Feed the trolls (cake)

I was driving through town a while back, running late for something, and I’d just successfully cruised through a green light. The universe was smiling on me, things were looking my way — I was on track to make that appointment* after all. Then, at a junction about 200 yards ahead, I saw a private taxi pull up.

The polite thing to do (something I like to think I’ve picked up since becoming a more considerate driver) would have been to slow my progress a bit and flash my lights at the guy, signalling that he’s good to go. But remember, I was on a roll, and I had Important Stuff to do**. So instead, I sped up, ensuring the guy wouldn’t be able to pull out and potentially impede my progress. Dutifully, the guy hangs fire at the junction.

As I zoom past though, he rolls down his window, sticks his arm out and extends a digit in my direction.

It is not the digit you’re thinking of.

This happened something like three years ago now, yet I still remember, frame by digitally remastered frame, the moment a taxi driver I cut off gave me the thumbs up. It stuck with me, because (a) it never happens, because taxi drivers are the devil’s own handmaidens, and (b) it made me realise what I’d done and feel shame about it. Much as I clearly have beef with taxi drivers, he was the bigger man; I was the speeding dickhead who cut him off.

Now obviously, he wasn’t doing it because he thought I was a cool guy. He was being snide — if ever a thumbs-up has been sarcastic, it was that guy’s. But his sarcastic signal of goodwill has stayed with me more than a thousand or so middle-fingers from other drivers.

It’s a thought that lurks in the back of my mind constantly, but has come to the fore a lot more often recently, usually whenever I’m reading an article about internet trolls. Thankfully, I’m not someone who has much experience on the pointy end of the trolling stick, though I do have some minor-league experience at the handle.

Back in the early 00s, as a pimple-faced teen, I took great joy in getting a rise out of others in MSN chatrooms. I don’t know if you’ll recall them (and if you do, I’ll bet it’s far from fondly), but MSN chatrooms had a feature that automatically ejected you if you used anyword on their naughty list. All the major and minor swears and cusses were on there, along with many a racial slur, some blasphemies and one or two more leftfield choices (I still can’t believe I once got booted for saying ‘gazongas’). In what was seen (by me) as an incredibly witty and intelligent move at the time, my preferred troll tactic was to use my PC’s character map to spell out a rude word using unicode, which I could then use with impunity in the chatroom — when someone else tried repeating it, they got kicked out (usually while saying something deliciously ironic like, ‘Holy shit, MSN lets you swear in here now?’). For a long stretch my screen name was a unicode version of ‘Jesus’ which, frankly, I’m still quaintly charmed MSN saw fit to register as a curse word. That’s right: I used the punishment of ejection on anyone who saw fit to engage me in conversation by, y’know, typing my name.

As a fairly unimpressive specimen of adolescent boyhood, I got a thrill every time I succeeded in ‘outsmarting’ one of my online peers in such a fashion. Sure, you could argue there was a bit of ‘wit’ or ‘artistry’ in a successful troll (words I’m using in the loosest possible sense here), but the big win was: ‘hey, I just fucked with someone’s day. Someone is pissed off right now, and I did that. I just made a difference in the world. Hoo golly, look at me.’

So whenever I read the latest Guardian thinkpiece on trolls and how damaging they are to our mental and emotional wellbeing, a small part of me can’t help but sympathise with the bad guys. I know how it feels, to successfully shit on someone’s afternoon. It creates a buzz. Especially if they come back all hot and heavy***, looking for a fight, rising to the bait. Shit, that right there is tangible proof you’ve fucked with someone’s chi. You can screengrab that, print it off and put it on your vision board. That’s an achievement. Something in which you feel a cynical, misanthropic pride.

I know the received wisdom is just to ignore these fuckers, but it’s such well-known advice that the trolls know it too, and if you do successfully leave them unanswered, they’ll just keep upping the ante until they get on somebody’s back****, no? And then I remember the taxi driver with his big fuck-you of a thumbs-up, and I think, ‘hey… now there’s an idea.’

Compliment the trolls. Deflate their aggression with niceness. Ask them about their day. Check if they’re doing ok. That anime pic in their avatar? Tell them how cool it looks, how it suggests what a wide-reaching understanding of pop culture they may have. No, it doesn’t have to be sincere, but it stops the flame-war escalation in its tracks, right?

Now, arguably, you could say that some trolls might not have the self-awareness to know they’re being trolled. That they might just take the compliment at face value. I’ve got two differing opinions on that:

  1. Fuck ’em. It’s not your place to make them understand they’re being undermined. Even if they don’t feel the burn of your moral superiority, you still do.
  2. If you simply must have some sort of impact with your weaponised niceness, compliment them on something they clearly feel self-conscious about. ‘Hey Milo, your blonde highlights are really cool.’ ‘Donald, I love the size of your hands!’ Etc etc. You may need to do some digging in their Twitter feed***** — and god knows I don’t envy you that dumpster-dive of a task — but there’ll definitely be something. People who are completely happy with themselves don’t troll.

There are a bunch of caveats to this strategy. I don’t think it’ll actually solve any problems, so by no means should you read this as something to do in a vacuum. Keep protesting, keep pestering your local politician, keep signing petitions — whatever your chosen method of registering your disapproval with the world, bash on with that as well. There are also situations where other forms of engagement might be more fruitful — confronting them, reporting them, and so on —not to mention the days where you just can’t be arsed forcing a smile for the little fuckers. All I’m suggesting is that you keep that ‘kill ’em with kindness’ method in your arsenal.

Oh, and given the subject matter, I anticipate there’s a chance some folks might use the comments to, er, engage in some meaningful discourse with me (if this piece gets read at all, of course). To which I say: bring it on. And by the way, your hair looks great today.

* Ok, let’s not gussy it up. I was probably going to the pub.
** Pub.
*** Not in a sexy way.
**** Mixed metaphors ahoy-hoy.
***** While I’m on the subject of Twitter, if someone with better technical skills than me (ie anyone) could create a bot that would automatically find and respond to instances of abuse with compliments, that’d be swell.