Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
A troll is a slang term used to describe a person who makes posts (on newsgroups or other forums) that are percieved to be solely intended to provoke annoyance or offense. "Trolling" is the act of making such a post.
A troll is one whom (consciously or not) has become excessive in the use of an alternate persona in internet discussions. The "troll" persona is correlated to with the mythological trickster archetype, though levels of sophistication may range from negative (evil) to positive (catalyst) with the characterised purpose for which a troll so behaves. As with the trickster, opinions of trolls can vary widely. The popularity (or lack thereof) of a troll can depend greatly on personality traits and charisma, often weighed as positive attributes that balance with other behaviour.
Trolls by definition are believed to be deceptive or insincere in their actions to stir up controversy, or are so inflammatory in their actions that they produce ill effects in the community. As a community judgement of one as a "troll" is considered damaging to one's "online reputation," communities may be quite sophisticated and aware of both the emergent nature of human psychology, and of the internet forum as new and unique; requiring some degree of experience to understand it fully in relation to the self. A community may be patient, forgiving and even redeeming for those who have exceeded the known bounds of permissible behaviour. Where patience is high, the levels of community discernment between a suspected troll's level of "trolling" may be quite sophisticated; moreoften these discernments lie not with the individual, but with the acts themselves, as acts which qualify as "trolling" may be attributed to those whom do whom do not qualify. Where patience is low, the ability for people to make discernments may also be low, and judgements may be more severe.
While in real life, most will be more reAs a community judgement of one as a "troll" is considered damaging to one's "online reputation," communities may be quite sophisticated and aware of both the emergent nature of human psychology, and of the internet forum as new and unique; requiring some degree of experience to understand it fully in relation to the self. A community may be patient, forgiving and even redeeming for those who have exceeded the known bounds of permissible behaviour. Where patience is high, the levels of community discernment between a suspected troll's level of "trolling" may be quite sophisticated; moreoften these discernments lie not with the individual, but with the acts themselves, as acts which qualify as "trolling" may be attributed to those whom do whom do not qualify. Where patience is low, the ability for people to make discernments may also be low, and judgements can be severe.
While in real life, most will be more reserved and contained to experience and wisdom with their comments, the internet experience can test the bounds of one's persona; increasing ones self-awareness relative to others, and through the anonymous "costume identity," or social mask that the internet provides, may cause some to be excessive in their language and disregard for others. Such behaviour online may lead to either negative excessiveness, or if corrected can be a positive cathartic experience for individuals in their personal lives.
For many, the term has negative connotations and is often applied as an insult, or dismissive term. A "troll" could perhaps be described as a vandal whose medium is the social fabric, rather than the artifacts or constructs of that social fabric. Among those experienced in debate
The use of the term in respect to an individual but to the acts of individuals, as while at the same time may be considered a badge of honor by individuals.
Sincere-but-controversial or na´ve posters are often called as trolls. Many people new to the art of posting to internet forums may forget their manners, assume 'champion roles,' or otherwise may get carried away with a pseudoidentity and its percieved social anonymity.
The reaction by one accused of trolling can vary widely; from hurt indignation to verbal abusiveness. This reactivity raises the with inflammatory remarks maligning the motivation of the accuser.
The act of "trolling" itself is not always considered negative, if it has a demonstrable purpose. Trolling is often described as an online version of the breaching experiment, where social boundaries and rules of etiquette are broken. Self-proclaimed trolls often style themselves by other terms, (Devil's advcates, gadflies, culture jammers, or social hackers ); as challengers to the percieved dominant discourse and assumptions of the forum they are trolling in an attempt to subvert and introduce different ways of thinking. Detractors who value etiquette claim that true Devil's Advocates generally identify themselves as such for the sake of etiquette, whereas trolls often consider etiquette to be something worth trolling in order to fight groupthink.
Trolls are sometimes caricatured as socially inept. This is often due to the fundamental attribution error, as it is impossible to know the real traits of an individual solely from their online discourse. Indeed, since intentional trolls are alleged to knowingly flout social boundaries, it is difficult to typecast them as socially inept since they have arguably proven adept at their goal.
The terms "trolling" and "troll-posting", like the term flamebait, originated as a fishing metaphor: like people who troll for fish, trolls were baiting reactions of anger, shock, or argument. Later, the verb became a noun; a troll-poster was simply called a troll, an intentional comparison with the trolls of folklore.
