Thursday, January 27, 2005
An internet troll is a person who sends duplicitous messages to get angry responses, or a message sent by such a person. The term derives from the phrase "trolling for newbies" and ultimately from trolling for fish. It's use to refer to unwanted internet posts originates on usenet. The term is frequently abused to slander opponents in heated debates and is frequently misapplied to those who are ignorant of etiquette.
Trolling is often described as an online version of the breaching experiment, where social boundaries and rules of etiquette are broken. Self-proclaimed trolls often style themselves as Devil's Advocates or gadflies or culture jammers, challenging the dominant discourse and assumptions of the forum they are trolling in an attempt to subvert and introduce different ways of thinking. Detractors who value etiquette claim that true Devil's Advocates generally identify themselves as such for the sake of etiquette, whereas trolls often consider etiquette to be something worth trolling in order to fight groupthink.
Trolls are sometimes caricatured as socially inept. This is often due to the fundamental attribution error, as it is impossible to know the real traits of an individual solely from their online discourse. Indeed, since intentional trolls are alleged to knowingly flout social boundaries, it is difficult to typecast them as socially inept since they have arguably proven adept at their goal.
Regardless of the writer's motives, controversial posts are virtually guaranteed, in most online forums, to earn a corrective or patronizing or outraged response by those who do not distinguish between real physical community where people are actually exposed to some shared risk of bodily harm by their actions, and epistemic community based on and a mere exchange of words and ideas. Customs of discourse, or etiquette, that originated in such physical communities are often applied naively by newcomers to the internet who are not used to the range of views expressed online, especially anonymously.
Troll food refers to replies to the original controversial troll posts, that the trolls subsequently use as feedback to throw more fuel to the fire of their posts.
"Please do not feed the Trolls" is a warning sign that other article readers post to warn newbies that the original poster is a troll.
Most discussion of what motivates Internet trolls comes from other Internet users who claim to have observed trolling behavior. There is little scholarly literature to describe either the term or the phenomenon. The comments of accused trolls might be unreliable, since they may in fact be intending to stir controversy rather than to advance understanding of the phenomenon. Likewise, accusers are often motivated by a desire to defend a particular Internet project and references to an Internet user as a troll might not be based on the actual goals of the person so named. As a result, identifying the goals of Internet trolls is most often speculative. Still, several basic goals have been attributed to Internet trolls, according to the type of disruption they are believed to be provoking.
Proposed motivations for trolling:
* Self-proclaimed trolls and their defenders suggest that trolling is a clever way of improving discussion, or an alternative method of viewing power relations on large public wikis.
* Anonymous attention-seeking: The troll seeks to dominate the thread by inciting anger, and effectively hijacking the topic at hand.
* Cry for help: Many so-called trolls, in their postings, indicate disturbing situations regarding family, relationships, substances, and school--although it is impossible to know whether this is just simply part of the troll. Some believe that trolling is an aggressive, confrontational way by which trolls seek a sort of tough love guidance in an anonymous forum.
* Effect change in user opinions: A troll may state extreme positions to make his or her actual beliefs seem moderate (This often involves sock puppeteering, where the bad cop is a sock-puppet troll.) or, alternatively, play the role of Devil's advocate to strengthen opposing convictions [with which he or she usually actually agrees].
* Test the integrity of a system against social attacks or other forms of misbehavior: For example, blatantly violating terms-of-use in order to see whether any action is taken by the site administrators.
* Amusement: To some people, the thought of a 70-year-old Internet user being sent to a sexually explicit or gross image is funny.
* Wasting others' time: One of the greatest themes in trolling is the idea that you can spend one minute of your time posting a troll, causing 10 other people to waste ten minutes of their time, more or catalytically affecting lots of other people. Most trolls enjoy the idea that they wasted others time at comparatively little effort on their behalf.
* Domino effect: Related to amusement, but a more specific fashion: starting large chain reactions in response to one's initial post. Achieving a disproportionately large response to a small action is the general theme. This is similar to how a young child that goes missing (but is actually hiding) may act with glee, seeing a large number of people conducting a massive search in response to the supposed disappearance.
* Fight "groupthink": Many trolls defend their actions as, when a sort of conformism settles, shocking people out of it.
* Satire: In these cases, the individuals do not think of themselves as trolls, but misunderstood humorists or political commentators.
* Personal attacks against one particular user or group of users
* Overcome feelings of inferiority or powerlessness by getting the experience of controlling an environment.
* Lowering signal to noise ratio: On Slashdot, points that could be used to moderate interesting things up get wasted on moderating down things like ASCII pictures of the goatse man. This lowers the quality of comments at certain thresholds.
