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.