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. 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, 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, 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.
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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