A critical look at trolling subculture and how we talk about it
Last week, Adrian Chen at Gawker published a long profile of infamous Reddit moderator Violentacrez, described as "the biggest troll on the web." In addition to exposing Violentacrez' real-life identity, Chen's profile reveals the seedy underbelly of Reddit, a massive social news aggregator that touts itself as the "front page of the internet." Given Reddit's astounding traffic stats -- the site attracted 42 million unique visitors just last month-- this assertion isn't that far off. Reddit has become a cultural juggernaut; it would stand to reason, then, that one of the biggest sites on the web would harbor one of the biggest trolls on the web. The question is, what exactly does that label mean? If recent media coverage is any indication, the term "trolling" includes everything from harmless, and perhaps even helpful, mischief to defamation to watching leaked crime scene videos to outright harassment (sometimes described as "cyberbullying"), either of someone known to the troll or high-profile public figures.
Given the resulting controversy, including the push for legislation to combat such behaviors (despite the fact that no one can seem to agree on exactly which behaviors the category of "trolling" subsumes), it is critical to interrogate where the term comes from and the ways in which discussions of trolling butt up against questions of anonymity, safety, and aggression online -- essentially, the anti-social side of the social web.
Before we attempt to lock down the definition of the term "trolling" -- to say nothing about proposing possible solutions -- we must first place the term in historical context.
Before we attempt to lock down the definition of the term "trolling" -- to say nothing about proposing possible solutions -- we must first place the term in historical context. In the '90s, "to troll" was to disrupt a conversation or entire community by posting incendiary statements or stupid questions onto a discussion board. Regardless of why the poster was being disruptive -- for his or her own amusement, or because he or she was a genuinely quarrelsome, abrasive personality -- the poster would be branded a troller (later shortened to "troll") and denounced accordingly. In these cases, "trolling" was used as a general, condemnatory, post-hoc descriptor of an online encounter. It was -- and in many circles remains -- something you accused someone else of being.
Within the ranks of self-identifying trolls, a class of troublemaker whose roots can be traced back to 4chan's infamous /b/ board, the term has taken on very specific subcultural meaning. Trolling as described by self-identifying trolls is a game, one only the trolls can initiate and only the troll can win. Pulling from a seemingly endless nest of self-referential memes, and steeped in a distinctive shared language, subcultural trolling is predicated on the amassment of lulz, an aggressive form of laughter derived from eliciting strong emotional reactions from the chosen target(s). In order to amass the greatest number of lulz possible, trolls engage in the most outrageous and offensive behaviors possible -- all the better to troll you with.
It is important to note that trolling is not a one-size-fits-all behavioral category. I've worked with certain trolls who take great pleasure in taunting the friends and family of murdered teenagers. I've worked with other trolls who are disgusted by this sort of behavior and instead restrict their focus to trolling other trolls. Some trolls are very intelligent, and have extremely interesting things to say about trolling, while others have no real opinion about anything they do, other than the fact that it makes them laugh. Just as there are many different kinds of trolls, there are many different ways to troll. Some trolling is relatively innocuous, for example trolling that redirects targets to absurd images or videos. Some trolling meets the legal criteria for harassment, and can persist for weeks or even months.
In addition to acknowledging the wide variety of trolling behaviors, it is just as important to note that simply saying nasty things online does not make someone a subcultural troll, nor does engaging in "good faith" (for lack of a better term) racism or sexism or homophobia. Not necessarily, anyway. Trolling in the subcultural sense may be afoot in these instances, but maybe not, immediately complicating the impulse to declare every aggressive or otherwise unsavory online behavior an act of trolling -- an impulse regularly exercised by those in the mainstream media.
How, then, is it possible to know when someone is in fact trolling (as opposed to being genuinely racist, sexist or otherwise ignorant)? In most cases, self-identifying trolls will slip in a subtle reference to trolling -- a kind of subcultural calling card. This calling card isn't intended for the target, in fact is rarely perceptible to the target, but rather is geared towards other trolls. Not only does the reference claim victory for the initiating troll, it also tends to incite further trolling behaviors. This is how most raids get started -- a troll essentially calls for backup, and other trolls, who are attuned to those sorts of signals, come running.