Research and study: trolling as identity deception
Prior to DejaNews' archiving of Usenet, accounts of trolling were sketchy, there being little evidence to sort through. After this time however, the huge archives were available for researchers. One early troll was Brad Weage, who frequented the PLATO system in the middle of the 1970s, but this is poorly documented. Another poorly documented case is the 1982–1983 saga of AlexAndJoan from the CompuServe forums. Van Gelder , a reporter for Ms. magazine, documented the incident in 1996 in an article for his publication. Alex (in real life a 50+ shy Jewish psychiatrist from New York) pretended to be a highly bombastic, anti-religious, post-car-accident, wheelchair-bound, mute woman named Joan "in order to better relate to his female patients". This went on for two years and "Joan" had become a hugely detailed character with an array of emotional relationships. These began to fall apart only after "Joan" coaxed an online friend of hers into an affair with Alex.
- "Even those who barely knew Joan felt implicated—and somehow betrayed—by Alex's deception. Many of us on-line like to believe that we're a utopian community of the future, and Alex's experiment proved to us all that technology is no shield against deceit. We lost our innocence, if not our faith." (Van Gelder, 1996, p.534)
Trolling in the 1990s
In the early 1990s the phrase "trolling for newbies" became popular in the Usenet group alt.folklore.urban, where usage was somewhat different from the current notion of trolling; it was a relatively gentle inside-joke activity, usually consisting of asking questions or mentioning subjects that were so overdone that only a new user would respond to them sincerely. Others extended the term to the practice of playing the part of a seriously misinformed or deluded user, even in newsgroups where one was not a regular; but often insisted that it only referred to attempts executed with some wit rather than to simple provocation. In such contexts, the noun "troll" usually referred to an act of trolling rather than to the author.
Some longtime Usenet users continued to insist on these earlier definitions even after the term was applied more generally to inflammatory actions previously characterized as "flamebait".
In serious literature the practice was first documented by Judith Donath (1999), who used several anecdotal examples from various Usenet newsgroups in her discussion. Donath's paper outlines the ambiguousness of identity in a disembodied "virtual community" :
- "In the physical world there is an inherent unity to the self, for the body provides a compelling and convenient definition of identity. The norm is: one body, one identity. ... The virtual world is different. It is composed of information rather than matter."
- "Trolling is a game about identity deception, albeit one that is played without the consent of most of the players. The troll attempts to pass as a legitimate participant, sharing the group's common interests and concerns; the newsgroups members, if they are cognizant of trolls and other identity deceptions, attempt to both distinguish real from trolling postings and, upon judging a poster a troll, make the offending poster leave the group. Their success at the former depends on how well they—and the troll—understand identity cues; their success at the latter depends on whether the troll's enjoyment is sufficiently diminished or outweighed by the costs imposed by the group.
- "Trolls can be costly in several ways. A troll can disrupt the discussion on a newsgroup, disseminate bad advice, and damage the feeling of trust in the newsgroup community. Furthermore, in a group that has become sensitized to trolling—where the rate of deception is high—many honestly naive questions may be quickly rejected as trollings. This can be quite off-putting to the new user who upon venturing a first posting is immediately bombarded with angry accusations. Even if the accusation is unfounded, being branded a troll is quite damaging to one's online reputation." (Donath, 1999, p. 45)
Calling someone a troll makes assumptions about a writer's motives that are impossible to determine, whereas using the verb (calling a post "trolling") describes the reception of a post without making assumptions about motives. Such assumptions would generally be an example of the fundamental attribution error; i.e. inferring that behavior results from a person's nature or personality rather than examining behavior in the context of events surrounding the behavior. In other words, trolling may have more to do with context than with personality. Also, it may be possible to troll unintentionally. Regardless, both users and posts are commonly labelled as trolls when their content upsets people.
The term troll is highly subjective, and some posts will look like trolling to some while seeming like meaningful contributions to others. For example, a so-called troll may be playing Devil's advocate by stating conservative opinions in a liberal forum. Behavior which might be considered a simple rampage or an emotional outburst in other environments is often tagged with the term troll in Internet discussion.
The term is frequently used to discredit an opposing position in an argument. This can amount to an ad hominem argument; a purported troll of this nature may actually hold an insightful but controversial position that is generating controversy precisely because it has successfully challenged entrenched opinions.
Possible reasons people use more slang monikers in internet-mediated discussion include the feeling of anonymity and impersonal perceptions of other conversants.
