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The Psychology Of Trolling


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All Acting Regiment
05:02 / 22.10.05
The question in this thread is: What motivates people to attack internet communities from inside?

First, let's define Troll by the descriptions from the Wiki. I think this is a good idea even though most of us know all too well what one is.

1. v.,n. [From the Usenet group
alt.folklore.urban] To utter a posting on Usenet
designed to attract predictable responses or flames; or, the
post itself. Derives from the phrase "trolling for newbies"
which in turn comes from mainstream "trolling", a style of
fishing in which one trails bait through a likely spot hoping for a

What I'd like to do now is put across a possible answer to this question, and see if you agree, and obviously each person put forward whatever theories they might have.

It's maybe not hugely original, but recently I got to thinking about how there may be some underconfidence in the poster w/regards to what the community expects of them. This anxiety is allowed to grow until it destroys the original intention to join in with the community; fear of not fitting in is avoided by changing the operation completely and trying their hardest not to fit in, by producing material incompatable with the community. Another example of negative emotions being allowed to overwhelm considerations of other people.
08:26 / 22.10.05
My own theory is that persistent trolls are the online equivalent of people who do not (or cannot) distinguish between positive attention (praise, approval) and negative attention (criticism, disapproval), but simply perceive attention = good. I think this is to do with early development/parenting: I suspect they've either come from large families where every child had to fight for parental attention; or one or other parent has been emotionally distant/disengaged (through depression, perhaps, or drug use) and our troll has learned that only the most extreme behaviour is sufficient to win him any attention at all. For whatever reason, any attention is welcome, with the board becoming a parent-substitute in the troll's 'look at me' reenactment of old patterns.
09:27 / 22.10.05
Legba, I'm not really sure how your theory would cover someone who joins a board and immediately starts trolling. Unless you think perhaps this can be generalized from formative early online messageboard experiences to each new board a person joins?

I think maybe a generalized social anxiety could have a similar sort of development. I recall a certain phase in my life, around twelve or so, when I was convinced that no one would ever like me because I was 'weird,' so I opted to be as weird as I could be in order to keep people far enough away from me to prevent them being mean. (Strangely this made me hugely popular with certain other outcast twelve-year-olds.) I wonder if a similar sort of motivation could be behind trollishness. Not much different from what you and Ganesh have said, really.

As an anthro person and not a psych person, I feel like I can't say very much more on this subject in the relative absence of trolls which fortunately prevails here at the moment. I have the sneaking suspicion that if I asked one and actually got them to take the question seriously, I might get an answer like "I say the things I say because you all need to lighten up." Or "I'm just telling it like it is and you all are persecuting me." It's not a group which lends itself to participant observation, since the Internet forbids collecting real demographics, there is no community of any kind, and the people under observation may prefer to lie in a much wider variety of circumstances than non-trolls, or than they would face to face.

I wonder what would happen if someone started a message board just for trolls...
09:49 / 22.10.05
I have the sneaking suspicion that if I asked one and actually got them to take the question seriously, I might get an answer like "I say the things I say because you all need to lighten up." Or "I'm just telling it like it is and you all are persecuting me."

The question then being, why do trolls repeatedly (and many have a history of the same modus operandi across successive message boards) feel the need to position themselves as 'lighteners-up' or 'straight-talkers' in the face of considerable opposition? What is it about these roles that appeals, particularly, to trolls? I suspect it relates, again, to early experiences of relating to one's peers and, as you suggest, putting an ego-protective gloss on what might otherwise be regarded as social failure. More positive to tell oneself 'people are too po-faced/pretentious to handle my edgy humour/no-bullshit approach' than 'people avoid me because I'm irritating'.
09:58 / 22.10.05
I wonder what would happen if someone started a message board just for trolls...

I had the same thought when Rage - considered a bit trollish by some here - started a board with a 'discordian' flavour, attracting certain individuals who've been called troll on Barbelith. Opinions may differ on the success of that particular experiment, but I found it interesting that Rage, in the role of board moderator, actually seemed much more responsible - conventional, even - in her approach. There was a certain amount of 'let's pretend we're all getting stoned together' discussion, and some half-hearted 'what could we do that'd really fuck shit up' type threads, but in general, things seemed a little... well, flat. Now, obviously self-styled discordians don't necessarily map onto 'trolls', but I wondered whether, with no explicit 'mainstream' to kick against, both groups shared a tendency to stagnate.

