Trolls And Beasts; Or, “Calling it ‘trolling’ is stupid and harmful.”
A discussion of what “trolling” means and why you need to stop using that damn word.
Cards Against Humanity is either an act of trolling or an act of assholery.
If you don’t know CAH, it’s a popular call-and-response party card game aimed at adults. A black card with a fill-in-the-blank or question prompt is revealed by a rotating judge, and players need to choose from their own white cards the most fitting or humorous response. The twist is that many of these are touchy “18+” subjects: there are references to sex, drugs, Hitler and the Holocaust, and vague-but-obvious child abuse, mixed in with some celebrities and body parts and literally one card that says “Pacman uncontrollably guzzling cum.” It’s not a game for everyone.
The thing is, there are two types of CAH players: those that play it with a grain of salt (really, more like a whole box of it), and those that make everyone uncomfortable because they really seem like they find this stuff funny. You know who the former players are, because they cringe at the offensive stuff but still laugh understanding what they mean, and the latter players probably have this really disgustingly genuine laugh, and keep making jokes about the offensive topics, which honestly just need to be dropped already.
So what does it mean if a player from the former group, who understands that something is offensive and maybe usually works against it, is winning the game by a landslide? You’d think maybe, deep down, they’re a prick.
But let’s look it from this perspective, instead: What if they’re just the most culturally smart players? They know what card combinations will shock and offend, or at least warrant a laugh. Chances are, they refrain from these acts in other non-CAH scenarios, and that’s what surprises everyone.
On the other hand, you have the discomforting players. They’re disappointed that the “T***nies” card was removed, and are upset that the designers are doing anything at all to fine-tune the game. After all, it’s “just a game,” right? And when he makes those jokes, everyone else shrugs it off for now, because yeah, it’s “just a game,” right? He can’t mean those things, right? Except honestly, you know he’s going to pop that shitty joke elsewhere.
The former type of player engages with cultural play because they know they have that opportunity to exploit it. They know they hopefully won’t harm anyone, but maybe they’ll invoke some good reactions. That is trolling.
Unfortunately, though, the latter sees no harm in being genuinely distasteful. The game isn’t the motive; the game is the excuse. This is the asshole.
And we’ll excuse his actions because it’s “just a game.”
That’s how we treat trolling versus abuse.
This sort of mindset has been increasingly present in media as abuse of minoritized people, especially in America, becomes visible. Powerful voices essentially excuse doxing, SWATting, and threats of violence as being perpetuated by trolls, as if there’s no power play being executed, or as if this is something we can shake our heads and shrug our shoulders about.
We need to talk about what it means to “troll” and why we need to stop labelling basically everything as such.
What The Troll Seeks
I base most, if not all, of my serious discussions on trolling on the book “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” by Whitney Phillips (which is available on JSTOR, by the way, but is worth having a copy of). She takes an anthropological and action-oriented approach to the discussion of trolling, as opposed to the political and dialogue-based approach that mainstream reporters tend to prefer; she observes trolls and how they act relative to their culture, instead of assuming they are out to instill a political or ideological cause. (Such causes are secondary and coincidences to their actions.)
In her opening chapters, Philips leans towards others’ definitions that specifically outline presence and action instead of merely dialogue, where many would leave the thought of trolling as a merely dialogue-based act. This is important, to me and to Philips, because many people focus on merely the dialogue between the troll and its victim, instead of the action and presence of trolls online and in culture (not that dialogue isn’t important; her book discusses the importance of dialogue and semantics in the act of trolling).
In the general scheme of what “trolling” means, Philips defines it as necessarily consisting of three things: self-definition as a troll, “lulz,” and exploitability of the subject. She also describes it as “fetishistic,” as in removing the subject from its viewer and maintaining emotional disparity; “generative,” or provocative in perpetuating new but parallel content; and “magnetic,” or just a generally addictive act. These are important to understanding the acts of a troll, but it’s worth noting these features are also usually present in acts of abuse.
