Defining trolls



Here is a post I wrote for, reposted here.

In his book Assholes: A Theory, Aaron James proposes a definition and a taxonomy for the species, but he omits a key and particularly toxic genus, a breed with which we are all too familiar online: the troll.

Before I attempt to define the troll, let me use as a guide James’ definition of the asshole. “The asshole,” he writes,

(1) allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically; (2) does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and (3) is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people. So, for example, the asshole is the person who habitually cuts in line. Or who frequently interrupts in a conversation. Or who weaves in and out of lanes in traffic…. An insensitive person—a mere “jerk”—might allow himself to so enjoy “special advantages” in such interpersonal relations. What distinguishes the asshole is the way he acts, the reasons that motivate him to act in an abusive and arrogant way.

That last criterion—the reasons that motivate—is what leads me to believe that the troll is a subset of the asshole rather than the product of a separate line of DNA: the jerk, the boor, the cad, the schmuck, the douche bag, or the ass, to borrow James’ hierarchy of the hard-to-take .

What distinguishes the troll from the mere asshole is, I believe, that he* (1) has a target; (2) seeks to get a response—a rise—out of that target; and (3) believes he is acting out of some ordained moral purpose to destroy, to bring down his target. By contrast, the asshole seeks only to enjoy privilege. He demands personal convenience—and may cause collateral damage in the form of inconvenience to others in getting it—while the troll seeks destruction. He hunts for the kill. The troll believes he has a right and even a responsibility to waste his nemeses.

James gives specific examples of public figures as assholes—and may their lawyers and flacks complain to him, not me: Douglas MacArthur, Silvio Berlusconi, Hugo Chavez, Simon Cowell, Mel Gibson, Donald Trump. Though I could name trolls, as I’m sure you could, I won’t, for that would give them precisely what they want: recognition and the confirmation that they got a rise out of me. We all know the cardinal rule in troll management: Don’t feed them. Ever. Give them a morsel, they’ll take a leg.

Trolls also feed on irony as a side dish. If I were to label someone a troll, he no doubt would complain that I was just trying to dismiss him through name-calling when, of course, ridiculing and thus dismissing his victim through personal insult is the primary weapon of the troll. Trolls don’t argue ideas. They attack people.

I recently heard of a troll who went after a respected writer for being gay though married. The barrage of baiting was so relentless the writer revealed himself publicly simply to end it. At least he succeeded in silencing his unnamed assailant. I have seen other trolls who will pop up like a recurring infection to harangue their victims on the same complaint in comments or tweets, over and over and over again. They can be monomaniacal. I have seen trolls issue lengthy broadsides against a foe: the bomb vs. the gatling-gun approach.

Let me be clear that trolls are not an invention of the net. One can do a fine job of trolling in a magazine article or a cable TV show or, for that matter, from the floor of Congress. But in the net, trolls have found their dark, dank, underbridge paradise.

Let us also note that trolls, like assholes, need not be anonymous. Whenever I hear editors, legislators, and other wishful thinkers argue that we could eliminate animus from online if only sites required verified identity to speak, I point out that we can all identify assholes by name. Yes, anonymity is not only a vital tool for the speech of the vulnerable and oppressed as well as whistleblowers, it is also the cloak of cowards. But identity is no cure for the common asshole or troll.

So what are we to do about trolls? Though they existed before the net, they do flourish here, attacking victims from under rocks on Twitter, in blogs, and especially in comments and too often setting the tone of online discourse. As I said, the worst thing a troll’s victim can do is to respond in defense, explanation, attempted discussion, or counterattack. That only feeds the beast. I have had to relearn that lesson all too often.

So are we to concede the net to the trolls, to accept their rule over this new domain? No. We cannot. I will argue that it is the responsibility—the moral duty—of bystanders to call trolls on their trolling. This is a corollary to a plea I made here:

The next time you see someone on Twitter point to an argument and gleefully announce, “Fight! Fight!” and you retweet that, think about the net you are encouraging and creating. You’re breeding only more of the same.

