There was once a race of carefree woods-loving giants. At some point in Scandinavian mythology, these giants, called trolls, turned into imp-sized remnants of their former adventurous selves and moved from the woods into caves underground. In recent centuries, the evolutionary gap between malicious and benevolent troll species has only widened, with the latter nearing extinction. Pushed further and further underground, the troll had no choice but to emerge from its polarized ancestry as a strange and morally diffuse mixed breed.
Today, the definition of a troll contains the legacy of these contradicting etymologies. In the online community, a troll can be described as someone who seeks to provoke an emotional response, be it pleasure or pain.
There are trolls are who seek to hurt through manipulative pain: They disrupt comment boards with intentionally inflammatory, extraneous, or obscene comments or pranks. There are trolls who seek to help, through humor: They produce memes, they riff on themes, they create absurdist messages.
In the figure of the Internet troll, big funny laughable creatures of yore have interbred with their starving counterparts who guard the seedy underbelly of the storybook bridge in the “Three Billy Goats Gruff.”
And what emerges is the troll as playful Dionysian satyr or vengeful bastard, or both.
One schema proposes a taxonomic distinction between playtime trolls (simple 2-D games), tactical trolls (the use of a personality), strategic trolls (a long-term strategy) and domination trolls (an overarching organized message).
But this very fact that there are “species” of trolls is the first important distinction: There is not one definition of a troll, and to reduce subculture to caricatures, even with loose mythologies, does not do anyone any favors. Trolling itself may already be a caricature — a cartoonish antidote for the idea of the Internet as beautiful community.
“Not all trolls are created equal,” Computer Science Department lecturer Brad Rosen ’04 said, emphasizing that both content and intent matter when making sociological distinctions. “There’s a whole complex and rich subculture here, and to try to sum it up with any label overlooks important distinctions.”
Fittingly, the modern troll is as much of a myth today as it once was upon a time.
NEXT TIME YOU GET KICKED
Last week the trolls came to Yale. “lulz: A Troll Musical,” written by Cory Finley ’11, Mark Sonnenblick ’12 and Ben Wexler ’11 captured the nonspecific specifics both thematically and structurally as a loose hierarchy of plot cells, a series of musical mini-games, a cyborg rhapsody and a patchwork of flashing lights.
“What ‘lulz’ did well was show how all these people who seem to be part of the same group are really not,” Rosen said, who went with his “Control, Privacy, and Technology” class to see the show on Friday.
Lulz engaged with the same rhizomatic and oppositional element of troll humor: The audience was never sure what to laugh at and what to take seriously, yet was asked to do both.
“We wanted to have a show in which we take the audience into feeling and experiencing firsthand how fun and surprisingly logical trolling can be in some ways, and also what’s darker about it,” Finley said.
As trolls are often the brunt of their own jokes, “lulz” juxtaposed “in-your-face” direct addresses to the audience with scenes that pushed those moments back into the character’s faces. Two large screens projected classic FailBlog videos before the onset of the show, as audience members were seated so that they could watch each other watching. The opening song established a pithy motto of suffering: “THIS TIME THEY GET KICKED AND YOU LAUGH / NEXT TIME YOU GET KICKED AND THEY LAUGH / EVERYONE GETS KICKED.”
Sonnenblick explained that he was most interested in probing this “human tendency to laugh” at videos like the ones on the FailBlog site. “Where are the lines in terms of interacting with someone. At what point is it too far? At what point do people deserve it?”
Finley, Sonnenblick and Wexler explained that they sought to avoid dogmatic statements like ,“This is trolling,” or, “This is how the Internet is,” and took the musical as an opportunity to look at questions of representation, retribution, and how trolling can have both social and satirical functions. There’s a scene in which trolls post satirical comments on Facebook memorial pages as “grief tourists” to expose what they perceive as the shallowness of virtual human suffering; in another, a graduate student troll explains the theoretical aims of trolls — to shock people into new ways of thinking.
And ultimately, among other things, Sonnenblick explained that the show takes a “moral middle ground. The answer isn’t quite there.” Because the answer isn’t quite there.
