The Lost Art of Trolling

Pop Culture

The Lost Art of Trolling

Illustration: Namaah/ Arré

D
avid Thorne is an internet legend (even if that means nothing in the real world). In 2008, he got an email about an overdue payment of $234 that he had to clear, resulting in possibly one of the greatest email exchanges of all time.

Thorne sent back a (terrible) drawing of a spider as payment. When the lady at the other end, Jane Gilles, refused to accept a drawing of a seven-legged spider as payment (understandably so), Thorne asked her to send back the drawing. Then he accused her of sending back a different drawing.

This went on for several emails — the cringe comedy and absurdity, as well as the commitment with which the farce was executed, is what makes it so celebrated; it’s the pinnacle of trolling.

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Things are different now. These days, everyone’s a “troll”. A person having an opinion you don’t agree with is a troll. Overzealous supporters of political parties are trolls. Even fake, obviously automated accounts are trolls. The word has lost meaning.

Back in the good old days, a troll was the practitioner of a very specific, sophisticated art form — one not many could appreciate, and one not many even understood. But they pretended to. Sort of like modern dance. Or Yoko Ono.

It may seem like I’m bemoaning the decline of the web troll, but it’s much the opposite; now is a good time to say good riddance and move on.

The troll was sometimes a bored nutjob like Thorne. But just as often, he’d be a specialised kind of sociopath, lacking any moral compass and overcompensating for his awkwardness by committing to being cruel and vicious. He had no allegiance to any school of thought — he was a free agent and a mercenary. A predator who’d trawl forums for fresh meat, destroying his victims by any means necessary (often crossing boundaries, birthing/sustaining hellholes such as 4chan), all the while basking in the glory of anonymity.

He was a professional shit-stirrer. Trolling was disruptive psychological warfare.

Don’t feed the troll was the internet equivalent of don’t talk to strangers. It was argumentative in spirit, no doubt, but that isn’t what defined it. It was art for art’s sake, with the larger purpose being nothing more than humiliating your opponent and walking away victorious. It was frightening and obnoxious and horrifying. 

Take the case of Sean Duffy, who was put in a UK jail in 2011 for posting messages of ridicule on tribute pages for teenagers who’d committed suicide. That’s how deeply the troll was disconnected from reality. Without playing up a stereotype, Duffy suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome and was an alcoholic.

Terrible instances of cyber bullying exist today, of course, and they’re far worse than anything poor Dave Thorne – limited artist that he was – could have thought up. Remember #GamerGate and what Anita Sarkeesian was subjected to? Or the time Rajdeep Sardesai quit Twitter after facing a lot of abuse from internet warriors? (Sure, he returned within a week because Twitter is like melted chocolate, but that’s a different matter.) Apparently, political parties and big-budget production houses even hire soldiers to “troll” and suppress any dissenters.

So this is not a premature ode to a progressive society. It’s just that “trolling” today has been reduced to boring screaming matches stemming from ideological differences — animated arguments, in other words. The surrealism has practically vanished.

Trolling is now just a stand-in for outrage and disagreement.

It may seem like a tired hypothesis, but that has to have a lot to do with how the internet has gone “viral” now. It has always been mainstream, but, even seven or eight years ago, it wasn’t a primary concern for so many educated Indians (at least empirically).

Today, my parents are on Facebook. Less than a decade ago, I don’t think I was on Facebook. Social media happened, anonymity, and false bravado were replaced by vacation photos and teenage poetry. (Then food, then hashtags, then selfies, then Vines…)

Facebook and Twitter slowly started replacing old-running forums as the places to be, leaving the troll starved of attention. So the troll became a lurker, an infrequent disruptor.

The subsequent job opening at the very bottom of the digital pile has now been filled up by many different kinds of people: right-wingers, left-wingers, feminists, meninists, Chetan Bhagat, me, you.

Trolling is now just a stand-in for outrage and disagreement. It still shares traits with its origins — the bullying, threat, rage, fear, mild sociopathy — but not the implicit nuance and commitment, and definitely not the comedy.

The word, once worn proudly and pitied in equal measure, has lost all meaning. Everyone’s a troll because, really, no one’s a troll.

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