The Problem of Trolling

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Okay, so I’m operating on the assumption that you, savvy internet users, have come across the phenomenon of trolling at least once in your savvy internet using life. We’ve all seen it, some of us may do it, but I’ve always wondered why it works.

Let’s say that, hypothetically, you are crafting a blog comment which is deliberately packed with subtle sophistry, seemingly accidental but designed to provoke[1]. You send it off into the ether, check back later that day and have your satisfaction and lulz tainted by wondering –“why would they even respond?”

Arguing on the internet is one of the oldest past times of mankind, ever since that raving schizophrenic Socrates bought a modem and headed down to alt.philosophy. One thing that you have to realize, though, is like another old pastime of mankind, it’s largely fruitless. Say you’re arguing on an obscure feminist blog’s comment section. You probably won’t convince your opponent[2], the audience you’re arguing in front of is inevitably going to be too small, and you personally derive no benefit from exposing the phallacy of your opponent.

So why do it?

My theory is of course, that it’s a bit of an ego-bruiser when you realize that other opinions exist. And so every time you post a reply to something designed to provoke[3], the obvious emotional undercurrent is rage. Rage makes us think irrationally, makes it seem worthwhile to talk back to people who are obviously posting from bad faith, and above all changes the dynamic from one of “exchange information” to “prove my own intellectual/moral/aesthetic superiority”. And when you get really angry and start posting without editing, then it doesn’t matter whether the other guy’s right or wrong, because you’ve managed to shift the focus away from whatever topic it was and on to you.

Now what does that sound like?

If you’re really good, you can make identify certain factions in whatever community/forum/blog you’re in the process of ruining so that the post you’re making will serve as an incitement to war. The ideal is, of course, just stupid enough to invite a response but smart enough to be somewhat defensible, with all kinds of dog-whistle calls to the appropriate teams thrown in.

Which is why we have freedom of speech. Not because of the Mr. Smith fantasy that you, yes you, will be able to sway thousands based on your home-spun rhetoric and sincere delivery, but because a long time ago people who spent a lot more time debating than we can possibly imagine discovered that if they couldn’t get through to the other guy, then the reverse was probably true, and it would be better for everyone if there was a framework to debate things without having it end in duels/proscriptions/shouting matches. There are some people who would argue that the intellectual bullying that gets substituted for real violence is just as bad, but those people have no idea what they’re talking about.

It might be different if you were actually arguing in front of a large audience and were performing some sort of public service by debating, and of course whenever exchanging arguments/information is intellectually stimulating. However, here we’re talking about trolling.

4. (Bonus)
Parenthetically, has anyone noticed that Youtube comments are getting… smarter? I’ve been visiting that site for a few years and there’s a weird sort of evolution going on. They started off as obviously retarded, day ruining one-offs of stupidity. I’m generally a fairly “live-and-let-live” sort of guy, but a few of the ones I read made a forceful argument for mandatory euthanasia based on grammar and spelling alone. And then Youtube introduced the “Like/Dislike” button, with the ability to upvote comments, and you used to find a lot of “x people didn’t (some sort of “clever” reference to the video)” in order to take a shot at the people who “Disliked” the video. And the other most highly rated comments are those taking a shot at some group or another (usually the sort of people unlikely to watch that video). It’s like we’ve gone from chaos and disorganization to tribal feuding. It’ll be interesting to see if we ever move beyond that, or if some additional structures are needed to facilitate more interesting emergent properties. 

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32 Responses to The Problem of Trolling

  1. Napsterbater says:

    I’ve been arguing on the Internet as a pseudo-hobby for a long time. Like, more than ten years. I’m like the king of idiots or something. In all that time, I’ve never run into the canonical “troller.” As in, somebody who’s seriously only there to screw with you. Oh there’s people who do not realize what their true intentions are, but unless you’ve managed to attract the attention of, say, a group like Anonymous, then there’s generally going to be a real person behind those posts that they’re gradually revealing. A damaged person, perhaps, but a real person nonetheless.

