With the Internet came the trolls. It started with ‘flaming’, a practice in which fledgling trolls would lambast or hold others up to ridicule in online forums on account of some (alleged) error or naivety. The Internet troll then developed in aggressiveness to perpetrate other misdeeds via the net, some of them far beyond the simple cyber bullying of before. Are Internet trolls an inevitable part of the web? Can the situation be changed? Whatever the case, they are out there and they may even be users of your software applications. Although testing software may stop short of internet flaming, a little knowledge into the mentality of trolling can yield some practical insights into improving the testing of software.
Making Better Use of a Talent for Being Awkward
Whether internet troll behavior is innate or developed through practice is an open question. But it corresponds in many ways to cases that need to be covered when testing software. An internet troll, by popular definition, posts inflammatory, irrelevant or off-topic messages, or all of the above. Software applications need to be able to handle data input that could attempt, inappropriately, to address the inner workings of the application (‘inflammatory’), or that could cause software degradation or failure by being outside the bounds of what the application has been designed to handle (‘off-topic’). Considered as data input, these are the ‘corner cases’ that software applications also need to handle correctly to avoid degradation or failure. The particular characteristics of internet trolls can be used to inspire test criteria (and, working backwards, design criteria) for better software test coverage.
Deeper into Internet Troll Territory
Without trying to turn software testers into psychiatrists, it is sometimes instructive to see what Internet trolls get up to and to think about the implications for testing software to ensure protection against similar phenomena. Just to be clear about this, this is not a call to step outside the bounds of legality or decency. The idea is to look for the parallels between what goes on in real life and what testing software should also consider. Here are two examples.
- Acting outside the norm. Trolls are an exception, compared to the majority of Internet users. Test data sets for testing software also have to go outside the norm to include data input with special characters (@ signs, control characters and strings, etc.). Testing Anywhere has a data generator that facilitates testing large quantities of test data to include different ‘non-normal’ input.
- Group trolling. Sometimes trolls launch concerted attacks on targets. Software has to deal with peak loads too, whether from human users or other applications. Graceful degradation under stress conditions is an essential feature for many software applications.
Dealing with Trolls and Testing Software
Not surprisingly, there is advice to be had about how to deal with Internet trolls. Can this too yield insights for testing software? Suggestions include seeking help and advice (in software testing, two heads are often better than one), ignoring the temptation to retaliate as in ‘do not feed the trolls’ (most software doesn’t have emotions, often the key drivers of retaliation), and blocking access for troll-type input (also an option that software testers can check). Who knows, perhaps there’s even hope for rehabilitating trolls to prevent the problem in the first place.
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