Don't Feed the Trolls
March 14, 2008

My bedroom in high school and the first year of college, was, more often than not, pitch dark. It wasn't for the lack of trying to lighten it up - my mom bought the most sheer curtains she could find. And when I demanded "bed dressing" that matched my personality, Mom made matching curtains out of an extra set of the sheets. (White, with a stripe of rainbow down each long side ... yeah, I know. Early indicator?) Stark white walls, mostly white comforter, sheer curtains which let in the light from the street light at the corner of our front yard. But my favourite way to be was laying on my bedroom floor, all the lights out, just the glow of my "jambox"-stereo's equalizer dancing up and down. And that last year of high school when I scrounged together all of my money to buy my prized Magnavox Videowriter, I would sit at my desk, adding the amber glow of that cheesy word processor to the dim light of my room.

When my creative writing teacher first told us how he would go to an all-night Waffle House to immerse himself in the biomass (to borrow Stephenson's word), I was appalled. How could anyone write with all of the cacophony of activity and light around them? F.J. insisted that it was a valuable way to observe characters, to practice dialogue. Being far too much of an introvert, I could not really wrap my head around this enough to do it. That was about 1986 or 1987.

A few years earlier, my dad brought home a stunning new toy - a Commodore 64. He was amazed and gleeful like a little boy on Christmas morning discovering his new Red Ryder BB gun or Radio Flyer sled. He practically squealed as he opened up the package and pulled out that brick of a keyboard/computer. A whole 64k stored in this sucker! He explained to me, in one of our rare actual conversations, it used to take a machine the size of about half our house to do what this little sucker could do. I remembered one of those rooms - Dad took me to work with him once ... an icy air-conditioned room filled with huge metal cabinet-things. Punch cards. Later, rolls of paper tape.

Mom forbid the acquisition of a modem as efficiently as she'd forbidden cable television - but the boy across the street had a modem and I watched as one letter after another would pop onto the screen from some distant person. Heh, and watch those letters disappear as the person hit backspace to correct a typo.

But it wasn't until I was nearly done with my seven year stint at university before I discovered MUDdog and email and just how fascinating this online Waffle House could be. That was somewhere around 1992-4.

I've been hooked ever since.

This morning, once again, I've turned off all of the lights. I have the band Sick Puppies blaring on the stereo, though not as loudly as I'd like - my neighbors are still sleeping. The glow of my keyboard and laptop screen - and the blue glow of the stereo are all I want. I'm writing against the deadline of sunrise, remembering how easy it was for me to get lost in my introspection as a teenager and 20something in the dark. How much easier it was and is to reflect honestly on myself and my actions as well as the biomass I observe around me.

I recognize that I'm damaged
I sympathize that you are too
But I wanna breathe without feelin' so self-conscious
But it's hard when the world's starin' at you

To me, this is the most interesting thing about the internet. You have all of these people with their foibles and faults and strengths ... you have these intercies, these nodes, of common interest where this diverse mass of individuals pour their thoughts into shared pixel representations.

Why do we do this? Why do we strive to share our experiences and thoughts with everyone else? Why do we strive to get people to understand what we're thinking, feeling, wanting?

It seems to me that no matter how introverted or extroverted an individual is, we all are reaching for some connection beyond just our self - to know that we are not totally alone in our thought or experience or feeling. That someone groks at least a fraction of who and what we are.

What I constantly strive to understand, and I'm not sure I'm capable of really understanding it, is why some people are literally so lost in their own individuality that they cannot hear the experiences and feelings of others.

I can't even begin to recall how many times I have read the pixels of people who define their world by "I'm right" and you're either 100% with me or 100% against me. So when I see one of these people laying their pixels down in a frantic dance of light and dark dots, I'm sucked in by my own curiosity and confused fascination. When I watch as they blithely ignore the community around them and choose to take disagreement as attack; when they insist on reading a helping hand as condemnation.

