The NYT Magazine has a fascinating discussion of Internet trolls — users (often teens) who try to disrupt online communities. It’s a highly interesting insight into how technology can promote asocial action and filled with lots of interesting characters and anecdotes.
The article notes how trolls upend the rules of famed computer scientist Jon Postel, who helped guide the ethos of the emerging network. In 1981, he formulated Postel’s Law: ‘Be conservative in what you do; be liberal in what you accept from others.”’…”Trolls embody the opposite principle. They are liberal in what they do and conservative in what they construe as acceptable behavior from others. You, the troll says, are not worthy of my understanding; I, therefore, will do everything I can to confound you.”
The article discusses the antics of these trolls in mocking a student, Mitchell Henderson, who committed suicide by shooting himself allegedly over a lost iPod. In the webworld of /b/ (the miscellaneous 4chan.org bulletin board where most posts are a couple lines of anonymous text) the death surfaced and Internet trolls found this humorous and began wreaking havoc.
Someone hacked Henderson’s MySpace page and gave him the face of a zombie. Someone placed an iPod on Henderson’s grave, took a picture and posted it to /b/. Henderson’s face was appended to dancing iPods, spinning iPods, hardcore porn scenes. A dramatic re-enactment of Henderson’s demise appeared on YouTube, complete with shattered iPod. The phone began ringing at Mitchell’s parents’ home. “It sounded like kids,” remembers Mitchell’s father, Mark Henderson, a 44-year-old I.T. executive. “They’d say, ‘Hi, this is Mitchell, I’m at the cemetery.’ ‘Hi, I’ve got Mitchell’s iPod.’ ‘Hi, I’m Mitchell’s ghost, the front door is locked. Can you come down and let me in?’ ” He sighed. ‘It really got to my wife.” The calls continued for a year and a half.
The article discusses the metamorphosis of trolling from largely innocuous (what Judith Donath calls pseudo-naive, asking dorky questions on bulletin boards and seeing who takes the bait) to more serious behaviors, such as posting violent fantasies pseudonymously about 2 Yale Law Students on a college admissions bulletin board.
One of the new activities is called lulz (a variant of LOL). “You look for someone who is full of it, a real blowhard. Then you exploit their insecurities to get an insane amount of drama, laughs and lulz. Rules would be simple: 1. Do whatever it takes to get lulz. 2. Make sure the lulz is widely distributed. This will allow for more lulz to be made. 3. The game is never over until all the lulz have been had.”
It’s interesting to see the perpetrators, such as Jason Fortuny, wrapping themselves in the pseudo-mantle of academics, claiming that their antics are really “experiments” and “sociological inquiries into human behavior”. But his dfinition of experiment seems thin: “In the fall of 2006, he [Fortuny] posted a hoax ad on Craigslist, posing as a woman seeking a “str8 brutal dom muscular male.” More than 100 men responded. Fortuny posted their names, pictures, e-mail and phone numbers to his blog, dubbing the exposé “the Craigslist Experiment.”
Nonetheless, whether Fortuny believes that they are experiments or not, it’s important to recognize that the Internet undoubtedly makes people like Jason far more comfortable doing their “social experiments” than if they were in the same physical space. It is for this exact reason that experiments have found that people are more willing to cheat strangers on the Internet than when they are in the same room; in the same room, you can’t be nearly as anonymous. As the famed Internet cartoon styled it, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”
One wonders whether in a pre-Internet world, Fortuny would have claimed that punching someone in the stomach was a sociological experiment to see how others would have reacted. For sure, this type of “sociological experiment” seems safer to him, with hundreds of miles and some anonymity separating him from his victims. Using Fortuny’s logic, Hitler could have claimed that the holocaust was merely an experiment to see how Jews reacted to this treatment.
Of course a distant cousin of Internet trolling is the rise in cyber-bullying and text bullying. Again, the physical distance of the bully-er and the bully-ee makes bullies more comfortable taking actions that they might be more loathe to take in person. And often, by not getting verbal clues from the victims, they may be less aware when the bullying has gone to far and may be about to have horrific consequences. What links both the cyber-bullying and the trolling (at least in Fortuny’s case) is a miserable childhood. Fortuny claims to have been sexually abused by his grandmother when he was 5; whether this is true or not, who knows? But for sure, Fortuny should aspire to “turn the wheel” in his own life — to be a better parent (if he ever gets there), friend or neighbor than his parents or grandparents were in parenting him. Fortuny uses his earlier misfortune to set the bar unbearably low — “This is life. Welcome to life” Fortuny says about his trolling.
And with a more atomized society and that the fact that the perpetrators (the trolls) and the victims (the “trolees”) are not really even in the same e-communities (since the trolls are only masquerading as members), it makes it much harder to police any common social norms. But the result is invariably a further breakdown in social trust.
IN the four days that Mattathias Schwartz lived with Fortuny, the only question that he couldn’t answer was “Is there anything that can be done on the Internet that shouldn’t be done?” Fortuny was silent on this for 4 days.
I highly recommend the Schwartz NYT magazine article; see a preview of “Malwebolence” here (on newstands August 3, 2008).
And for a profile of 4chan.org founder Christopher Poole see WSJ’s “Modest Web Site Is Behind a Bevy of Memes” (Poole was a bored 15-year old teenager when he founded 4chan.org that now gets 200 million messages a month)