TROLLVILLE: An internet troll story in the era of the troll president

Seena Ghaznavi
Nov 5, 2018 · 6 min read

Friends, family, trolls — lend me your diminished attention span!

Welcome to Trollville — population one: Toby, a rotund 30-something basement dweller that lives with his mom. I directed and co-created this series (with Natalie Jean and Henry Zebrowksi) about a guy who loves to spew hate and havoc online, and much like real life trolls, he does it all for the lulz. For years he relished the digital accolades and virtual power — he bullied his way to network guild leader for the game, Goblins of Nefaria. He grins ear-to-ear when he stirs racial tensions online. He even gets a kick out of photo shopping pictures of his brother’s girlfriend to drive creeps to message her online. (Whatta mensch!) But through a confluence of events Toby realizes the negativity he disseminates across the internet also impacts his personal life. (You mean if you put shit in the world, you get shit back? Huh.) Over the course of our five episodes Toby changes, but does it make him a better person?

I’m introducing Toby to you, and writing this note, to give some context. Something we seem to be in short supply of in this 24 second news cycle, and frankly, Toby needs some context. This show is offensive. And it’s offensive because Toby is offensive. I know because I’m a sensitive person and I’ve had to explain the show to many, many people. My stomach does flips as I tell my friends, “have you ever heard about memorial page trolling…”

We first see Toby at his computer, reading a story about a missing girl, Cassie, who was found murdered in a forest. Toby does some quick searching and finds that Cassie’s friend created a memorial page. Her friend even includes a ‘hello’ video sharing her feelings and vulnerability to the world and inviting others to do the same. TOBY IS JUICED. WHY? Because this is the troll equation:

EMOTIONAL PEOPLE + CONGREGATING ONLINE + VULNERABILITY + THINKING THEY ARE SAFE = TROLL HEAVEN

This is about as ripe a playing ground as ever for a troll, and Toby takes advantage. He stirs the pot, posts disgusting images, and even inspires others to join in. It’s shocking, it’s abhorrent, but it’s also based on true events; memorial page trolling happens A LOT, and no one talks about it (except Herzog). Most people just click away when they see nasty stuff like this. What if you can’t look away? What if it’s your family or friend that is the subject of it? Are we literate in how to handle this type of onslaught? Are we prepared when our “safe-space” is emotionally nuked? Are we prepared to really take on a troll?

In their writing, Natalie and Henry came from a place where they saw how toxic internet culture was, and even in the pre-Trump era, how toxic it was becoming. Comedy has always been the best way to shine a light on societal darkness. And that’s what this is, illuminating an incredibly insidious problem, with laughter, so we could learn how to protect our vulnerable minds.

I was lucky. I got to learn how to handle trolls at an early age. In the 90s, I had a computer with a 14.4 kbps modem, and like most of us using the internet at that time, I was in chat rooms. I can remember when I had my first troll experience: someone in a chat kept telling everyone to “unlock a secret by hitting control-alt-delete.” I didn’t fall for this. I may have been young, but I know a force-quit key command when I see one. The funny part wasn’t the unknowing users ejecting themselves from the chat room, it was when they came back(!) and were screaming at everyone. Ah, lulz. That’s when I knew I could never really trust the Internet.

Over the years the internet expanded and trolls were omnipresent. Especially after 9/11, trolls became the invisible drivers of internet culture (see lolcats, rickrolling, pedobear). These internet vampires mainly congregated at 4Chan and were meme generators, activists against the Iraq War, and they were even pro-cat. Oh hell yeah troll brother, jump on that thread and infuriate a conservative, we can get behind that! However, when Silicon Valley birthed widespread social media, it was like they gave these vampires the ability to walk in sunlight… undetected. And of course the platforms were not responsible.[1] Trolling was for everyone now. And it didn’t matter where you came from, how much you knew about internet culture, how creative you were, or even how tech savvy you were — just scream into the box and hit send.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that today we have Donald Trump aka “Troll King” (While he is currently POTUS, this name seems to fit him better). We’ve all laid the ground work for a troll to become president. The home that provided all those wonderful memes that we spread — poking fun at conservatives — has now flipped to be the home for the birther conspiracy, Pepe the Frog, and QAnon. But what can we do? I’m honestly not sure, but I can tell you what I see it doing and what I think it’s going to do. It’s pulling us apart; not red vs blue, but from our humanity. We have lost the ability to relate to each other beyond our tribes, and now people are taking advantage of that (hi Russia!).

Twitter will be proven to be as bad as cigarette smoking.

The Alt-Right/Nazi/WhiteSupremacists of the world will organize and be a political force. We are the angry teens of the Information Age, and we just got our license. (Read: it’s only going to get worse)

So why do we make a project that showcases, nay, gives a platform to what is terrible about our day and age, specifically a white male troll? In short, we haven’t seen any projects tackle trolling the way we are attempting to do here. And there is a whole world to explore around it. When we can laugh at something, it becomes the gateway to understanding. We need to laugh at these trolls, not with them. The more we understand about them, the easier it will be to see patterns, and develop a literacy in how to protect ourselves. We must stop thinking the internet is just an extension of reality. It’s more like an extension of a weird tapeworm that’s going through the entire planet’s subconscious.

We started this project over two years ago, before Trump was in office. Now we’ve finished it well into his first term, and launching the day before the midterms. Natalie and Henry knew something before the rest of us realized we were about to enter the trollpocalypse. A whole lot of learning lessons later, I can unequivocally say that Natalie, Henry, and I are very excited and proud to release this to the world (finally). I have so much I could say about Trollville and all the challenges we had to overcome. Today though, I’m just grateful and proud of all the people that worked on it, especially our producer Lis Durkin who is a rockstar. If there’s one thing I can leave you with while you buy & watch all the episodes HERE is… be offended, but know we are offended too, we’re just laughing the whole time.

[1] Great article from NPR laying at how Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 came to be, and why it makes Facebook, Twitter, and others into “libraries” not “newspapers”

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