We're all trolls now, for better and for worse: How the Internet lost its prankster lulz and found its outrage

A scholar of online creeps and pranksters explains 4Chan history and the surprising ways they've influenced us all

Published May 9, 2015 5:30PM (EDT)

  (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-875983p1.html'>Stokkete</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>)
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What is a troll? Even the word itself doesn't know for sure. The first published usage of the term in reference to online behavior (in the Toronto Star, 1992) explained trolling as the work of those who "fish for flames," just as fishermen troll for a catch by trailing bait on a line. By now, however, the monster metaphor holds sway. If the Internet is a bridge to the greater world, a troll is the beast who lives under it, extracting a toll in hurt feelings, outraged sensibilities and fear from all who pass.

Once upon a time -- before the Web existed, even! -- the word "troll" stood for any sort of committed troublemaker in an online community. Trolls were spoilers whose defining practice was deception: They pretended to be people they were not and to believe things they did not. As the scholar Whitney Phillips writes in her new book, "This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture," the first researchers to study trolling saw impersonation as its most toxic element. Trolls made it impossible to trust anyone encountered on the Internet. And how can you build a utopian virtual society with a bunch of people who might not even be who they say they are?

By now most of us have given up on that utopian dream and adjusted to the provisional identities of the individuals we encounter online, although catfishing (of one form or another) remains a nagging worry. When I hear someone using the word "troll" today, they may or may not be referring to an online actor who conceals his real name and face. Most often, though, "troll" is a word pinned on whoever happens to be upsetting us online: people we disagree with politically; people who posted negative reviews of our books or stand-up routines; people who dislike what we say so much they enlist their friends to berate us; people who express themselves with excessive crudeness and hostility; as well as outright harassers, bigots and obsessive stalkers.

We may wonder why such people behave the way they do, why they devote so much time and energy to, say, taunting a columnist about her father's death, but we only occasionally doubt that they mean what they say. Yet only a few years ago -- during what Phillips calls "the golden age of trolling" -- the opposite was the case. This period, between 2008 and 2011, saw the rise of a self-identified troll subculture rooted in the image board 4Chan, where anonymous posters gathered to swap jokes, pornographic images and insults, and to plan elaborate, prankish raids on other sectors of the Internet. Most of the time they couldn't care less about the topics or people they trolled. They were in it for the lulz.

Lulz -- a triumphant, mean-spirited mirth -- can be found in relatively innocuous gambits, such as Rickrolling, or in downright cruelty, such as posting mocking or obscene images on a Facebook memorial page for a teenage suicide. Some lulz offer an implicit, or even an explicit, critique of the mass media. In one of the funnier exploits Phillips relates, a troll who posed as a pedophile on the message board of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" succeeded in getting the talk show host to read aloud his ridiculous message, which was embedded with two 4Chan in-jokes referring to a silly anime clip and the motto of Anonymous. These phrases instantly marked the posting as the product of troll culture, and seeing Winfrey read them aloud in all seriousness provoked collective troll ecstasy.

That spectacle, as Phillips points out, also revealed how eagerly the mainstream media gobbles up and regurgitates sensationalistic material, however farcical and unsubstantiated it may be. Her central argument, formed as she spent many years lurking on 4Chan and interviewing Facebook trolls, holds that trolls are not the raving deviants the media makes them out to be. Rather, they replicate the obsessions and biases of the society around them and have often enjoyed fruitful symbiotic relationships with outlets like Fox News.

In 2007, for example, Fox broadcast its notorious "Report on Anonymous," an alarmist segment decrying the threat posed by this "Internet hate machine." Anonymous and 4Chan, its breeding ground, were delighted; Fox's shocked, lurid rhetoric was the quintessence of lulz. The report was mined for hilarious new catchphrases that exemplified mainstream cluelessness ("hackers on steroids"), and it gave Anonymous a sinister national profile it would later capitalize on in its celebrated attacks on the equally sinister Church of Scientology. When Bill O'Reilly denounced 4Chan as a "far-left website ... providing child pornography to pedophiles," Anonymous launched "Operation Bill Haz Cheezburgers," in which O'Reilly's own website was spammed with "hundreds of incoherent laudatory messages" and photos of cute animals.

