Reading news online, you could be forgiven for thinking that trolling is a synonym for “doing something on the internet.” Gamergaters are “trolling” women. Edward Snowden is “trolling” the NSA. President Obama is “trolling” Republicans — with a “hilarious ‘grumpy cat’ meme,” no less. You don’t even need to be online to troll: The Walking Dead is, apparently, “trolling” its audience.
People have argued about the real meaning of trolling for years, but it’s clear that it’s expanded even beyond its already over-broad, generally accepted definition of “provoking an outsized reaction.” The new idea of “trolling” is, essentially, provoking any kind of reaction, anywhere. It’s part and parcel of an internet culture where attention is equated with quality, and where harassment is greeted with the same jaded response as dumb jokes on forums. Did you make a joke in a comment section? You’ve trolled it. Did you obliquely insult a political opponent? You’ve trolled him. Did you harass a woman to the point of police action? You trolled her. Are you Donald Trump? You’re trolling the entire world.
It’s not just nonsensical for a single word to refer to everything from sexual harassers and purveyors of racial hatred to mildly amusing jabs from the president, it’s stupid. And it’s time to take trolling back.
Endless etymologies of the word have been written, but at its most basic, trolling means intentionally disrupting something. Initially, that something was online communities like Usenet; now, that “disruption” includes organized campaigns of online abuse, which can lead to suicide. While 4chan isn’t exclusively dedicated to harassment — it’s the site that brought us Rickrolling and lolcats, too — the site’s users are behind many abusive online campaigns. Jezebel writer Anna Merlan was sent rape threats by 4chan users after describing the site as “the Internet’s home for barely potty-trained trolls.”
This kind of “trolling” is the kind shock local news reports and academics are most interested in. A 2014 study found internet comment trolls were “prototypical everyday sadists,” strongly exhibiting characteristics of narcissism and psychopathy. As the New York Times put it in a 2008 article on 4chan’s harassment of the family of a teenager who committed suicide, “Trolling has evolved from ironic solo skit to vicious group hunt.”
But calling this behavior “trolling” minimizes its real-world effects. It’s targeted harassment that seeks to create genuine misery. It is abuse, it is dangerous, and it is revolting. As Anita Sarkeesian has said of Gamergate, trolling is too “childish” a term — it makes it sound like a fun game.
At the other end of the spectrum is the use of the term by journalists to describe over-the-top attention-getting articles. Think Vox’s arguments that meat eaters are worse than Cecil the Lion’s killer or that the American Revolution was a mistake. Last week, Sonny Bunch of the neoconservative Washington Free Beacon drew ire for a desperately lame Washington Post piece arguing that the destruction of Alderaan in Star Wars was “completely justified.” As Vox’s Dylan Matthews put it, the piece was “a barely disguised argument for nuking Iraq in 2003.”
Articles like this are trolling as much as a toddler who pours his cereal on the floor is trolling: You’ve disrupted something, sure, but it’s hardly an achievement. It’s not difficult to piss people off arguing that nukes are good, because yes, it is bad to nuke people. Shockingly, saying something dumb will cause people to say that you are dumb.
The use of “trolling” to describe politicians’ poll-tested Snapchats is so asinine and depressing that I won’t dignify it here. It is not trolling; it is politics. (The one politician who might be able to make an honest claim to old-school, u-mad-bro? trolling — rather than just basic electoral gamesmanship — is Donald Trump. And, of course, his “trolling” has horrifying real-world consequences.)
What these kinds of trolling — harassment, contrarianism, and political jousting — really have in common isn’t a particular activity but a general pattern of attention-seeking behavior. The troll is an attention seeker, sure, but so is everyone else online; it’s the web’s chief currency — measured by page view, video play, or engagement minute — and people will do whatever they can to attain it. Describing any kind of attention-seeking as “trolling” means that 90 percent of online activity is trolling. And maybe you believe that! But you’re rendering equivalent the asinine and abusive — and excusing all of it under the guise of “fun and games.”
