Patrolling for trolls. Rarr! (Is that the sound trolls make?)
Happy new year everyone! I’ve been a bit quiet for the last few weeks. Over the Christmas break I learned that an 8 day stomach virus + a persistent head cold = nastiness that impairs the will to live, let alone blog. Yes, all the terrible images you’re picturing in your mind are accurate. Now think of those images in the context of a hiking trip in the wilderness and a 6 hour bus ride to get to said wilderness. I can tell you’re jealous.
Quick disclaimer: I’m dosed up to the max on Sudafed. The part of my brain that processes humour has temporarily ceased functioning. My ability to form sentences is also looking shaky. It’s not yet clear whether this will result in extreme long-windedness, or whether I’ll be succinct for a change. Please join me for the ride (I’m game if you are!).
So, my post today is all about trolls. (You can tell I’m sick by that crappy introduction, can’t you?) When I started this blog a few months ago it had been around 9 years since I’d last maintained a blog and been involved in regularly reading other blogs. In case you’re wondering, I hadn’t been holed up in an underground cave without electricity all that time. I just stopped blogging when my studies became hectic and it took me a while (ok, almost an entire decade) to find the motivation to blog again.
There have been some changes in the world of blogging since my previous attempt circa 2002. Many are good, some are perhaps more questionable. One thing I’ve noticed, having re-approached the blogging thing afresh, is the surge in popularity that the “troll” label has experienced within blogging and online opinion communities.
Of course, trolling was a well-established phenomenon in 2002 but the term seemed to have more limited application back then. In my experience, “trolling” and “flame wars” were shenanigans that went on between nerds who hung out in newsgroups. (Seriously, could the expressions “trolls” and “flame wars” have been thought up by anyone other than a geeky 14 year old boy who spent a lot of time playing fantasy Middle Earth role playing games in his mother’s basement at 3am?). I knew what these things were, but they didn’t come up on my radar very often.
In some ways blogs have replaced newsgroups so it’s no surprise to me that “trolling” takes place on blogs, too. But these days, “trolling” doesn’t mean what it used to and it seems to have become a catch-all expression for describing a range of behaviours. The trolls’ motivations for their actions seem to be so diverse that it’s probably too simplistic to use the single word “troll” to describe these people. But I’ll stick with it for now.
In many ways, genuine trolling (as it’s known today) is undoubtedly bad. Troublemakers who write outrageous things solely for the purpose of aggravating readers or attracting attention are annoying to say the least. Even worse, those who defile Facebook tributes to deceased teenagers are obscene. Interestingly, Gawker recently reported on an academic study examining the possible justification for this “RIP trolling”. I personally don’t agree that the practice is justified but it’s a thought-provoking point of view. (Hey, at least it shows that people are thinking.)
Perhaps worst of all is the advent of “trollumnist” opinions in the mainstream media. You know the kind – columns written by certain journalists that, if not crafted for the primary purpose of provoking outrage and prompting lots of angry comments, seem to have that effect a lot of the time, funnily enough. (Hi, Paul Sheehan.) This kind of writing is nasty and seems to be particularly bad in Australia. It’s a potential threat to the future of online journalism and (ultimately) the quality of public discussion about important issues. Yeah, it’s one of my pet hates.
I’m sure I’m not in the minority in my dislike for these behaviours. There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about all the “trolls” of various kinds. But deep down, there’s something about the troll lynching business that’s nagging at me. It’s a little thing, but something that’s slowly intensifying my feeling of uneasiness the more blogs and opinion sites I read.
My disquiet is as follows: since re-joining the blogging world, I’ve witnessed numerous examples of a commenter who has disagreed with an author being accused of “trolling” or something to that effect. It’s more likely to occur where the different opinion is expressed with any shred of vehemence (although I’ve also seen commenters who are more or less dispassionate in their disagreement shot down as trolls). This occurs amongst the comments we get to see, which is obviously to say nothing of the comments that don’t even make it through the moderation process.
