n00bs, Trolls, and Idols: Status and Social Regulation in Online Communities

August 7, 2012

PROJECTS: Leveling Up



Q: how do you know someone is a n00b?


Q: hahahaha. so all caps probably!

A: Or all lower case XD

Q: ah, like me 🙂

A: run on sentences 😛


The above excerpt is from an interview with a community member at a popular online website for LittleBigPlanet 2 players, Sackboy Planet (1). In an earlier post, I shared my first experiences with the Playstation 3 game and reflected on the learning opportunities of its community-driven, companion online communities. In the above example, I asked questions of my respondent using all lower-case lettering; little did I know that this was considered by members of Sackboy Planet to be indicative behavior of “n00bs,” or beginners. On Sackboy Planet, community members actively identify and police behavior to uphold an etiquette of interaction idealized by the community. “n00bs,” along with other labels such as “troll” and “idol,” are classifications used strategically by members to develop a shared culture and purpose through peer interaction on Sackboy Planet.

When I first visited Sackboy Planet and registered with the community, I was automatically directed to the “Introductions” section of the website. I scrolled through hundreds of posts where other new members posted a brief introduction about themselves to the rest of the community. New users often share brief stories about why they joined the website or what their favorite things are about the game. Some new users, however, write introductory posts that direct people to their created levels or other user-created content (some examples of content are discussed here), but they are met with responses that offer correctives to their language: “Before asking people to subscribe to your Youtube account, please tell a little more about who you are.” Others respond in kind: “Let people get to know who you are first before asking us to look at your creations.” Community standards of talk are expressed and enforced through interaction online, requiring certain ways of communicating in order to maintain legitimacy. Before users demonstrate this base level of literacy they are overlooked. Interviews with group members revealed that there was more to this than simply a few rules about introductions. After asking one member what determines who gets heard most on the forums, they expressed that “if it appears to be a ‘n00b’ then their post will mostly likely be skimmed or skipped.” 

What, exactly, is a n00b? Are there other status labels that exist in the community? How are they determined, and what impact do such labels have on interaction more broadly? These were questions I began to think about as I found that identity categories exist within the online community that are attached to particular kinds of talk and behavior. Through interviews and forum participation, I found that three main categories permeate the forums – n00bs, trolls, and idols – and community members strategically employ them through interaction to identify “good” and “bad” forum behavior, informing not only the status of other members but also the valuation of their shared content. As in the quote at the beginning of this post, n00bs use forms of grammar that do not meet the standards of English used by other members of the forum, such as use of all capitals or all lower case lettering. n00bs are also often described as immature, or children, or both. On Sackboy Planet, n00bs, along with trolls, represent the least reputable members of the community. One interviewed member described to me how he was labeled a troll and was harassed by community members after he called someone a n00b in a forum thread. In these online contexts, trolls are members who actively insult other members and are perceived to intentionally cause harm, creating threads or posts that irritate or defame others in the community. 

While n00bs and trolls represent unsocialized and unwelcome types of members, respectively, idols are the embodiment of community ideals. When asked about one popular user on Sackboy Planet, a member expressed that “He was my idol. The levels he made were so awesome I wanted to know his secret. What was he able to do that I wasn’t?” Idols are celebrities who are often considered to be role models that motivate other members to improve their craft and succeed. Idols can take a number of forms, though on Sackboy Planet they are often skilled level designers, or are well known for other roles such as organizing popular social events or serving as curators of undiscovered content in the level databases. In interviews, idols describe many perks of their status: “Celebrity status helped me reach more people and I could find those people I work well with.” Idols gain exclusive access to other celebrity players to collaborate with on projects. Additionally, content created and shared by celebrity players is almost always readily viewed and evaluated, whereas n00bs and trolls have a more difficult time getting similar attention to their creations. Interestingly, while n00bs and trolls are labels tied primarily to certain ways of talking or acting in forums, idols’ status is also fueled by the perceived skill or service to the community.

Community-informed status categories, such as n00b, troll, and idol, are used by members to distinguish “good” and “bad” behavior in the forums and to cultivate a peer-supported community centered on their shared interest and purpose. These categories allow typical users to socialize new members (n00bs) into the norms of the website, police unwelcome behavior (trolls), and sacralize community ideals (idols). The cultural etiquette on the forums dictate whose “voice” is heard in the community, and also whose user-generated content is viewed, shared, and celebrated. In sum, these labels are employed to inhibit unwelcome types of interactions on the forum and reward good behavior. Although Sackboy Planet provides an example of how these categories are used to ward off hostility and maintain low barriers for entry to unskilled players, these standards are by no means universal to all online communities. In fact, the meaning and use of terms such as n00b and troll may vary and be applied to different types of behavior. Persistent stigmatization of n00bs or the elective isolation of skilled idols from new members that need mentorship may act as barriers to an integrated learning community. On the other hand, established idols may also participate as active and engaged role models, energizing the community around shared set of interests and creating an ideal environment to play and learn. 

(1) All group and individual names have been changed.