FEEDING THE TROLLS
“When I was a kid, troll used to mean someone who hid in the bushes,” Paul Keane DIV ’80 said. “The last thing I do is hide in the bushes.”
Paul Keane, who posts on the News’ website under the username TheAntiYale, is ostensibly one of Yale’s most famous resident trolls. Though his online comments take the tone of a gleefully indignant teenager, Keane’s voice on the phone is older, more unsure. His fiendish online smirk modulates into a softer, bemused smile when articulated over the telephone.
Keane says he doesn’t really know what led him to continue to comment on the News website after his first post in September 2009. He attributes his serial career to his interest in his hometown of New Haven, his alma mater Yale, and to his feelings of sympathy and shock for many of the events reported in the News.
Since that September day three years ago, Keane has posted 1,967 comments on the News’ website, sometimes posting multiple times a day. His blog, “The Anti Yale”, has received 21,000 views from over 103 countries. (“I have no idea what that means,” he added about the Google Analytics results. “It may have been search engines or robots.”)
Though Keane himself sees his time posting as “winding down now” (“I think after three years I haven’t got much more to say”), current News online editor Danny Serna said he thinks trolling in general has gotten worse lately.
Staffers and readers have characterized the comment boards across the News’ website as “particularly troll-infested,” “mad bitchy” and “spiteful.”
News readers and writers are familiar with the site’s group of frequent and famous pseudonymous posters: the biting fusillade of RiverTam, the lewd Joey00, the seemingly satirical YaleMom, and so on. RiverTam, Arafat, Penny_Lane, RexMottram08, HieronymousBosh and FailBoat could not be reached for comment.
No one really knows when the trolls first arrived at the News. Some say it was in early 2000s, while others guess they’ve been around since 1995 — as long as the yaledailynews.com site has been operative.
Former News editor-in-chief Vivian Yee ’12 said there was a drop in comments with the onset of a user policy change in the fall of 2010, which asked readers to comment on articles only after registering with a valid email address. She said that eventually the commenters — and those whom some called the trolls — slowly returned. “One of the issues during [the past board transition] was how could we balance stupid, unproductive and spammy comments with having a good flow of discussion. For a while we let it collect steam on its own, but eventually we did hit that balance,” Yee said.
The News now allows users the options of signing in through Twitter, GoogleID and Facebook. But the majority of users, including those who post frequently, still prefer anonymity to identifiable Internet identities.
In a largely anonymous community of disembodied voices, TheAntiYale is an exception to this rule. He deliberately signs comments with his real name and identifying information: Paul D Keane, M.Div. ’80, M.A. (Middlebury ’97), M.Ed. (Kent State ’72), B.A. (Ithaca College ’68).
Some would argue that Keane isn’t a troll precisely because he identifies himself as Paul Keane. As Keane confirmed, the TheAntiYale moniker is a succinct summation of Keane’s authored views, rather than the embodiment of a character or the vocalization of an ideology: “Ninety-nine percent of what I say is my opinion, but I do jazz it up with a contrived outrage. I pretend to be outraged and am not really. But I never solemnly say something I don’t believe.”
That leads one to wonder whether the voice on the phone is the voice of the TheAntiYale or the sounds of a septuagenarian speaking from his Vermont home. Even for other anonymous users, the pseudonym becomes a persona in time. Yee pointed out that as pseudonymous users continued to maintain a viewpoint or opinion, they acquire consistent personalities rather than simply spout offensive ideas. Paradoxically, as users post more, they lose their ability to inflame other users as effectively as trolls can because they are “consistent in their opinions and identity and seem to forcefully believe in them.”
And yet, like the typical troll, Keane’s posts are generally off-topic. At times they seem as though they’re randomly generated from a thematic memory bank. But this doesn’t bother Keane at all: He views his posts as his own genuine emotional response.