I suspect that, with time, a given 'troll board' would either develop a core/mainstream and that core/mainstream would begin to take a dim view of outsider trolls, or individuals would be unable to form any sort of cohesive community and, in the absence of anything to kick against, would eventually get bored and bugger off elsewhere.
All Acting Regiment
14:53 / 22.10.05
As well, I wonder if the Trolls who come have occassionally come here deliberately to pick a fight with the "wussy liberals", or "faggots", or whatever, are making up for the fact that they feel unable to fight these forces in the real world- and that due to the fear-based conservative mindset, they feel that they absolutely should be fighting them.
17:30 / 22.10.05
From what I've seen on my own board there's a certain ammount of positioning themself against the 'oppressive majority' that goes on where-ever they pop up, a need for the scaffolding of setting themselves up as the rebel to bolster their self image. Attention is part of it but it's also a way of constructing an identity. Specially when the real world may not be so hot a place for them.

One question I'd love an answer to after we've sorted out the why, is how can you break through the various constructs they've set up and get them aquainted with some of the reality of the situation. It's bloody difficult without a bit of personal contact from people they already consider 'mates' in my experience, on-line it's almost impossible.
Less searchable M0rd4nt
20:06 / 22.10.05
Messageboards and communities for trolls do exist. These are either explicitly for trolls and used to co-ordinate attacks on other groups, or they are used by people who wish to share and discuss material that would be classed as offensive elsewhere (I guess the boards might be a good example of this category). I don't know what troll communities created to organise attacks might be like because they are generally very secretive, keeping all discussion private; a committed individual could probably infiltrate but you'd have to a) troll other boards to prove yourself and b) care.

Communities for discussing material generally deemed shocking or offensive seem to be characterised by lot of one-upmanship: there's a constant drive to post something that will offend even one's supposedly shock-proof boardmates. There's usually a high level of drama and merciless infighting, too.
20:34 / 22.10.05
Are you serious, Mordant? Wow. That seems like a lot of work just to coordinate attacks which never do anything more than annoy people who wouldn't be bothering one if one weren't annoying them with coordinated troll attacks.
Unconditional Love
00:45 / 23.10.05
Any system that has any kind of precepts creates rebels that oppose those precepts. The system and the rebels have a codependent realtionship, they both need each other to give a sense of definition, purpose and meaning. The meaning and values become more valuable by there reflection in what they are in opposition too.

The trolls in barbelith bring together the board members providing a more cohesive sense of board identity, in that sense they help barbelith to define itself as a community, what it deems tolerable and intolerable.

Any society will to some degree allow a sense of rebellion as it allows that community to feel a sense of its own cohesion in opposition to the rebels.

Trolls set out with an agenda to disrupt, creating the opposite, conversley a society that becomes too rigid attracts opposition, rigid things are more easily broken.

One defines itself through protection, the other defines itself through attack.

An adaptable society welcomes its invaders in and then consumes them whole, totally integrating them into its structure. I ve seen barbelith do this on a few occasions, very tactfully as well.

Its worth erecting a wall around the community as a deterant to those who would just think about trying to troll, that wall need only be made of words, policy etc.

But once through the wall, the persistant parasite needs to be absorbed in its host or it becomes an annoying irritant, treating the troll as an honoured guest, as a hurt but masterul warrior, that just needs to be understood, There are lots of other approaches, depending on the trolls defining characteristics.

A society like barbelith is big enough to deal with trolls adequately. Dont they turn to stone eventually and get resculpted anyways?
Less searchable M0rd4nt
02:00 / 23.10.05
Are you serious, Mordant?

'Fraid so. Yes, it's singularly pointless. Yes, people still do it, and count themselves happier and more fulfilled therefrom. I reckon you could find ample examples with a quick Google search using terms like 'drama' 'trolls' and 'attack'.
09:12 / 29.10.05
Interesting theories.
But: Trolling is fun.
As someone who has avidly trolled in the past (I grew out of it, mostly) I can clear the mystery up for all y'all.