Regardless of the writer's motives, controversial posts are virtually guaranteed, in most online forums, to earn a corrective or patronizing or outraged response by those who do not distinguish between real physical community where people are actually exposed to some shared risk of bodily harm by their actions, and epistemic community based on and a mere exchange of words and ideas. Customs of discourse, or etiquette, that originated in such physical communities are often applied naively by newcomers to the internet who are not used to the range of views expressed online, especially anonymously.
Trolling in different internet media
Trolling takes distinct forms in different media; it started on newsgroups, and as the internet has evolved, so has trolling.
- Usenet — hierarchies of newsgroups limit trolls' exposure, but crossposting can overcome this. Some Internet Service Providers implement limits on the number of newsgroups a message can be crossposted to. In one notable example, alt.net instituted a crosspost limit after the trolls on the system had become so notorious that Peter da Silva instituted a campaign for other systems to cease exchanging news with alt.net until they did something about the problem.
- Mailing lists — usually controlled by moderators, so unwanted contributors can quickly be banned.
- SlashCode-based forums use a rating system so that readers can moderate a post up or down from its initial rating. Readers can then choose to ignore posts that others have "modded down." Timing of trolls is particularly important, since anything less than the first 20 or so posts is unlikely to be read. An ideal troll would generate much heated discussion and posting without further intervention from the troll.
- Wikis — the flat, asynchronous and open model allows anyone to post anything; users work to undo negative changes using the built-in reversion tools, but this requires hundreds of volunteers to monitor large popular sites. Trolls tend to be more subtle than in discussion groups, often posting material that could be legitimate, but will cause controversy by challenging the current power structure. Difficulty is compounded by the impossibility of discerning whether a user is simply espousing a controversial opinion, or trolling.
- Weblogs — in their most common form as a personal soapbox with the ability for anybody to leave comments, popular weblogs often make effective springboards for trolls, either as inflammatory comments or provocative entries. The ease with which weblogs can be linked encourages troll propagation.
- IRC — the open nature of most IRC channels on popular networks enables any potential troll to enter and utilise any of a range of techniques, ranging from simple crapflooding to subtly irritating remarks to garner angry responses. The relative ease of evading bans from channels and servers and the volatile nature of many IRC users can allow trolls to perpetuate indefinitely.
- Multiplayer first person shooters — online gaming attracts a large number of teenage men, who take advantage of the combative atmosphere and their general anonymity to disparage other players. See pwn for more information. After becoming the target of verbal abuse in the game Unreal Tournament 2004, the authors of Penny Arcade proposed the "Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory".
- Online Fantasy Sports — A troll will infiltrate a free, online league with multiple teams from different identity accounts and then attempt to make lopsided trades of players to improve one team. The troll will leave numerous messages on the league bulletin board from different identities to give the appearance of legitimacy to otherwise illicit behavior. Players that object to the obvious complicity are usually showered with insults and other attempts at evasion.
- Forums — Forums of all kinds will attract trolls. Their behavior does not differ much from the above examples. With forums there is no forum free of trolls, this could be seen as the unique factor in forum trolling, a forum about knitting has the same chance at getting trolled as a forum dedicated to a new sports car.
Common types of troll messages or activities:
- off topic messages — "Can anyone help me make a webpage?" "No, this is a music forum."
- inflammatory messages — "You are an idiot for including this type of message in your list."
- messages containing an obvious flaw or error — "I think 2001: A Space Odyssey is Roman Polanski's best movie."
- intentionally na´ve or politically contentious messages — "I think George W. Bush is the best/worst President ever."
- intentionally posting an outrageous argument deliberately constructed around a fundamental but obfuscated flaw or error; often the poster will become defensive when the argument is refuted but may instead continue the thread through the use of further flawed arguments; this is referred to as "feeding" the troll.
- including offensive media such as annoying sound files or disturbing pictures in a message, or linking to shock sites that contain such media. Often these links are disguised as legitimate links.
- after a flamewar ensues, pretending to be innocent
- posting plot spoilers to popular movies and books without warning, sometimes surreptitiously buried in an otherwise innocuous message
- posting politically sensitive images in inappropriate places
- off-topic complaints about personal life; sometimes this is the "cry for help" troll.
Some trolls may denounce a particular religion in a religion newsgroup — though historically, this would have been called "flamebait". Like those who engage in flaming, self-proclaimed or alleged Internet trolls sometimes resort to innuendo or misdirection in the pursuit of their objectives.
