To Those Who Can’t Stop Trollin’

by Bill Brenner on February 1, 2012

“Fact: Energy powered by asshole fumes is unsustainable.” — Bill Brenner

I get self-righteous in how I look down on people for trolling — throwing cryptic statements on the social networks that beg for attention. But I’m guilty of it, too.

Mood music: 

I can’t help but think of the Stooges song “Trolling” — especially these lyrics:

You can’t tell me this is not a suave thing to do
You can’t tell me ’cause I know you’d do it too

I’m trollin’
We’re trollin’
Baby I’m trollin’
Baby we’re trollin’

When it comes to feeding the egos of people who lack self confidence — or have an overabundance that needs constant stroking — social networking is as addictive as any other narcotic.

I tend to look down on people for doing this stuff, especially when they make these kinds of statements:

“Unbelievable.”

“Well, my day just turned to shit.”

“Some people need to get a fucking life!”

The deliberate lack of information on who is sparking this emotion and why ensures that the poster will get a flood of comments from the curious. There’s some debate over whether the above statements technically fit the definition of trolling, but to me they fit the criteria of people dropping a fishing line in the water hoping someone will bite.

On further reflection, I realize that headlines are designed for the trolling effect. Since I write many headlines a day as a writer and editor, I have to take responsibility for that. Some headlines are designed to grab your attention and make you curious enough to click on the link. It’s Journalism 101 stuff. But it can be as bad as the cryptic attention-seeking posts.

Also annoying but universal are the posts that involve inflammatory, bomb-throwing statements designed to spark a furor.

Let’s stop for a second and look at some definitions. First, this definition from Wikipedia:

In Internet slang, a troll is someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.

Actually, I prefer this definition from Urban Dictionary:

Being a (expletive deleted) on the internet because you can. Typically unleashing one or more cynical or sarcastic remarks on an innocent by-stander, because it’s the internet and, hey, you can.

Guy: “I just found the coolest ninja pencil in existence.”
Other Guy: “I just found the most retarded thread in existence.”

When is it useful to be a troll and when is it not? Here’s how I see it right now: Going on a tirade about a particular company or individual isn’t bad in itself. Some entities won’t do a thing to improve their behavior unless they become the focus of negative torrents of tweets. It’s sad, but that’s the reality. But trolling gets ugly when it involves name-calling and attacking a person’s character.

After reading a draft of this post, my wife noted that the dictionaries she consulted put an almost universally negative spin on the word.

The poisonous trolling is like porn: You know it when you see it.

I went looking for examples of good trolling vs. bad trolling, with the hope that we all might learn something.

I spent a long time going in and out of different forums where people opined about good trolling vs. bad trolling, but found all the usual responses. A good troll puts things out there to make us think about how to do things better. A bad troll is just someone who tears people down to get a reaction.

Those examples probably oversimplify the two sides, though.

The best “good troll vs. bad troll list” came from a site I had never heard of before. As far as I can tell, the site is about body building.

Since that’s a different topic and culture than what I cover here, I was reluctant to use their example. But despite the ridicule I’m probably opening myself up to, I like this list quite a bit, so here you have it — some of the examples from a website called Testosterone Nation:

(1) A good troll causes readers to think, or to laugh.
(2) A bad troll makes people mad for no reason.
(3) A good troll makes people mad for a good reason, usually by challenging their cherished beliefs.
(4) A bad troll never works out.
(5) A bad troll uses personal insults instead of wit.
(6) A good troll is very subtle, so that people are not quite sure if the thread/post is genuine or trolling.

This post won’t do much to change online behavior, including my own. But who knows — maybe it’ll make us think a little bit more about what we’re saying before we hit “post.”

Or it’ll just force us to admit that we’re all trolls.

Or, equally useful, it’ll make us revisit how we define all this stuff.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

theprez98 February 1, 2012 at 6:17 am

I would argue that trolling can only be negative. If you get something positive out of a “trolling” comment, it’s probably something else (like demonstrating absurdity by being absurd), but not trolling.

My $0.02.

SirProudNoob February 20, 2013 at 9:02 am

I tend to subtly incite conflict wherever I go, especially with people who are extremely serious.

Then, well, there’s my name… That alone probably makes people mad 😀

K.C. Yerrid January 30, 2015 at 11:20 am

So I think what I am hearing is that the reason why someone trolls is the core question? I have no problem (clearly) of throwing an idea out there that may be inflammatory. The reason I do it is to incite critical thinking. I (almost) never target somebody for making a fool of them. That’s just mean. This is also what I mean when I tell people not to believe everything I say on social media. I do not say everything I say because I necessarily believe it. Sometimes, I provoke discussion with my comments. That is not bad trolling. That is being curious. I cannot solve homelessness, but my posts over the past 24 hours have been completely aligned with my desire to help my friend Michael, and thousands of people like him. I have been both insightful at times, and intentionally vulnerable throughout. Some may think I am trolling. At the end of the day, if what I am doing helps Michael, call it what you want. Michael thanks you for it.

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