A Brief History of Trolls

“Ignore the trolls,” is a common piece of advice. It’s age-old wisdom from the dawn of the world-wide-web. Yet, it doesn’t always seem to work. In fact, it hardly ever seems to work. I posit this is not because the advice is bad, but because the advice was crafted when the word “troll” meant something completely different.

Historically trolling is espousing a belief you do not actually hold to cause drama. I’ll try to take you back to the beginning of the term for me. I speak of a time before the GUIs, when I was using BBSs in the Midwest.

It was the early 90s.

Many people may not remember this, but there was a time when finding a place on the Internet to discuss thing that you like was hard to find. Forums were magic in that way. Finding a forum dedicated to something you liked was like stumbling upon a curiosity shop selling Mogwais. It was thrilling. It was special. Often, it was protected.

Some bulletin boards/forums were easy to join, but others had odd criteria for admission. Sometimes you had to prove you knew a piece of trivia about the show or game in which you were interested. I remember one board had a question about wine for its age-verification. Basically, administrators had power and they could be jerks with how they welded it. As we all know, imposition of order begets escalation of chaos.

There were members who would join boards and decide to mess with everyone. However, at least in my experience, outright abuse would simply get you booted. These things happened MUCH more quickly in the old days. I suspect it’s because a lot of local BBSs would have, like, twelve members total. The folks running the board would read EVERY interaction. Because of this heavy degree of scrutiny, the pranksters got crafty.

They would  keep their messages on-topic, but would inject drama to make things more interesting. For example, on a forum for hermit crab owners someone might post, “My Hermit Crabs Keep Dying! Help!” Then they would write about all the things they are doing to “help” their hermit crabs, which would coincidentally be everything one is NOT supposed to do with hermit crabs. The forum would explode with messages of people trying to help this poor, deluded hermit crab owner.

Eventually, someone would catch on that the hapless forum user had much more knowledge about hermit crabs than a rank amateur. They’d realize that they’ve heard of this before. Someone pretends to be something they’re not to get a reaction and stir up trouble. The user was “trolling” for suckers to rope into an argument. “Trolling” is a common fishing term, dragging bait behind your boat to see if anything bites.

Often when I get to this point, people point out that the word I’m looking for is “trawling.” Trawling is dragging a net behind a boat. Trolling is dragging a line with bait.

Once this practice became well known, people would detect these attempts to confuse or stir up trouble. Often, veteran forum users would say, “You’re trolling, but I’m not biting.” Eventually, this was just shortened to, “You’re trolling.”

So, the real-workable advice to new users of “ignore those guys, they’ll get bored and move on” was useful against capricious tricksters. These users didn’t care about what they were saying. They liked the reactions.

Something weird happened then, a back-formation. “Ignore that guy. He’s trolling,” practically begged for the formation of a noun. Because the Internet loves puns and fantasy, one who trolls becomes…a troll. Hence, “Ignore the trolls,” became a common phrase.

Then Compuserve and AOL opened the door to many new users: A change occurred.

Less skilled trolls adopted abusive personas. If you had a forum about hermit crabs, they’d just show up and scream, “I hate hermit crabs!” Older forum members would say, “Ignore that guy. He’s a troll.” New users incorrectly interpreted this to mean the behavior, not the motive.

The genie was out of the bottle by then. “Troll” became synonymous with “bully” and was appealing to adults, because “bully” sounded childish.

For many who didn’t live through this transition, this back-formation may seem suspect. However, consider this: When you think of a mythical troll, does trickery and deception come to mind? No. They are normally brutes. (Shapeshifting in some tales aside.) This is why assigning that word to bullies is so appealing. It makes sense.

However, the issue becomes problematic when one attempts to assert that this was always the definition.  Alan Morgan once wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced troll is indistinguishable from a genuine kook.” This made sense in 2001 when “trolls” were pranksters playing a role.

However, “Any sufficiently advanced troll is indistinguishable from a genuine kook” is nonsense if “troll” meant “argumentative zealot” at that time.

 

As I get older, fewer and fewer people remember the original definition of troll. Many community administrators and some savvy users still remember, but saying “Ignore the trolls,” to someone now is often misinterpreted as, “Don’t report abuse.” It’s because the troll’s name was stolen by bullies. What a sad fate for a noble creature.

Yet perhaps they are not truly gone, merely transformed. What would you call them now? Weird Twitter? It seems to be the closest thing to me. Perhaps this is the greatest trick the trolls ever pulled. They were overrun by monsters but disappeared into the trees as the rest of us fought. Maybe they are still among the green, laughing.

How can you complain about something that no longer has a name?

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About paulgude

Paul Gude writes small books, makes stupid music, draws silly pictures, and does weird things on stage.
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One Response to A Brief History of Trolls

  1. Chrisfu says:

    Very well put. I’ve always viewed real trolling as harmless mischievous fun that even the ‘victims’ will ultimately end up laughing at. Those silly little bastards on youtube (or whatever) throwing around insults are just dicks with nothing interesting/amusing to say.

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