impressionistic criticism

On trolling.

Does our fixation on the character of “the troll” obscure a deeper problem — that the Internet allows us to continuously troll ourselves?

"Troll," by Jolande RM, CC-BY-NC-ND.
“Troll,” by Jolande RM, CC-BY-NC-ND.
Since trolls monopolize every discussion they’re involved in, it should come as no surprise that reflection on trolling itself tends to be preoccupied by the persona of the troll. Wikipedia, for instance, discusses trolling only as a subtopic in its article on “internet trolls.” This sounds straightforward enough: surely, trolling means behaving like a troll. But a more interesting question opens up if we recognize that the verb can float free of the noun — that trolling pervades contemporary discourse, and is performed by everyone.

After all, why does the New York Times write about real estate in the Hamptons, for an audience that mostly can’t afford it? Why does The Atlantic scour every corner of society for trends that prevent professional women from achieving work/life balance? Why do publications for an audience that has already entered or finished grad school run articles advising them not to go to grad school?

They’re all trolling us.

“Wait,” you say. “The way you’re using the word, trolling is just another name for targeted journalistic provocation.”

Trolling may have been perfected by journalists who hold their audience captive in a filter bubble, but trolling is older than journalism. As far as I can tell, Socrates was the first person to practice it. “Why hello there, Gorgias. I hear you’re a rhetorician. By the way, I’ve always wondered, what exactly is rhetoric?”

"Socrates," photo by Sebastià Giralt, CC-BY-NC-SA
“Socrates,” photo by Sebastià Giralt, CC-BY-NC-SA
In fact, Socrates may have been a troll in the noun sense as well, because he clearly enjoyed tormenting interlocutors. But that’s ad hominem and beside the point. I call Socratic discourse “trolling,” not because it was malicious, but because it was in principle interminable. When you first sat down with Socrates, you may have thought “I’m just going to answer this one question and then go buy some olives.” But the first question never gets answered. It always leads on to deeper puzzles, and although you may finally give up and leave, the discourse will be taken up tomorrow by some other victim.

Journalism is, similarly, designed to be interminable. There’s a thin pretense that you’re familiarizing yourself with world events in order to become an informed citizen, but if you actually stopped watching once you had enough information to act, cable news wouldn’t make money.

So I propose to define trolling, generally, as a discourse that is structurally incapable of reaching the conclusion it promises. It seems to be about some determinate object, but either that object endlessly recedes as you approach it, or the rules of the discourse guarantee that other topics can be substituted for the original one, so that a conclusion is never reached.

The Internet is trolling, elevated to Hegelian World Spirit. It’s easy to imagine that people lurk on comment threads denying climate change with endlessly shifting rationales because they are personally insincere, or because online anonymity creates a cool shady place where they can multiply. But in a deeper sense trolls are merely incarnating the structural logic of the Internet. On the Internet, discourse can continue endlessly, unconfined by ordinary social limits. On the Internet, there’s always a new interlocutor — and conversely, there’s always a new provocation, guaranteed to play on your most urgent anxieties, because you designed the filter that selected it yourself.

Of course, once we define trolling this broadly, it becomes nearly useless as a normative concept. It’s hard to locate a line of division between this sort of trolling and legitimate critical reflection. Which will be frustrating, unless you’re a post-structuralist or a troll.

Postscript: The italicized subhed was added on April 22, and wording was changed in minor ways to improve clarity.

By tedunderwood

Ted Underwood is Professor of Information Sciences and English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. On Twitter he is @Ted_Underwood.

5 replies on “On trolling.”

I think this is an interesting take on trolling, but it loses out on some of the useful specificity of the concept. Nathan Jurgenson has written some excellent pieces on the application of “trolling” to mainstream journalism (especially this one). The short version is that the mainstream can’t be considered trolling, because the responses appropriate for classic trolls (“Don’t Feed the Trolls!”) are not appropriate for powerful, central actors. His main case is Newsweek’s awful “Muslim Rage” cover; if this were an act of trolling, the appropriate response would be to delete the comment and ignore it. But since it’s a mainstream magazine, it calls for nuanced critical response and engagement.

I guess all this somewhat reduces to your last point: without the specificity of limiting trolling to a certain subset of the activity you describe, we lose out on the hope of effective responses (“normative” prescriptions).

Yes, I’m playing around with the word here, and deliberately stretching it in a direction that interests me, which happens not to be very normative.

Nathan Jurgenson’s point is well taken — thanks for that link. And he’s surely right that the rule “don’t feed the trolls” ceases to be reliable once you’re talking about trolling in this broader sense.

On the other hand, I guess I’m interested in playing around with the concept because I do have a growing suspicion that a lot of things I used to consider “serious debate” are actually sound and fury that can be safely ignored. I haven’t framed that suspicion prescriptively here, because it’s still too vague. I mean, obviously you can’t ignore every provocation, or you’ve ceased to live a political life. You have to have some way to identify topics of real public significance. But I am beginning to suspect that there’s something about contemporary media ecology that ensures we’re constantly being trolled by newsy provocations ingeniously tailored to our existing anxieties, and thus appearing to have more public significance than they do.