More importantly to what we’ll be discussing, Philips relates this meaning to studies of cultural “tricksters” in her introduction, and later, in the act of playing, both of which remain underlying themes in her writing. Like figures of folklore, they attempt to understand their subjects and cultures deeply, use that against them, and then leave the subjects to cope with the aftermath.
Take a look at the social contract of giving your dog a treat. When you say there is a treat or shake the bag, the dog understands that there is a treat being offered. It will sit, give a paw, or do something of the sort, and you are obligated by social standards to give the dog a treat as a reward. A troll would come along and torment the dog: shake the bag, hold it out, wait for the dog to offer its tricks. And the troll enjoys watching as, more and more, the dog becomes frustrated, and won’t stop until they’re bored or the dog gives up.
We can say the troll is being rude, but we can take a look at it from the other side: the dog feels entitled to the treat due to the way its culture trains it to expect one, and in a respect, it’s the owner’s fault for creating that expectation. The relationship, in essence, is completely optional, and a troll would know that. Trolls come in and deconstruct those expectations of decency.
In a more relevant example, Philips follows, interviews, and documents “RIP trolls,” who seek the memorial pages of those who have passed, especially young teenage girls who garner attention online, and post crude content in the midst of grief. It’s not that these trolls are explicitly there to cause further grief and abuse; rather, they understand they are breaking a social norm by disrespecting a person after death, and find enjoyment in how others react to the rift they have created. Technically, we don’t need to respect the dead as intensely as we do — after all, they’re dead, and probably don’t know what’s going on— but there is a weakness in ourselves in doing so.
With that being said, it’s not that trolls don’t understand these boundaries. In fact, it’s their understanding of these boundaries that enable them. In real life, trolls usually do abide by the guidelines their culture has set for them. They wouldn’t post gore at a funeral.
In their actions, though, trolls seek to remove themselves from their own identities and beliefs, and impose and reflect identities and beliefs on others. It’s a performance, but they haven’t just put on masks; they have torn off their faces and skins altogether.
How invested is this particular Star Wars forum in the removal of the extended universe? Why are liberals so defensive over Black Lives Matter given this stat and that stat? Can we make Fox believe this site is being hacked by a single or few hackers? They have, to a degree, a genuine empathy of sorts towards these mindsets, but choose to deconstruct it by existing outside of it momentarily and turning it against them.
These are foundational observations about trolls and the act of trolling that I feel are missing in most discussions about them. This shouldn’t be confused as a justification or defense of trolls, by any means. Often, the point of trolling is to cause extreme distress, which can take a toll on some more than others, and many counter-media campaigns, which do take time, staff, and money to set up, have been ruined by trolls.
Trolling, in conclusion, is a performance, a game, and a trick, all at once. To treat it like anything else, or to treat anything else like it, diminishes what it means to do any of these things in question.
The Timeline Matters
In the context of how trolling has evolved and devolved, and how it’s garnered its current reputation, it’s important to discuss the timeline since “trolling” became a real phenomenon. Trolling mostly came about when the Internet as we know it was in its social infancy. Websites were easily accessible by many households, but at the same time, we lacked the monoply of centralized social media that many today spent their hours on. Thus, a hobby was hopping from site to site and doing the equivalent of dumping trash and feces and urine on their doorsteps.
To preface, 4chan was a hub, but not the hub of trolling. It was where many trolls went, but not all trolls. To most for many years, it was just an imageboard to lurk on at all hours of the day, with subforums/boards for a good variety of topics. However, its presence online was unavoidable (and still is, as memes from RickRolling all the way up to “X, X Everywhere” spawned on the image boards), and so what many consider as its peak years, around maybe 2004–2009, should be acknowledged, and its methods recognized as primary.
These image boards, /b/ in particular, were a cesspool of ingenuine flames, like throwing cherry bombs without sparking a real fire. There was an undertone of playfulness under the slurs, gore, and porn. And, of course, there were trolls and lulz, such as the Time poll and the Oprah 9000 Penises incident (that reddit thread in the latter link is a relic, by the way) that did more to scare others than destroy them and were moments of internal community and rejoice, in a manner of speaking.
