Science

Consider the Troll

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The pressing question isn't so much what a troll is and how he came to be, but what to do when confronted with a troll.

Amidst a perennial simmer of internet indignation, there's been a reliably periodic upsurge in media coverage of trolls. We seem to be in the midst of one such swell. The New York Times reported recently on the antics of the musicians, Azealia, Gene Simmons, and an arriviste band called Yacht. They had all garnered the precious attention of the masses with finely calibrated social media "stunts". With the Gray Lady's requisite reserve, in "Who trolled us best?", Katie Rogers notes "how easily entertainers can manipulate an audience by getting them angry enough to start talking".

What these varieties of trolls share is the monstrous pretense of a barb-tongued dimwit.
The New York Times can always be counted on to tastefully curate the zeitgeist. Roger's article follows another a month earlier about Mary Beard, a world-renowned classicist from the University of Cambridge whom the newspaper of record has dubbed a "troll slayer". After making regular TV appearances to share her expertise on antiquity, Beard had been beset by online trolls sputtering sexist vitriol. In a breach of academic decorum, she had the temerity to push back.

Also recently, to give another example, Slate published two articles about trolls. One argued that corporations could plausibly be accused of baiting trolls to garner publicity. Referring to the kerfuffle over an Old Navy Instagram ad that featured a mixed-race family, in "How Brands Get the Most Out of Trolls", Ruth Graham points out that "it's easy to feel some skepticism about the ways brands are monetizing and even amplifying these fringe online outbursts". And yet, in the slug, the editors trollishly lure readers into clicking with the droll tagline, "when bigoted weirdos attack progressive ad campaigns, everybody wins". Echoing the slug's cynicism, Graham reminds us that "No matter how the fracas plays out, everybody wins in the end: The trolls get attention, responders get the warm and fuzzy pleasure of combating hate, and the brand comes out looking like a crusader for justice." The other Slate article considers bullying, more generally, and how to remedy it in schools (more on the latter, later).

In the May issue of Harper's, Rebecca Solnit dedicates an entire column, "The Habits of Highly Cynical People", to what appears to be an impassioned rebuttal of the first comment that popped up after she posted on Facebook an excerpt from Nature Climate Change. The commenter decrees, "There's nothing that's going to stop the consequences of what we have already done/not done." Solnit then elaborates on behalf of the commenter: "I'm pitting my own casual assessment over peer-reviewed science; I'm not reading carefully; I'm making a thwacking sound with my false consciousness."

And so on it goes, this thrust and parry, this melee-as-repartee, this thwack and thwack-you-back between the earnest and the cynical, between those who put themselves out there and the trolls who insist on hectoring them from the virtual agora. Needless to say, I too am someone who puts himself out there on occasion, thus exposes his own tissue-thin hide to the disapprobation of trolls. (I recall a comment on one article of mine wherein an anonymous gentleman who goes by the handle of "73ElCid" insightfully writes, "This is one of the most forced, distorted, deformed, and pointless pieces of writing I have ever read about any sci-fi movie... these were 15 minutes I will never get back.") With skin in the game, I'd like to take a step back here and consider the troll as a cultural phenomenon.

To paraphrase another, deceased scribbler, for practical purposes, everyone knows what a troll is. According to that ultimate authority, Wikipedia, an internet troll is "a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people". Scholars of internet trolling (such unicorns do indeed exist) trace the first use of the term to a Usenet group in the early '90s devoted to alt.folklore.urban. In the group, an expression arose, "trolling for newbies", that describes a way of identifying newcomers to the community. This is done by posting innocent-seeming questions that veterans would recognize as having been already beaten to death. Presumably, only "newbies" would take the bait and respond in earnest. In effect, "trolling" was a shibboleth, a way to sort those who belonged from outsiders. In this vein, the internet dictionary NetLingo catalogs four "grades" of trolling: playtime trolling, tactical trolling, strategic trolling, and the most arabesque online mind-fuck of them all, domination trolling.

This use of the term "troll" evokes, not the mythical creature of Estonian folklore, but the more pedestrian, or I should say, maritime notion of trolling as fishing. In seafaring lingo, trolling involves dangling bait from a line and dragging it along in the water in order to catch, say, minnows.

So the term "troll" leverages two unrelated meanings. Yet it's the troll, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, as "one of a race of supernatural beings... formerly conceived as giants, now... as dwarfs or imps, supposed to inhabit caves or subterranean dwellings" that captivates the imagination. One of the earliest mentions of a troll in English letters is from the Dittay Sheriff Court Shetland of 1616, wherein it is written, "The said Catherine for airt and pairt of witchcraft and sorcerie, in hanting and seeing the Trollis ryse out of the kyrk yeard of Hildiswick."

It seems the "Trollis" have been rising out of the "kyrk yeard" ever since. Nowadays, varieties of trolls proliferate almost ad infinitum. There are mountain trolls and rock trolls, cave trolls and bridge trolls, hill trolls and snow trolls, Tolkien trolls and Tolkien-Jackson trolls, B movie trolls and yet more B movie trolls, patent trolls and concern trolls, trollfaces and trolls who just wanna have lulz. We even have a presumptive nominee from a major political party in these august United States who aspires to be elected this November as the very first Troll-in-Chief.

