Trolls are shitting all over our internet. You can hardly search for something as innocuous as "dog" on Google without coming across inflammatory attacks on every possible dog-related opinion under the sun. All horrible things have to crawl before they can walk/crush spirits, though. Even trolls.
And while the term "troll" has become wildly muddied, it did have to come from somewhere. We decided to try and find out just where that dark, acerbic origin story began.
In the Beginning
There were bulletin board systems. And Usenet. And newsgroups. And people just starting to realize the massive potential trembling beneath their fingertips. Anything was possible! Which, as it turns out, is not always a good thing.
In the early 90s, trolls had yet to come into mainstream public consciousness, at least according to the 1993 Big Dummy's Guide to the Internet. Flame wars, on the other hand, were already an online staple.
Whether or not you're familiar with the term, you do know what flaming is. You've seen it under horrible political opinions on Facebook. You've seen it choking your Twitter stream. And you've seen it in every other comment in the vast wasteland that is YouTube. Put simply, a flame is a vicious, personal attack on someone made simply because you disagree with them.
Of course, humans have always had this potential for the irrationally vindictive, but the advent of the internet finally allowed it to thrive. Because as soon as you stuck someone behind a computer, a dangerously insular shield of anonymity came down and, for those inclined, happily took over. In discussing the sort of negotiation tactics that precede a flame war, Norman Johnson, an Associate Professor at Bauer College at the University of Houston explains:
The literature suggests that, compared to face-to-face, the increased incidence of flaming when using computer-mediated communication is due to reductions in the transfer of social cues, which decrease individuals' concern for social evaluation and fear of social sanctions or reprisals. When social identity and ingroup status are salient, computer mediation can decrease flaming because individuals focus their attention on the social context (and associated norms) rather than themselves.
The introduction of anonymity not only made users feel free from the repercussions that might otherwise give them pause, but it also dehumanized potential targets. In other words, the internet gave all our worst impulses just what they needed to thrive.
Because if someone disagreed with you in the real, live social realm, you might feel frustrated, sure, but you'll also see that person's as another human with human emotions—not just a jumble of inflammatory words for you to destroy. You'll take time to reflect, because you'll realize there are consequences to your actions. Whereas on the internet, a clean slate is a mere username change away.
Some of the earliest flame wars went down on Usenet, which unbeknownst to these earlier warriors, was building a model for all the trolls to eventually come in its wake. According to Gaffin:
Periodically, an exchange of flames erupts into a flame war that begin to take up all the space in a given newsgroup (and sometimes several; flamers like cross-posting to let the world know how they feel). These can go on for weeks (sometimes they go on for years, in which case they become "holy wars,'' usually on such topics as the relative merits of Macintoshes and IBMs). Often, just when they're dying down, somebody new to the flame war reads all the messages, gets upset and issues an urgent plea that the flame war be taken to e-mail so everybody else can get back to whatever the newsgroup's business is.
So presumably, these troll/flame wars all started earnestly. But watching two groups of people attempt to lambast each other in increasingly epic proportions is—as we all know and hate to admit—wildly entertaining. And once the war of words would simmer down, it's not at all surprising that someone might start (forcefully, sensationalistically) poking and prodding the more tender of egos. All in hopes of revisiting that awful sort of thrill that comes in watching another human push the very boundaries of sanity, by freaking the fuck out.
The earliest documented form of internet troll was something called a net.weenie, who did what s/he does " just for the hell of it." In early internet usenet forums, they were the people being assholes simply for the sheer joy of being an asshole. According to the Guide:
These are the kind of people who enjoy Insulting others, the kind of people who post nasty messages in a sewing newsgroup.
Even the Electronic Frontier Foundation—formed in 1990—was aware of (and acknowledged) net.weenies prevalence among the more public internet groups. In the group's early internet guide to mailing lists, one of the main benefits of such a system was that "a mailing list can offer a degree of freedom to speak one's mind (or not worry about net.weenies) that is not necessarily possible on Usenet." This was, of course, before the sorts of emails in which an undead child's wrath and/or Nigerian prince's livelihood rested on the click of our mouse.
And net.weenies sound obnoxious, sure, but the term still didn't carry the sort of malevolence we now associate with modern trolling. In fact, quite the contrary—some of their games were absolutely incredible.
