The Art and Darkness of the Internet Troll

December 10, 2012 in Analysis & Editorial

Internet Troll CartoonThe role of the “Internet troll” has been waxing in recent years. Trolling has become nearly synonymous with negative behaviors like internet bullying. What exactly is a troll and are trolls getting an unfair reputation? After all, the brand of the troll in virtual space often has meant nothing more than somebody online with too much time on their hands. It can mean somebody who tracks and replies to chat threads obsessively or compulsively, seemingly wanting to connect with anybody – somebody we would advise to “get a life”.

Once upon a time, trolling did not necessarily signify anything abusive. In the early days of Usenet newsgroups, trolling carried none of today’s sinister implications. It began as a fishing analogy for identifying new users. Usenet posters would generate obviously exaggerated aspects of a particular topic and post them. Novice users would respond with corrective documents and discussions. “Newbies” thus identified themselves as such.

Trolling as a term derives from fishing jargon for attracting fish with a lure hanging from the back of a moving boat. Today the term troll has evolved to refer to one who intentionally tries to get a rise out of just about anyone they can. Sometimes it is a targeted assault. Sometimes, it is “for the lulz.” Lulz is the spoken version of the acronym “lol”.

Trolling is developing into its own taxonomy. Internet pundits actually categorize trolls by specific types, situations and categories. NetLingo identifies four particular types of trolling: playtime trolling, tactical trolling, strategic trolling, and domination trolling. Howstuffworks.com discusses six particular types, ranging from your classic Usenet-type trolls to griefers, who login to online games and try to ruin the gaming experience for others.

Culturally the notion of the troll is spreading beyond cyberspace. This is demonstrated in the popular Cheezburger series of websites. You can find comics showing all kinds of real-life scenarios describing trolls. There are several images solely dedicated to what may be the ultimate accidental troll: Cecilia Gimemez. Gimemez is the elderly woman who ruined a 19th century fresco of Jesus in the church of Santuario de Misericordia and subsequently sued for royalties.

Howstuffworks.com also advises on coping with trolls, and describes some of the real troll scenes and situations that happen when people use the Internet badly. Their overview details two interesting nightmare scenes that took place in Oregon and Washington state. In each situation, posters on Craigslist fraudulently listed another person’s property, and claimed, as “the homeowners”, to be moving away and getting rid of everything they had. They welcomed others to come and take their belongings off their hands for no charge. Both houses were cleaned out and damaged as a result.

In November, U.K. tabloid The Daily Mail posted a piece on the subject “Mail Online”. They called trolling an epidemic, with trolling activity increasing by 150% in the past four years. According to Chief Constable Andy Trotter, “The increase in reports of indecent, threatening or offensive messages sent on social media places an extra demand on police and that is only likely to increase.”

Trolls over the years have been depicted as anything from sock gremlins to vicious imps. Trolls have included everybody from the playful type to the sociopathic. The chaotic and hurtful environment engendered by the more sociopathic types today is bringing heat and criticism to trolling overall. With the growing nastiness carrying over across and beyond virtual borders, those “trolls” looking simply for a bit of playful joking may need to find a new moniker.