The Culture of Trolling

This Wednesday our internet research group co-hosted a talk on the topic of trolling. Carmel Vaisman (@carmelva) who is a communication researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem spoke about the practices of trolls and the similarities and differences to face-to-face interactions. Don’t Feed The Trolls. Countering The Discourse Patterns of Online Harassments was her subject. I post my short notes here as a summary here, but be warned: I was live-blogging, getting things wrong and missing points, …* derStandard.at/Web wrote an excellent summary of the talk in German. I recommend also reading the comments of the derStandard article because you see another excellent example of troll behavior ;). And here is also Carmel’s prezi:

The talk was based upon two chapters of her book Hebrew Online.

A troll is person who seeks attention, who cannot be reasoned with. The word troll doesn’t come from the nordic monster. The verb has its origins in a fishing technique and means slowly dragging (a lure). There is also a small suitcase with wheels which we call trolley because we drag it.

Susan Herring is one of the first researchers who studied the culture of trolling.

Trolls in early internet days, for example in IRC chats, were polite in their expressions, they just seeked attenttion. Today’s troll are much more violent. Carmel differentiates six practices of violent online behaviour:

  • spam
  • flaming
  • stalking
  • trolling
  • cyberbullying
  • virtual rape

What is common to all those practices is that trolls perform those in repetitive manner. This erodes the identity of attacked person/institution step by step. What are examples of violent online behavior? Stalking is a form of sexual online harassment: Somebody reads every online output of another person and reacts on it, he/she keeps writing comments and gives “likes”, always being the first. The Facebook-Poke (which descends from the old Unix-Commands “ping” and “finger”) can be a form of flirtation, a form of touch. But if it is unwanted and repeatedly executed it is harassment. Other practices of trolls are hate groups and hate pages, repetative insults and threats on a private channel. What I found an innovative destruction tactic was when a troll clicked on the ads of a blog until Google stopped the ad distribution because of a violation of the terms of service.

Carmel made the important point that violence exerted to the virtual represenation of somebody else has real consequences. Trolls harm the avatar (the wall, the profile, …) and it is like harming someone in person. Attention is a double edged sword, it is not only resource, it can also be a burden.

Why is there so much more hate speech and flaming on the web than in face-to-face-interactions? Because big parts of the web are anonymous? Recently we see that the web is getting less and less anonymous (e.g. Facebook) and people are still flaming at each other. You could of course refer to a cultural explanation. In Israel, for example, online arguments are sometimes very tough but then they come to an agreement. Carmel identified parallels to the tradition of talmudic argumentation. But to look for the reason in culture may not be everything. The main reason why communication can sometimes be more violent online is because communication is mediated. The face and the body are missing (-> Levinas).

To underline explanation Carmel concluded with a tragic story of a young man who committed suicide live online, people watching him encouraged him and did not call for help. This couldn’t have happened offline, could it?