Of course, trolls don't always leave a calling card. Sometimes the best a person can do is to say that a certain behavior seems trollish, for example winking engagement with Aurora spree shooter James Holmes. Assuming one could track the suspected anonymous troll(s) down -- a difficult if not impossible task, particularly when the person in question is posting under a pseudonym or no-nym -- and even if you asked point-blank if the person was trolling, you couldn't be sure that his or her answer would be genuine. In fact, you could almost guarantee that it wouldn't be. Either the person would lie about being a troll, or lie about his or her motives, or more confusingly, tell the truth -- regardless, there would be no way to confirm or deny any of it (in my own research I avoided "cold interviews" with anonymous trolls, and instead worked with trolls who had been referred to me by other trolls).
These days, however, references that once were confined to trolling circles are known and shared by vast swaths of the online population. What used to provide unequivocal proof that trolling was afoot no longer (necessarily) denotes anything, other than a basic familiarity with memes.
As internet culture -- and by extension, trolling culture -- has become increasingly mainstream, the difference between trolls and good faith aggressors (I make that distinction reluctantly, for reasons I sketch out below) has become increasingly difficult to demarcate. Up until fairly recently, the trolling lexicon was impenetrable to outsiders; only those familiar with the troll space could flash the subcultural calling card. Back then (I'd place the cutoff around late 2010/early 2011), trolls were comparatively easy to pick out. These days, however, references that once were confined to trolling circles are known and shared by vast swaths of the online population. What used to provide unequivocal proof that trolling was afoot no longer (necessarily) denotes anything, other than a basic familiarity with memes.
Needless to say, the shift from subculture to mainstream has added a whole new layer of complexity to already complex discussions of trolling behaviors. After all, even if one could prove that someone is indeed trolling in the subcultural sense (i.e. is treating a given interaction as a game, with the sole intention of upsetting his or her chosen target), it is simply not possible to know what exists the anonymous troll's heart and mind, for the very simple reason that there is no way of knowing whose heart and mind it is. There are of course some basic demographic indicators; I have every reason to believe that the majority of trolls on the English-speaking web are, like Violentacrez, white, male and somewhat privileged. Not because I have personally counted all the trolls on the English-speaking web, but because trolls perform these characteristics. They enact gendered dominance ("your resistance only makes my penis harder," a popular trolling refrain, speaks volumes). They universalize their own assumptions and ethical imperatives (for example the assertion that nothing on the Internet should be taken seriously). They have enough free time to sink hours and hours into their online exploits, and have access to the necessary technologies to do so. I am entirely comfortable asserting these basic symbolic demographics.
Still, the specific offline identities of individual anonymous trolls is unknown, and unknowable -- as are their true feelings. Is the troll engaging in bigoted speech in order to call out, and therefore subvert, genuine expressions of bigotry? Is the troll attempting to make a larger claim about sensationalist corporate media? Is the troll merely a racist or misogynist who hides behind trolling as a way to distance him or herself from his or her own beliefs? Some combination of the three? Something else entirely? Regardless of the insights these sorts of questions might yield, it is critical to acknowledge that the troll's reasoning -- what they really think about a given subject -- is ultimately less important than the effects his or her behaviors have. Put simply, whether or not the troll "really" hates women, for example, doesn't matter if the targeted women feel hated.
Despite the fact that it is very difficult -- and in fact isn't all that helpful -- to posit intentions, it is possible to make larger claims not just about these kinds of behaviors, but the culture out of which they emerge. As I argue throughout my dissertation, trolls are cultural scavengers, and engage in a process I describe as cultural digestion: They take in, regurgitate, and subsequently weaponize existing tropes and cultural sensitivities. By examining the recurring targets of trolling, it is therefore possible to reverse-engineer the dominant landscape.
When corporate media outlets splash the most sensationalist, upsetting headlines or images across their front page, press the friends and families of suicide victims to relive the trauma of having their loved one's RIP page attacked by trolls, or pour over every possible detail about bullied teenage suicides, it's just business as usual.