    And the thing about real people is, they never really know how they’re coming off to others. It’s easy to sit there and think, “oh why oh why would that person say that, he must be a troll.” Chances are they’re not, they just didn’t bother testing the waters before jumping in. And because we’re such social creatures, always taking what little cues we get and turning them into incontrovertible evidence, we seem to forget that behind everything we read online, there’s some person there with a real history, a real point of view, and a measure of intelligence that we don’t know the extent of.

    It’s not other people, it’s the medium. We have such easy access to technology that we forget how hard of a skill communication is, never you mind in a medium where you can’t see, hear, or know anything about the people you’re communicating with.

    So people have false starts and butt heads. I think the key is to take none of it seriously. Whether it’s my mistake or your mistake, does it really matter? Carry on a discussion/debate/argument/pissing contest until you either lose interest or someone tells you to stop, at all times remembering, “this is the goddamn internet, there’s bound to be miscommunication, and I’m not always going to be able to rectify that.”

    It’s once you start blaming mis-communications on that other person where you start to lose your way. “Oh he’s a troll, he’s just messing with me, he’s not interested in really discussing the issues with me.” That’s when you know it’s time to get off the Internet, and go outside and play.

    • MattK says:

      I’m also dubious that trolls really exist outside of an insignificant number.

      I find it very easy to believe that there are people I disagree with, and that we have wildly different ways of thinking.

      • philtrum says:

        Oh, they exist. The idiot you’re arguing with about Obama probably isn’t a troll, but I know plenty of people who occasionally do disruptive things on the Internet “for the lulz”.

        • foxfire says:

          You also need to remember that a lot of trolls are not on 100% of the time. I naturally leans towards being a devil’s advocate at times, so I am often debating positions I really don’t believe in just for the sake of fighting off boredom. Sometimes I come across people whose debating skills are fairly weak. You brings up new and valid points, and they just refuse to acknowledge or address any of them. When I come across people like that, I have to fight the urge to troll them.

          • philtrum says:

            Exactly. There comes a point when I give up on ever communicating fruitfully with a person; at that point, it’s tempting to go on picking at their statements, just for fun.

            It’s a form of intellectual masturbation, a narcissistic power play (“look how smart and above it all I am”), a waste of time, and Not Very Nice. But I don’t think it’s that unusual.

          • foxfire says:

            I am not sure I would go so far as calling it narcissim. When I troll, I am being a dick purely for personal enjoyment. If I was narcissistic about it, I would convince myself that my trolling is some kinds of service to the betterment of mankind. I hold no such illusion.

          • philtrum says:

            Maybe “narcissistic” isn’t the word. I do find it has a show-offy element for me, though.

        • Napsterbater says:

          phil, I don’t deny that there are people out there who like screwing with others, but it takes two to tango. It’s just like high school. Bullies exist, but they’re real people too. If you get caught up in a bully’s tricks or some guy on the Internet’s solipsistic mess, really you only have yourself to blame. I was bullied in school, too, until I called the kid a fat tub of lard in front of the whole class, as part of our “science” presentation. Had I done that the first time, he’d have stopped bugging me.

          Other people mess with us to teach us a lesson. Sure, it looks like they’re being nothing but a huge asshole, but really they’re just digging.

          • Napsterbater says:

            Did I say “solipsistic?” I meant “sophist.”

          • philtrum says:

            I’m glad calling your bully a fat tub of lard sufficed when you were in high school, but that wouldn’t even slow down most bullies I’ve known and heard about from friends.

            Trolls who operate alone aren’t like bullies; they deliberately provoke verbal attacks from the “legitimate” participants of whatever forum they’re trolling. If the troll is successful, the forum participants gang up on him or her and issue a collective flaming that may turn into a more general flame war. (“Successful troll is successful.”)

            But all it is is verbal flaming, since this is the Internet. The troll himself isn’t powerful; he’s merely an irritant, a catalyst. Forum participants typically aren’t afraid of him or what he can do, other than piss them off.

            I see what bullies do as more akin to /b/ swarmings, which can be very frightening. Bullies typically have social power, even if it’s just the power to command widespread fear — enough that other kids will either join in or look the other way. If bullying provoked a collective beat-down like trolling does, who would bully?

