Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A Natural History of Internet Trolls

This is a highly amorphous post about trolls.

It's been a while since this NYT Magazine article came out ...
... but I've been thinking about it since then. They don't live under bridges but between servers. Their ethical dilemmas concern whether it's OK or not to hack into an epilepsy website to put flashing graphics on it to induce seizures. I'm fascinated by the alternate morality of this world, and what kind of invisible assumptions they base their actions on. It's not always possible to take them at their word but sometimes you have to read between the lines. Then again, sometimes they flat-out say what they mean.

Trolls have absorbed hierarchies based on strength and weakness, and do seem to have a fundamentally Darwinian midset. They conceal their own weaknesses and put on shows of strength to cow other people into respecting them. And it's all about virtual strength. About the strength to ignore what other people say about you, to be self-sufficient, to take a joke however crude or rough. No man is an island but these trolls would like to be.

The NYT article is interesting but really not deep enough. It's mostly about interviewing them and taking their words at face value. But there's really a spectrum of trolls online. There's one baseball website that I like the main page but never read the comments because it's just a lot of doctored photos and loud obscenities flying back and forth. Trollmanship in training, focused on a baseball team. I really don't see what the point is, but the full-fledged troll grows out of this environmental free-for-all. And none of it works on a large level. It needs to be a niche ... it takes a village, but if that village gets too big it falls apart. Troll communities are important to them as a place of combat as well as refuge; they aren't that individual after all.

If you meet a troll in the wild, don't stare him in the eye. Just walk on by, slowly.

What happens when a troll (or troll-ish strategies) moves into another environment? Did Ernst Haeckel develop troll-like characteristics in certain arguments? Does Richard Dawkins? Does Ken Hamm? Does this poison the well for discussion? How do you detoxify the environment once a troll has passed through? (Sulfur-chelating compounds?)

And why is it so easy to absorb the normal model of strength and weakness, of talking big and pushing back, without even trying, but it takes a person like Jesus to show us what God is really like? (And then 30 minutes later stuck in traffic I've forgotten again.) Why is the creation so different from the creator? Now we're back to Genesis 3-11.

In any case, thinking you're being all original, and successful, by being strong and powerful is the trolls' biggest self-deception. It's the most common, non-original thought of all. And ultimately, the most successful troll is boring. You've been able to rent a Rolls-Royce for your interview with the NYT reporter -- good for you. But what do you really think about that? Why do you want to impress the reporter that badly when you don't own your own bed? Can't tell, you're too busy pushing people away with your words.

There's a lot going on here. Sin, strength, the grain of the universe, what we're made for ... there's something in the story of trolls that's fundamentally modern and ancient. It's about what really matters and how to live life together when you come down to it. Something to chew on at least.

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