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June 23, 2010

The elusive, but very common Internet beast - the troll

What do you think of when you hear the term "troll?" I guess it depends on your mindset, but almost universally in modern times people know it's referring to those irritating Internet idiots who post intentionally provocative comments on blogs, discussion forums, or whatever. They are loathsome beasts, and like the trolls of the Fantasy genre, they regenerate so easily that even a killing blow doesn't put them out of our misery.

Brenna Ehrlich and Andrea Bartz have an interesting one-question quiz on CNN, "How to tell if you're a comments troll."

It's an interesting question, but doesn't really delve into the psychology of the troll.

"So you're surfing along on your favorite website when you see something that gets your plasma boiling -- so much so that that pulsating vein above your eye is about to burst.

The cause of this Web-induced stress could be an opinion that just doesn't jibe with yours. It could be that author's pompous head shot. Either way, your twitching fingers scroll to the bottom of the page -- past whatever useless garbage you have just consumed. You're going to the comments section -- that oh-so democratic zone of the internet."

The options they give to answer the question they ask are interesting, and give a good indication of what kind of Internet information consumer you are.

But the brief article doesn't really get across just how horrible trolls actually are.

To me, they are down almost to the level of the Spammer. The only reason they don't quite reach that level is that, generally, they're not invading your email inbox (unless they're on a mailing list you are subscribed to). These people post outrageous things just to see what kind of reaction they get (the term "troll" was originally coined because these people were "trolling for reactions" just like fishermen troll for fish).

The most recent example I saw was for somebody who had posted a Youtube video of Rob Thomas' excellent song "Her Diamonds." The user had lovingly included the lyrics in the video. The song is about Thomas' wife and the illness that she has to live through every day, and how helpless he feels when she is held hostage by it. Her tears are like diamonds.

Anyway, some troll in the comments field started spouting off about how racist Thomas is because this song is clearly about the diamond trade in Africa.


What's worse is that so many people took the troll bait and responded to this guy that he kept it going and the comments section of this nice little video became a flame war of massive proportions.

Attention people:

Yes, that means you.

The worst thing you can do to a troll is ignore them. Their very purpose in life is to provoke reactions. If no reactions are provoked, they won't have any sustenance and they will go on to greener pastures. Too often, though, enough people react that they get their fun and games in.

Their lifeblood is controversy. Sometimes, they come back and add fuel to the fire, while other times they drop their turd like a dog in the middle of the room and then waltz away to go on to their next yard.

Wikipedia has a great history on the word and what they truly are. Despite the fact the mainstream media is just becoming aware of this phenomenon, it has been around since the dawn of the Internet (if not longer). Hell, there used to be a couple of "good" trolls on the Star Trek newsgroups I read back in college in 1991.

Getting back to the CNN article, trolls are much more than the authors let on. Perhaps they didn't have the room to really expand on it, but if you only read that article, you would think that trolls are *reactive* to something they read on the Net. That's far from the case. Trolls are actually *proactive*, going from site to site, forum to forum, and spewing their nonsense to trap the unwary. They may be inspired to troll an article after reading it, but it's not because they had a negative reaction to it.

Not all trolls are inherently evil, though even the most benign are annoying to no end. Back in college, I had a Prodigy account (wow, that really dates me, doesn't it?) and I frequented the Star Trek forum there. There was a guy there who regularly trolled the group blasting Star Trek: The Next Generation. He was very obviously an Original Series fan, but his comments about TNG were obviously just trolling. A non-troll might chime in occasionally, but would probably restrict his discussion to topics that he *is* interested in.

We got to talking in private conversation and I discovered that he lived in eastern Iowa somewhere near Davenport, and I asked him if he wanted to go shoot pool at Miller Time Billiards one weekend I was home. He was a pretty cool guy in private conversation, and we had a great time shooting pool. We were there for 4-5 hours. I discovered that he actually liked a few episodes of TNG. While he didn't like the show itself, his feelings were nowhere near as strident as he portrayed them on Prodigy. When I asked him why he was like that, then, he said "it was fun."

The troll is elusive to pin down, but he's easy to spot (though I suppose there are female trolls, I haven't seen any that I've noticed). The best thing you can do is ignore him. No matter how provocative they get, deny them the food of controversy and they'll go away.

Sadly, not enough people follow that rule.


  1. That Rob Thomas example was really sad. I admit it, I scroll to the comments of a particular post, but when I see something that appears really interesting/controversial, I scroll back up and read the entire post so I can formulate my own thoughts.

    Interesting concept! I like it! :)

  2. Heh. Thanks, Duane. That sounds like a good way to do things. :)

  3. Troll to me was always just fairytales :) and they are sweet creaures (where I come from anyways) - but I didnt really know about this, I knew it was happening but didnt know it had a name and that it was done almost as 'sport'.

    That is kind of sad though, if you want to make people react strongly to your own opinions then why not get into politics. No matter your oppinion there you will get told back :p

  4. It is interesting hearing an international perspective, especially one where trolls are "good." Of course, anybody who has read Terry Pratchett knows that they are good.

    But not here. :)

    And going into politics would be too hard for them. These people, all they want to do is cause chaos. Nothing more.

    Yeah, politicians have that same effect, but that's not their actual purpose. :)

  5. You have both the good and the bad once. Depending on the fairytale I guess, but even the bad once werent really evil. Just stupid/slow :)

    cause chaos? I thought that was what most in politics were there to do too :) nah, I guess you are right - I havent seen trolls around yet tho :D

  6. Trolls go where the action is, so they won't be going to low-traffic blogs. And by "low-traffic," in this instance you would probably have to have a vibrant community with at least a hundred members.

    They're more common on discussion forums, though. In fact, until this article, I'd never even heard of a "comment troll." Though I generally don't read the comment sections on high-traffic blogs anyway.

  7. Hehe, I was talking about I havent seen them on forums around - I have seen what might be trolls tho, but thats people that start topics that seam to be fake and rather out there to get attention.. if they are categorized as trolls :p

    On blogs I have only seen what I just refer to as 'haters' - people that just slag of the owner of the blog for no real reason.. just to be mean really..

  8. Of course, we fortunately never had any trolls on the Epinions message boards... :-D

  9. Cupcake: Those can be trolls too! Starting a topic with the intent to provoke is just as bad as responding to a topic.

    And "Haters" are probably just as bad.

    CaptainD: no, of course we never had any trolls on the Eps board.

    Nah, that would never happen. :)

  10. "What do you think of when you hear the term "troll?""

    The first thing I think of is some lil guy in mythology and the book "The Hobbit" comes to mind soon there after.

    I never knew what a troll was exactly from what has been written here about making posts in forums and comments. Are people this bored?

    Happy trails Dave!

  11. I don't know if I would say that they're "bored" and that's why they do this. I think it's what's fun to them, just like me playing Xbox is fun.

    They thrive on creating chaos and bad feelings, kind of like the Joker in the Dark Knight movie. As Alfred said, "Some men just want to watch the world burn."

  12. Wow, Dave I guess I'm naive I never heard of these people & if I've run into them I didn't realize it. I've know people like this in real life though they want attention for attention sake & many times don't have firm belief's about anything.

    Thanks for the information.



  13. You're welcome, Bill! I didn't realize I was being as educational as I seem to have been.

    Good to know. :)


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