Since there is a wide spectrum of possible motivations for trolls, some of these functions being benevolent and others, clearly malevolent, to typecast users as trolls in the negative sense is often rash.
Some users of Internet forums are considered to be "trollhunters", or "trollbaiters". They willingly enter conflict when trolls emerge. Often, trollhunters are as disruptive as trolls. A single troll-post may be ignored, but if ten trollhunters "pounce" following a troll, they will drive the thread offtopic.
Regarding troll-related conflicts, there are five groups into which users might be classified:
* Trolls are users who actively provoke conflict.
* Trollhunters (or Trollbaiters) behave according to a principle of "second strike". They do not initiate conflict, but escalate it once it begins. Often they use other trolls as an excuse for their own misbehavior, and in many cases, typecast a user as a "troll" regardless of his or her intent.
* Ignorers seek to ignore the conflict, continuing with the topic at-hand. They usually express a nonchalant disdain for the troll, but do not seek actively to insult him or her. They behave like elders, issuing simple words of wisdom such as "Do not feed the trolls." or other phrases that generally mean the same thing: "Ignore the troublemaker and he will give up and go away." Although this type of response could be taken as passive-agressive Trollbaiter behavior.
* Moderators (not in the same sense as a "system moderator") seek to resolve the conflict, making all parties happy, if possible.
* Bystanders withdraw from the conflict. In particularly bad cases, they will leave the forum in disgust.
In the attention-seeking cases, trolls seek the conflict provided by trollbaiters, whereas in the "cry for help" cases, they seek the consolance and compassion offered by moderators.
The Media UK forums had to close down because of trolls and libellous postings, and the Digital Spy forums have a no-troll policy so as to stop trolls registering. Both use VBulletin software.
Resolutions and alternatives
In general, popular wisdom advises users to avoid feeding trolls, and to ignore temptations to respond. Responding to a troll inevitably drives discussion off-topic, to the dismay of bystanders, and supplies the troll with the craved attention. When trollhunters pounce on the trolls, ignorers reply with: "YHBT. YHL. HAND.", or "You have been trolled. You have lost. Have a nice day." However, since trollhunters (like trolls) are often conflict-seekers themselves, the loss usually is not on the part of the trollhunter; rather, the losers are the other forum-users who would have preferred that the conflict not emerge at all.
Literature on conflict resolution suggests that labeling participants in Internet discussions as trolls can perpetuate the unwanted behaviors. A person rejected by a social group, both online and "IRL", may assume an antagonistic role toward it, and seek to further annoy or anger members of the group. The "troll" label, often a sign of social rejection, may therefore perpetuate trolling.
Better results normally ensue when users take the moderator role and describe more constructive behaviors in a non-judgmental, non-confrontational way. Trolls are excited by trollhunters and frustrated by ignorers, and neither of these emotions produce positive results for the forum. Engaging trolls results in "flame wars". Trolls frustrated by the "ignore strategy" may leave the forum (and either troll elsewhere, or become constructive users) or may become progressively more inflammatory until they get a response.
Usefulness of trolling
A major debate on the Internet is whether or not trolls perform any useful function. Because troll is such a broadly-applied term, if all definitions thereof are to be accepted, the answer must be definitively, "yes and no".
Users performing many useful, but controversial, functions are often decried as trolls, and in these cases, so-called trolling may actually benefit the forum in which it occurs. For example, the presence of a radical right-winger described as a troll may allow a conservative lurker to feel more comfortable expressing her viewpoints, which seem very moderate in contrast. On the other hand, if trollhunters mount a flame war against this right-wing troll, the conservative bystander may feel less comfortable expressing her views, to the detriment of the forum. As much as trolls claim to fight groupthink, they may actually encourage it by solidifying opinion against them.
Trolls may also provide a valuable service by making people question the validity of what is read both on the internet and from other sources. Trolls show that expressing any opinion is as easy as expressing an informed and considered opinion and may get as much visibility. It is arguable that shock jocks, some newspaper columnists are trolling public opinion.
Even though useful content and productive users are sometimes decried as trolls, the general consensus is that pure "trolling" benefits only the troll and trollhunters, and has no place in any forum. Most forums reject the claim that pure and intentional trolling serves any useful purpose.
The Chinese characters for internet troll are made up of the characters for Internet (互联网) combined with the characters for provocation (拖) and learning (钓).
Trolls can also in some circumstances be a source of genuine humour, which depends entirely upon whether the troll is a good or a bad troll. It's usually fairly easy to spot the difference between such actions: a bad troll resorts only to weak uncreative arguments whereas a good troll will create a subtle set of arguments which draw people in with cunning twists to provide a thread of non sequitur humour.
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