First off, getting a rise out of people is priceless. There is a distinct exhilirating rush knowing that you've really twisted the knife, gotten the goat. There is probably some amount of sadism to this. Hurting other people for fun.

Analyzing someone for buttons, then carefully pressing them, can also be challenging as fuck. While people tend to fall into certain categories -- with broad, generalized buttons -- everyone is different, and it can take a gentle touch and canny wits to unearth that little something that will really set someone off. We're talking about seriously honing mental muscles that don't otherwise get much use.

I mean... don't any of you enjoy arguing with people, like, IRL? I /love/ it. Coming out on top in a contest of wits is fucking awesome. Notably, most internet trolling is pretty crude, but not everyone's *good* at it, right?
Mourne Kransky
15:24 / 29.10.05
Yup, some of us struggled with Sociopathy 101.
All Acting Regiment
16:19 / 29.10.05
Etruscan: So, trolling is fun, and that makes it ok? So you see no problem at all in screwing up other people's projects?

I'm not going to argue with the notion that being unpleasant to others can make you feel good about yourself for a short time. But what makes you feel that this brief bit of pleasure on your part is worth more than the continued happy operating of someone else's project?
Less searchable M0rd4nt
16:50 / 29.10.05
don't any of you enjoy arguing with people, like, IRL? I /love/ it.

No. I can't stand arguments. They bore me, they make me tried and they make me stressed out, particularly arguments generated by individuals with nothing better to do with their time and energy than waste mine. I'll cop to a few pointless drunken back-and-forths, sure; I'll admit to tearing someone a new one if it seems warrented in context. I'll also admit a certain grim satisfaction in defending a position I hold strongly because it's just the right thing to do. But starting arguments for shits and giggles when you're over 16 is just pathetic. It's essentially saying "I have no prinicples or ideals I feel the need to defend, therefore the only purpose of debate is to score points. I don't give a flying fuck about anything except my own fevered ego." Sad.
17:12 / 29.10.05
I'll own to an enjoyment of taking the piss, if I'm in the right mood, and it can be fun to produce a comedy grotesque and have people wonder if it's a jokesuit or not. When other posters start getting genuinely upset, though, you've usually taken things too far, it's time to unmask and stop with the trollery.
Mourne Kransky
00:16 / 30.10.05
And Etruscan's point is that the fun only starts when you're pushing all the right buttons and causing that upset. It is to his credit that he has grown out of that teenage sadism. Most people who are that desperate and pathetic pretty much stay that way, caught up in a vicious cycle.
grim reader
05:44 / 01.11.05
I dont think he was saying it was ok because it was fun, he was just trying to explain why he has been a troll.

I can't say i've ever enjoyed the threads in which i've been accussed of trolling, and the fact i've had that mud hurled at me makes me wary of wading into these sorts of discussions lest i be banned outright for 'trolling'. I do feel a little bit more comfortable given this thread is in 'headshop' and not 'policy'.

I think there is definitely something to the idea of the 'rebels' and the 'defenders' relying on eachother paradigmatically. Has it ever been considered that perhaps some of those regulars who have very sensitive troll-o-meters come across as rather trollish themselves to those of us on the recieving end? It is discouraging, to say the least, to engage in a discussion only to find a more established member pre-empting your arguments on the basis you are trolling. Those experiences remind me of Edward Said's Orientalism, where he talks about how false preconceptions can be reinforced because of the attitude they cause one to adopt.

And i happen to be writing this to provoke a response, and maybe even some measure of change on this board. Is that trolling?
05:59 / 01.11.05
I could be blamed of trolling. On other threads in Headshop, I made blazing generalizations that caused some outcry. On this thread, I was compared to racists who ask "what is wrong with hip-hop?". On this thread, I was implicitly called a racist for not knowing a lot about the Irish. In both cases, I did not mean to cause a controversy. It was my flippant and rude remarks in reply that caused the true controversy. I didn't mean to "troll", and luckily I have not been accused of trolling. I plan to avoid any circumstances that could make me accused of trolling. I've never trolled and I don't plan to.

