Trolls Don’t Exist

I’ve been part of online communities since BBS forums sprouted in Turkey back in the mid-90’s. The most popular one was called HitNet. It was mostly based on FidoNet which was quite popular in the US at the time. Its mechanics were simple: BBS nodes transferred the message packets between cities so local BBS users wouldn’t pay long distance call fees to receive a message from another town. Most BBS nodes participating in the network were in major cities like Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir while few others were in smaller ones like Eskisehir, my hometown.

HitNet was small, with around 300 active users at its peak time and thanks to that, very friendly. I remember how humbled I felt when the moderator of the “HitNet Humor” group, Özgür Ökten, warned me politely when I sent an off-topic message in one of my first posts. His warning message was a long, funny message specifically addressed to me. His approach to telling you what you did wrong was so lovely that I apologized right away and never made the same mistake again. I had fun learning like that. That kind of personal, de-escalating touch fosters an equal response. I felt welcome and immediately fell in love with the network. I developed many tools for it, including a “people database” where people could find people’s contact information without needing to ask, called HitBase. Probably one of the first attempts at a social network.

The governing council enforced a “real name” policy on HitNet. Everybody was required to use their real name to participate on the network. That caused some problems with common names. You could bump into a person called “Mehmet Ozturk3”. But because of the accountability associated with your real-world identity, the communications were civil, cautious, yet friendly.

HitNet didn’t have trolls, and I argue that there are no trolls anywhere at all. In fact, I say that trolling is one of the basic, primitive tools of communication.

I quit HitNet in 1997 because The Internet had arrived. Two years later, I developed Ekşi Sözlük, a Hitchhiker’s kind of guide on the web, an information source built by its users. It got immensely popular in Turkey and still gaining popularity despite the emergence of new social media, a la Facebook and Twitter. As of October 2017, it attracts 25M unique visitors monthly, about half the Internet users in Turkey. I must say that my experience in HitNet had helped me significantly in growing Ekşi Sözlük.

Now, please bear with me when I blurt out my hypotheses. They are all based on my experience in the last 20 years. I have no formal education in behavioral sciences. Take my words with a grain of salt. My primary motivation is to incite some new thoughts. These are my ramblings on a Sunday.

Trolling Is A Necessity

First, there are no trolls. Let’s get this out of the way. There is no one that identifies themselves as a “troll.” That’s the name we give to an ambiguous class of people, even to some people who only disagree with us, or just whom we dislike. The ambiguity doesn’t help to address the problem of trolling, but it’s the most convenient.

In Slavic languages, a German is called “Njemac.” It means “mute person,” “the one who cannot speak” because in the early middle ages, when Slavs met with Germanic people, they thought it must be their disability that caused the gibberish, because what else could it be?

The same kind of egocentric approach in societies to identify problematic behavior is misleading. We think that there are “trolls” and “normal people.” That’s not true at all. Trolling isn’t an identity, but it’s a tool used in world wild web, the vast jungle.

Online communication is the great equalizer. You could be talking to anyone from any social class yet you may not know who you’re talking. In the “real” world, we have all the information that helps us in building social hierarchies. We use that information to locate our position in the social interaction and behave accordingly. How does the person look? Are they taller? Are they stronger than me? Do they belong to a higher social class? Should I respect him or dislike him?

When the Internet is devoid of personal information, the social hierarchy and your online identity become harder to build. Due to lack of a strong identity, “real names” if you will, suddenly consequences seem lighter, easier to swallow.

When a random person joins a social interaction on the Internet, they are entering a cage in a pitch black room. The interactions are unpredictable, they don’t know anybody, and they lack many social signals and guidance of a known group. Facebook solved some of that dark initiation phase by anchoring you to your “friends and family.” You started out from a familiar environment. Much better than the dark days of IRC but still only helps so much and it doesn’t help outside your safe circle anyway. Think about how quick a discussion can get weird when “your friend’s friend” joins the conversation, just a single step outside your safe circle.

Observing the tone of ongoing discussions on a social platform helps in assessing the situation. We adapt to a social environment mostly by mimicking first. But our data sources are limited. We have messages, profile pictures, but no tone, no authenticity to the information we have. We didn’t have time to develop the finesse of social interactions we had developed in the last 150,000 years on the Internet. We are like wild animals who only live by instincts and survive by being the fittest.

Therefore the contest of achieving self-realization on the Internet is an unforgiving natural selection. There is just too much content produced with the highest quality and you just arrived here today. You are just a cute cat in the arena of gladiators.

How do you prove yourself worthy?

Really, how do you earn your identity? How do you respect yourself in this vast, dynamic society of random people? How do you feel strong? Are you weaker than everybody? Are you the worst person in this set? What says otherwise? Are you better than anybody?

How can you tell?

That’s where trolling comes into play. Think about it: You are in a world where consequences don’t matter as much as the real life, and you started out at the lowest levels of the social hierarchy. You are virtually nothing. You need to reach out to something to feel secure, equipped and able. You need to locate your position in the social hierarchy.

Let’s define trolling: Trolling is a provocative or harmful act for the sake of a response. It’s only successful if it generates a response. It’s nothing else. So, yes, everybody trolls. Whenever we provoke someone, we make fun of them, we joke around, whenever “it was just a prank bro,” we are trolling. So there is a troll in all of us, but none of us are trolls because they don’t exist.

Why trolling isn’t a problem in physical life? In fact, it is. Bullying, for instance, is a significant problem in our schools. The only difference is that the chain of accountability in physical life goes a long way. Because we have ironed out the issues of identity, education, and punishment in the last dozen of millennia. The web is only around for a mere two decades.

