Sunday, August 3, 2008


I think the most important thing on internet society I've read in the last month, and more, is Mattahias Schwartz' article in the New York Times Magazine on troll culture. He has undertaken, at some personal risk, plumbing a subculture of the internet which, honestly, I didn't know about until I came to 2nd Life, but since then have become far more familiar with. He focuses on a few high profile and extreme individuals. This is good, but it presents a less balanced picture. Even calling it "trolls" is wrong.

This is not to say that things like the Patriotic Nigras (PN for short) who make it their hobby to crash sims and spew racist insults aren't what they are. Anyone who has watched the daily traffic on banlink with entries such as:



suspected PN or confirmed idiot, brand new account, self-created scripted blocks that follow people and continuosly chat spam "Please donate some money" "I'm realy poor", rezzed across Hyboria sandbox

And other assorted examples of lulicaustic behavior.... well knows that the subculture's most pathetic examples are here too.

However, most of what goes on in places like Something Awful, or among the W-Hat crowd, isn't this. Yes, it is contemptuous. But then, so are most of us. There is more bad on the internet, I think, than anyone imagined. Making it easier for people to do things has proven that many of the things people want to do... aren't very good.

/b/ is the epicenter of the lulocracy's thugs, it is true. I went there not long ago and went through the vast churn of pent up energy, anger, self-loathing, bombast... and found it not that much different than the subtext of much internet flaming. It's worse, but only in that it is not that much worse. Many people who are as vicious and unstable as the trolls are elevated by our media system, and are greeted on bended knee by elected officials. If the /b/tards are anything, it is merely the audience which dispenses with the need for a host.

The interesting story that frames Mattahias Schwartz' narative is the story of a person who committed suicide, and then was turned into an object of satire and derision by the /b/tards. It is important, because in focuses on the reality that this kind of engorged anger is the result of not being able to let go of hurts. Of not being able to grieve. Attacking the grieving of others, is a sign of being unable to grieve. This simple story is captured in elements from later in the article, where it is clear that a deep and pervasive pain underlies the trolls at their most active.

But it is the button pushing story that is the most interesting, in that it shows the real root of the ability of trolls to troll, and that is that others forgive them, and do not subject them to the same treatment they give to others. They live by betrayal of the social bonds that make us give some room to the others we come in contact with. Everyone has bad days, says stupid things, and opens themselves up for attack. If everyone took advantage of every chance, there would be no ability to deal with others.

This isn't really to defend social culture as it is, because, in fact, we don't give people the room they need. One reason people come to sl, and give up their rights as having an identity, is because they have needs that they are not being given the space for.

Where the article misses is in it's solutions. Disemvowelling is not a way to deal with hard core intimidation and death threats. It removes a social annoyance, but the two aren't the same problem, any more than serial killers and bad service at a restaurant aren't the same problem. Instead there is something rather simple, and that is to treat as seriously the kinds of actions that lead to real damage to people, as we do say, copying songs without license.

That people who engage in trolling come from the same subculture as people who destroy people's credit ratings and engage in identity theft, really doesn't connect. The identity theft is merely the hammer, but the subculture doesn't have a monopoly on the sociopathy, the rage, or the identity theft. Put these people to work for the NSA, or for Karl Rove, or as writers for Rush Limbaugh, and they are upstanding members of society.

The contempt the trolls feel is not something foreign or undeserved. I've had enough enormous egos lrch up to me, sl and rl, confident that their rendition of a lame pick up line is not only better than everyone else's, but so amazing that I will drop to my knees right then and there. Ewwww. And it's pretty clear, to me at least, that most people most of the time aren't much more clueful about how to get what they want. Most of the time we, because I definitely include myself, are smart enough to know that the stupid approach probably won't work, and that we should watch and learn first.

Not everyone subscribes to this theory, and the trolls are the other side of it. For every jerk who is sure that his, or her, stupid determination will break all barriers, there is an anonymous, or pseudonymous, troll who, quite probably, was the jerk at some point.

Beneath this, is trust. We trust a great deal in our systems, in the security of things like our credit card numbers, and yet, the reality is that they are not. The culture he describes, a kind of violent outgrowth of what I am told "hacking" used to be, is not so much different, in the end, than how we run our society. Fox News is a giant troll network. America was trolled into war with Iraq. It's hard for me to get even moderately angry about a troll spying on us, when our telecoms companies are, our government is, and Time-Warner is. It doesn't take technical brilliance to destroy people's lives, just a few connections. With those, it is possible to hire the right technology person.

So there it is, I suppose: the deep truth is that trolls are simply freelance versions of how we run things now, and the surprise isn't that they exist, it is that people are trying to distance themselves from a subculture which is a reflection of the culture that it is a part of.


  1. hehe.
    Trolls are just an amateur News Corp.ers doing it as a hobby :)
    This was a good one. :)

  2. These are what gamers call griefers. Griefers get their jollies by messing with your head and wrecking your good times. By causing you grief. There are three ways to deal with a griefer.

    1) If he can't do anything significant to you and you can't do anything significant to him, ignore him. Griefing requires a reaction to win.

    2) Grief in return. This is a social thing, to defeat a griefer usually requires that you have a bigger gang than him. Make his life miserable. And I'm not just talking about saying nasty things to him, although if you can mock him to the point where he loses equilibrium, other griefers will turn on him and you win.

    3) Call in the admins and have them nuke him. The best way to deal if you can.

    These are the identical rules to dealing with bullies, by the way. If you can't hurt them back: ignore them. If you can hurt them, do. And if authority can deal with them, let authority deal with them (in real world cases sometimes this isn't a good idea, but it usually works fine in virtual worlds or in cases of actual crimes.)

    Griefers are loathsome vermin, and they should be treated like such.