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There’s a scene in the movie “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” in which the movie’s protagonists act out a fantasy that lives large in the minds of many Internet users. With a printed list in hand, they travel the country finding people who have said negative things about them online, then beat the daylights out of each and every formerly anonymous critic.
In Internet parlance, those critics are “trolls” – subhuman creatures who exist and persist as bait and bane to those they ridicule and torment. What so few of us realize is that in the public square of the Internet, we are, each and every one of us, only a disagreement away from being declared “trolls.” Many times these declarations carry very real implications for all involved.
Only recently, with all the force of his mentally ill public relations mechanism, Charlie Sheen brought the term to the public consciousness by declaring all of his real and imagined enemies to be “trolls.” We can’t know what Sheen thinks he means, but the term has depth and history.
“Troll” is itself a play on words. To “troll” a UseNet bulletin board, in the earliest days of the Internet, was to dangle bait before one’s fellow discussion participants – trawling for outrage, attention, interest, or other reactions.
For years, a breed of Internet sociologists, whom we might call antrollpologists, have tracked, categorized and described such individuals. One of the most famous is Mike Reed’s Flame Warriors, a clever illustrated guide that categorizes the argument and debating styles of Internet discussion participants and their humorous traits. (When I first discovered Mike Reed’s work, I would have classified myself as a “Tireless Rebutter“.)
Another is my own Phil’s Field Guide to Trolls, which has been quoted, misattributed and stolen with regularity over the last several years. Despite its topic-specific nature, that guide has been cited at everything from religious forums to – believe it or not – discussion boards devoted to collecting teddy bears and other plush toys.
“Trolling” is integral and endemic to the network of networks that is the Worldwide Web. The experience is universal, and no one can escape it. Famous people – who, by definition, are the people discussed by name on the Web – are particularly susceptible.
Take Scott Adams, for example. It seems the “Dilbert” creator and fabulously successful writer has been commenting anonymously on himself to achieve … well, what it was he thought he was achieving is not quite clear. Yet the actions in which he engaged, and the commentary on them he offered, could not be a more classic or textbook example of “trolling” as such. Posting with false intentions, impersonating someone unrelated to the party you are praising … these are “troll” tactics of the most common order.
Not all “trolling” is harmless, such as in Adams’ case, or misidentified and projected, as in Sheen’s case. Some “trolling” expresses real danger, and we should heed that. Our “trolls” may, through word and deed, imperil us even as they open themselves to civil and criminal penalties – not all of which are within our control to level or pursue.
I will use myself as another example. A famous authority in the martial arts and combative sports fields once warned me, early in my career, that I would have to grow a thick skin if I wanted to “play with the grownups” in publishing opinions on the Internet. No single piece of advice has ever held more true in my life. I am no stranger to being “trolled” and criticized online and therefore publicly – and I’m not even famous. At least, I’m not really famous; I write to targeted audiences in niche markets, and if you’re not a conservative, a libertarian, or a martial artist, you’ve never heard of me.
Despite this, there’s a dedicated following of stalkers, malcontents and nut-jobs at privately owned discussion boards and on YouTube who’ve created multiple accounts to declare me everything from a criminal to a bully. The libel and defamation involved is significant, yet where the Internet meets the real world, it’s actually remarkably difficult to sue anybody for all but the most egregious acts. I’ve also been cautioned, and quite rightly so, that giving attention to such people merely emboldens them. A friend and mentor told me, “The stupid … are dangerous.” He’s right, and in the case of my stupid “trolls” and online critics, one or two of them are very obviously deranged enough that their behavior may – I am told – be criminal. It’s a sobering thought.
This isn’t about me, however; it’s about you, the collective you, the all-of-you who comprise “we” and may be ignoring real dangers where online arguments, critics and “trolls” are concerned. On the whole we tend to disbelieve that people really mean us harm. We underestimate “trolls” as motivated by a variety of mental weaknesses or insecurities. When we dismiss our critics as “trolls,” or mis-categorize as such all who disagree with us, we frequently miss the warning signs of those “trolls” who won’t be content to remain within their lairs. There are those who will work up the curious blend of mental illness and courage necessary to strike physical blows against those they hate or fear. We need to remember this. We must be prepared to take civil action and file criminal complaint in the most serious cases.
Every single person behind a screen name is, well, a person, and while we’re more aware of this than we were in the infancy of the Internet, we still forget it. Not all of those people are like us; not all of them are rational; not all of them are stable. There are child molesters, stalkers, terrorists and would-be John Hinckleys behind many of those terminals. As I have warned previously, as I will continue to warn you, many of these “trolls” inform you well in advance of their malicious intent.
We would be fools not to listen to the rumblings from beneath the bridge.