On the other hand, I can definitely see how trolling can be fun. In the above threads, it became almost fun to incite anger. I felt that people were being far too serious, and I wanted to have fun with them. This could be trolling. And it was sort of fun. Instead of trying to think things through, it's easier to just say something stupid and watch people foam at the mouth.

I've read on this board that Barb had a troll problem, hence the limited registration. I hope that we never have a troll problem again, but I can see how it is inevitable. People just like to be assholes, I think. I know this personally.

Sorry if there's bad grammar, posting in a hurry.
Unconditional Love
11:48 / 01.11.05
Their is some fun in arguing, when the subject matter has no emotional basis to any body involved or can be taken humourously, but thats not always the case and in many instances people are posting with an emotional attachment to posts, i think this is where trolls become insensitive, not just trolls everybody can make this mistake, But to intentionally hurt other peoples emotional sensibilities through trolling seems the worst point of trolling for me, its this intent thats most disturbing.
13:26 / 01.11.05
Apart from the impish glee of poking people with a virtual stick, I think that trolling means a person doesn't have to expose their sensitive underbelly of opinions or beliefs. They can say to themselves 'Ha ha, I'm just saying this to piss them off' thus avoiding the risk of saying anything genuine or constructive, in case it's criticised. A twisted self-esteem preserving defense mechanism gone wrong, like a virtual pre-emptive strike.

Positioning themselves so as to receive negative attention deliberately, to avoid receiving damaging negative attention. What's that behaviour called? Ganesh? Anyone?
13:41 / 01.11.05
people who do not distinguish between positive attention (praise, approval) and negative attention (criticism, disapproval), but simply perceive attention = good Ganesh

Like what he says, but not necessarily as simple- the motives for putting on a troll suit interest me. I think it's often to protect the soft squishy real person wearing the troll.

Like the Daleks, y'know, armoured war machines with scary voices on the outside, helpless deformed mutant brains on the inside. Or a durian fruit, spiky outside squishy inside (also smells of human faeces, so apt).
18:26 / 01.11.05
See, Iím not so sure that itís people who canít distinguish between positive attention and negative attention, so much that they donít care which sort theyíre getting. Trolls donít seem to like attention in the way we all like attention to some degree or other; instead they crave *impact*.
I donít really see being argumentative as trollsome. In fact I generally take arguing with people as redeeming them in some way, because although certain positions might be troublesome, pursuing them through dialogue is par of the course and Ďfitsí with a community Ė particularly a discursive community like Barbelith. To me, trolls will do anything to avoid fitting in because impact is easiest achieved through *contrast*. It's often a refusal to engage with argument that marks them out.

So in terms of psychology, I donít know if itís much different to any of the other forceful, short-termist, superficial expressions of difference. I guess serious crises of identity might manifest themselves in this kind of assertion of identity. Iíd have thought that message board trolling is related to a range of behaviours from blowing raspberries at Nanny, painting your room black, joining the Young Conservatives, etc. Thereís an emphasis on impulse, unpredictability, the antisocial, the psychological conflation of shock with awe.

I assume that trolls are at a fragile age, identity-wise Ė pubescents, largely, Iíd have thought. I wonder if thereís a correlation between compulsive trolling and more acute identity problems, but I doubt thereís much research into this (yet).
Still, if itís a release, itís probably better that they go on the fol round a message board than start cutting themselves (or other people).
19:24 / 01.11.05
I didn't say people who can't distinguish between positive and negative attention; I said people who don't distinguish (with the 'can't' suitably bracketed).
20:19 / 01.11.05

And i happen to be writing this to provoke a response, and maybe even some measure of change on this board. Is that trolling?

Nope. Trolling is saying things with no consideration for their effect beyond getting people's attention. For example, your use of racially abusive terminology in this thread had no primary purpose except to get attention:

i usually use these terms for the shock effect it has on the politically correct

Was that trolling? That's an interesting question - probably not intentionally so, but it became clear that what was important for you in that instance was not how other people might react but how you felt - that is, you were interested in impact, but not actually very interested in reacting to that impact - any negative reaction was pathologised and discarded as "politically correct". Of course, the down side of this is that it tends to make people think that anything you say might be likely to be more about getting attention than communicating, which is one of the problems of trying to separate out what is a troll and what is just somebody who is either socially inexperienced or working under some other factor that might affect their ability to post in a way that wiill be ring-fenced against being perceived as trollish.