What these varieties of trolls share is the monstrous pretense of a barb-tongued dimwit. Granted, some would argue that trolls are cleverer than you think. In short, though, a troll is a bully who, frequently cloaked in anonymity, preys on the exposed. And trolls, more often than not, tend to take a male form. Accordingly, they tend to not only subscribe to, but to police a certain patriarchal order. At the risk of overgeneralizing, the troll's favorite targets are mouthy broads in the public eye.

The point is that trolls are basically giant assholes. Science proves this. Two 2014 online studies from the University of Phoenix found "similar patterns of relations between trolling and the Dark Tetrad of personality: trolling correlated positively with sadism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism, using both enjoyment ratings and identity scores". The authors of the studies conclude that "cyber-trolling appears to be an Internet manifestation of everyday sadism".

A more recent compilation study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, entitled, "Preventing Bullying Through Science, Policy, and Practice", suggests that it may be possible to shame low-status bullies into behaving more civilly toward their peers. But the study also found that interventions are less effective with popular bullies, because these kids use strategic bullying to maintain their status. To address this, researchers at Kaplan University have designed an anti-bullying program called Meaningful Roles. The program offers alternative, constructive roles for students seeking to maintain their high status. For example, rather than water the classroom plants or feed the class pet, a notorious bully might be asked to do a task with higher visibility, like serve as classroom greeter.

The Meaningful Roles study promises a means to neutralize the bullying of the presumptive nominee alluded to above. It appears that the best way to appease Herr Drumpf and his enablers is to elect him President -- the ultimate classroom greeter.

If trolls were more than a poetic conceit, zoologists would catalog them as belonging to the species, sphincter pusillanimis, which is subsumed by the genus belligerare. That robust genus would, of course, include douches, tools, blowhards, mansplainers and, who could forget, your garden-variety bully.

Like the asshole, the principle function of the troll is to emit waste. But the value of that emission is in the nose of the olfactor. Most recoil from the stench of trollery. Many take offense. An especially sensitive few may even be hurt by it. Conventional wisdom has it that the best way to deal with trolls is to ignore them. When confronted with their cowardly belligerence, "Don't feed the trolls" goes the reflexive refrain.

Like good scatologists, if we take a moment to examine more closely the chemical composition of the crap that trolls emit on the internet, we might begin to ascertain that it serves a broader -- and vital -- sociological function. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera famously associated shit with kitsch. Kundera writes that the "fact that until recently the word 'shit' appeared in print as s— has nothing to do with moral considerations". He contends that "the objection to shit is a metaphysical one", that the "daily defecation session is daily proof of the unacceptability of Creation".

The manner in which a culture reacts to this revulsion to an existence ineluctably grounded in shit, in many respects, defines it. The American manner is to construct a Rube Goldberg contraption of ritual obfuscation. This denial, here and elsewhere, Kundera claims, is packaged into an "aesthetic ideal", called kitsch. "Kitsch", Kundera writes, "is the absolute denial of shit". In other words, to translate Kundera's insight into a more American idiom, insomuch as it's also a ritual obfuscation, bullshit is the denial of shit.

The pressing question isn't so much what a troll is and how he came to be, but what to do when confronted with a troll. So here's my advice. Rather than not feeding the trolls, we should eat them. Which is to say: like oysters or canaries, trolls serve as an early detection system for bullshit within the internet ecosystem.

On first whiff, what trolls emit as they do their important work may be noxious. But it may also turn out to be nutritious. Many delicacies -- staples even -- that we consume on a daily basis are the waste products of other organisms. An entire branch of the culinary sciences is dedicated to the gustatory by-products of these symbiotic benefactors. We call it fermentation.

Take, as an example, beer. When we drink beer, we're enjoying the waste of the single-celled organisms that have gorged themselves on the hops we've adoringly offered up to them. Yeast eats the sugars in our brews and shits out ethyl alcohol. And we're most certainly fond of our ethyl alcohol. So, in essence, when we imbibe beer, or any other booze, we're quaffing yeast excrement. Cheers!

In similar fashion, we who put ourselves out there on the internet can come to appreciate trolls and the trolling they do much as an oenophile savors an exquisite 1941 Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon. That pleasure comes with embracing the opportunity that trolls, in all their generosity, avail to us. They give us the chance to reflect on others', and in bracing cases, our own bullshit.

At this point you may be wondering: if I take pleasure in the malicious antics of online sadists, does that make me a masochist? To this, I emphatically reply, probably not. While sadists want to inflict pain, we connoisseurs of all things trollish simply wish to live and let live, or, more specifically, to eat what others consider indigestible.

Before we conclude -- pardon the convoluted syntax -- let's acknowledge that the questions of whether and how different kinds of trolls feel pain, and whether and why it might be justifiable to inflict pain on them in order to eat them, or rather, to harvest them for their waste-products are nearly intractable. Suffice it to say, though, that nature isn't always kind. By exposing their soft underbellies on the internet, trolls invite us to eat them. We should oblige.

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