And, then, of course, all of our shared human foibles come to the fore. The helping hand and the civil disagreement becomes frustration and anger - which does become attack and condemnation. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy that leaves the outer edges of the community in confusion and often shock. It's like seeing the "perfect couple" have a real fight finally. You see sides of these people that you never suspected lurked beneath all the letters they've strung together on the internet.

And when the smoke clears and all the participants who are able to do so actually sit back and take a look at what happened and how they contributed to the explosion, they are left with this conundrum:
How do I both "protect" my self, ideas and beliefs ... and balance my emotional reaction ... and walk away from the trolls who only want a fight and to get everyone riled up?

How do we differentiate motive on the net without body language and tone of voice to help us decipher our pixelated world?

In my experience, it becomes about building a context. If one person's response to disagreement is to always either ignore or attack, with no middle ground attempting to bridge differences and create understanding, then that person is probably simply trolling for trouble. It's a subjective thing. And, in online communities, it's a dangerous field to walk across. Newer folk are going to tend to side with the troll when the old hands attempt to slap down the troll out of frustration. The old hands know the history and have often decided to take a stand to defend their community and hunt the troll until they've left the community. New people, not knowing that the troll may be currently presenting the mask of the maligned victim in order to garner support and thus keep the battle going on longer, may openly side with the troll in an effort to defend their new community from bullies.

The term troll is highly subjective. Some readers may characterize a post as trolling, while others may regard the same post as a legitimate contribution to the discussion, even if controversial. The term is often erroneously used to discredit an opposing position, or its proponent, by argument fallacy ad hominem.

Often, calling someone a troll makes assumptions about a writer's motives. Regardless of the circumstances, controversial posts may attract a particularly strong response from those unfamiliar with the robust dialogue found in some online, rather than physical, communities.

Experienced participants in online forums know that the most effective way to discourage a troll is usually to ignore him or her, because responding encourages a true troll to continue disruptive posts -- hence the often-seen warning "Please do not feed the troll".

Frequently, someone who has been labelled a troll by a group may seek to redeem their reputation by discrediting their opponents, for example by claiming that other members of the group are closed-minded, conspirators, or trolls themselves.

No matter how even-handed ... how just ... we try to be, the fact of the matter is, we are not perfect. We snap. We jump to conclusions. We get tired and cranky. And what separates us from the trolls? We are able to step back and re-evaluate our behaviour, to try to learn from our mistakes, to learn when to stop reacting next time and walk away from what we feel is trollish behaviour.

To creatures who seem to intrinsically need to be understood, it's a hard thing to walk away from that chance at communication. But some battles are won only when they aren't fought at all ...

The light is beginning to make the curtains glow ... so now I leave you with this ...

Don't Feed The Trolls

Posted by Red Monkey at March 14, 2008 5:26 AM | Blog | Never Underestimate the Power of Human Stupidity | Sketches | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |

Don't EVER join a MySpace group if you haven't already. I don't know trolls until you've gone there. LOL

March 14, 2008 2:06 PM


Bobbie said:

You've nailed it with this piece, the perfect garnish to the cartoon strip (or maybe it's the other way around).

March 14, 2008 2:37 PM


Shirley said:

This is true and as I said before I'm sorry for doing what I did. I have apologized before but as you said no amount of anything I do will ever take back what I did. It's probably on the Internet for eternity and that's not how I want to be remembered. I can admit when I am wrong and I felt sick to the stomach because of it. Rarely, do I behave in that manner and it was juvenile and immature.

March 14, 2008 3:17 PM


Ruinous Right said:

Excellent post ender! I just read it for the first time as Mark pointed me in your direction.


September 16, 2008 12:26 AM


YogaforCynics said:

damn that Mark Stoneman and his little red dog....

October 12, 2008 8:40 PM


YogaforCynics said:

damn that Mark Stoneman and his little red dog....

October 12, 2008 9:16 PM


Chronos said:

So...who were you on Muddog?

- Chronos

January 13, 2009 2:02 AM
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