Tom Barfield's blog

Personal musings of a young journalist in London

Trolling is not synonymous with stalking or threatening people online

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The UK national media have recently discovered the word “troll” in its internet sense. Unfortunately, every last journalist I have seen using it has deployed it incorrectly. For instance, the stories about Liam Stacey (he of the Fabrice Muamba tweets), or Frank Zimmerman (he who threatened the children of Louise Mensch).

The trouble is that neither of these men were trolling. That they were being unpleasant in a general sense is not in doubt. That they were directly, personally cruel or bigoted is not in question. But this is not the definition of trolling.

The now-ubiquitous coolface/trollface

"Coolface" became the emblem of the 4chan trolls (image cribbed from Wikipedia)

My experience of trolling comes from 4chan (and that’s not something you often see someone admit in polite society). 4chan is that terrible place you’ve heard about where everyone is Anonymous and there are no rules. It’s the origin of many of the memes that have swept the internet, and it’s the current spiritual home of trolling (although the term has a storied past).

What defines an act of being stupid, aggressive or irritating online as trolling is all about motive. Trolling is about wearing a mask, adopting a pose to elicit a response from people who (in the troll’s eyes) take internet discourse too seriously. It’s almost never about communicating your own opinions accurately and honestly, which is why neither of these men are trolls.

I’ll give an imaginary example from 4chan’s /g/ board, which is nominally dedicated to discussing Technology. In practice, this generally means fanboi-ish flame wars between fans of Apple and fans of other technology (hardware and software). Apple tech arouses strong passions in both its adherents and its detractors; to the former, it’s finely-crafted, impeccably tasteful, user-friendly; to the latter, it’s over-priced, restricting and patronising.

So, a trollish post on Technology, aiming to stir up the Apple debate yet again, might go something like this:

“I enjoy buying and using Apple products. I know that the user interface has been crafted to exacting specifications by consummate professionals, that I will not be exposed to virus-ridden or poorly-designed third-party apps, and that simply owning an Apple product will be an outward sign of my creative soul and higher-than-average salary.”

The troll probably doesn’t believe a word of this. He most likely doesn’t care one way or the other about the issue. He wants to see easily-riled Android, Windows or Linux fans crafting an excoriating response to the smug, superior, supercilious Apple user they imagine to be behind the post. He wants to see Apple fans stimulated by these outpourings of rage into wasting their valuable time responding to the responses.

The key point to take away from this is that the troll identifies an emotionally charged, powder-keg debate in which he can play the mischievous soul who lights the blue touch paper and runs. Apple versus the rest of the tech world is classic troll fodder (other easy targets include discussing the relative merits of Dungeons and Dragons versions 3 and 4 on the “Traditional Games” board, or of the Kalashnikov and Armalite rifle families on the “Weapons” board, or Christians versus Atheists, liberals versus conservatives, and on and on).

The troll himself has no emotional horse in the race. He just wants to sit back and watch the fireworks that reward what he sees as his cleverness in identifying a weak spot in a community.

image of moot at Time person of the year

This comic (starring 4chan founder Moot) illustrates a fairly basic form of trolling

This means that weirdos stalking Louise Mensch or racists posting drunken obscenities while a black man lies dying on a football field are categorically not trolls. Whatever your opinion of those two cases, the men involved were most definitely personally attached to the opinions they were expressing. While trolling can and does fracture, damage and occasionally destroy online communities, simply being unpleasant or cruel in some online arena is not enough to qualify as trolling.

Trolling is closely tied up with the Anonymous culture that sprang out of 4chan and its many clones and imitators. It’s an affectation, an act of mockery aimed at people with strong feelings about social, political or other issues by those who claim not to care. Among trolls, Heath Ledger’s watching-the-world-burn role as the Joker in The Dark Knight was an instant role model and memetic goldmine.

I’d actually be sad to see the kind of trolling I’ve described here disappear from the net. Responding to a troll post and realising too late that you’ve been played is a key learning experience for anyone taking part in online discussions. That sense of intellectual shame for not having noticed the over-played nature of your baiter’s words is a valuable life lesson, particularly for journalists. “Just how plausible is this online text which I am taking so seriously, anyway?” is a question we should all be asking ourselves constantly. Learning to identify trolls by getting burned once or twice could mean that you take the time to identify something much worse later in your career.


Written by Tom Barfield

April 11, 2012 at 7:45 pm

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  1. […] Trolling is not synonymous with stalking or threatening people online( […]

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