A variant of the second variety (inflammatory messages) involves posting content obviously severely contradictory to the (stated or unstated) focus of the group or forum- for example, posting cat meat recipes on a pet lovers forum, posting evolutionary theory on a creationist forum, or posting messages about how all dragons are boring in the USENET group alt.fan.dragons.
Cross posting is a popular method of choice by Usenet trolls: a cross-posted article can be discussed simultaneously in several unrelated and/or opposing newsgroups; this is likely to result in a flame war. For instance, an anti-fast food flame bait might be cross posted to healthy eating groups, environmentalist groups, animal rights groups, as well as a totally off-topic artificial intelligence newsgroup.
An example of a successful troll is the well-known "Oh how I envy American students" USENET thread which got 3000+ followups.
Most discussion of what motivates Internet trolls comes from other Internet users who claim to have observed trolling behavior. There is little scholarly literature to describe either the term or the phenomenon. The comments of accused trolls might be unreliable, since they may in fact be intending to stir controversy rather than to advance understanding of the phenomenon. Likewise, accusers are often motivated by a desire to defend a particular Internet project and references to an Internet user as a troll might not be based on the actual goals of the person so named. As a result, identifying the goals of Internet trolls is most often speculative. Still, several basic goals have been attributed to Internet trolls, according to the type of disruption they are believed to be provoking.
Proposed motivations for trolling:
- Self-proclaimed trolls and their defenders suggest that trolling is a clever way of improving discussion, or an alternative method of viewing power relations on large public wikis.
- Anonymous attention-seeking: The troll seeks to dominate the thread by inciting anger, and effectively hijacking the topic at hand.
- Cry for help: Many so-called trolls, in their postings, indicate disturbing situations regarding family, relationships, substances, and school. Some believe that trolling is an aggressive, confrontational way by which trolls seek a sort of tough love guidance in an anonymous forum.
- Effect change in user opinions: A troll may state extreme positions to make his or her actual beliefs seem moderate (This often involves sock puppeteering, where the bad cop is a sock-puppet troll.) or, alternatively, play the role of Devil's advocate to strengthen opposing convictions [with which he or she usually actually agrees].
- Test the integrity of a system against social attacks or other forms of misbehavior: For example, blatantly violating terms-of-use in order to see whether any action is taken by the site administrators.
- Amusement: To some people, the thought of a 70-year-old Internet user being sent to a sexually explicit or gross image is funny.
- Wasting others' time: One of the greatest themes in trolling is the idea that you can spend one minute of your time posting a troll, causing 10 other people to waste ten minutes of their time, more or catalytically affecting lots of other people. Most trolls enjoy the idea that they wasted others time at comparatively little effort on their behalf.
- Domino effect: Related to amusement, but a more specific fashion: starting large chain reactions in response to one's initial post. Achieving a disproportionately large response to a small action is the general theme. This is similar to how a young child that goes missing (but is actually hiding) may act with glee, seeing a large number of people conducting a massive search in response to the supposed disappearance.
- Fight "groupthink": Many trolls defend their actions as, when a sort of conformism settles, shocking people out of it.
- Satire: In these cases, the individuals do not think of themselves as trolls, but misunderstood humorists or political commentators.
- Personal attacks against one particular user or group of users
- Lowering signal to noise ratio: On Slashdot, points that could be used to moderate interesting things up get wasted on moderating down things like ASCII pictures of the goatse man. This lowers the quality of comments at certain thresholds.
Since there is a wide spectrum of possible motivations for trolls, some of these functions being benevolent and others, clearly malevolent, to typecast users as trolls in the negative sense is often rash.
Some users of Internet forums are considered to be "trollhunters", or "trollbaiters". They willingly enter conflict when trolls emerge. Often, trollhunters are as disruptive as trolls. A single troll-post may be ignored, but if ten trollhunters "pounce" following a troll, they will drive the thread offtopic.
Regarding troll-related conflicts, there are five groups into which users might be classified:
- Trolls are users who actively provoke conflict.
- Trollhunters (or Trollbaiters) behave according to a principle of "second strike". They do not initiate conflict, but escalate it once it begins. Often they use other trolls as an excuse for their own misbehavior, and in many cases, typecast a user as a "troll" regardless of his or her intent.
- Ignorers seek to ignore the conflict, continuing with the topic at-hand. They usually express a nonchalant disdain for the troll, but do not seek actively to insult him or her. They behave like elders, issuing simple words of wisdom such as "Do not feed the trolls." or other phrases that generally mean the same thing: "Ignore the troublemaker and he will give up and go away."