So if those are poor uses of the word, what is true trolling? To reclaim the term, to make it meaningful and useful again, we must focus on good, righteous trolling. Trolling that requires some thought, work, and artfulness, and doesn’t actually harm anyone. Trolling that takes the absurdities of media economies, social interaction, and political theater, and renders them bare. Trolling that is, dare I say, actually funny.
There may not be a better example of noble trolling than online comedian Virgil Texas’s invasion of a Confederate-flag Facebook group earlier this year. By somehow convincing the group’s owner to make him an admin, Virgil took control of a pro-Confederate-flag group, which claimed to be about “heritage, not hate,” but also, unsurprisingly, featured posts calling on people to “take our land back from the mongros.” He added many of his friends (full disclosure: including me), who flooded the group with ridiculous memes and gross images. (I can’t say I endorse everything that was posted, but most of it was wonderful.) Virgil and his friends repeatedly changed the name of the group, from “Confederate Pride, Heritage Not Hate” to, for example, “LGBT Southerners for Michelle Obama and Judaism,” “I’m Gay,” and “Islam Is the Light.” The group’s members were baffled and enraged to suddenly be in a “libtard” group.
Better even than taking on random racists is trolling that takes on well-known, influential people, like politicians or otherwise prominent morons. Richard Dawkins, the famous meme scientist, has unfortunately revealed himself as a bigot with tweets like, “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge.” His trolls responded by spreading memes of deeply earnest but entirely fake quotes from Dawkins: This masterpiece of the genre has Dawkins saying that if everyone in China jumped up in the air at once, the Earth would “break in half.” Or there was the time that Representative Darrel Issa, who voted for the Iraq war, asked Twitter to honor Veterans Day with pictures of their military family members, and was duped into retweeting pictures of Heinrich Himmler and Timothy McVeigh.
Not all good trolling has to be directed at conservatives or bigots, of course: It can be just as noble to troll liberals, particularly the most earnest, self-satisfied types. John Fugelsang, who’s made a career out liberal dad jokes, attracts plenty of trolling for his love of quoting himself in bad, bad memes. As with Dawkins, the fake quote is a powerful tool, and his obsession with Jesus being a liberal is particularly fruitful. The abusive tactics of the 4chan mob are well-documented, but when they put their minds to it, they can be inventive in a harmless, puerile way. Earlier this year, they successfully launched a “feminist” hashtag campaign to end Father’s Day — though ultimately they seem to have mostly fooled conservative websites into covering the campaign as though it were real.
Trolling doesn’t have to be about politics or anything at all, though. It can be as pure and lovely as Jon Hendren’s accidental appearance on HLN, where he answered questions about Edward Snowden as if they were about Edward Scissorhands, earnestly condemning ostracizing Snowden “simply because he has scissors for hands.” (HLN had actually meant to book Al Jazeera journalist John Hendren, who was very cool about it.) This sort of absurdist trolling harms no one, other than making the host look a bit foolish. It mocked 24-hour-cable-news culture, but ultimately its only purpose was the joy of a man on TV talking about Edward Snowden’s scissor hands with a straight face.
And that’s the beauty of trolling: seeing something earnest decay into absurdity. That’s what makes it so joyful to see Richard Dawkins diligently informing people that he did not say “stick your finger up the hole, out pops a tootsie roll,” and it’s even better when it takes on those with real power. Random insults at politicians aren’t valuable, but getting them to trip over their own egos is truly a public service. At their best, these good-trolling, “emperor has no clothes” moments don’t just reveal the egocentrism and narcissism of politicians and celebrities — they reveal the emptiness at the center of the attention economy, by driving huge volumes of viewers and visitors to gape at the absurd and nonsensical. They also make me, and many others, laugh very hard.
Abuse and harassment on the internet can ruin, or end, lives. It’s wrong to minimize that behavior by calling it the same thing we call dumb articles from political journalists. And it undermines the good work that the best trolls do in making the powerful look foolish, or just in making us laugh. The world is shitty, and the internet especially so. Thank god for the small joy of making bad people look dumb.