If everyone is a troll, maybe no one is.
In the past few years, accusations of "trolling" have flown across the Internet fast and furious; recently, the targets have included a New York Times feature about the popularity of chopped salads, just about everything Vice does, and a cover of Rolling Stone featuring Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
But for a word that's tossed around so frequently, its meaning seems to evaporate into air when grasped at. Trolling is bad. Trolling provokes a reaction, usually negative. Trolling is apparently quite easy to do. But, if only to better gird one's own defenses against it -- what is trolling?
"I think that it started with a pretty clear definition -- which is somebody who goes into a place that shares a particular ideology and says something they don't believe just to get a reaction," said Sady Doyle, a feminist blogger and staff writer for In These Times.
"Originally, it was, like, racist Reddit kids going into r/blackgirls -- that was old-school trolling, a very specific online behavior," said Matt Buchanan, a tech blogger for the New Yorker, referring to the popular message board and clearinghouse for human pathologies in which racist, sexist or homophobic vitriol flowed freely. On Reddit, clearly defined groups sort themselves according to demographics, identity and ideology -- a troll would attempt to disrupt these groups, and order as normal. Trolls, as classically defined, could insert themselves into any number of milieus; the classic New York Times Magazine piece documenting the state of the troll in 2008 recorded instances like self-defined trolls hacking the Epilepsy Foundation's website in order to fill it with flashing lights, triggers for epileptics. As an action designed to harm and upset a specific group of people, it wasn't exactly a newspaper piece about salad.
"It's one of those semi-useful but also dumb Internet words that just kind of means whatever you want it to mean," said Shani Hilton, an editor at BuzzFeed. "It's a good shorthand for a kind of thing that's been going on for a long time at more contrarian publications." Consider the case of Newsweek, the publication that got attention for splashy covers (like the one featuring a resurrected Princess Diana, aged 50, or the one calling Barack Obama "The First Gay President"). Those were frustrating -- so too was Newsweek's online arm the Daily Beast publishing a gallery of "magazine controversies" today after spending years trying to provoke. But whose existence or fixed ideas were they upending?
"People have come to use the word 'troll' to mean, 'It made me angry on the Internet,'" said Doyle. "And that's pretty broad. It's a big and noisy Internet."
During the rise of the troll, the Internet was less in the thrall of legacy media than it is today; legacy media outlets, by their very nature, broadcast to a wide audience rather than a narrow and self-selecting community. If the visually striking, provocative and attention-getting Rolling Stone cover is trolling, what, then, are the visually striking, provocative and attention-getting covers George Lois designed for Esquire in the mid-20th century? (Lois recently told New York magazine the cover should "maybe have a devil's tongue or horns. I'm not saying I would do that, but you better do something" -- such a visual frippery would, if the media outrage cycle behaved as normal, likely only further elicit calls of trolling.)
"When people accuse publications of trolling," said Doyle, "it's a weird rhetorical move that erases the content and says, 'You made me angry, you must have meant to, I don't need to engage with the content of the article.'"
"It's a cheap shot," said Maria Bustillos, whose recent sympathetic interview of a pickup artist on the Awl came in for that very criticism. "You have to come out and say, 'I want to have a productive conversation on this topic.' And to have to say that is silly. We're all adults. It takes the whole conversation down a notch.
"There's certain writers accused of it, publications accused of it -- for instance, the Daily Caller -- there's worthy stuff in there in it. It's hard to believe the whole publication's not worth reading, that it's all trolling. They do have polemicists, but there's stuff worth reading."
The distinction is important; perhaps a polemicist, a politically minded columnist whose very purpose is not merely to engage in the world of ideas but stir the blood of a self-selected few and poke at the other side, can be a troll. But is it really possible to "troll" when broadcasting to the universe? If so, perhaps the Internet has evolved too quickly; though we're in a vast and free-form space, we all still believe we're in walled gardens. When anything upsetting invades that garden, we don't discuss the emotions or ideas aroused by the image of an alleged terrorist as tousled-haired boy, or reflect on what it means to live in an age when the variegations of salad-choppings and -toppings are endlessly debatable among a certain class. We tend to reach for something a bit more ad hominem.
But perhaps sometimes trolling can be good. Said Bustillos, "Some people use it as a slur. It's not always meant that way. A lot of people on Twitter use it to mean 'You're a provocateur.' I'm perfectly happy being called that. It's not uniformly pejorative."
The distinction Bustillos draws -- between a conversation, one that's ultimately productive through the painful process of challenging assumptions, and the sort of personal, targeted hate that trolling historically had been -- is a difficult one for Internet users. It's your Internet. Everything seems personal. But, said Doyle, it's more difficult than accusers think to get people's hackles up.
"I can't ever think of a published piece as trolling," she said. "Someone must have wanted to write this piece enough to commit to a deadline and commit to an editing process. It's a heck of a lot of work to get a couple people angry. It's not in the best interest of a publication or a writer's career to do that. But maybe I'm naive."
As for the future, "trolling" may literally be redefined in exactly the way "literally" has (though as Buchanan notes, many Internet-savvy folks are already using it as a joke, saying anything that even mildly offends them is "trolling"). The term may move from conflating malevolent actions and pageview-baiting to simply describing the second. "It's the best way to describe it," said Buchanan, "a certain, compact way of describing! It's why we use German words. It's such a good descriptor!"