          • Napsterbater says:

            There’s a difference between bullying and terrorizing.

          • philtrum says:

            In my experience, when people talk about bullying they do mean terrorizing. I guess your experience of the word is different.

    • BluegrassJack says:

      re: posting one’s comments on an obscure feminist blog…

      “..exposing the phallacy of your opponent.”


  2. AnonymousAtLarge says:

    I will never understand the driving need TLP readers seem to have, to somehow equate and simplify all grossly complex human behaviors (such as the appeal of arguing on the internet) as being caused by narcissism.

    I can understand perhaps attributing a few, specific behaviors to narcissism. But TLP readers are fanatical about attributing EVERY.THING to narcissism. Well, everything “bad” anyway.

    It’s really ironic because the purpose of TLP blog is to encourage people to think about the subtext beneath that which is superficially apparent. Promoting “narcissism as a grand theory to explain everything” is not the point of TLP, and the hilarious irony of it is that this is exactly the opposite of what TLP is trying to accomplish. TLP wants you to take everything you are seeing and to THINK ABOUT IT. He does NOT want you to shoe-horn every life event you observe as being caused by pathological narcissism or identity problems.

    TLP is not trying to encourage a cult/mob mentality… the blog is trying to get you to think for yourself and figure out the deeper meanings behind the mindless stream of words and images we are bombarded with daily and unconsciously accept.

    SO when you chant “its becuase of narcissism” much like the fightclub cult chanted “his name was robert paulson” you are ironically doing the exact opposite of what TLP set out to do. He doesn’t want you to realize that narcissism is everything and everywhere (although he does want you to pay attention to it)… what he really wants is for you to start looking beneath the surface and thinking for yourself. Which you are failing miserably to do by electing him as your tyler durden.

    As for why I like to argue on the internet… I have a pathological inability to follow the herd and sit and smile and say “we’re all right, lets just agree to difference!”
    I am argumentative to a fault. I refuse to continue a trajectory which does not work and I will let everyone know when something is wrong. Ask anyone IRL who knows me, who has been in a position of leadership/education over me, and they will universally describe me as a potential PITA for this reason.
    I have a pathological inability not to analyze, think, and unfortunately comment on anything that I encounter which interests me. This made me very unpopular during my schooling.

    People with this tendency to argue or talk too much about stuff no one cares about might be relegated to talking to themselves at the TV or newspaper or magazine a few years ago (much like that crazy kook old man you know)… today people like this have a wonderful hub to go to known as the internet. Now everyone can know my thoughts on every obscure subject, including internet discussions.

    • Lopt says:

      Now I don’t want to go all meta- on you by claiming that you’ve just proved my point, but, uh, wow. You’ve argued from the perspective that the paradigm of narcissism is over-invoked, but not anything specific for why I might be wrong. It’s probably true that narcissism as an explanation for everything is bandied about too much, but it seems to me that its combination of mind-blindness, loss of situational awareness, and the need to defend one’s identity are the key ingredients that allow all internet trolling to work.

      It is interesting that you invoke The Last Psychiatrist (who is a real person, and perhaps even a psychiatrist) numerous times and claim that you know exactly what he wants/thinks. And as for why you argue on the internet… the word “I” appears seven times in seven sentences. When I reframed something that you thought was good (being contrary) as something that you think is bad (narcissism), how did it make you feel? Did you feel threatened/angry?

      • AnonymousAtLarge says:

        Did you ever stop and consider maybe the word “troll” itself isn’t even real?

        Seems to me the most common invocation of “trolling” is generally what you are labeled if someone doesn’t like what you have to say. If anyone is being narcissistic, it’s the person calling out a troll. Why on earth would you assume a person’s sole motivation is to annoy you or bother you? Why would you characterize an opposing viewpoint as that of a caricature to piss you off and nothing more? Clearly the person labeling others as “trolls” isn’t all that interested in understanding the other POV and what might be motivating them. They (those who label people who argue as trolls) are thinking through a self-centered perspective where others are objects with no internal lives, priorities, wants or interests worth valuing.