“I’ve been off-topic my entire life and most of the time it’s brought pleasure to people,” Keane said, laughing. When asked if he read the entire stories in the News before commenting, Keane responded, “No, no, I skim them.” He added that that if the comment section was particularly lively he would sometimes read those before the article, or even instead of it. He said he now plans for the epithet carved on his tombstone to read: “Delightfully off-topic.”
Keane said he settled on the name TheAntiYale to represent the “opposite polarity” of “Yale’s elitism. He said he receives enjoyment from comments “popping that elite balloon” and is also drawn to commenting for the “intellectual rapport” he has with other posters.
Though Keane reads The New York Times along with the News with his daily 5 a.m. coffee, he doesn’t comment on The Times’ site because the flood of voices drowns out the chance to playfully spar with personal and immediate feedback. “Several of the posters and I go back and forth, and in a way that’s enriching to me,” Keane said of his experience with the News. “I enjoy hearing what they say. Every once in awhile ‘River_Tam’ hits the nail on the head.”
In at least one comment, River_Tam seemed to share Keane’s enjoyment from the News comment boards. Underneath a February article about the shutdown of the New Haven Independent’s comment boards, River_Tam wrote: “Most internet comments are not worth reading. I find the YDN comments a pleasant respite from the sewage on reddit and the nytimes and the like.”
But the two do not know each other: as far as Keane knows, River_Tam, who is named after a character from the sci-fi TV series “Firefly,” is “some British scholar studying at Cambridge.” The other commenters’ anonymity, for him, limits their voice to no more than “graffiti on a bathroom wall.”
While Keane and River_Tam often get attention for their radical positions, Serna said the News tries to moderate “offense not opinion,” though he admitted that striking the balance can be difficult. Yee and Serna both said that readers flagging comments for removal and thus prompting moderators to take a closer look has been effective. In the more contentious debates, many comments that are flagged for removal simply differ in opinion, however radically. But removing contention does not fall under the News’ policy.
GOLDEN MEAN OF SILENCE
The magic to managing a comment forum, whose owners’ desires may include silencing trolls, lies in moderation.
The New Haven Independent placed a two-week hiatus on their commenting boards in February.
Editor Paul Bass ’82 explained that the “mad rush to try to have all voices represented” overwhelmed editors to the extent that comments that included personal attacks were accidentally approved on the site.
During a long fortnight of deliberations and troubleshooting, Bass posted 50 of the best comments for and against reopening the comment boards on the New Haven Independent, as the issue was “important for readers to get right.” The site’s new policy is stricter: It now requires real verified email addresses and employs two journalists who are not the article’s authors as moderators.
Bass said that so far the new policy has been much more effective in rehabilitating a forum that is the “only place where people from different backgrounds and races and ideologies” can trade stories on local issues, share expertise, and provide feedback for their neighborhoods and for reporters. Though it comes with growing pains, the new era of accountability can provide valuable feedback for student journalists tapping into the pulse of an issue and improving the style and substance of reporting.
Serna explained that at the News and in journalism classes he had taken the conventional wisdom about commenters was changing from “ignore the commenters” to “you can also learn from them.”
When students provide anonymous feedback for their professors, Yale’s Course Evaluation system is preferred to ratemyprofessor.com. Though Yale’s system is somewhat moderated, its ability to ensure that only Yale students who have taken the professor’s actual class can comment makes it a more viable site for students who hope to effectively provide input back to professors they do or don’t like.
But troll dialogue may take this to its extreme. Because some posts are untraceably anonymous, ideas are totally fatherless, orphaned to be picked up and ‘owned’ by whoever responds to them. In some sense, just by responding to a troll, one becomes a troll.
“The best way to say a directly offensive things is in some coded way,” sociology professor Philip Smith explained. He added that if trolling comes to be established as how things are done in forums, then people may mimic each other. In other words, the problem only gets worse. However in cases where moderators regulate a site, commenters exercise more moderation. But the the mask of anonymity and mobthink can be used for both good and careless means.