- Moderators (not in the same sense as a "system moderator") seek to resolve the conflict, making all parties happy, if possible.
- Bystanders withdraw from the conflict. In particularly bad cases, they will leave the forum in disgust.
In the attention-seeking cases, trolls seek the conflict provided by trollbaiters, whereas in the "cry for help" cases, they seek the consolance and compassion offered by moderators.
The Media UK forums had to close down because of trolls and libellous postings, and the Digital Spy forums have a no-troll policy so as to stop trolls registering. Both use VBulletin software.
Resolutions and alternatives
In general, popular wisdom advises users to avoid feeding trolls, and to ignore temptations to respond. Responding to a troll inevitably drives discussion off-topic, to the dismay of bystanders, and supplies the troll with the craved attention. When trollhunters pounce on the trolls, ignorers reply with: "YHBT. YHL. HAND.", or "You have been trolled. You have lost. Have a nice day." However, since trollhunters (like trolls) are often conflict-seekers themselves, the loss usually is not on the part of the trollhunter; rather, the losers are the other forum-users who would have preferred that the conflict not emerge at all.
Literature on conflict resolution suggests that labeling participants in Internet discussions as trolls can perpetuate the unwanted behaviors. A person rejected by a social group, both online and "IRL", may assume an antagonistic role toward it, and seek to further annoy or anger members of the group. The "troll" label, often a sign of social rejection, may therefore perpetuate trolling.
Better results normally ensue when users take the moderator role and describe more constructive behaviors in a non-judgmental, non-confrontational way. Trolls are excited by trollhunters and frustrated by ignorers, and neither of these emotions produce positive results for the forum. Engaging trolls results in "flame wars". Trolls frustrated by the "ignore strategy" may leave the forum (and either troll elsewhere, or become constructive users) or may become progressively more inflammatory until they get a response.
Usefulness of trolling
A major debate on the Internet is whether or not trolls perform any useful function. Because troll is such a broadly-applied term, if all definitions thereof are to be accepted, the answer must be definitively, "yes and no".
Users performing many useful, but controversial, functions are often decried as trolls, and in these cases, so-called trolling may actually benefit the forum in which it occurs. For example, the presence of a radical right-winger described as a troll may allow a conservative lurker to feel more comfortable expressing her viewpoints, which seem very moderate in contrast. On the other hand, if trollhunters mount a flame war against this right-wing troll, the conservative bystander may feel less comfortable expressing her views, to the detriment of the forum. As much as trolls claim to fight groupthink, they may actually encourage it by solidifying opinion against them.
Trolls may also provide a valuable service by making people question the validity of what is read both on the internet and from other sources. Trolls show that expressing any opinion is as easy as expressing an informed and considered opinion and may get as much visibility. It is arguable that shock jocks, some newspaper columnists are trolling public opinion.
Even though useful content and productive users are sometimes decried as trolls, the general consensus is that pure "trolling" benefits only the troll and trollhunters, and has no place in any forum. Most forums reject the claim that pure and intentional trolling serves any useful purpose.
The Chinese characters for internet troll are made up of the characters for Internet (互联网) combined with the characters for provocation (拖) and learning (钓).
Trolls can also in some circumstances be a source of genuine humour, which depends entirely upon whether the troll is a good or a bad troll. It's usually fairly easy to spot the difference between such actions, bad trolls resort only to weak uncreative arguments where as a good troll will create a subtle set of arguments which draw people in with cunning twists to provide a thread of non sequitur humour.
Specific trolling subcultures
- Slashdot trolling phenomena (see also Slashdot subculture)
- Troll organization
- Trollgnaws: alt.syntax.tactical , alt.fan.karl-malden.nose, Trolltalk, GameFAQs LUE
Notable troll examples
- alt.troll FAQ (how-to)
- Spiralx Slashdot troll how-to
- How to Handle a Troll and Beat Them at Their Own Game
- alt.syntax.tactical FAQ
- afk-mn FAQ (mostly old-style Usenet trolling)
- What Makes A Fuckhead? by David Kendrick
- "Oh how I envy American students"
- False repentance
- The relationship between social context cues and uninhibited verbal behavior in computer-mediated communication
- Moral panic and alternative identity construction in Usenet
- Searching for Safety Online: Managing "Trolling" in a Feminist Forum
- Is Your Son a Computer Hacker? One of the most successful trolls ever, this article on the now defunct Adequacy.org attracted almost 6000 responses.
- Troll entry in the Jargon File
- Humorous definition of a troll
- Internet Trolls
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