Hopefully the title is self-explanatory, but I’m talking, of course, about an internet troll.
As with many descriptions, the word troll has a long history, one that is somewhat confused and one that at times defies etymological analysis. From a western perspective, trolls are the creatures that crop up in the Norse sagas. Sometimes they are conflated with the Jötunn, sometimes they are their own race. Sometimes the term just seems to be used to describe a people that lived outside conventional society, preferring their own company. Sometimes they are described as being just like humans, at others they are deformed or just different. And as ever, depending on what it is that people are trying to sell, the spin goes in a particular direction, leading either to the trolls in Harry Potter or the Hobbit (i.e. physically powerful, but rather stupid, crude and perhaps a touch malign) or a bit cutesy (e.g. the rock people of Frozen).
There is no mistaking an internet troll, though. (It’s a shame that the word is now so entrenched, because I rather like the gruff people of the sagas, but there you go). Again, as with many such terms, we all know what we mean, but perhaps sometimes we use it a touch hastily, or with greater or lesser emphasis than is embodied by the term. We’ve all seen some really nasty examples of trollism, and we’ve probably all winced at things people have said and thought it was a bit near the bone but probably not that bad really…
There was a moment when I was worried that I’d been a troll. I’m not going to give a link, because I don’t think it would be fair to a number of people, including myself. Having had some time for reflection, I don’t think it actually was trollish, but I could have handled it better. In the same thread there are some brilliant examples of really trollish behaviour though – it was that kind of topic, one that really stirs up the hornets nest. In the style of a famous advert/meme, I don’t always contribute to internet discussions…but when I do, I try to be positive, friendly and thoughtful. That’s definitely in there, but still, on that one occasion, I wish I hadn’t posted and had kept out of it. Oh well. Done, and if it was really that bad I would have deleted the comment. It’s not like it was vitriolic, but I probably did contribute to feeding the trolls.
But that got me thinking. Those who are active on the internet make all sorts of friendships and acquaintanceships with people that they will never meet and they sometimes they engage with people that they know well and see a side to them that they have never seen before. So it goes. There are a number of people, in both camps, that I would otherwise regard as friends and acquaintances, that I am worried are serious trolls.
What to do?
What does any researcher do when faced with a puzzle? They research!
So for a kicking off point, we need an agreed frame of reference. In this instance, it seems appropriate to use Wikipedia:
In Internet slang, a troll (/ˈtroʊl/, /ˈtrɒl/) is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion, often for their own amusement.
I think we can all go along with that. I’ve seen a slightly more succinct phrasing though:
This is the title of a piece in Psychology Today, and makes reference to the Dark Tetrad. In a nutshell the Dark Tetrad measures people’s responses to questions about certain scenarios and scores them on four metrics: narcissism, psychopathy, Machiavellianism and (everyday) sadism. Unsurprisingly, true trolls score very highly on tests of these characteristics.
My concern for my friends is that I’ve noticed that they are prone to posting things that might be considered deliberately offensive. Some of them might just be described as mean-spirited, but some are rather personal, and can only have been written to upset a particular person. I haven’t discussed this with them – it’s hard to know where to start a conversation of this kind, not to mention wondering if you even have the right. Further, some of these clearly fall into areas where the people in question feel as though they have a moral right to comment.
In that respect, perhaps this answers the question – these people are not trolls, per se. They are not trying to start arguments for they sake of it, but because they are invested in the specific issue. I think a true troll delights in the mischief that can be caused in a particular situation, much like Tortuous Convolvulus (Asterix and the Roman Agent), it doesn’t really matter what the situation is.
Fundamentally, DON’T FEED THE TROLLS. (But this is sometimes easier said than done).