The next time you see a troll rubbing claws and cackling at his attack on someone you know and respect and you do not call him on it, then you must ask yourself what kind of net you are fostering. I’ve tried to come to the defense of the trolled a few times recently. When I’ve seen cries of “fight! fight!” I’ve sent the criers links to that paragraph above. When I saw someone I know attack someone else I know over daring to criticize Apple—red meat wrapped in a red cape for many a troll—I asked: “Did you have to launch off with an insult? Is that really the kind of conversation we want to have?”

OK, one risks coming off like the schoolmarm at the rave. But I ask: What choice do we have? Do we let the trolls destroy every sprout of optimism with their curmudgeonly naysaying and ad hominem spite? Do we really want to encourage their mean-spirited destruction? Do we want to give them the last word?


* * *

* Note that I, like James, use the male pronoun on the assumptions that most assholes and trolls happen to be—or are born to be—male and that few women would object to being excluded.

  • SHaGGGz

    Female assholes undoubtedly exist, and it’s a dubious honor at best to segregate them off into their own category, reserving the panoply of gendered epithets for female hard-to-takes with the implication that the gender is logically connected to the conduct and thus worthy of systematic discrimination.

  • mattwardman

    What do you think of trolling or bullying parading as victim narratives?

    As in, “I am an xyz, and you are an xyz-ist / xyz-phobic”, you **&&%$(_ !

  • Christopher Squire

    This essay is based on a wrong idea, one perhaps now so widely held that it is too late to knock it on the head: that ’trolling’ is something that ’trolls’ do. This is nonsense, as the OED makes clear:

    ‘troll, v. Etym: A word or series of words of uncertain origin . .It is generally derived < Old French troller, a hunting term, ‘to quest, to go in quest of game, without purpose’ . .

    1. intr. To move or walk about or to and fro; to ramble, saunter, stroll, ‘roll’; spec. (slang) of a homosexual: to walk the streets, or ‘cruise’, in search of a sexual encounter . .

    . . 13. Angling. intr. To angle with a running line (? orig. with the line running on a ‘troll’ or winch); also (trans.) to fish (water) in this way . .

    Draft additions March 2006:

    intr. Computing slang. To post a deliberately erroneous or antagonistic message on a newsgroup or similar forum with the intention of eliciting a hostile or corrective response. Also trans.: to elicit such a response from (a person); to post messages of this type to (a newsgroup, etc.).

    1992 Re: Post the FAQ in alt.folklore.urban (Usenet newsgroup) 8 Oct., Maybe after I post it, we could go trolling some more and see what happens . . ‘

    ‘troll, n.2 Etym: < Old Norse and Swedish troll . .

    In Scandinavian mythology, One of a race of supernatural beings formerly conceived as giants, now, in Denmark and Sweden, as dwarfs or imps, supposed to inhabit caves or subterranean dwellings.

    . . 1856 R. W. Emerson Eng. Traits v. 81 The Scandinavian fancied himself surrounded by Trolls,—a kind of goblin men, with vast power of work and skilful production.’

    Trolls do not seem to have been malign creatures at all and do not deserve the calumny they get nowadays.

  • Pingback: Jeff Jarvis has some theories about trolls()

  • Eric O

    Agree with Christopher Squire: What you’ve defined here isn’t a “troll”, it’s a stalker.

  • Pingback: Defining trolls | Fifth Estate()

  • @jeffjarvis Wow, your post has not elicited positive comments! Call it what you want, troll, gadfly, general-purpose irritant, they gravitate toward public policy proposals and sanctimonious statements of opinion, sometimes not-so-sanctimonious! I agree with you, about not letting internet interaction degenerate. A lot can be deflected with humor. Professor Bradford DeLong does a fine job of that. A firm hand is necessary at times. That’s what Disqus IP banning is designed for. You have the power!

    Don’t let scruples over censorship or free speech get in the way. This isn’t a U.S. government website, it is YOUR website, your domain, your house that YOU pay for. You wouldn’t tolerate excessive bad behavior in your home, so you aren’t obliged to here either. You are a good person, for defending your friend in that Apple-related tiff. Please don’t worry about seeming like “the schoolmarm at the rave”, okay?

  • Ostap Bender

    Is calling religious people out on their bigotry trolling?