        Your “troll” is my worthy discussion and argument.

        As for why people discuss and argue – why do you wake up in the morning? Why drink coffee? Why look at a tree and think about how old it is? Because this stimulates our brain and I find it interesting to do. Some people enjoy discussion, debate, emotional and intellectual. When it’s purely emotional we call it “drama” or “fighting”. When it’s purely intellectual we call it “debate”. Most forum discourse is in the middle… drawing on emotional and intellectual conflicting positions of two or more individuals. Some people find this enjoyable.

        I genuinely enjoy it. I am not a “troll” because I am up in your thread telling you I don’t agree because of x y or z. Sometimes people are argumentative (you might say “disruptive”) because they think something and want to say it. It’s not being a “troll” to do this, and automatically labeling anyone who thinks differently as a troll only shows that persons narcissism. People have different priorities and viewpoints from you.

        If we are going to call all behaviors which are motivated by personal drive as a form of “narcissism”, then everyone outside of severe major depression is narcissistic.

        How did your post make me feel? Second hand embarrassed for you, because I suspect you have trouble thinking for yourself. This is the same feeling I get whenever I read any TLP-er write about how everyone and everything is a narcissist. Sends a bit of a shudder down my spine, like “oh that’s unfortunate :( I’m glad I am able to read things and still think for myself and junk”. The cult worship people have for TLP is so clearly motivated by ego weaknesses in his followers. How ironic they spend their time calling the mailman and their dog and everyone else a narcissist.

        I also felt irritated, because it sounds like the writing of a typical self centered blockheaded jerk who labels everyone different minded on the internet as “a troll”. This irritation was augmented by the fact that it stated “trolls” were the real narcissists in a fabulous irony.

        So these “unpleasant” feelings about the content of what you had to say lead me to tell you how I felt. Because we are on the internet where I never have to see you or work with you, I did not spare detail letting you know what I thought.

        No, sir, it was not my narcissism and my ego rage leading me to respond to you.

    • Pastabagel says:

      Also, I’d like to point out that this post wasn’t written by TLP, and there are plenty of readers and writers here who are not also readers of TLP.

    • philtrum says:

      Interesting that you use the phrase “pathological inability” twice. You seem proud of your insistence on airing your opinions, and yet you say this is “unfortunate” and makes you a “potential pain in the ass” and “pathological” and maybe even like that “crazy kook old man you know”. It clearly has caused trouble for you in the past; are you not sure that trouble was worth it?

      But then you claim you’re unable to “follow the herd,” implying that people who choose not to argue in any given situation (either because they agree with something you disagree with, or because they’ve decided it’s not politic or worth their time to object), are sheep, in other words, unthinking conformists. This seems defensive to me.

      I agree the Internet is a great resource for people who would otherwise be tempted to talk our friends’ ears off with our obscure hobbies, but why is it good for everyone to know your thoughts on every obscure subject? Is that good for you? For everyone? Both?

      I fully expect you to come back with an attack on my poor reading comprehension and general inferiority of character, by the way, but I suppose I’ve got a bit of that “pathological inability” myself.

  3. AnonymousAtLarge says:

    If thinking and discussing and arguing is fueled by “narcissism”, I would point out that waking up in the morning is also fueled by “narcissism”. Everything other than severe, major depression is apparently now “narcissism”.

    When you inflate the definition of pathological narcissism to this extent, it loses all meaning.

  4. alsomike says:

    Isn’t there something suspicious about blaming the troll for the reaction of the community? Obviously the troll provokes, but ultimately it’s the community itself that is actually disruptive. Isn’t it really the case that the troll provokes the unconscious desire to destroy those who disagree with us? There’s a strange kind of sliding here: first we are outraged about the troll’s purported beliefs. And then on realizing what he is, that same outrage is repurposed and redirected at the act of trolling itself, almost as if to justify the outrage. We were tricked into being outraged, our irrational hatred and bloodlust was put on display for all to see, and to cover that up, we insist that because the troll was able to provoke us, he deserved what he got.