Warlording was a very specific, beautiful type of early trolling performed by these net.weenies, particularly in the alt.fan.warlord newsgroup in Usenet (a sort of subreddit of early internet days). Considering the limitations of early 90s bandwidth and forums' general readability issues, Usenet etiquette—netiquette, if you will—asked users to keep their signatures under four lines. This was dubbed the McQuary limit and was not a hard and fast rule. At least in the way that there weren't actually any real character limits.
This rule was partially necessary due to new users' predilections for employing what was called BUAGs (Big Ugly ASCII Graphics) and BUAFs (Big Ugly ASCII Fonts). So to both mock this habit and be the biggest assholes they could be (always reach for the stars, kids), net.weenies tore this rule apart in a game called warlording.
The term came from the user Death Star, War Lord of the West, "who featured in his sig[nature] a particularly large and obnoxious ASCII graphic resembling the sword of Conan the Barbarian in the 1981 John Milius movie." Which, presumably, looked something like this:
The newgroup alt.fan.warlord was created as a sort of sarcastic tribute to the offending sigs, and the jokes spiraled from there. One particularly notable case of warlording was that of James Parry's signature (better know by the username Kibo) below. Bear in mind, this is all one, single sig.
Although every part of this signature is brilliant and deserving of our appreciation and awe, I do have a few favorite sections. Namely, this absurd and not at all remotely helpful Twin Peaks chart:
And then this.
Because if anything has ever been worthy of being called art, it is the beautiful, intricate, wholly insincere mess.
The Birth of the Troll
In the late 80s and early 90s there certainly did exist this notion of an internet user who merely enjoyed stirring up trouble—but then that person has for as long as humans themselves have existed. As Whitney Phillips, a media studies scholar and communication lecturer at Humboldt State University (who has a book on trolls forthcoming with MIT press) explained to us over email:
[Organized, willful trolling did exist before 4chan and Anonymous came around], though at the time it wouldn't (necessarily) have been called that. This was a point of fascination to many of the trolls I interviewed; while they engaged in similar behaviors in the pre-4chan years, they didn't refer to their behaviors as trolling and in fact couldn't remember what they called it, if they called it anything. They've since some to use the term retroactively, but at the time the subcultural definition of the term hadn't yet taken hold, and so they didn't think of themselves as trolls.
Purportedly, the actual use of the term "troll" dates back to the 80s, but according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first instance of the term "troll" being used in an online capacity happened on December 14th, 1992 in the usenet group alt.folklore.urban, when someone wrote "Maybe after I post it, we could go trolling some more and see what happens."
Interestingly enough, it's around the time that the actual term "trolling" started gaining steam in the mid 90s that the act itself began to evolve from causing annoyance as a result of your beliefs to simply believing in causing annoyance. And, of course, that's just a single flavor of trolling—almost as soon as the term came into use, it started morphing into a blanket term of unwieldy proportions.
For instance, at least in retrospect, Brice Wellington was one of the more notorious troll incarnations. He spent much of his time "in alt.atheism, talk.origins, alt.christnet, and other newsgroups that he [would] troll and spam on a daily basis." Now, whether his brand of trolling was sincere or satiric becomes a little more difficult to suss out. Usenet users at the time seemed certain that Brice was the "real deal," so to speak, but in looking at some of his more insane rantings, it's hard to see him as seeking anything more than what would soon be termed "the lulz."
Here we have Brice on the French:
While Brice may have started blurring the line between being infuriating by nature and being infuriating by sheer force of well, alt.tasteless stepped firmly into the latter territory.
In a 1994 article with Wired, Usenet user Trashcan Man gave one of the first real insights into the prototypical troll mindset by describing alt.tasteless' flamewar with the unsuspecting rec.pets.cats, a sort of haven for cat fanciers. In other words, prime bait.
Because for all intents and purposes, alt.tasteless was simply an early version of 4chan's now-notorious /b/. As Wired explains:
Alt.tasteless was created in the autumn of 1990 "as a place to keep the sick people away from rec.humor and other forums," according to Steven Snedker, a Danish journalist for Denmark's largest computer magazine. "Alt.tastelessers see this as an important turn in Usenet history, on a par with the creation of alt.sex. Both alt.tasteless and alt.sex are fine forums that serve their purpose to keep the other parts of Usenet clean, and to dig further into the stuff discussed."
