Blog Post

Trolls and the trolls who troll them

Consider this my introduction entry, I apologize for the delay in posting. My intentions were good, I was waiting for my most recent project to take shape so I'd have something new to say. At some point I realized that this didn't make any sense, since everything I say would be new to you regardless. On account of it's an introduction. [Sidenote: She writes prefaces! How glamorous.] Anyway. NEW PROJECT details in one moment. For now, here be context: my primary areas of interest --primary as in persistent i.e. issues I've always circled even if I didn't realize it-- are politics (broadly understood), humor (broadly understood) and transgression (broadly understood). I started out on the political side of things (have written about Bush-era Republicans and humor, for example) but during the 2008 election started spending more and more time online. At some point I discovered 4chan, and the rest is history (or something) -- wrote a thing on /b/ (GOD that paper was a minefield) then moved my way up (down?) the ladder to Facebook memorial page trolling. It's a funny story, actually, as these things go -- one of my early collaborators on the /b/ project alerted me to a new trolling trend on Facebook. It's called RIP trolling, he said. RIP trolling, I asked. Trolls going after dead peoples' fan pages and groups, he said, and I was like oh. What? He said trolls were beginning to organize and that I should create a fake troll profile. So I did; at one point I had 150 troll friends, whose status updates would tell me which page to check out next. After lurking for a few months I wrote one full-legnth article about RIP trolling and have another one on the backburner; both of which will end up in my dissertation. Hopefully. Currently I'm attempting to provide more historical/social context for trolls/the trolling impulse, which is a nice departure from my previous work -- up till now I've been doing occasionally soul-draining amoral ethnography stuff, which is fun and challenging but is, at least can be, let's say thorny. All I have to do for my new project is read some books and write about them, it's like I'm on vacation. 


So! Anyway! Hello. More on the project as it develops, today I finally managed to get a workable outline going -- which means the actual writing won't be far behind. 



It sounds like you're doing great work!  Julian Dibbell was on campus as a visiting scholar last semester, and he gave a talk in my department about 4chan and the Pirate Party.  Since then, I've felt that there has been too little academic work done on 4chan.  If only I hadn't already picked my dissertation topic!  So I'm interested to see where you'll go from here.

I'm conducting case studies on the digital literacy practices of grad and undergrad students using social networking sites, but none of my participants have been involved in the kind of practices you're discussing here, though they do tons of other interesting and weird things online.



I'm curious: have you looked at the artistic aspects of trolling? While RIP trolling sounds absolutely awful (and there are groups organizing it--yikes!), a lot of effort can go into crafting a funny, effective troll, especially on forums like /b/ that have a well-developed troll subculture. Furthermore, these communities have developed peculiar aesthetic conventions for trolls, especially revolving around the use of memes. So it may be interesting to take a look at trolling from not just as a cultural phenomenon but as an art form--perhaps one with a kinship to Dada? 


Oh wow, I didn't know there was a name for that kind of trolling. A young teenager in our family died recently, and almost immediately there were fake groups with photoshopped photos of her, horrendous comments on her page, and extremely upsetting comments on her memorial page. Her young friends and siblings were so distraught and these idiots just added fuel to the fire. Not that much on the internet shocks me, but this one really had me scratching my head (and shaking my fists!). Thanks for the introduction to your project!


That sounds absolutely horrific... has anyone found any way to keep these RIP trolls away from people's memorial pages? Were they total strangers, or did they actually know your relative? Perhaps set up restrictions on who can join? Or is the only solution to have an iron-fisted moderator constantly on guard for such things?


Yeah, the entire thing was pretty shocking (even for me!). The kids who started the 'official' memorial page had it open - anyone could join. A bunch of these RIP trolls joined the group and posted, and the original admins were able to block them. But horrifically - these trolls started their own memorial page with her name in the title, and uploaded shockingly offensive photoshopped photos and commentary. There were probably ~ dozen trolls posting there, and I guessed another 10-15 sockpuppet accounts; all of them were fighting with her friends on the page's wall. This all happened about 48 hours after her death. The speed of light.

Our friends and family who were searching for her name found both memorial pages, and often joined both before realizing what it was, or at the very least, they saw the content of the troll memorial page. I traced the photos back to /b/ and we all flagged the troll memorial page - but it was a weekend and Facebook didn't remove it for about 3 days. Like all things, you can certainly set up restrictions on your own page or group, but you can't really prevent others from getting one off the ground. 


Hi, sorry I'm just now responding to this -- it's been nutty round these parts, we're on the quarter system (CURSES!!!) so I'm always running behind on everything. Some reactions: Richard, yes, I've written a fair amount on the aesthetics of /b/. The FB stuff fell onto my lap almost fortuitously (if you want to call it that), but I'm not *just* interested in the far end of the trolling spectrum (though that level of transgression fascinates me). I'm also interested in the ways that trolls self-identify within "public" (i.e. amongst non-trolls) and "private" (i.e. amongst other trolls) settings -- and these kinds of discussions depend on a fairly clear sense of trolling style, to borrow an old-school term from Dick Hebdige. And Fiona, yeah...this is something I struggle to respond to in my work. It's weird, trolls are simultaneously playful and entirely serious...they (as humans) might not mean what they say, but they (as trolls) rely on what they say to mean EXACTLY what it means. Separable, somehow, from whatever personal intentions or beliefs. It's tricky business for sure...took me forever to figure out how to approach this stuff, and what kinds of things I could and should write. 


Whitney, you may also be interested in the MMO EVE Online. EVE's got a fairly unique structure among MMOs: ~300k subscribers on a single server, with a player-driven economy and political system and player alliances numbering in the thousands competing for control of territory and resources. Like on /b/, trolling has developed its own memes and "artistic conventions". There's also a number of players in alliances from outside web forums with heavy trolling subcultures, like Something Awful, who help to encourage a culture of trolling. More interestingly, player alliances routinely troll each other on the official forums and independent satellite sites as a way of challenging the dominance and power of other alliances, or asserting their own. These trolling campaigns can essentially function as a kind of psychological warfare and can run parallel to military campaigns within the game. It's also used by individuals as a way to establish authority or position--indeed a number of trolls wind up as minor celebrities amongst segments of the player base. Essentially, trolling in EVE functions as a discourse that helps to communicate, mediate, establish, and challenge power within the game. I'm not sure how much of EVE's trolling can translate to other trolling cultures, but it does seem potentially applicable to your research.


Hi Richard! This is really helpful, thanks--as I'm developing my dissertation project, I'm needing to branch out, so to speak, by doing some cross-cultural (?) comparisons between trolling communities. I'll definitely check out EVE Online, many thanks for the tip! 


No problem! I played EVE for a while, so if you'd like an introduction to the game, the forums, the culture, or good player sources/third party sites feel free to drop me a line (my email's in my profile).