Phillips makes much of the feedback loop between trolls and the world's more tabloid-ish news organizations (trolls themselves have fondly nicknamed the U.K.'s Daily Mail newspaper the Daily Troll), but it's hard to find this as revelatory as she makes it out to be. Trolls and tabloids (not to mention other forms of journalism) are equally drawn to transgressive subjects provoking strong feelings -- sex, death, violence, child abuse, rape, race -- because those feelings attract readers and viewers and (from the troll's perspective) generate lulz. It's less that trolling betrays the dark side of the mainstream media than that both are keen to exploit their audiences' (unacknowledged) appetite for stereotypes, indignation and horror.

Far more interesting is Phillips' assertion that the subculture of trolls arising from 4Chan has profoundly influenced Internet culture, an influence the Internet as a whole would prefer to deny. In addition to Anonymous, 4Chan originated nearly every popular meme on the Internet, from LOLcats and Rickrolling to rage face comics. The meme itself (by which I mean rectangular graphic images with funny or cryptic text at the top and/or bottom) is largely a creation of 4Chan. "An astounding number of troll-made artifacts have been adopted by a much wider pop cultural audience... Mainstream culture is overrun with the brainchildren of subcultural trolls," Phillips writes. Meanwhile, trolls consume and repurpose the motifs of mainstream pop culture to meet their own trollish needs.

What Phillips explores only briefly, however, are the ways that the rhetoric and tactics of this school of trollery have permeated Internet culture. To see how, it helps to understand that classic trolling is intended solely to evoke outrage. "Trolls believe that nothing should be taken seriously," Phillips writes, "and therefore regard public displays of sentimentality, political conviction and/or ideological rigidity as a call to trolling arms. In this way, lulz functions as a pushback against all forms of attachment." To be detached is to assert power.

One of the most surprising revelations in "This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things" is that trolls embrace two figures from the history of philosophy: Arthur Schopenhauer and Socrates, described in the trollish wiki, Encyclopedia Dramatica, as "a famous IRL troll of pre-internets Greece credited with inventing the first recorded trolling technique." Both philosophers advocated a form of argument that aims to disorient and enrage one's adversary while the speaker himself remains cool-headed. Schopenhauer in particular recommended a whole bag of dirty tricks, including ad hominem attacks, insolence and lying.

Essential to all of this is the classic troll's secret weapon: He doesn't really care. The objective is not even to win the argument, but to delight in making his target ever more incensed and distressed, and then to crow over the resulting spectacle with his troll pals. Depending on how you feel about the chosen victim, such shenanigans might seem righteous (Bill O'Reilly) or sadistic (bombarding a gay teen who posts a melodramatic video to YouTube with nasty comments). To the trolls, all that matters is that the target has left him- or herself vulnerable to mockery by caring too much. Many of the trolls Phillips met viewed their troll identities as compartmentalized, entirely separate from their real-life selves, who (we hope) aren't so radically dissociated.

With the exception of certain anti-media campaigns responding to an attack on Anonymous or 4Chan, most subcultural troll operations were parachute jobs. A troll stumbled upon a tempting blog post or YouTube video or Facebook profile and decided it deserved an invasion. Perhaps the first great troll raid occurred back in the days of UseNet, when the members of alt.tasteless staged a fake advice request on rec.pets.cats, then posted a barrage of equally fake responses, all involving the killing of the imaginary cats. As this instance shows, the troll raid bears a family resemblance to the prank phone call. Unsurprisingly, most of the trolls Phillips was able to contact turned out to be just the sort of young white male who finds such tricks both hysterical and a welcome ego-boost at the expense of his victim.