    It wasn’t really repressed rage bubbling up from the unconscious that overflowed the usual norms and taboos that govern idealized internet discourse, because in the end, he deserved it. What’s so interesting is that the community’s reaction empirically disproves this ideal, and yet the purpose of holding the troll responsible is precisely to reassert it.

    • foxfire says:

      That reminds me on one gaming forum I was on for a while, we as a community had developed some fun and interesting anti-troll tactics. Basically, someone whould offer the troll some waffles or pie or cake, etc. Then, we would threadjack the thread into a discussion about which was better waffles or pancakes, pie vs cake, etc. Basically, we would troll the troll.

      I have to admit, some of those threads where hilarious.

  5. TheDavid says:

    How do we know that Alone is not trolling us with his blogs, or that the purpose of his sites is not to indulge his narcissism? Granted it is a bit simplistic to attribute every more-or-less public figure’s public acts to a need for publicity — “Look at ME! I am HERE!” — but people who really don’t want public attention don’t become public figures.

    Secondly, “helping people” — especially non-anonymously — is often done with narcissistic motives. This is another obvious truism a lot of people somehow don’t catch. E..g., “I like him” — think he’s smart, seek out his counsel, follow his advice, give him money — “because he HELPS me.”

    And I want to thank alsomike for making that argument. It saves me a lot of time & trouble because I type s-lo-w-l-y with one finger on each hand, it’d take me about half an hour to get that much out, and it also coincidentally expresses what I’d want to say more cogently than I’ve been able to lately.

    As for “controversial statements,” here’s one: the Westboro Baptist people are correct, YHWH does hate “fags.” Even if one applies Lev. 18:22’s specifically to “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman” to apply only to anal sex between men as most Orthodox Jewish Torah scholars seem to do, G-d does specify that “that is an abomination.” In fact, such rabbis put it in the category of something one should die rather than commit. (“Google is your friend.”)

    Now, I’m telling you this not because I hate gays or gay sex (having indulged a bit myself) but because I hate the Bible: I don’t believe in (any) God and I think that even considering the idea of forcing yourself, let alone alone other people, to live and die based on what’s written in any book morally repulsive. If there are things one should die rather than commit that’s on that short list.

    Furthermore, if you need an Appeal To Authority so you don’t think I’m just some idiot, a good Nietszche scholar can tell you that Ol’ Freddy would agree with everything I’ve said in this post and that The Portable Nietzsche contains more than enough to back that up — and again to express an idea better than I could do it.

    I’ll tell you that I’m giving you this free advice because I want to help you, because “the truth shall set you free,” but I’ll also tell you that you’re welcome to praise and thank me and perhaps even send me money: I’ve used a real email address on this site and I’ve even associated it with my Paypal account. And naturally I’m something of a Public Figger because I want attention, whatever I choose to say in public.

    Another motive for this I’d like y’all to not discount is the one I got on the Internet in the first place for oh so many years ago: because I’d have a hard time getting out to meet like-minded people even if I didn’t live in a small Baptist city in central Kentucky. Even most people who know me well think I’m kind of “unusual” and no particular individual ever agrees with more than a fraction of the views I have on many subjects, “controversial” or not. And when I do start thinking I’m making a New Friend it sucks to keep hearing “if I’d known that about you before we got in contact I’d never have wanted anything to do with you” over and over for circa four decades.


  6. foxfire says:

    I’ll just leave this here.
    XKCD: Troll Slayer

  7. heysherri says:

    There aren’t trolls on the internets? There are just a lot of sincerely misguided people? I think I’m being trolled here with this “argument”.

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  9. cliche says:

    Trolling is like a prank phone call.
    You play out a script to enrage your audience.

    Working out the deception can be fun, as can responding with a troll of your own.

  10. Nik says:

    I’ve been sucked in by a troll or two, but the reason I respond isn’t primitive. I know their post is irrational, but there are irrational people who have access to the internet. My goal in responding is to provide a post with facts and reason so that maybe I might keep someone from believing a troll post.