Consider trolls' deeply contentious but ultimately homologous relationship with sensationalist corporate media. For example, when trolls court emotional distress in the wake of a tragedy by posting upsetting messages to Facebook memorial pages and generally being antagonistic towards so-called "grief tourists," they are swiftly condemned -- and understandably so. But when corporate media outlets splash the most sensationalist, upsetting headlines or images across their front page, press the friends and families of suicide victims to relive the trauma of having their loved one's RIP page attacked by trolls (and in the case of this MSNBC segment, by forcing them to read the hateful messages on camera), or pour over every possible detail about bullied teenage suicides, despite the risks of "copycat suicide," the only objectively measurable media effect, and in so doing slap a dollar sign on personal tragedy, it's just business as usual. In both cases, audience distress is courted and exploited for profit. Granted, trolls' "profit" is measured in lulz, not dollars. Still, the respective processes by which these profits are achieved are strikingly similar, and in many cases -- which I chronicled throughout my dissertation -- indistinguishable.
I am not arguing that members of the media are trolls, at least not in the subcultural sense. I am however suggesting that trolls and sensationalist corporate media have more in common than the latter would care to admit, and that by engaging in a grotesque pantomime of these best corporate practices, trolls call attention to how the sensationalist sausage is made. This certainly doesn't give trolls a free pass, but it does serve as a reminder that ultimately, trolls are symptomatic of much larger problems. Decrying trolls without at least considering the ways in which they are embedded within and directly replicate existing systems is therefore tantamount to taking a swing at an object's reflection and hanging a velvet rope around the object itself.
This is not to say that trolling is political. For one thing, the trolling spectrum is far too varied to attribute a singular political or behavioral focus. For another, many trolls explicitly deny having a purpose, and claim to be motivated by lulz and lulz alone (the statement "I did it for the lulz" functions as both explanation of and blithe justification for whatever trollish behavior). In cases where lulz aren't explicitly cited, the go-to explanation is that they're "just screwing around" and their only goal is to "rile people up." In either case, we're talking about privilege -- specifically the privilege to decide to what extent one's true views match up with the views one decides to present on the internet. So no, trolling isn't "political," at least not in any traditional sense. But it is politically loaded. Whether or not the trolls are making some thought-out social or political point (active grammatical construction used deliberately) political and social statements are made (passive grammatical construction used deliberately).
This point is just as applicable to Violentacrez. Yes he is guilty of a multitude of sins, both as a troll and as a man (Violentacrez is something of an enigma, as his trolling persona doesn't seem too far off from his real life persona--by his own account, he is the thing he plays on the internet). That said, Violentacrez sins aren't restricted just to Michael Brutsch. As Adrian Chen explains, they were tolerated by Reddit's paid staff and embraced by his fellow moderators (not to mention celebrated by a shockingly high number of fellow Redditors). Violentacrez was, in other words, important to the community. By examining not just what he did, but what others allowed and in many cases encouraged him to do, it is therefore possible to see into the heart of Reddit's administrative workings, whatever objections to the contrary its co-founders might present.
This may not be a pretty picture, in fact in Violentacrez' case it is quite ugly (placing in entirely new context the term "front page of the internet"). But like all trolls, Violentacerz shows us, purposefully or not, the underlying values of the host culture. Maybe not the individual values of individual users (i.e. just because Violentacrez derives pleasure from the sexual exploitation of women and minors does not mean that all Redditors derive pleasure from the sexual exploitation of women and minors), but at the very least his actions shine an uncomfortable light on what passes as "positive" community contribution, as well as the kinds of behaviors Reddit's paid staff and volunteer moderators are willing to protect -- apparently in the name of "making the world suck less."
In short, I would challenge the idea that trolls, and trolls alone, are why we can't have nice things online. There is no doubt that trolls are disruptive, and there is no doubt that trolls can make life very difficult. That said, trolling behaviors signify much more than individual pathology. They are directly reflective of the culture out of which they emerge, immediately complicating knee-jerk condemnations of the entire behavioral category. Until the conversation is directed towards the institutional incubators out of which trolling emerges -- as opposed to just the trolls themselves -- no ground will be gained, and no solutions reached.