Boards such as /b/ became political with the rise of Anonymous and, specifically, Lulzsec, and for many this was a turning point in the forums’ presence online. Many realized it was time to grow up, moving either onto boards of particular interest or just leaving the site altogether.
In its dust were a group of users who were left to replicate the “old 4chan.” We can’t say anything definite about the demographics of 4chan users, but regardless, there was a sense that users would come in and make 4chan great again, like the old days of memes and trolls. (By the way, what that fails to acknowledge is that 4chan is mostly just a shitty message board, and memes were fool’s gold on the shore. Seriously. Nothing special.) New users came in and attempted to replicate the offensive, putrid culture of 4chan, but there was — and is — a sense that they just didn’t get it.
Old troll culture on sites like these danced around the lines of what it meant to exist within culture versus as an outcast. Like grief for the deceased or treats for the dogs, this culture observed and played with the concepts of acceptability, sensitivity, and proper behavior from the fringes. They raided a game site with black avatars in Nazi symbols ranting about AIDS; they helped a school for the deaf win a Taylor Swift concert. What those that attempted to replicate it missed was everything we have already discussed: the personal responsibility, understanding, and empathy, for a lack of a better description, that came with straddling those lines. The lulz as they once were had long since been gone.
Around the same time, social media began to consolidate. Maybe this is why 4chan was becoming more populated: its infamy would lead to its downfall. But also, there’s little doubt in linking the increasingly unironic flames of 4chan to the echo chambers that came with Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and other sites.
If anything, the community of trolling as we claim to know it has vanished, and in its place, an unironic conglomerate of those who truly have malicious intent has risen due to the convergence of social media.
Trolls sit aside, maybe a bit ashamed that the point has been missed and their names are tarnished, for better or worse.
Or maybe, arguably, trolls of old have done their job in tinkering with culture until it reveals its ugly face. After all, now we have a profound understanding, more than ever, of the unethical “isms” and “phobias” bubbling inside the troll-wannabes. In their attempt to upstage the trolls, the assholes have shown their intent more openly than ever, and the trolls have won the long game — whether they intended to or not.
The Beasts Online
I’ll just put this plain and simple:
Defining everything that offends us as “trolling” is harmful to the way we address abuse.
This should be an easy thought, but the semantics of “trolling” are much more severe than we give it credit for.
Every time we call something offensive a “troll,” at best we’re ignoring the power structures that make this content possible. A troll is just a floating voice on the outside attempting to get a rise; an abuser is validating their power as it exists.
The meme of Harambe’s death is a mass troll of modern age, as it calls into question how society treats the celebrity of death and death of celebrity, with some reference to how Black lives are amplified by activists after their death. To merge it with the harassment of Leslie Jones completely invalidates these punchlines.
And as another example, to answer the question that people reading this are probably asking— are the Alt-Right trolling?
No. Trolling requires an understanding of what is ethical and exploitable and seeks to play with it. When an Alt-Right person engages with the racism, they align themselves genuinely within that structure. The drive comes from asserting personal identity as a form of power, instead of exploiting the identity and weaknesses of others. The troll should exist in space that lacks such identity in order to exploit all angles, from all angles, whereas the Alt-Right seeks to affirm their own supremacy in culture and disguise it as trolling to claim the crown from those that came before them. (Protip: They haven’t. Not sorry.)
But all of this is why it’s so dangerous to label aggression as “trolling.” When we shrug off abuse like this, we fail to come up with solutions and discussions that need to happen. We fail to address the structures in our culture, communities, social media, etc. that make bigotry possible.
And worst of all, and what most people don’t realize is, we constantly re-validate their abuse as play, because “trolling” is play.
So let’s stop talking about trolls. Trolls get bored; they move on. Trolls seek power over and through emotions, not identity nor belief. They seek performance and entertainment.
Assholes do the opposite. To be unethical because you believe it’s right or superior or because you actually have something to gain, structurally, is not mere play; it may be affirming to your ego, but reinforcing structures to your benefit is work, not play.