Anatomy of a Troll
What are we talking about here? The big ugly greenish dudes in EQ, or
the wise-cracking greenish fang-toothed characters who talk with Jamaican
accents in WoW?
Actually, none of these. Today, we will be looking at a different kind
a verbal griefer if you will. They come in all sizes, colors,
nationalities, and sexes (well, usually one of two). They have varying
backgrounds, differing levels of education, and different paychecks. They
come in all ages and backgrounds. They have one thing in common-they love
to grief people on a verbal basis.
Let's take a look at the word "troll." How did it come to be applied
to someone who makes trouble on a forum? Here is the dictionary.com
v. trolled, troll·ing, trolls
1. To fish by trailing a baited line from behind a slowly moving boat.
2. To fish in by trailing a baited line: troll the lake for bass.
3. To trail (a baited line) in fishing.
And this is where the origin of the name came--see, what trolls do is
they troll forums
dragging a baited line in hopes of catching some
those fish being other forum goers who are easily upset by trollish
Despite the origin and meaning of the term, it is regarded that the wide-spread
usage of the word was popularized by the Scandinavian images of trolls
as antisocial and possessive creatures, ugly and obnoxious, and bent on
mischief and evil deeds. The image of the troll under the bridge in the
Billy Goats Gruff" emphasizes the trolls' dislike of outsiders
within its physical environment, particularly those who intend to graze
in its domain.
In Internet terminology, a troll is a person who posts inflammatory messages
on the Internet, such as on online discussion forums, to disrupt discussion
or to upset its participants. "Troll" can also mean the inflammatory
message itself posted by a troll or be a verb meaning to post such messages.
"Trolling" (the gerund) is also commonly used to describe the
The fact is, where trolls are concerned, there is no logic. Trolls do
not post messages to be logical or present reasonable debate. They post
to get attention and to get people angry at them, the more angry fish,
The reason for this is, according to various sources, that trolls have
not learned the difference between positive and negative attention. Some
psychologists say that this lack of awareness stems from early childhood
and dysfunctional family situations.
Wikipedia has a rather large section on trolls. Here is an excerpt
that illustrates the kind of ploys troll use to get attention:
This class of trolls seeks to obtain as many responses
as possible and to absorb a disproportionate amount of the collective
- Advertising another forum, especially a rival
or a hated forum.
- Claiming to be someone they cannot possibly
be: "As an actual, real-life samurai, I have some problems with
(the film The Seven Samurai)."
- Messages containing an obvious flaw or error:
"I think 2001: A Space Odyssey is Roman Polanski's best movie."
- Asking for help with an implausable task or
problem "How do I season my Crock Pot? I don't want everything
cooked in it to taste the same."
- Intentionally naive questions: "Can I use
olive oil instead of water, when cooking pasta?"
- Messages containing a self referential appeals
to status. "Evian is bottled water for white trash. I prefer Dasani
water imported from Italy."
- Intentionally posting an outrageous argument,
deliberately constructed around a fundamental but obfuscated flaw or
error. Often the poster will become defensive when the argument is refuted,
but may instead continue the thread through the use of further flawed
arguments; this is referred to as "feeding" the troll.
- A subclass of the above is the flawed proof
of an important unsolved mathematical problem or impossibility (e.g.
1 = 2); however, these may not always be troll-posts, and are sometimes,
at least, mathematically interesting.
- Politically contentious messages: "I think
George W. Bush is the best/worst President ever."
- Posting politically sensitive images in inappropriate
- Pretending to be innocent, after a flamewar
- Off-topic complaints about personal life, or
threats of suicide: sometimes, this is the "cry for help"
- Plural or paranoid answers to personal opinions
expressed by individuals: "I don't believe that all of you really
believe that, you are teaming against me."
- Paramour trolls get a thrill from establishing
serial online affairs with females of a group. This incites public rivalry
among the women who once thought the nicknames, poetry, love statements
were exclusive to them. Since the online love affair is developed separately
in chat programs, it takes a long time for the online cat-fight to be
- Any combination of the above: For example, a
troll will combine inflammatory statements with poor grammar and AIM-speak
(which is also known as "netspeak" or "chatspeak").
"lmfao u are so weak minded and predictablei thought i wan iggied
i play ya like a card"
The Internet Wikipedia again provides an interesting take on the usage
of the term "troll":
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 used to discredit an opposing position, or its proponent,
by argument ad
Likewise, calling someone a troll makes assumptions
about a writer's motives that may be incorrect. Regardless of the writer's
motives, controversial posts are likely to attract a corrective or patronizing
or outraged response by those who do not distinguish between real physical
(where people are actually exposed to some shared risk of bodily harm
by their actions), and epistemic
community (based on a mere exchange of words and ideas). Customs of
discourse, or etiquette, originating in physical communities are often
applied naively to online discourse by newcomers who are not used to the
range of views expressed online, often anonymously. Hence, both users
and posts are commonly, and sometimes inaccurately, labelled as trolls
when their content upsets people. Also, people may be more inclined to
use epithets like troll in online public discussion than they would be
in person, because online forums may seem more impersonal. PDNFTT is a
common acronym for Please Do Not Feed The Trolls.