There's a thread elsewhere on fiction suits we never used in which the episode where a joke suit sent sexually menacing private messages to a number of members of Barbelith (including, if I recall correctly, at least one victim of previous sexual violence, which didn't lead to the best reaction) comes up. At the time, this caused quite an odour, but, with no social reference points outside the chums who egged each other on to do it, the consequences of the action did not really pertain - the message board was being used as a way to get a slightly more satisfying orgasm out of a circle-jerk rather than an interaction with a broader group. Over time, because the people involved were able to adapt to negative responses, they began to act more meaningfully as members of a message board, but it's not wildly controversial to suggest that previous actions (sometimes to a disproportionate extent) condition current opinions.

You could see that as a way of subdividing trolls - say into the kind who select environments with no other criterion than how effectively it can be stirred to outrage (the sort of competition troll who might hang out on dedicated message boards or coordinate groups, and the kind who react to early rebuffs (criticism, being ignored, a failure to give them a kiss and Grant Morrison's home phone number) by dedicating their copious free time to targeting individuals or specific boards in a way that could be seen as not just sociopathic but also neurotic. As has been said, it seems pretty credible that "troll" could be a developmental stage, especially as access to the Internet is given to younger and younger people, and therefore that ongoing trolling is best described as a form of personal arrestedness - an endless retention of comforting feelings of outsiderdom from childhood.

One interesting thing about this developmental narrative is that it poses some interesting questions about people whose behaviour has in the opinion of others approached trolling in the past, in intention or effect, who are not currently behaving in that fashion, but who either ignore that past or defend it by relating a narrative in which they were themselves the victim of persecution by some oppressive force. This is tricky because, among other things, it means that the behaviour is apparently perceived as acceptable (or defended as meritorious), and therefore returning to such behaviour is always retained as an implied threat, which is where things get tricky.
grim reader
20:41 / 01.11.05
This is all very interesting, but don't be surprised if you continue to drive new members away from the board by applying this label to them. The thing with labelling someone a troll is it is a bit like labelling them as a witch, with all the attendant problems of trying to talk oneself out of the label. I would be interested in hearing how those of you theorising about trolls would address the point i made previously. That is, that if one approaches something with false preconceptions (eg that someone is out to 'troll'), one can have those false preconceptions reinforced, because one naturally looks for evidence to support one's contention. As I said, this is an idea I've borrowed from Ed Said, and if i could find my copy of Orientalism i would submit a few useful quotes to illustrate the idea. Basically, it's a kind of feedback loop - if you label someone a troll, and address them as such, it isnt a surprise if you observe 'trollish' behaviour in return - especially when your catalogue of 'trollish' behaviour could well be based on the reactions of people who never had any intention of trolling.

Haus, i noticed your message come up just before i posted this. Excuse me if you've already come back on this point, i will be reading your post next.
21:22 / 01.11.05
I would address that hypothesis by suggesting that it generally takes more than a single isolated episode for a poster to seriously attract the label 'troll' as a noun (as opposed to 'that's a bit trolly' or 'you're trolling there'). Those who respond to the merest suggestion not with self-examination but by posting more and more attention/impact-grabbing crapulence problem very probably are trolls - and hijacking Said's model would appear to be yet another gambit for positioning themselves in the victim role.
21:23 / 01.11.05
I'm in a bit of a rush, but quickly - Calvin, I hope the above doesn't sound like I'm calling you a troll. I'm more agreeing with you, in fact - that there is a feedback loop - although I think it works in a more complicated fashion than you're positing - because it's very hard to draw the line between "not a troll" and "troll", at least along the borders, and that this difficulty becomes in turn a part of the trolling methodology.
grim reader
21:30 / 01.11.05
Haus, with the luxury of a bit of distance in time, i can take your point on board without getting as angry or frustrated as i have done in the past. Whilst I now realise that using the term 'wog' on this site was a bad idea, I think that says more about the nature of the board than any change in attitude in myself due to boardmembers' reaction. Their reaction, in fact, only made me more entrenched in my views, because it felt so overbearing and bullying (i'm not trying to accuse you of that, btw, thats just how it felt, and I try to make allowences given text isnt a great medium for conveying the nuances available to us in voice or bodylanguage).