Trolling Is Inexpensive

Trolling is easy because it’s accessible. It requires the least effort with tangible returns. Yes, you might have made your favorite celebrity mad swearing at you for a couple of minutes, but THEY REPLIED TO YOU. Somebody cared enough about you to respond, and it was a famous person. That is some short-circuit that we didn’t have in our offline lives. We didn’t have instant access to celebrities before.

Today, trolling is the easiest way for one to make them feel good about themselves. It works by having two façades. There is one that is facing outwards that everyone sees, and another one that only we know about, facing ourselves. We nurture these two identities together and sometimes disconnect them.

How it works is simple. Our outwards looking persona is a parody in our eyes because it’s not real. It’s something the inwards looking persona, the “real us” created. Why is it different than our actual self? Because when you hurt the puppet, that cannot affect the puppeteer. It is just a wooden toy. It cannot get hurt. It’s immortal. It’s strong. Whatever you do to it, it will respond with 😂.

We create protective layers around our core-self, real personality to avoid getting hurt. But that comes with another revelation: we can use the same protective layers, the same puppets for more personal gain: exerting power over others. Making other people feel bad, frustrated is one way to use that power. That would make us feel even stronger.

But how can we justify terrible behavior against others? That’s something we have been taught wrong in all our lives. How do we do it?

We, in fact, do it like how all villains do: for a greater good.

It is remarkably easy to create a moral framework around any deplorable action. That’s how evil becomes evil. We acknowledge a particular set of sacrifices are necessary to achieve a greater good, even if it means sacrificing our own ethics.

I hurt that person, but they learned a valuable lesson.

The appeal to arbitrary morals, arbitrary causes is our justification for betraying what our parents taught us. It is a necessary sacrifice to achieve something we deem valuable, and gain self-confidence and feel powerful in the sewers of the Internet.

Whose Fault Is It?

The current implementation of social networks is inherently elitist. They follow the power-law distribution. That is, the “powerful,” influential, popular nodes are minority while the “weak” are the majority, as in society.

Democracy is a method to compensate the imbalance of power in the society. The “majority of weak” has a say in what the “minority of powerful” can do or dictate. That is a shallow look, but the idea is that if you leave the weak powerless, they will seek power through other ways. So democracy keeps the imbalance in check. The power gets sprinkled over all the layers of the society.

There is no democracy on the Internet. A couple of weeks ago, Twitter suddenly decided to increase 140 character limit in tweets to 280, without consulting the users. Probably they had done a lot of research on usage patterns, how users would react to it, but in the end, they made people feel powerless. That’s why thousands of users lashed out against the change. Not because they didn’t want 280 characters, but because they faced with the fact that they had no control over their virtual lives. The landlord came and re-decorated the house without asking and said: “oh I love how frustrated you are, just give me a chance to prove that this new decoration works better for you”.

“I am Jack’s total lack of understanding”

The absence of mechanisms to distribute power and control to people over their digital lives creates a chasm between the “elite” of the world and the “plebs,” the “peasants” of the Internet, who are the real source of income, the actual work power, the clickers of ads.

That chasm emboldens the feeling of worthlessness and hopelessness. It is analogous to natural disasters where people start looting, robbing, attacking each other, cannibalizing out of desperation. So my argument is that trolling is not a decision of sociopathy but an act of necessity. Trolling is a survival reflex in an unforgiving world with catastrophic conditions.

So what we need to think about is why we have social structures on the Internet that create such desperation out of people and leaves them alone without any guidance, safe-space, counseling and all other affordances we have in the physical world.

The Olden Ways

I argue that HitNet back in the 90’s provided a better social structure. It had an easy to understand social hierarchy (the governing council, moderators, and everyone else). The chain of consequences was tied to a strong identity, our real names. There was a flat, single, global social network that equalized everyone except moderators. Your popularity wouldn’t impact significantly how much influence your content would generate. A newbie had an equal chance as a seasoned user. There was a single pool of sharing that everyone could contribute to. Moderation had a managable workload and better regard of people.

Ekşi Sözlük benefited from some of those ideas. It still has a single global feed. All the content stays together next to each other. No content-bubbles from social circles.

I am in no way advocating HitNet’s way of doing things. For starters, real name policy is a hell. There are too many complications; Facebook is a living example of it. It takes away power from people who otherwise could contribute valuable content. Moderators can abuse power. Conventional methods don’t scale. We need scalable solutions to create better, more equalized social structures but we can get inspiration from existing solutions.

I think people’s migration to WhatsApp to use it as a social media platform is noteworthy. WhatsApp gives maximum power to users. Users own their data, own their network, own the discussion and who can contribute to it. No surprising “friends of friends,” so no need to troll. You’re in your physical network. Conversely, however, the app lacks any meaningful curation or discovery. We don’t visit WhatsApp to see “what’s new today”. We don’t find new people to meet on WhatsApp. So it’s another extreme but an excellent example of how people can desire to flatten the distribution of power.

I haven’t gone into the aspect of using the act of trolling for economic or political gains. But that’s not interesting anyway. If you create a weakness in the social structure, it will be abused by the powers that be. It is natural. We always had scam artists, agents, spies, provocateurs. Troll is just a new name for them. It is the core vulnerability of the online societies we should address, not the methods of exploitation.

We need to come up with better online social structures. Not a democracy per se, but systems that can make us have at least some power over our own digital lives. Because, if we can distribute the power better, the desperate search for feeling powerful will end.