Trigger-happy troll slaying is not uncommon on some big discussion-oriented sites. By that I mean sites like Gawker, where the readers’ comments are arguably a bigger drawcard than the published content itself. I often see commenters who express opinions that go against the tide (sometimes offering quite insightful viewpoints in the process) being forced to follow up with detailed explanations of their views just to convince everyone that they aren’t in fact trolling. Even then, one gets the impression that the mud sticks. The word “troll” evokes such negative sentiments that once that accusation has been flung, suspicions about the commenter tend to linger. I’ve also seen commenters similarly dismissed on blogs published by individuals (not naming names), including those with both large and small readerships.
This is really disappointing.
If you can accept for a moment that there are legitimate contributors to a discussion who are sometimes incorrectly dismissed as trolls, we should ask ourselves why this happens. The obvious explanation is that there’s an understandable degree of paranoia about trolls. I’m sure that any online community that has had to deal with actual trolls is naturally wary of participants who are quick to state a controversial view or who choose to express themselves in a way that comes across as provocative.
Perhaps another factor is individual personalities. Many of us will have witnessed the blogger who writes very passionately or critically but can’t handle commenters who respond the same way (unless the commenter is in furious agreement with the author). This doesn’t really bother me. The fact that some egos are more fragile than others isn’t exactly a new thing.
But I’m also starting to wonder whether some of the false troll accusations I keep seeing are a by-product of a conventionalism that seems to have emerged in blogging. Even amongst bloggers who are some of the most thoughtful or creative writers around today, there’s a level of conformity with a certain paradigm of blogging that is both disappointing and, if I’m honest, boring.
The internet offers an opportunity for freedom of expression that has no parallel in history. It’s exciting. Provided we don’t break any laws, we each have a blank canvass and a paintbrush in our hands, ready to say whatever we want, however we want and in an environment that’s run according to the rules we choose, or even no rules at all. So how does this bear out in practice? The content out there (what we say) and our writing styles (how we say it) are certainly diverse, but the way discussions take place? Meh, not so much. In this respect the blogging world is still in 2D, not 3D. Amongst the diverse members of the global blogging community, the mode of discussion seems to fluctuate within a fairly narrow range.
What the hell am I on about? There are all kinds of things I could talk about as examples of what seems to have become normative or accepted blogging behaviour. A few of those that are relevant to this discussion about trolls include:
- The predominance of comment moderation
- The emphasis placed on etiquette
- The cult of reciprocity (Follow me and I’ll follow you. Mention others in your blog and someone will return the favour, etc)
- The desire to be noticed, get known, get traffic, perhaps even make money. In other words, to have mass appeal
None of these on their own are bad things. None of these are adopted by everyone. But in sum, across the entire global blogging community, they contribute to a certain convention that has emerged.
There’s nothing wrong with following conventions. Heck, societies couldn’t function without them. But things can go wrong when people don’t realise that what they’re doing is just a convention. Although most people would agree that being polite and following a certain degree of etiquette in the blogosphere is desirable (myself included), I do wonder how many people understand that this is not an absolute rule for all eternity. Sorry to sound like a postmodernist wanker, but there’s no immutable law of the universe that dictates etiquette, or even that people must follow any etiquette at all. It’s a norm.
So given the dominant blogging paradigm that has emerged (moderation, etiquette, reciprocity and mass appeal) combined with our possible failure to appreciate that this is just one of an infinite number of paradigms that could have emerged to dictate how we blog, it’s not really surprising to me that there’s often a tendency for people to be affronted when someone expresses a view that is truly challenging.
I don’t think this is helped by the fact that the term “troll” has been conflated from its original meaning to now describe many kinds of behaviour. I wouldn’t go as far as saying the term has become meaningless, but I’m not confident that everyone who uses the term understands exactly what behaviour it is that they’re criticising.
From what I can tell, the one thing that different types of “trolling” have in common is that trolls are always provocative. And guess what? People who express challenging views or communicate in ways that don’t fit current blogging convention are now also considered to be “provocative”. Surprise surprise, they’re sometimes denounced as “trolls”.
I love blogging and I love reading other blogs. But I think that the exact value of blogging as a contribution to public discussion is still yet to be determined. A dominant blogging conventionalism and a widespread reluctance to be challenged are ultimately things that, in my opinion, could potentially diminish that value.
Whether the blogging world evolves from 2D to 3D will depend on a lot of factors. But as a small step, maybe the next time we want to denounce someone who pisses us off as a “troll” we could instead take the time to use a few more words and explain exactly what it is about their comment we disapprove of.