DIAL ‘M’ FOR MUTE
Reply-all threads that begin when a mass email is sent out to spread information for parties, events on campus, self-promotional materials, votes, and surveys can spawn up to 63 or more emails. Some suggest cure-alls for the messages: “Yale panlists rely on the concepts of politeness and good faith, and are not technologically immune to abuse. Don’t be that person.”
For others, these serve as less-than-satisfactory occasions for more spam: “Number one, who the fuck cares what you think. Number two, what gives you the authority to do what you just did. Number three, you’re a prick.”
For recipients who don’t delete or ignore the emails, responses they send back to everyone on the list range from earnest requests and advice for list removal, to cheeky jokes, to seething, blind and all-consuming rage. Chaos ensues at worst, spinning, circular arguments at best. In a recent spat on the Journalism Initiative panlist, a couple of students suggested that those with Gmail press M to mute the conversation thread from their inboxes forever. This prompted dozens of students — some satirically and others seriously crossing their fingers for a cyber-panacea — to email (everyone) back “M.”
For some, this messaging maelstrom was a sort of local trolling where students played on each other’s knowledge of technology “with ironic false earnestness or just sarcasm,” Andrew Freeburg ’13 said.
Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins ’12, one of the emailers who suggested the mute function in Gmail via reply-all email in an earnest attempt to “help others put out the fire in their inboxes early” said he realized that nonetheless “some find amusement in watching it burn.” On the other hand, the student who started the the most recent “truly massive spam reply-all” said he hoped to give the list a nudge in the “delightful direction” but “hid under the Internet’s cloak of anonymity to avoid retaliation.”
Though most students interviewed said they would not consider a one-time email from someone with whom one has one degree of separation a case of overly burdensome spam, many pointed out that emails crossed the line when they were frequent, offensive and/or contained information that would be totally useless for anyone at all.
As sublet emails serve a large enough community that is looking to sublet, students interviewed generally view sublet spam emails as necessary tools that ultimately serve a pragmatic function: No email means no subletters means losing a lot of money. But for some, this pragmatism can extend to mobilizing action for other uses — “If you’re that bored why don’t you help me get revenge on lying-no-good son-of-a-bitch ex boyfriend?” one recipient replied all from her Blackberry.
Whereas some find all such emails to be a superficial misuse of a fundamentally useful system, others find silly emails to be a source of consolation.
“I find it comforting to know that beneath our professional exteriors there is a seething mass that yearns for chaos . ..These big email events unify us in collective annoyance and make me feel less lonely,” Devin Race ’13 said. “It’s a chance for me to feel smug and superior, too, for I enjoy when people get annoyed about things that I rise above without being bothered — this is similar to the joy I get from having a big smile on a rainy day.”
And those who troll or fan the fires similarly feel that email lists can become a sort of fun game. Michael Knowles ’12 compared the micro-trolling experience to “performance art.” Knowles once responded to one student’s email advising others in the thread with the sarcastic recommendation: “Press CAPS LOCK to make letters uppercase.”
“These mass panlists are so easily and obviously exploited that the chains almost instantly become a game of one-upping each other,” he said.
TOWARDS A TROLOLOLOL AESTHETIC
In Swedish, ‘trolla’ means “to charm, bewitch.” Regardless of whether the attention it attracts is hateful or hilarious, trolling, when reduced to its simplest form, is a spectacle.
Aesthetic distance — the viewer’s inability, out of repulsion or fascination, to look away — might itself be a “trolly thing.”
“lulz” replicated the “distancing factor” that Sonnenblick said he was interested in exploring in Internet mediation and YouTube videos.
“The whole idea of the show was to make you feel like you should want to look away but you can’t because you’re tempted,” “lulz” assistant director Charlie Polinger ’13 said. “You’re never really comfortable with what’s happening because it’s always new.”
Both experimental theater and trolling can highlight and explore extremes of what hadn’t been done yet, Polinger said. Finley said that in both spaces there are “those who use shocking signifiers purely to shock,” adding that some of Wilde’s disinterested aesthetic techniques might make him “proto-troll.” Which is to say, trolls themselves, and their representations, are theatrical. Andrew Kahn ’14, who is in a sketch group, described YaleMom as a “Shakespearean fool playing in the court of the king.”
