Trolling: is it strong disagreement, snark or spite? (16/08/2013)

By November 13, 2013Articles, Blog

trollingFreelancers spend a lot of time on social media. And why not? The soloist work-day can get lonely and there’s a lot of cool stuff to be learned, inspired and investigated online. But freelancers are often plagued by one of the down-sides of a working life lived online – trolls. So let’s look at three different types of ‘trolling’, shall we?

1. You write a blog post about something personal, like taking your baby with you to Home Affairs and being invited to jump the queue, or bathing with your 4-year-old. You expect comments – positive, negative, ambivalent. If you’re a seasoned public poster, you expect mild dissension. What you don’t expect is spittle-flecked vitriol, accusations of child abuse or violent misogyny – dressed up as ‘commentary’ but based largely on spite.

2. You tweet with a grammar error. You make a mistake with facts. Or you post something innocuous that others see as silly. They respond, under their own name, but in a bitchy way. Perhaps to shit-stir, seem funny, attract followers or engage with you. The intention isn’t to cause hurt, though that may be a by-product. The response may be addressed to you or sub-tweeted.

3. You make a statement that’s contentious, related to racism, rape, religion or politics. Perhaps it’s something less flammable, which provokes strong feelings. Someone engages with you, stating their quarrel with your position. Like Example #2, they identify themselves and don’t mean to cause hurt. Unlike #2, there’s no intention to entertain, so the bone of contention is with your point, not with you. And the contact is direct, not sub-tweeted.

These three examples describe, in descending order, spite, snark and strong disagreement. The first is trolling. No question. The middle one? This depends, and there’s a fine line. The last? Definitely not trolling. And here’s my defence:

Trolls way back when

Alongside the emergence of online forums, chat rooms and group message boards came the troll – the guy or girl who created arguments for fun, using subversive techniques to mislead people into thinking they held a particular belief.

These trolls don’t believe in their statements; they spout falsity, parody others or are provocative to create friction. The goal isn’t to cause hurt – it’s to be clever or creative; to see how much he or she can ‘get away with’. Pro trolling is a challenge, to cause amusement. And this kind of troll is smart, engaging and manipulative.

Defining trolls today

Sophisticated trolls are still around but the more prevalent sub-species today is the common troll who a) believes what they’re saying, b) gets emotional or illogical and c) wants to hurt the other party. Unlike the pro, this individual is not very bright.

You’ll see that typos, spelling and grammar errors, CAPS and !!! abound.

The typical symptoms of common trolling appear to be name-calling, ad hominem attacks, profanity for profanity’s sake, generalisation (‘All men are rapists…’), religious fundamentalism, and the use of false names or even total anonymity.

In reference to this creature, John Gabriel/Penny Arcade coined the Greater Internet Dickwad Theory, stating that ‘Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Total Dickwad’: people act like jerks because they want attention and can’t be caught.

Okay. So what now?

I’m not saying that all or most of these elements need to be in play for someone to be a troll. I am saying that common trolls tend to be similar. And their intentions tend to be clear. Our duty as users of social media is to identify trolls correctly and then act decisively – but only when dealing with actual trolls. It’s no good accusing anyone who takes an opposing viewpoint or exits the bandwagon of being a troll. It’s no good being over-sensitive about people not liking, not identifying with or even making fun of our online personas. And it’s no good being precious about what we say publicly.

Tips for managing #1-3

  1. Got an ugly troll lurking? Screen-grab everything as evidence. Block. Report.
  2. Got a snarky bitch lurking? Engage and snark back or ignore and move on.
  3. Got an opponent? Dive in. Debate. (You may even make a new friend.)

Have fun. And play nicely.

This article was originally posted as The 3 Types of Trolling on

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