The Ascendancy of the Troll Generation
This is a tale of the trolls and the triggered. The ghostly hint of a troll pervades everything we see and hear. Is it real, is it fake? No wonder trigger warnings and safe spaces are commonplace. They are preemptive strikes against the nature of trolling. People can avoid anything that might trigger them and anyone that might be a troll: Insta-blocks on social media, websites close down comments or require Facebook linking, and echo-chamber algorithms. But trolling has gone mainstream.
For one, Donald Trump may be the first troll President. I personally think it is far more likely that he really did want to become President, despite the rumour that he did it on a lark and suddenly found himself there. That’s a happy fabrication for people who still need to laugh at Trump. After-the-fact truth telling. He didn’t become President to troll; he became President by trolling. You can’t tell me these aren’t trolls, attempts for the lulz:
The sign of a true troll is when people take you on face value and work themselves into a froth over it. It’s a form of cognitive dissonance, where a new reality strikes against what a person holds in their head. Naturally, this can cause people to react, either with anger, confusion or some other fever. Trump has done this his whole life, and went into overdrive for the election.
But it isn’t just Trump. Trolling is a well-acknowledged activity online, and its tendrils seek out ever more mainstream targets. Of course given the state of modern media, they take it hook, line and sinker.
Here’s a guy ranting and trolling a bunch of anti-Trumpers:
As Whitney Phillips says in her book This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture: “Trolls believe that nothing should be taken seriously, and therefore regard public displays of sentimentality, political conviction, and/or ideological rigidity as a call to trolling arms. In this way, lulz functions as a pushback against any and all forms of attachment.”
Trump is anti-establishment, and those that revel in his trolling are also mostly against political correctness and the hand-wringing we see in society at large. In order to break apart the political hegemony and the ideological underpinnings of modern liberalism one must troll, and troll hard. Everyone takes themselves far too seriously and so the time has come to teach them lessons, mostly with humour at their expense.
While Whitney is a typical SJW, her book does offer some insights, namely the nature of trolling and how in fact trolling is a reflection of real life behaviour. She posits that trolling activities have always been a part of life (though of course she means in terms of people always being bigoted) and so the line between online and real life blurs. Trolling involves masking our identity, but at the same time removes the masks that we wear in day to day life. This is a confusing game-within-a-game. Are we true to ourselves when we are at work, amongst friends or talking to family? Or are we only ‘real’ when we put on the mask and are able to be rid of societal norms?
This is a very real feeling for many internet natives. Anonymity allows us to break from conformity and to truly converse on an intellectual level. Perhaps, then, this is why the liberal echo chamber is so intellectually backwards: everyone knows each other, has their life’s resume under their Twitter profile, and so conformity is the only option. As Howard Rheingold says in The Virtual Community: “In some ways, the medium will, by its nature, be forever biased toward certain kinds of obfuscation. It will also be a place that people often end up revealing themselves far more intimately than they would be inclined to do without the intermediation of screens and pseudonyms.” Anonymity is good for the discourse of ideas.
Those who studied the early web, like Rheingold and Sherry Turkle, would visit obscure online realms such as MUDS and Usenet groups. From these experiences they drew psychological responses from people on the web. Trolls have been prevalent since the birth of the internet, and now we are witnessing their influence on the world.
For real tho, 90s usenet groups & PUA seduction forums were first salvo in the realtalk wars. They really did open the way for Shitlord inc.
— ≠Chateau Emissary≠ (@ChateauEmissary) November 18, 2016
If you do study these antiquated online historians, there is some you will learn, a lot you will familiar with, and plenty that is laughably wrong. For example, this paper by Licklider and Taylor: ‘Life will be happier for the on-line individual because the people with whom one interacts most strongly will be selected more by commonality of interests and goals than by accidents of proximity.’ True in some regards, but far too idealistic. The reality is that this ‘commonality of interests and goals’ has led to ideological warfare and hyper-atomization, a side effect of which is the complete breakdown of the media and political landscapes. Some us, however, do enjoy this chaos.
A Personal Story
I am personally fascinated by online communities, and this is partly from my own web-upbringing. The first forum I ever frequented was the myg0t forums, a cesspit of flame wars and gore images. This was trial by fire in the home of the trolls. The entire modus operandi of myg0t was to troll, whether that was team killing Counter-strike players, IRC spam, or fooling idiots into baking cakes. This was the place where I flamed other members, posted ‘rage’ videos and collages (either recording angry people in-game or posting a multitude of screenshots of their rage), and watched the founder of myg0t snort OxyContin on webcam. They trolled Christian forums and gave away false hacks. From that moment I have trolled.
You can’t find myg0t anymore. The website is permanently down, but you can still reach out to former members on reddit. The thing is, myg0t is only one of the troll groups from the early days. The troll mentality was strong at 4chan and elsewhere, though many communities have been completely subverted by SJWs, Something Awful being a prominent one. When a community begins to change and its older members feel like the spirit is being extinguished, there are two options. The first, like in America, is to shutdown dangerous change with a firm hand. The second, which happens online, is simply to create a splinter group. The path of least resistance.
There were two big gaming forums in Australia, both tied to magazines: PC Powerplay and Hyper. Both saw totalitarian administration that shut down dialogue and both underwent many changes, including attempts to artificially boost the community. Both forums splintered.
PCPP split into one forum that was little better in terms of the ‘clean’ image, only allowing slightly more free speech. This free speech meant that a core of members were able to voice their discontent before splintering again. A very similar process occurred at Hyper. That said, both these Stage 2 forums are very different from one another. The former is a postmodern island that has locked out all newcomers. You cannot even browse the forums as a Guest. They will die off from heat-death, a lack of invigorating energy. The latter forum is far more open, without any rules. It has high energy and a large output of ideas and discourse. Between the two there is a lot of psychology at work, and a lot to learn when it comes to how communities form.
What’s the point of this story? To show how real life can be reflected online, how the digital trajectories are still shaped by very real people even though they hide behind a veneer of anonymity. Trolling has been a big part of this story. One of the main reasons for these splinter forums is that people felt triggered by uncouth behaviour and wanted to feel safe. All this did was create a vacuum and a lack of energy, which inevitably leads to decay from within. Human beings need conflict in order to function.
On a bigger scale this is a call for nationalism. The USA was heading towards atomization, and now, through the art of the troll, it is potentially going to be unified. Trump can’t just create a splinter country (sorry Calexit hopefuls). Nationalism pits country against country, and this is the competition we need in order to accelerate. The homogenisation that comes with globalisation is the heat-death humanity will suffer. Until we discover an alien civilization to compete against, we need sovereign nations to compete against each other. This is what we have to learn from the trolls.
So don’t conform, tell the truth. Sometimes trolling is indistinguishable from truth-telling. Other times it is just another way of getting people to come to the truth. Don’t let society’s fear of feeding the trolls stop the truth from coming out. There is far more at stake than hurt feelings and the need to fit in.