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Survival In The Online Trenches

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Chris Heilmann

Member info

User since: 29 Jul 2002

Articles written: 17

The Internet is an amazing thing - as a media it was and is a

revolution. Everybody can participate, publishing and amending content is a

matter of seconds and a lot of it is free. Let's take part, shall we?

Fame, fortune and great feedback await us, so let's put our work out there

for people to find and enjoy.

Alas, it seems as soon as you publish something and allow people to comment on it

or use it, you're in for a rude awakening.

Stay with us and hear a tale of the foes we have on the web. All of the upcoming

characters are purely non-fictional.

Meet the army of spoilers

The professional spammer

His job is to find emails to send important things - like penis enhancement

products or drugs you cannot get that cheap in the pharmacy - to them.


There is not much of a remedy against the spammer. As soon as your email is

readable somewhere and in the source of the page, it can and will be

harvested by spam robots and you are in for a filled inbox. There are many

ideas as to how to stop that - obfuscating the email via Javascript, or adding

it as an image. These are effective to some degree, but could challenge usability

or accessibility. A rather spam-free way to allow people to contact

you is an email form. Keep the email addresses in a database and simply

reference them by key. In any case, a spam filter on your mailbox is in order.

The clumsy spammer

Links make the web work. Links also make Google recognise and rank our pages.

That is why some people tend to sneak in links pointing to their web sites into comments

by turning random words and punctuation into links. It may or may not be that Google does

follow links that have a dash or a full stop as their textual content, in any

case it is a clumsy and rather pathetic try to raise awareness for your web site.


Either disallow links, or display them as full text. That way the comments

will be named and shamed and you can see the spamming immediately and remove the links

or the full comment.

The hacker

Religious debates about Unix vs. FreeBSD vs. Windows aside - your server is

constantly open to attacks by hackers or hacker wannabees. The argument "but

the stuff I publish is free and I am not an evil corporation" doesn't work any

longer. A server is a server and if I can hack my way into it, I can use it as

an online hard disk to store data on.


Don't do the server maintenance, if you don't know what you are doing. Make

sure to use complex passwords and change them regularly. If you install scripts

and extensions on your server, follow the instructions and do not leave scripts

with names like "admin" unprotected. If the script allows it, rename them, or

secure them with a password via .htaccess or equivalents.

The citizen of me-oh-me-ia

This dysfunctional breed is prone to fill comment facilities with off-topic

messages pointing in their direction, an example would be: "Wow, cool

article about accessible navigations. I think my

web site about making little furry animals from dental floss
could need it".

Furthermore, the citizens of me-oh-me-ia also have the perception that their

setup is the world's: "Your script works fine on all common browsers, but my

browser XYZ does not support it. Therefore it is useless".


This type is more annoying than really destructive. Therefore you can either

just counterargument in the comments, or, in case of serial offenders, delete

them. People like these keep us from really improving our sites and adding new

content, as we have to spend all that time on maintenance.

The "My help request right or wrong" user

This type has the impression that you are either all-knowing, or that you do

have the inclination and time to help out no matter how unrelated the request is.

"I have seen your PHP script, and I like it, how can I set up a server to

run it?" or "I see you publish a lot of articles, can you tell me what

laptop is the best" are typical examples. They most likely don't mean to be

annoying, they just think you like helping people, and you do, but surely not with



As stated above, this behaviour can be due to not knowing better and misreading

your nice texts as a "come on all, I'll sort you out". Therefore punishing

is not really a good response. Better point them to example pages. For more on

this, read "How to help and get help online".

Try to be nice, breathe in and out 10 times before answering something like

"Have you tried this very secret web site called Google" or "RTFM".

The bad implementer

If you publish scripts and you thought you made them idiot proof, rest assured

that someone will come up with a better idiot. Either your documentation is bad,

or just too extensive. A good documentation does not help, as, sad but true,

people do not read them. That is why you end up with people using your scripts,

failing to secure them properly and come complaining to you about "being hacked".

You can even point out 10 times that you made a template and a user does not

need to know language XYZ to re-skin it, you'll still get people telling you

that they can't use it as they don't know XYZ.


Again, a user that you don't want to annoy too much. They are not evil, they

are misled (or lazy). Point out the documentation again, if inclined, help them

hands-on. Write your documentation concise and short (Step by Step examples proved

to be helpful) and make your scripts check if they are insecure (is the file

still called admin? Can it be written to?).

Dr. Test and Mr. Hello

This dynamic duo is always on the hunt for innocent form fields, like sign-up

fields for newsletters, guestbooks or even contact forms, just to fill them

with "test" or "hello" and send them off. There is no name for

this fetish yet, but it seems to give them a lot of pleasure.


Simply make sure you review the guestbook entries before they get published,

check fields for the words above and don't submit them when that is their only


The all-knowing developer

This kind will comment on anything you do with a confident "I have done

that years ago" and accuse you of being inefficient if you don't apply

technique XYZ to the problem ABC. He will also claim having had the idea years

before and didn't "feel like writing about it&34;


Point out that an example is an example and that there are many ways to

achieve the same goal. Also point out that less optimised examples may be

necessary to explain certain techniques. Congratulate them on their greatness and

tell them to start writing themselves. They'll soon realise it is not as easy as

creating a perfect code solution.


The worst of the web. Trolls are people that post only to annoy and attack

others. They offend for the sake of offending and are very likely to cause long-winded,

off-topic discussions if their baits were successful.


Delete posts, block if possible. Keep the lid on the jar of trollnip and call

Harry Potter.

"Fame's a fickle friend, Harry"

The more success your site has, or the more you publish, the more likely it is

that you will encounter one or more of the above. It seems as if free speech is

a nice enough concept, but only a chosen few know how to use it wisely, whereas

the people abusing it are legion. The reasons might be of various nature: envy,

boredom, unhappy childhood, inability to communicate in real life - you name it.

You end up using your time maintaining the comments and the contacts you get,

and doing less and less for the site, unless you are lucky enough to be able to

delegate that job.

Why we do it despite of all these issues? Because we can, and because we have

to, to keep this wonderful new media alive.

Every comment and mail needs to be checked and tended to, so next time you

feel the urge to write something about an online text you saw, think of the

consequences, and try not to fall into any of the above categories.

Currently employed in London as a Lead Front End Developer, Chris has been bouncing around the globe working for several agencies and companies. A web enthusiast from 1997 on workplaces include Munich, London, Santa Monica and San Francisco. More of Chris' writings can be found at and he blogs at

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