Opinion

Confessions of an Internet troll

Rob Bennett Contributor

I’m a troll.

So they say.

I’m banned at Fool.com. I’m banned at Morningtar.com. I’m banned at Bogleheads.org. I’m banned at numerous personal finance blogs.

Is it something I said?

I write about investing on the Internet. I am the world’s leading critic of Buy-and-Hold. It encourages investors to remain at high stock allocations when prices have gone to insanely dangerous levels, causing great human misery.

There’s something about the bannings that’s odd. Hundreds of the people who meet at the communities at which I am banned have told me that I am the first person they have found who writes about investing in a way that truly makes sense to them. Several of the site owners who have banned me have written me e-mails to apologize. Two wrote blurbs that appear on the back of my book on saving. One told me that he reads everything I write about investing and that he thinks that the work that I have done in this field is of “huge value.” Another told me that he has recommended my site in his Twitter postings. Another let me know that he thinks I am a nice guy, and totally sincere, and smart.

So why have these people blocked their readers from hearing what I have to say? It upsets them. People who follow the Buy-and-Hold strategy hate hearing that it doesn’t work. The Bogleheads.org forum, which is the largest investing forum on the Internet, was founded to escape me. For a time, the community now meeting there met at Morningstar.com but Morningstar.com was not willing to ban me (Morningtar.com has since gotten with the program) despite the demands of many that it do so. So an entire new board was founded and thousands ran to it. There’s nothing that helps promote an investing forum like putting a sign up front saying “Rob Bennett Is Not Permitted to Post Here!”

I don’t take any of this as evidence that I am wrong in what I say about investing. I take it as evidence that Buy-and-Holders lack confidence in their strategy. I view the defensiveness of the Buy-and-Holders as a sign that they very much need to be hearing some new ideas, not that they should be permitted to silence those expressing them.

What do you think? Am I a troll?

The original meaning of the word was “a person who deliberately causes trouble at a board.” Even my worst critics acknowledge my sincerity. But even I acknowledge that my posts upset a significant percentage of the community members at the boards at which I post. Am I a troll or am I not?

My view is that all learning “disrupts.” Learning brings change. Change means “trouble” for those who have achieved positions of status under the unchanged system. Good teachers are troublemakers. Good journalists are troublemakers. Good thinkers are troublemakers. Socrates was a troll. The penalty for trolling in the old days was to be forced to drink hemlock.

The Internet discussion board is a communications medium of huge potential. Its power comes from the diversity of perspectives that are represented at a well-run board. I’ve learned things at discussion boards that I could not have learned from reading every book in the largest personal finance library in the world. No book can permit me to experience the interactions of so many different points of view. Nor can any television show. Nor can any speech. Nor can any magazine.

This unique power is lost when the majority of a board makes a decision to use its influence to drive out those with minority viewpoints. What the word “troll” has come to mean at many boards is “someone who challenges the accepted wisdom of the crowd or of board leaders.” The designation “troll” is used to intimidate, to shun, to silence.

New ideas are the lifeblood of a healthy community. When we kill the sources of new ideas, we limit our future. Boards at which anyone who speaks truth to power becomes the object of vicious smear campaigns are boards at which learning has been put in second place and deriving comfort from hearing the repeated expression of groupthink has become the top priority.

You can no longer shame me by calling me “troll.” My motto is — Say It Loud, I’m a Troll and I’m Proud!

Let’s discuss! Let’s learn! Let’s disrupt!

Rob Bennett authored a Google Knol titled “Why Buy-and-Hold Investing Can Never Work.”