Blog Post

Interview with a Real Life Troll!

A few months ago I was asked by the Index on Censorship to interview a troll for their upcoming special issue on privacy. They just posted the text of the interview to their website -- thought I'd share! 

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17 comments

 

Hi Ruby, thanks for the comment! Interesting -- for me, that's actually THE hallmark of trolling...there's a sense within more mainstream (read: non-trolling) circles --and ESPECIALLY whenever politics/hot button issues are involved-- that nasty language and/or behavior is the only criteria for being/regarded as a troll, but trolls themselves, that is to say "real" trolls, are to the letter self-identifying. In other words it's more of a subcultural thing than a (purely) behavioral thing...this was the first and one of the most interesting things I learned while doing my ethnographic research. Not to say that nasty stuff isn't often quite trollish...it's just that trolling has taken on a very specific emic meaning. 

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In spite of my strong belief in not feeding trolls, I do think it's helpful to understand their motivations and sometimes even to humanize them. I deal them frequently on my local politics blog.

This interview is fascinating to me. I've never seen anyone self-identify as a troll.

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Wow, that is *super* interesting! The troll subculture vs. behavior distinction is really cool (Best of luck on your work!) ... So do you have a name for non-troll nastiness? 

Also, it's not quite trolling, but this may be marginally relevant? (or at least sort of fun.)

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Thanks Katherine! And yes, I do indeed have a name for non-troll nastiness...which I throw around like it's nothing on my blog but I'm not sure about the........language expectations........here. But we're all adults, and anyway it's pretty much impossible to present a sanitized version of trolling behaviors. In conclusion, to echo Freud, sometimes an asshole really is just an asshole. Nastiness online may indeed be indicative of trolling, but maybe not -- there's an important distinction between FEELING trolled and having been trolled BY a troll. You can feel trolled all you want; that doesn't mean you're dealing with a self-identifying member of the subculture. It's a fine line, and again, it's not always possible to know the difference, making the study of "real" trolls extremely tricky. You have to know exactly what you're looking for in terms of tone/signaling, i.e. you have to learn their language...once you do that, it's USUALLY possible to have a GENERAL sense of what's happening. With a big "lol mostly" tacked on to the end.   

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Thanks for the explanation!  See, now it's just making me even more curious: can you pinpoint how/where/when this troll subculture emerged? Has it always sort of been there? omg. I think you should do a full blog post on this, because I bet tons of people would be into it, and also because I'm starting to feel obnoxious by asking these questions that I bet you get all the time. 

Plus you could add pictures of trolls. (PLEASE tell me that you have identified a troll subsculture called "troll dolls.")

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...although I do have two sitting on my desk. Oh man. MY CHILDHOOD.

And yes! Your questions! They aren't obnoxious at all, they're exactly what I've been working through for all these thousands of years. I'm still tinkering with my prospectus, in which I discuss exactly the development you mention, though I'm not entirely sure it's ready for human eyes. Hopefully in the next week, once I have a bit of distance. I did just post a thing about the relationship between trolling subculture and the mean old media that feeds them, which might give you a sense of timeline as well as the direction I'm taking things. I will take your advice and write a much longer thing on this, just finished a writing blitz (4chan paper, the thing I post snippets of in my last post). Also! Thanks for the friend request, you're my very first HASTAC pal. 

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I'm really fascinated with the whys of troll self-identification as tied to the need for anonymity when trolling, especially in terms of the ethical substrate to the entire interview, in which the troll's disruptive behavior demonstrates an apparently self-aware online intervention into certain kinds of cultural mores. What a great topic -- I look forward to reading where you go with it.

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YES, this is another hallmark of trolling -- they are often HIGHLY self-aware, which ties into self-selecting subcultural awareness. I wouldn't exactly say that trolling is "political," but it is understood by many trolls (certainly by Paulie Socash) to be............directed, and deliberately so. Yes trolls can be pretty scattershot in their targets. But the impulse to troll, and perhaps more importantly, the common objects of trolls' ridicule (namely, ideological rigidity), are pretty consistent. It's about lulz, of course, but it's also about making the world more difficult for people who trolls believe simply aren't thinking hard enough. There is, at least can be, an unchecked arrogance to this position, and a kind of technological entitlement (trolls do what they do because they CAN), but from the trolls' perspective, certainly the ones I've worked with, they're doing something constructive. 

