The practical joke is as old as man, but in the past 15 years or so a new generation has enhanced or degraded (depending on your point of view) the practical joke into what today is called “trolling”. Trolling has taken the practical joke and made it almost a lifestyle. While primarily considered an online action, there are people who have taken it’s core tenets and have made careers out of it. Some do it to provoke, while others harmlessly troll the culture as a form of expression. This evolution of the prank could not have happened without one of the greatest inventions of mankind, the internet.
The Birth of the Troll
The term “Troll”, whose roots originate from the old French hunting term troller, which means to “lead, or drag, somebody about” has become the de facto way of identifying the modern day practical jokester. Wikipedia defines a troll as, “someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as a forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.”
The earliest forms of trolling can be traced back to the Usenet forums of the mid-1990’s. They consisted of inflammatory or factually incorrect statements by people attempting to lure the unfamiliar, better known online as newbies, into arguments. The messages would subtly convey to the experienced or savvy reader that it was in fact a troll post while exposing the newbies in the forums to the rest of the readers by their responses. If you don’t fall for the joke, you get to be in on it. This was all done for a laugh or “lulz” at the expense of the unfamiliar.
Today this simple “prank” has grown, morphed, and magnified into something often hilarious, sometimes cruel, and occasionally insidious. Trolling has permeated its way into all facets of society, especially amongst the current generation that have grown up with the internet their entire lives. Saying things to get a rise out of people is in no way a new idea, but the rise of the internet and the ability to be anonymous has allowed those without a voice to be heard, even if it’s in the worst possible way.
Social Media Trolls
The ubiquitous nature of social media has become the ultimate platform for trolls. What once was an inside joke that small communities experienced or loathed, now has the ability to take on a life of its own. Twitter in some ways is the perfect mechanism for trolling. It takes minutes to setup up an account and the person can remain completely anonymous. Celebrities are an obvious target of trolls because of their popularity, and the potential of notoriety if they fall for the trolls bait and respond.
However, if you were to search any topic on Twitter, from politics to Beyoncé, you’ll see examples of people trolling unsuspecting victims of all walks of life. Usually, their intent is to simply evoke a response or receive attention. In my experience, if a Twitter account doesn’t use a real name or image there is a high probability they’re a troll. Even still, there are people with large amounts of followers who spend most of their day attacking and baiting people for the "lulz" that would never self-identify as a troll.
Depending on their approach, trolling can be (and usually is) a form of bullying. As more children/adolescents use the internet as their primary means to communicate, the rate of cyber-bullying has increased. Because long-term studies of internet bullying is still in it’s infancy, there is no way to directly correlate the growing cultural acceptance of trolling and bullying, but in my opinion there’s a connection. January 2006, the US Congress passed a law making it a federal crime to “annoy, abuse, threaten or harass” another person over the internet. While this law has helped to prosecute people in extreme cases of bullying, reports of cyber-bullying are increasing year-over-year.
The anonymity and distance created by the internet provides security and a sense of invulnerability that gives trolls and bullies the courage to say things to people they wouldn't ordinarily say to someone in person. If you watched the news you'd think that bullying was a teen problem, but more and more adults online are exhibiting the same juvenile behavior of picking on others because they can. The power of being anonymous when used for good allows people to openly and freely express themselves without fear of reprisal or judgement, but when misused it can bring out the worst in people. Because of the barrier of the computer, it's easy to forget that there is a human being on the other end with real feelings. The mob mentality quickly takes over in public forums and the piling on begins in order to fit in and feel accepted by the herd.
Like most predators, trolls tend to strike at those that are most vulnerable (a.k.a. newbies) and where they’re most likely to get attention. Go to almost any Youtube or CNN comment section and within 5 comments you'll probably be bombarded with outrageous, often inflammatory post. Why? Because these are very common websites that will likely have the easiest targets. After you've been on the internet long enough you've probably heard the saying, "Don't Feed The Trolls". The general rule to neutralizing a troll is to ignore them, and not “feed them” the attention they seek. Once they’re aware that they’ve gotten under your skin, they’ll continue to persist.
Trolls of Legend
Some of the most notorious trolls can be found on a popular internet imageboard called 4Chan. 4Chan users post images/messages anonymously on various boards on specific topics. For the unfamiliar, 4Chan can be a strange and disturbing place. It’s "anything goes" philosophy can range from hilarious post to pedophilia. It’s where a lot of the internet’s most famous meme’s began (Lolcats, Rickrolling, Pedobear) while also being the home of some of the most vile images, topics and people you’ll find online. While 4Chan is mostly infamously known for its trolling they’re also known for their strong sense of community and being able to organize and attack common enemies. They’ve been accused of some of the most high-profile attacks in internet history and is considered the place where the hacktivist group Anonymous first began.
The mysterious, loosely associated hacker group, Anonymous, got its start on 4Chan. Their name comes from the name given to anyone who post on 4chan without a name, Anonymous. While now more associated with digitally protesting political and social causes, the group cut its teeth trolling corporations, organizations and other websites they disagreed with or disliked. Their usual mode of operandi is to stage DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service Attack). DDoS is an attempt to make a network unavailable to its intended users typically by saturating the target machine with external communications request so it can't respond to legitimate traffic, leading to server overload. Whether you admire or loathe Anonymous they've made their presence felt many times and are a force to be reckoned with to those they deem as enemies.
