Friday, August 08, 2008

What is a troll?

I’ve been Internet naïve. I thought a troll was a horrible monster that lived under a bridge. More recently I learned that troll, according to Wikipedia’s definition, is Internet jargon for “someone who posts controversial and usually irrelevant or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum or chat room, with the intention of baiting other users into an emotional response or to generally disrupt normal on-topic discussion.”

According to the definition a troll is a spammer or a gadfly who acts alone or with a few supporters to disrupt a larger online group. But that definition may be too restrictive. There is a larger sense of the word, as examined in a recent New York Times Magazine article that delves into the vast world of trolling. From the many comment threads and blogs linked there (which are as interesting as the article itself) we can surmise that trolling comes in many forms. There is general agreement that trolling is usually (but not necessarily always) bad and can range from mere naughtiness to sociopathic and even criminal behavior. To complicate the discussion further, distinction between troller and trollee is sometimes fuzzy. In any vigorous on line debate there’s likely to be a little trolling on both sides.

This hits home. In my pre-blogging days I went through a sort of trial by fire at the hands of an online group. Years later I became convinced that even though I was the sole dissenting voice I was, in a very real sense, trolled. Thoroughly, relentlessly, mercilessly trolled. Why? The group had an impassioned agenda and couldn't seem to countenance tough questions and challenges to their views.

I was baited. The administrator, noting a shrill and awkwardly worded contrarian opinion I had expressed elsewhere, “cordially” invited me to join the group by using the piece, verbatim, as my inaugural post. Ignoring a cardinal rule of netiquette, lurk before you leap, I bit. Possessing neither impressive academic credentials nor Internet savvy I provided this august group an easy target for ridicule. Over the next several years many appeals to evidence went unacknowledged and personal attacks trumped collegial debate. Although the group’s raison d’etre was about professionalism much of the on line behavior exhibited there was anything but professional. I had only a visceral awareness of what was going on at the time. Much later, reading about trolling helped me conceptualize it.

It was a valuable and fascinating experience and may have helped stoke a "fire in the belly" that fuelled my blogging. I needed my own sandbox.

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