I’ve noticed over the years a drift in term (Internet) Troll. It’s possible the original sort of Troll isn’t around much anymore — for several reasons I don’t hang out socially on the internet much anymore. There is also that not everyone agrees with the original definition (although I think the evidence is clear).
So this is either a commemoration or a bid for language purity, I’m not sure which. Actually, it hardly matters which; the point is incredibly trivial, but it’s Sunday, and I’m feeling too lazy for serious thought. (It’s funny, but even in retirement I find I keep a weekly cycle in which the weekend signals different activity — time away from the computer mostly!)
My point is, an Internet Troll is a very specific creature.
It seems increasingly common, however, to hear the term applied to a person one merely dislikes, one who has said something that offends the reader. The idea of the storybook, billy goat eating, hated monster from fairytale is the symbol of the Internet Troll. “Go back under your bridge!” is not an uncommon rejoinder.
This turns out to be wrong — at least per the original meaning of Troll — on two levels. It isn’t the ugliness and offense at their being, and it isn’t even the storybook sort of Troll that’s meant! In fact, the term comes from fishing, and it has a very specific meaning.
A few years before I retired, on an internal work social media site, someone called me a Troll. It was doubly ignorant on their part, and the whole incident was very instructive to me, as I shall relate. (Suffice to say it was one more link in the chain of realization that I was among philistines and needed to leave that environment as fast as possible.)
Let me cut to the chase: An Internet Troll is a person who makes comments specifically designed and intended to inflame their current audience. An important characteristic of a True Troll is the complete disconnect between their real feelings and what they say. A Troll intends to cause reaction.
[Fair notice: this is just one view. There are those who apply the label to unintentional acts that disrupt an online conversation. The term has even been applied to those who disrupt anything, intentionally or not, online or not.]
And the only real cure to a real Internet Troll is to completely ignore them. It’s the one thing they cannot stand, because their entire mission is calling attention to themselves. It’s entirely about the reaction — that it’s vitriolic hatred doesn’t matter. If anything, the hotter the response, the higher their score.
The term actually came (many believe) from the fishing practice called trolling. There’s also a fishing practice called trawling, which is similar. Both involve the boat moving while dragging the means to capture fish. The difference is that trawling usually refers to dragging nets, and trolling usually refers to dragging lines and hooks.
In trawling, fish are caught up in the net. But in trolling, you’re deliberately dragging past what you hope is enticing, irresistible bait hoping they’ll bite and be caught.
Which is exactly what Internet Trolls do! They drag past you what they hope is irresistible bait. If you bite, they win. Game over.
The practice goes back to the days when the social part of the internet was not just text-based, but discussion-based. On the Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) and USENET, conversations persisted for days, weeks, months, sometimes longer. Most of the thousands of topic-based places were unmoderated, so unwelcome visitors dropped by from time to time and made things… interesting.
In some cases those unwanted drop-ins were just assholes. Others were folks who hadn’t learned internet etiquette yet. Those were usually trainable. Once they learned the customs and traditions, they became welcome visitors. After all, most of us old hands were once “newbies” ourselves, and often at first we depended on the tolerance of others.
But there was a special sort that knew perfectly well what they were doing. There were the blatant Trolls, the dumb ones you can spot a mile away. The truly hateful ones were just sad. But the subtle ones could get you going. They’d often start with carefully crafted misstatements about whatever the denizens of the group considered sacred. And one thing about the internet: you’ll find a lot of people who find a lot of things sacred. Trolls call these people “targets.”
Once they feel you nibbling the hook, they lead you down the path of growing preposterous disbelief until you take upon yourself the consuming mission of educating this poor, deluded soul, of getting them to see and understand the obvious truth.
And the happy fisherman hauls in another fine catch!
That’s what Trolls are: fisherman. Not mythical monsters under bridges or beds. To me it seems pretty clear. The conflation with an ugly creature is just a bonus.
Now, I’ll own up to being a lot of things many people find hard to take. Pedantic? Duh, obviously. Arrogant? Yeah, okay, at least in some areas, but I think I’ve earned it there. I think you’d find me humble in others. Lacking in kindness at times? Not proud of that, but I’ll own it. Overly critical? Yep, gotta own that one, too.
But I’d like to think that I’m really damned authentic, too. I take honesty and my word really, really seriously. They’re two of very few things in life I can control (so I try to). I think I walk my talk pretty good in this area, and no one has any reason to call me duplicitous.
So I took particular umbrage at being called a Troll on a social media site at work. Worse, I was called a Hater!
The facts, what I can say publicly, is that someone was proposing a product idea involving something the scientific world considers junk science — something no study has found merit in. That doesn’t rule it out necessarily. There is plenty we don’t fully understand, but (1) it’s compelling that there is supporting evidence, and (B) well-documented placebo effects more likely account such anecdotal “evidence” as exists.
I wrote pretty much what I just said above. My one and only point was that his idea wasn’t mainstream and maybe wasn’t the best direction for our company. Just my genuine, and I want to stress genuine, opinion.
For this I and another fellow with a similar reply were called “Trolls” and “Haters.” Publicly in a work context, you understand. Arguably something that falls under corporate policy about how employees treat each other. There was nothing troll-like or hater-like about it. It was a professionally tendered opinion based on mainstream thought. About what you’d get from Google.
So naturally, the other posters there, and particularly the moderator of the site, quickly sprang to our defense and corrected the original poster on their error.
That last paragraph was really hard to type, because I was both laughing my ass off at the sheer fantasy and crying bitter tears over the reality. And they did end up being slightly right about one thing: I did find a bit of hate in me that day.
Not one person — not a soul — said a single word in our defense. I even spoke to the moderator off-line. He was more concerned with not offending the other people!
It wasn’t a back-breaking straw or the proverbial rope’s end, but it was a big hash mark on the “What the Hell am I doing here??” side of the ledger. It made it very clear the level of esteem my co-workers had for me.
Not one person!