Gawker recently did an exposé on one of the biggest trolls on the web, Violentacrez, aka Michael Brutsch. Violentacrez is a well-known persona on the popular news website/forum Reddit that is loved as much as he is despised. According to Gawker, Brutsch, a 49 year old, military-father and husband is responsible for ”…distributing images of scantily-clad underage girls, but as Violentacrez he also issued an unending fountain of racism, porn, gore, misogyny, incest, and exotic abominations yet unnamed, all on the sprawling online community Reddit”. Brutsch’s insist he is not a pedophile and defends his actions as him purposely trolling those that get offended by his postings. Professional trolls like Violentacrez are clearly disturbed and usually display sociopathic characteristics.
Not all trolling is created equal. Some have taken traditional trolling and pushed it beyond its initial intent or purpose. They take aspects of culture and either manipulate or make fun of it for their pleasure, I call these people Culture Trolls. They create communities around this behavior, sometimes being harmless fun and other times it can have real world effects on politics and the broader culture. Like the classic form of trolling, those that aren’t in on it are usually turned off by both the troll and their community. Stephen Colbert is a perfect example of how trolling can be used in a clever way without harboring malice. Every day he gets on TV with a straight face and trolls the Republican Party in jest. To most people his not so subtle, “Ultra-Conservative” shtick, is pure satire, but believe it or not there is a percentage of the population that actually believes he’s a Republican! If this doesn’t qualify as masterful trolling, nothing does. Rush Limbaugh is another master troll. Except unlike Colbert, Rush takes himself serious, even though he's clearly a comedian. He says the most outlandish and often times blatantly wrong things on his show as if it's the gospel truth and his listeners believe it. He's amassed hundreds of millions of dollars by trolling his own listeners.
In fact, there are a number of people who have made trolling a career. Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Glenn Beck, Perez Hilton, Media Takeout, TMZ, and Ann Coulter are all professional trolls that make their living by getting under people’s skin. Most of these people are also bullies that profit on peoples fears, hate, or gossip.
Rebellious rap/skater/art group “Odd Future” has created a huge following online by trolling pop culture, passé fashion, the media, the music industry and pretty much anyone that isn’t their fans. They act like rotten children when interviewed, release fake music, curse unnecessarily, and wear the most obnoxious shirts (think Hawaiian flower shirts) from the 90’s, ironically because they're so hideous. Odd Future is the anti-rap group, rap group, whose fans obsessively post derogatory comments at them as terms of endearment. Like troll love letters. The unofficial leader, Tyler, The Creator, incessantly uses the derogatory word “fag” synonymously with something that is “bad” while two members of his group are openly gay. Initially the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual, Transgender) community took the bait and insisted he stop, but in typical troll fashion he just did it more. Again, Odd Future's trolling is nothing new in its essence. They come from a long lineage of rebel-rousers like Iggy Pop, Bad Brains, Sex Pistols and N.W.A. but something is different now. As the prevalence of the internet has brought celebrities closer to fans it has consequently brought fans closer to feeling like celebrities, even if only for a brief moment.
Another example are the popular comedic duo, Tim & Eric. These two are the ultimate “Culture Trolls”. They wear the worst in 80's fashion while using every cliche from that era in their TV show, down to the editing. Their videos intentionally have rudimental uses of photoshop and special effects to convey a public access feel to their work and their fans love it. It's a rebellion, a rage against the machine, and a middle finger to huge production budgets and the corporate structure overall. They sarcastically triumph the oddities of the 1980’s through character, visuals and sound.
However you define “trolling”, it’s hard to disagree that it has crept into our culture more so than ever before for better or for worse.
Picture Me Trollin'
What separates a troll from just a vile person with true inflammatory thoughts? Sadly some of those hateful comments on Youtube and CNN aren't trolls. As hateful and ridiculous as their remarks are, they actually feel and think that way, which is an entirely different problem in itself. A clever troll leaves subtle clues of their intent. The lazy or inexperienced troll can easily be confused with an idiot or flat out hateful person. The art of trolling is in the subtlety and purpose. Which is probably the most troubling part. In society trolling has taken on a life of its own, so much so that some younger people have internalized it as a normal way to conduct oneself on the internet.
Where is the line when it's no longer a joke, and becomes just a way to piss others off? Google and other social forums have recently taken steps to curve this aggressive behavior but forcing users to identify themselves in hopes it will make people think twice before posting disrespectful, racist, sexist, vile things. Youtube is now politely asking users to merge their Google+ accounts and use their real names. It's only an option now but could possibly become mandatory to rid the negative connotation people have with Youtube comments. Many high profile Youtubers have applauded this move. On the other hand, anonymity can be very helpful to those in certain situations so it may not be a fix for all solutions. As social norms continue to evolve on the internet, we as a community are the ultimate firewall.
There are few ways insidious trolling/bullying can be controlled:
-Moderators: Site managers should monitor their websites, or elect moderators from the community to monitor behavior and actively ban accounts that don’t follow the rules.
-Better moderation tools for users: Some sites like The Verge have specific methods for reporting trolls.
-Self moderation: We should all be more mindful when someone is bullying another person and defuse the situation instead of encouraging or piling on. This not only applies to the web but in all forms or media. There is a difference between constructively criticizing someone's work or opinions and attacking their physical characteristics or beliefs.