Looking back, I can now understand you didn't like the PC tag being hung on you - it's similar to the way in which you've hung the 'troll' tag on many others, with the same problems to do with 'if i assume you are x, i will most likely find evidence to support it'.

Regarding my earlier comment, "those regulars who have very sensitive troll-o-meters come across as rather trollish themselves to those of us on the recieving end", it was, in fact the thread you cited I was thinking of, as well as a thread in which someone was slated, and had their writing called 'shit' (among other things) for posting a joke they heard on the Simpsons. [ ]. Seeing this happen to someone else really angered me, not a surprise given how displease i was when my own thread turned to cack and went totally off-topic in not dissimilar circumstances. The way in which you used that particular post on that thread, and my posting regularity, as 'evidence' I'm a troll illustrates the point i have been making in the last two posts. In fact, the reason i dont post regularly is that i either a) lurk for a bit, then decide it's not worth upsetting everyone, or b) don't come near the forum because i've decided it's not worth upsetting myself. The fact I *am* posting is testament to the fact I think there's enough good in barbelith to make it worth persevering with. And, Haus, off-board there are a number of us who have toyed with the idea that your own behaviour sets you apart as something of a troll yourself. If I thought you weren't posting in good faith, however, I wouldn't be addressing you at all.
grim reader
21:35 / 01.11.05
ha, again, i posted before noticing your other reply Haus. Glad we are on good terms. Will write more soon.
21:36 / 01.11.05
In many instances, I think we're far from naive enough to suppose that those using terms like "wogs" are likely to change the viewpoints which presumably motivated them to use those terms. Speaking personally, I'd settle for you having the same (or more "entrenched") views and not airing them here - not if they include that sort of terminology, anyway.

Assuming there actually are underlying "views" as opposed to simply the desire for impact/confrontation.
grim reader
21:43 / 01.11.05
Ganesh, very quicly, to respond to a couple of your comments:

Ganesh: "hijacking Said's model would appear to be yet another gambit for positioning themselves in the victim role."
Calvin: Ooh, here we go again. How about giving me the benefit of the doubt here? Otherwise this discussion is pointless.

Ganesh: "Assuming there actually are underlying "views" as opposed to simply the desire for impact/confrontation."
Calvin: I would reiterate the above point, and also ask you to take a look at the thread in question, and not focus too much on one line written a long time ago which appears here without context.
21:52 / 01.11.05
Ooh, here we go again. How about giving me the benefit of the doubt here? Otherwise this discussion is pointless.

I think even if one doesn't give you the benefit of the doubt, there's some value in the conversation. I'd point out that your quoted part of my statement re: the hijacking of Said's model is actually the second part of a sentence, and relates to my contention that those who respond merely to the suggestion that they're 'trolling' with a positive feedback loop of escalating impact-soliciting behaviour. I see this as qualitatively different from Said's model, hence my suspicion that the latter might be used as yet another I'm-teh-victim trick, a way of prolonging a given troll's shelf-life.
21:53 / 01.11.05
And yes, I've ploughed through the linked thread. Not hugely opinion-changing, I'm afraid.
grim reader
22:09 / 01.11.05
ok, point taken regarding your fears it [Ed Said's theory] might be taken on by trolls - but then part of my aim here *is* to raise the stakes a little in this game of troll-detecting. If you have a problem with the way the idea might be used, it's up to you to think of ways to combat that.

If you're opinion is unchanged by the thread, that's fine. But you are slurring my intellect here, and I *did*, in fact, give an account of myself which explained, beyond 'shocking' people, why i don't feel particularly bad about having used the term 'wog'. If you can't see that in that thread, that's fine. I'm not going to rake over it all and pull out quotes, because it's not especially pertinent to this thread.

I am curious, Ganesh; are you trying to play the troll and bait me here? If you are, i hope it's to aid some point you have to make, because if we make this about arguments I had years ago we are risking threadrot here.

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