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.