The term trolling, like the term flamebait, originated as a fishing metaphor: like people who troll for fish, people on the internet were dragging a conversational lure through a group, baiting for a particular response, often anger or argument. Later, the verb became a noun, as a trolling person was labeled a troll. In its noun form, troll picked up the association of the monster trolls in folklore.
Some feel that using the noun (calling someone a troll) makes unnecessary assumptions about a writer's motives, whereas using the verb (calling a post trolling) describes the reception of a post without making assumptions about motives. Thus, it may be possible to troll unintentionally. Such assumptions would generally be an example of the fundamental attribution error i.e. inferring that behavior results from a person's nature or personality rather than examining behavior in the context of events surrounding the behavior. Regardless, labeling not only posts but people trolls is very common in current usage.
Of course, not everyone who is accused of being a troll meets even the loose definition of the slang term. The term is highly subjective, and some posts will look like "trolling" to some while seeming like meaningful contributions to others. Behavior which might be considered a simple rampage or an emotional outburst in other environments is often tagged with the term "troll" in internet discussion.
The term is frequently used to discredit an opposing position in an argument. This usually amounts to an undefensible ad hominem argument: many views that have met with opposition and even the ridicule of experts have subsequently been found to be justified, so the label "troll" used this way is actually likely to indicate a correct but controversial position that is stirring up flames precisely because it has challenged a doctrine others actually realize is wrong. (It is quite possible to stir up controversy with a wrong argument, but these can more effectively be met by simply responding to the substantive issue.)
Reasons for the use of slang monikers in Internet discussion explored in peer reviewed literature exploring behavior in electronic networks such as the Internet include a sense of anonymity or impersonal perceptions of others, which tend to reduce perceptions of the value of another person in a dialogue. On the other hand, customs of discourse, or etiquette, that originated in physical communities, where people are actually exposed to some danger of bodily harm (as opposed to merely epistemic communities or communities of practice), are often applied naively by newcomers who are not used to the range of views that people are often comfortable expressing online, especially anonymously.
Common types of troll messages or activities:
- off topic messages — "Can anyone help me make a webpage?" "No, this is a music forum."
- inflammatory messages — "You are an idiot for including this type of message in your list."
- messages containing an obvious flaw or error — "I think 2001: A Space Odyssey is Roman Polanski's best movie."
- intentionally naive or politically contentious messages — "I think George W. Bush is the best/worst President ever."
- intentionally posting an outrageous argument deliberately constructed around a fundamental but obfuscated flaw or error.
- posting a ridiculous claim and then insisting it's true unless people refute it to their satisfaction.
- making loud claims to be on the defensive, while the claims are a guise for their aggressive maneuvers.
- including offensive media such as annoying sound files or disturbing pictures in a message.
- after successfully baiting users, feigning innocence and/or feigning ignorance of procedures
An example of a troll message in the newer sense would be one that denounces a particular religion in a religion newsgroup — though historically, this would have been called "flamebait". Like those who engage in flaming, self-proclaimed or alleged Internet trolls sometimes resort to innuendo or misdirection in the pursuit of their objectives.
A variant of the second variety (inflammatory messages) involves posting content obviously severely contradictory to the (stated or unstated) focus of the group or forum- for example, posting cat meat recipes on a pet lovers forum, posting evolutionary theory on a creationist forum, or posting messages about how all dragons are boring in the USENET group alt.fan.dragons.
Cross posting is a popular method of choice by Usenet trolls: a cross-posted article can be discussed simultaneously in several unrelated and/or opposing newsgroups; this is likely to result in a flame war. For instance, an anti-Fast food flame bait might be cross posted to healthy eating groups, environmentalist groups, animal rights groups, as well as a totally off-topic Artificial Intelligence newsgroup.
An example of a successful troll is the well-known "Oh how I envy American students" USENET thread which got 3000+ followups.
Most discussion of what motivates Internet trolls comes from other Internet users who claim to have observed trolling behavior. There is little scholarly literature to describe either the term or the phenomenon. The comments of accused trolls might be unreliable, since they may in fact be intending to stir controversy rather than to advance understanding of the phenomenon. Likewise, accusers are often motivated by a desire to defend a particular Internet project and references to an Internet user as a troll might not be based on the actual goals of the person so named. As a result, identifying the goals of Internet trolls is most often speculative. Still, several basic goals have been attributed to Internet trolls, according to the type of disruption they are believed to be provoking.
One alleged goal is to get some form of meta-forum (or "off-topic") response. The goal would be to provoke a sort of negative response. Another suspected goal is to generate a change in the opinion of the users of the board or of the overall reason for the forum. Another goal is to cause a policy change in the way the board is run. An example of a policy change would be the requirement of admin verification of new accounts before they are allowed to post on a previously open account registration board. Another goal a forum troll may have would be to cause the forum itself to be shut down, either temporarily or permanently. These suspected motivations are similar to those stated by Internet hackers, who often state their efforts are to improve Internet security or to generally disrupt overuse of networked electronic communication formats.
A person might also engage in behavior described as trolling to target a particular individual, or because they have concluded there is no normal or rational forum for more legitimate discourse. In other situations, the person accused of trolling may simply be attempting to spread joviality or using a form of humor, such as satire, which can lead the target of such satirical barbs to label the behavior as trolling.
Resolutions and alternatives
The popular wisdom about dealing with alleged trolls is "Don't feed the trolls, that will only encourage them." That is, do not respond to them; that is the attention they desire. Or, at best, one will be drawn into dialogues that waste time. Somebody who does respond to them might be told "YHBT. YHL. HAND." by other members of the group, which means "You have been trolled. You have lost. Have a nice day."
Literature on conflict resolution suggests that labeling participants in Internet discussions as trolls can serve to perpetuate the unwanted behaviors. A person who failed to find acceptance by a group, for whatever reason, might readily embrace an identity as a troll if the group more readily accepts that identity. An affirmative strategy in dealing with trolling behavior is to describe preferred behaviors, to affirm the capacity of a person to perform according to those expectations and to recognize the value of the preferred behavior. This is often difficult for those who use this term because it requires that they lend aid and comfort to those with whom they might disagree. Nonetheless, in most conflicts, for parties to articulate the interests of another party in terms the other party will accept is widely recognized as both a tool of conflict resolution and of persuading opponents to accept an unwelcome viewpoint.
Specific trolling subcultures
- Slashdot trolling phenomena (see also Slashdot subculture)
- GameFAQs LUE
- Usenet trolling phenomena
- m:Internet trolling phenomena on Wikipedia
- Troll organization
Notable troll examples
- alt.troll FAQ
- alt.syntax.tactical FAQ
- afk-mn FAQ (mostly old-style Usenet trolling)
- What Makes A Fuckhead? by David Kendrick
- "Oh how I envy American students"
- "Oh how I envy American students"
- False repentance
- The relationship between social context cues and uninhibited verbal behavior in computer-mediated communication
- Moral panic and alternative identity construction in Usenet
- Searching for Safety Online: Managing "Trolling" in a Feminist Forum
- Troll entry in the Jargon File