on the front page. Not what I expected.
And then came the throwaway (brand new account) comment:
“If every IT person I've ever hated assembled together like Voltron and wrote a blog, I think it would be a lot like that one.”
Yes, we have a live one! Its not the best kind of comment since it is from an account with very little weight, but its a start. Before I could even begin to execute on my engagement strategy (usually a retort that could drive additional conversation) two other commenters chimed in.
Boom, from #17 to #3
Keeping the Magic Going
Hacker News is a huge traffic driver (if you don't know, now you know!) and once you're on the front page and particularly in the top 10 spots its all about figuring out how to stay there as long as possible to get the most possible click-throughs to your content.
Stop thinking about my silly post, imagine if this was your company's launch. The same mechanics apply.
So now what do we need? More trolls!
“If you're going to promote yourself on HN, is it too much to ask that the link contain some useful content? Otherwise it looks like your main skill is self promotion.”
This particular flavor of comment I like to call “sour grapes” and its usually good for a tired little debate about how HN is going to shit (yay, more comments!) and I'm always up for a little instigating. I'm dmor in the thread by the way.
Btw, I was fortunate enough to have someone come to my defense, but really you don't have to defend yourself against the claims of trolls and I don't suggest asking others to come to your defense… its not about winning, it just about making a bit more heat to stoke the click-through fire.
The one exception: if someone misquotes you or states something as fact where you feel you MUST set the record straight. Remember, the Internet is written in ink. See an example of me defending myself against a false quote here.
Content is (Still) King
Here's the thing - as you're going about doing all of this fancy footwork there are people voting up the post. If not, it will not remain on the front page, comments are not enough.
If you don't post something of AT LEAST minimal value then no amount of hacking the system is going to work. This is an optimization play, to maximize the amount of time your article spends on the front page once it gets there.
Even better than feeding trolls is engaging in meaningful conversation in the comments with people who respond positively (or negatively) and constructively to your post. Intelligent dialogue is what Hacker News is intended for. These tactics are for gaming the system when your post doesn't generate the beginnings of those conversations and you need to jumpstart things with only a couple crappy comments to fuel the fire.
Don't Let Them Get to You
You've got to have a thick skin, because the Internet is mean and nasty place. Feed the trolls candy and get them to help your posts resonate as long as possible to drive traffic, but don't ever think you can win them over with intelligent debate.
Here trolly trolly trolls!
Followup Question: Does this tactic work other places besides Hacker News?
I think this could work anywhere there is a voting system, including Digg and Reddit, but I haven't tested it. In general, trolls in comments on your blog, forums, etc. can be ignored or moderated out if they are really abhorrent. Its still better not to engage them there, as it only serves to bring the whole tone of the post down to their level. This works on Hacker News because the majority of visitors click straight through links on the front page without ever viewing the comments, so tone is less important and doesn't usually reflect on the author of the post that was submitted.