The writers of “lulz” spoke about the paradox they faced when creating a troll-like musical with troll-like humor. On the one hand, the limits to what one can say — or what one can reproduce a troll saying — (hiding behind the anonymity of another) are boundless, but on the other, there’s still the hope to create a show that’s engaging and entertaining, rather than completely alienating and offensive for the audience.
Finley spoke about moments, like the spinning sherbet wheel animation from an Apple computer flying into the Twin Towers, where the jokes were “so tasteless that no one had permission to laugh,” but without which the show would not have been as effective.
He added that none of the humor, including a joke about Terry Schaivo, “was anywhere near as grotesque or offensive as much of the humor on Fourchan’s ‘/b/’.”
Like “lulz”’s aesthetic, Kahn connected the tendencies in trolling — and its ambiguous irony — to the type of comedy they hoped to do in their sketch group. Kahn described seeking to engage with a comedy of aesthetic distance that was, like trolling, removed from fixed social norms to ease the creative process.
But as with a drink of liquor that loosens the tongue or a mystical experience that shatters the ego, the great freedom from inhibitions that anonymity likewise brings also comes with great responsibility. For every whistleblower or artist, there’s also the risk of becoming an asshole.
There are enough of both in the world but the question many have raised is whether these new online spaces explicitly encourage this behavior. When the wrong norms are reinforced, Smith said, it does.
THE ACADEMIC TROLL ™
At its heart, all trolling is a form of of a positive or negative disruption. It can be a disruption that introduces pain and/or a disruption that introduces absurdity — or freeplay — into life.
But even slapping the subjective label of productive or disruptive onto unpleasant speech patterns is not unlike the idea of calling someone who talks excessively or pedantically a ‘section asshole.’ It may well be, however, that vague labels like troll and section asshole, are successful by virtue of their very abstraction and idealization. In generalizing a series of instances to poke fun at a larger system of representations or ideologies, this sort of humor or name-calling removes some of the immediate bite of humor seen as mean and personal.
Turning a person into a character or caricature, shifts the attack from the person to an idea.
The theorist, too, might be a sort of troll. An academic troll is “someone who is not afraid of disrupting discussion not only because he or she disagrees, but because they like disagreement,” said Soren Forsberg GRD ’16 , who is Scandinavian but does not believe in biological trolls.
In a small back corner between an elevator and a trash can next to the Berkeley multipurpose room, Slavoj Zizek is explaining that the purpose of his debate with the YPU, and similar speaking engagements, was not “to convince but to clarify differences, to disturb someone a bit.”
Zizek might be an exemplary beneficiary troll as he engages with ideas more than with ad hominem attacks on people — “I almost wanted to write a defense of Madoff — he was a crook — but the problem was not Madoff. There are always persons. It was the ideas—”
Forsberg described Zizek as the “perfect troll, always asking sharp but kind of embarrassing questions. Trolling is people not engaging with people.”
Another public intellectual and perhaps quasi-troll Stanley Fish once said that he was glad he never had to meet Habermas, who he used as his intellectual whipping boy.
Then again, Forsberg pointed out that academics take on and weigh other people’s opinions skillfully and enjoy engaging in rational debate, unlike trolls.
It’s not as though the Internet invented political pundits, marketing campaigns, or a cappella groups singing during lectures. Speech codes have been negotiated as long as people have been speaking. And they still are today. Encampments on the New Haven Green are bulldozed by the grinning teeth of bulldozers. But in cyberspace, the Troll face’s grin can ruin with a newfound ease.
Before it was lulz, it was lol, and lightyears before that, it was the live action of out-loud laughter. One alum, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of “pissing off any teachers past,” recalled playing a game with friends. Those in on the joke would give each other unrelated words to incorporate into their seminar comments and one fine day, the game’s theme was Will Smith movie titles: “I Am Legend,” “Seven Pounds,” “Hitch” … ”I,Robot.”