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Whitney - it's seemed to me that the trolls I've encountered first- and second-hand have been attempting to *impose* ideological rigidity: that they have very strong views about identity transparency and cultural conformity that lead them to target minority communities, be they LGBTQ, ethnic or roleplay, and that their trolling traffics in signifiers of oppression - maximally inflammatory slurs in particular (e.g., the old Patriotic Nigras in Second Life).

 

The impression I've had is that they're an upper-middle-class analog to football hooligans, preferring their violence verbal/scripting.

Is this outdated/mistaken?  Your work's fascinating!

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I just wrote the longest response, and right as I hit send got the pinwheel of doom and ended up losing the whole thing. Oh, did I swear. 

I don't know if I have the heart to try and respond again, at least not right now. The tl;dr version is that yes, trolls are ideologically rigid, but not in the ways one might expect. Most of the trolls I've encountered lean fairly liberal, at least in terms of social issues, and pick targets based on exploitability, not political investment -- groups at either end of the spectrum are simply easier to get a rise out of, and so that's where trolls go. Their rigidity stems not from their personal politics, then, but from their assumption that they can and should be able to impose their will on the world -- even as they attack others for doing that precise thing. This doesn't of course mitigate the rl impact of trolling language and behavior. But it does complicate the assumption that what trolls do would or could or should qualify as hate speech. Trolls perform hate speech, without a doubt. But how and why and for what reasons gets real complicated real fast. 

I said that so much better the first time, ugh. DAMN YOU APPLE. 

  

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My sympathies!  WordPress seems to regard me as its natural prey, so I'm all too familiar with the problem.

That's *interesting,* and makes a lot of sense, that it's performative rather than, well, believed. I'm sorry the tl;dr version got lost - I'd love to have a higher-density conversation with you about ideology in trolling; it's something I'm fascinated by. 

Do you have a source for more of your work anywhere? I'm goring to be reading through your previous blog posts here as soon as I dig out from stuff a bit...

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Oh man, ideology in trolling. Like I said, the "actual" meaning of what trolls do and say is often highly overdetermined -- you're not going to learn much about the people behind the trolls by reading a transcript of what they say on a forum. In some of the more interesting cases, trolls are actually affecting whatever (ostensible) hate speech merely to troll or otherwise ridicule the people who really DO believe that sort of thing. Think Stephen Colbert, who may not be a troll himself but whose writers clearly know a thing or two about internet culture. 

Which is where things get tricky -- trolls go to great lengths to challenge the rigidity of others, using very rigid methods. So like, the most obvious targets are people who are fully and publicly committed to a particular idea, be it FAR left or FAR right. In this way, trolls commit themselves to the stance that people shouldn't take stances. I'm not saying they're outright hypocrites, though -- as always, it's more complicated than any noun you can throw out. After all whatever "stance" trolls are taking, they take in (a kind of) character. They're not publicly proclaiming their true allegiances (which like I said, tend to be pretty moderate), which from their perspective is the absolute zenith of vulgarity. Still, what they do ends up looking a lot like vigilante justice, which implies a behavioral ideal, which seems run up against their antipathy towards the enforcement of behavioral ideals.  

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Thanks for sharing, Whitney. 

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Yes what the subject line says! 

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Whitney-

This is really fascinating! Although I know little of trolling on general message boards, I've encountered *so many* trolls in my many days of playing MMO's. I'm somewhat ashamed to admit a couple of the gaming friends I've had self-identified as trolls. You are right about self-awareness - there is a sense of pride in a good troll, a comaraderie and mutual respect between trolls, and definitely that superiority issue where they are trying to point out how stupid everyone is.

I assume you encounter the phenomenon of "a good troll" as well - kind of like a good joke, except, well, a troll?So, for example, someone in trade chat says, "Know why the Xbox is called a 360? Cause when you see it, you do a 360 and walk away." The result is either a cascade of "Moron, you'd walk right into it," or else "lol microsoft sux." There are quite a few of these very common trolls that only really serve to point out how new someone is to a community, leaving them open to further ridicule either based on their "noobness" or just the general fact they got trolled.

Anyway, good luck on your future research!

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First of all [sic] on the subject line, it's something trolls (sometimes) say.

Second of all hi, and thanks for the comment! Yes I have indeed encountered the phenomenon of "good trolls" -- I'm constantly surprised by the hierarchy within trolling/between trolls. The best trolls --most respected, lulziest etc-- are often the simplest, like tossing a match into a pile of kindling. Implying that the troll doesn't do much except incite an argument, then laugh mightily at the resulting shitstorm. For me, this is the strongest argument for describing trolling subculturally -- the ethos/ethic/aesthetic is so clearly defined that concepts of "good" and "bad" make perfect sense...

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