Which is all good and great, but being positively revolting certainly loses some of its appeal when you take away any potential foil. Which is why when someone suggested that alt.tasteless descend upon another Usenet group to incite chaos, the alt.tasteless users were delighted and ultimately decided on the cat newsgroup as a prime target. And alt.tasteless' opening line was a doozy:
... I'm not what you would call a real studly type guy (although I have a lot of women friends), so when I date it's really important to me. Anyway, [my cat] Sooti goes into heat something fierce (sometimes it seems like it's two weeks on, two weeks off). I had a date a while back, when she was really bad. Yowling and presenting all the time - not the most auspicious setting for a date. While dinner was cooking, I tried to stimulate her vagina with a Q-tip because I had heard that one can induce ovulation that way. My date came into the bathroom while I was doing this, and needless to say I don't think she bought my explanation. The date was a very icy experience after that.
What should I do. I love my cats, so I don't want to get rid of them, but I can't go on like this any more. It's my love life, or them. Please help!!!
The earnest advice from rec.pets.cats was intermixed with decidedly more tasteless (naturally) advice from alt.tasteless including, but not limited to, providing "articles about topics such as vivisecting the cat and having sex with its innards."
Which, of course, brings us to 4chan.
Here Comes 4chan
For better or worse, in 2003, 4chan entered the public consciousness and with it brought what Phillips refers to as "a very specific understanding of the term 'troll,'" explaining in a Daily Dot article that "trolling was something that one actively chose to do. More importantly, a troll was something one chose to be."
4chan's /b/ board in particular, being the spiritual successor to alt.tasteless, fostered this toxic mentality that if you don't actually believe in the horrible things you're saying that it magically becomes justified. As Phillips explained over email:
Granted, the trolls might not really mean what they say. But who cares, they are not, and should not be regarded, as the ultimate arbiters of meaning. In other words, what these "trolls" think about what they do is irrelevant; even if they say they're "just trolling," their actions can have serious real-world consequences for the people they target.
So, say, when 4chan users found an 11-year-old girl's address and phone number in 2010 and proceeded to call her home making death threats, it didn't matter that they were "just doing it for the lulz." Both that classic, deflective refrain and the term troll itself have succeeded in creating a potentially dangerous emotional distance from the actual consequences words can have—whether it's trolls self-identifying as such or a media-assigned label. According to Phillips:
I don't accept the idea that assholes get to be assholes with impunity, as if we live exclusively in their world and there's nothing we can do about it because "boys will be boys."
Rather than defer blindly to the term "trolling," I like to label behaviors based on what they do in the world. So, if someone is engaging in misogynist behavior, even if they believe they're "just trolling" (whatever dude), that's misogyny. And if that person doesn't like the word misogynist, if that label makes them cry hot tears and feel bad about themselves, then how about not behaving like a misogynist.
Because even though the term may have gained notoriety on 4chan, the concept—however you may choose to define it—of "trolling" is more mainstream today than it has ever been.
A Long Way to Go
A War of (Misdirected) Words
Search "trolls" on Google and you'll be hit with a deluge of articles defining the term in any number of ways. Whether it's being defined as someone who believes what they're saying in earnest, just wants to stir the pot, or is merely hopping on board a rage bandwagon—any rage bandwagon!—the only common thread is malicious intent. Which, according to Phillips, presents a major problem:
Calling behaviors designed to threaten, intimidate, and silence "trolling" (so, lumping ALL aggressive online behavior under the same umbrella term) risks minimizing the emotional impact of the most extreme behaviors, particularly when those behaviors are piled on as viciously and relentlessly as they have been throughout Gamergate.
Will We Ever Be Troll-Free?
Clearly, for as long as the internet has been around, trolls have existed in some form—whether they were called that or not. There will always be agitators. There will always be people who want upset others. That's not going to change.
What we can change, though, is how we approach these situations in all their varied forms. Which, according to Phillips, "depends on whose voices platform administrators, advertisers, and other people on the business end choose to privilege—the targets of abusive, intimidating behaviors or those who are doing the intimidating."
It's not an issue of "feeding the trolls" (a problematic phrase in its own right), but rather whether or not we're going to stop giving a platform to the trolls, the aggressors, and the antagonizers. Whether it be by not validating their behavior with concessions or dropping the catch-all term "troll" in favor of more accurate terminology—be it misogynist, sociopath, or straight-up dick.
So yes, assholes have and will always be around, as will their unfortunate victims. It's just a matter of who we let hold the megaphone.
Illustration by Jim Cooke