The Internet, however, has changed a lot in the past decade, and if its prevailing ethos was once young, male and white, there's a new sheriff in town. The ever-growing influence of social media is a power that favors, as Phillips puts it, "transparency, connectedness and sentimentality" -- everything the subcultural troll regards as contemptible and inviting attack. If there's an opposite to 4Chan, it's Tumblr, a popular sharing and blogging network infused with unbridled enthusiasm, idealism, fandom and confession. (On Facebook you "like" something by clicking a thumb's-up icon; on Tumblr, you click a heart.) If 4Chan feels like Guyville, Tumblr is the favored online home for young women.

The massive injection of this sensibility brought on by the rise of social media has transformed the temperament and ecology of the Internet. It has also set off an infamous territorial response from the old guard in the form of harassment directed at women who dare to express their opinions or write about their personal lives. Don't get me wrong -- women have always met with more than their fair share of abuse online; I was writing about this myself, all the way back in 1994. But until recently, women have been outnumbered and outgunned on the Internet, without the influence to impose change.

Much of what we now describe as trolling -- abuse, threats, diatribes about social justice warriors, etc. -- is in fact the desperate defensive reaction of the Internet's old-boy's club. Gamergate, a virulent assault on any female critic who questions the way women are depicted in video games, is a version of the same thing. This faction doesn't command decisive support, so it practices terrorism (death threats, Twitter storms, doxxing, etc.) against individual women. The damage this does is real, but terrorism has always been a tactic of asymmetrical warfare, used by smaller forces against larger ones. These guys know their foothold is slipping, which is one of the reasons they've become so venomous.

If the classic subcultural troll of 2009 did not give a fuck about anything (including ordinary human decency), this new breed of reactionary cares so much. It's difficult to fathom just how much some people care about preserving the right to shoot big-boobed hookers in video games, but they do. They really, really do. And, as any true troll can tell you, that's the sign of a mark.

Enter such trends as ironic misandry, a performance by feminist Internet writers and personalities for the evident purpose of aggravating men's rights advocates. The Jedi master of this sport is Mallory Ortberg, of the website the Toast. Her "Lullabies for Misandrists" ("Baa, baa, black sheep/Have you any wool?/Yes sir; yes sir/Kill all men") is a parody of the man-hating boogeywoman that feminism is in the paranoid fantasies of MRAs, written in verse made all the funnier by its on-the-nose clumsiness. After the Toast posted it, Ortberg and her fans gleefully tallied the affronted responses from those who just couldn't help rising to the bait.

More recently, on Twitter, the black television critic Pilot Viruet posted an ad she'd placed on Craigslist to her Tumblr. The ad offers her services to white people who want to sing rap and R&B songs in karaoke bars but can't bring themselves to sing "the N-word." "Well, now you can hire me, an authentic Black person, to say it for you! You just pick a song and I'll just pop up at the correct time to say the N-word for you without disrupting your flow." To her Tumblr, Viruet added the note "I am very excited to read the replies I get for this."

There's much of the trickster spirit of classic trollery to these gambits, with a few key differences. Neither woman is invading someone else's Internet space to post material deliberately intended to hurt or enrage them, for example. Both partake of the troll's advantage in professing to care little about an issue that torments the other side (MRAs, guilty white people). Whether Ortberg or Viruet have any real feelings in the matter isn't the point; each is deploying a persona, very much like what Phillips calls "the mask of the troll," which is distinct from whoever a troll may be in real life.

It's startling to contemplate the possibility that much of what we love about the Internet -- the ways it devours and reconfigures pop culture, the forms of play it offers, its particular argot and style of humor -- might have originated at 4Chan, which is typically viewed as the Internet's nadir. But the more I read of "This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things," the more I recognized how much Internet media has adopted from it -- often without realizing the source.

The last time I checked, 4Chan still looked like 4Chan: Full of obscenity, racial and sexual epithets, rage, gross photos, incomprehensible slang and bad attitudes. The old-school trolls, however, complain to Phillips that everything has changed. No one wants to engineer raids anymore, and Anonymous has become that anathema: an activist group. So maybe even 4Chan has absorbed some of the changes filtering through the Internet, after all. The rest of us have certainly absorbed some of it, and not all of that is vile. We're all a little bit 4Chan now, which means that we're all at least a little bit troll.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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