When appropriately applied to purposefully disruptive
online behavior, the word troll economically converts an abstract code
of online manners into a concrete image. 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 to that forum - hence the often-seen warning, "Please
do not feed the Troll". Posting this warning publicly, in reply to
a troll's behavior to discourage further replies, may discourage the troll.
However, it can also have the reverse effect, becoming itself food for
the troll. Therefore, when a forum participant sees an apparently innocent
answer to a troll as potential troll food, it may be more prudent to deliver
the "Please do not feed the Troll" warning in a private message
to the answerer (e.g., by email, or to the answerer's wiki Talk page).
Here is another take on Internet trolls that covers
a large area of trolldom:
Excerpts from the article
Copyright © 2001 by Timothy Campbell
July 13 2001 Edition
What is an Internet Troll?
An Internet "troll" is a person who delights
in sowing discord on the Internet. He (and it is usually he) tries to
start arguments and upset people.
Trolls see Internet communications services as
convenient venues for their bizarre game. For some reason, they don't
"get" that they are hurting real people. To them, other Internet
users are not quite human but are a kind of digital abstraction. As a
result, they feel no sorrow whatsoever for the pain they inflict. Indeed,
the greater the suffering they cause, the greater their 'achievement'
(as they see it). At the moment, the relative anonymity of the net allows
trolls to flourish.
Trolls are utterly impervious to criticism (constructive
or otherwise). You cannot negotiate with them; you cannot cause them to
feel shame or compassion; you cannot reason with them. They cannot be
made to feel remorse. For some reason, trolls do not feel they are bound
by the rules of courtesy or social responsibility.
Why does it Matter?
Some people -- particularly those who have been
online for years -- are not upset by trolls and consider them an inevitable
hazard of using the net. As the saying goes, "You can't have a picnic
It would be nice if everybody was so easy-going,
but the sad fact is that trolls do discourage people. Established posters
may leave a message board because of the arguments that trolls ignite,
and lurkers (people who read but do not post) may decide that they do
not want to expose themselves to abuse and thus never get involved.
Another problem is that the negative emotions stirred
up by trolls leak over into other discussions. Normally affable people
can become bitter after reading an angry interchange between a troll and
his victims, and this can poison previously friendly interactions between
Finally, trolls create a paranoid environment,
such that a casual criticism by a new arrival can elicit a ferocious and
The Internet is a wonderful resource which is breaking
down barriers and stripping away prejudice. Trolls threaten our continued
enjoyment of this beautiful forum for ideas.
The Webmaster's Challenge
When trolls are ignored they step up their attacks,
desperately seeking the attention they crave. Their messages become more
and more foul, and they post ever more of them. Alternatively, they may
protest that their right to free speech is being curtailed -- more on
The moderator of a message board may not be able
to delete a troll's messages right away, but their job is made much harder
if they also have to read numerous replies to trolls. They are also forced
to decide whether or not to delete posts from well-meaning folks which
have the unintended effect of encouraging the troll.
Some webmasters have to endure conscientious users
telling them that they are "acting like dictators" and should
never delete a single message. These people may be misinformed: they may
have arrived at their opinion about a troll based on the messages they
see, never realizing that the webmaster has already deleted his most horrific
material. Please remember that a troll does have an alternative if he
has something of value to say: there are services on the net that provide
messaging systems free of charge. So the troll can set up his own message
board, where he can make his own decisions about the kind of content he
Just how much can we expect of a webmaster when
it comes to preserving the principles of free speech? Some trolls find
sport in determining what the breaking point is for a particular message
board operator. They might post a dozen messages, each of which contains
400 lines of the letter "J". That is a form of expression, to
be sure, but would you consider it your duty to play host to such a person?
Perhaps the most difficult challenge for a webmaster
is deciding whether to take steps against a troll that a few people find
entertaining. Some trolls do have a creative spark and have chosen to
squander it on being disruptive. There is a certain perverse pleasure
in watching some of them. Ultimately, though, the webmaster has to decide
if the troll actually cares about putting on a good show for the regular
participants, or is simply playing to an audience of one -- himself.
What about Free Speech?
When trolls find that their efforts are being successfully
resisted, they often complain that their right to free speech is being
infringed. Let us examine that claim.
While most people on the Internet are ardent defenders
of free speech, it is not an absolute right; there are practical limitations.
For example, you may not scream out "Fire!" in a crowded theatre,
and you may not make jokes about bombs while waiting to board an airplane.
We accept these limitations because we recognize that they serve a greater
Another useful example is the control of the radio
frequency spectrum. You might wish to set up a powerful radio station
to broadcast your ideas, but you cannot do so without applying for a license.
Again, this is a practical limitation: if everybody broadcasted without
restriction, the repercussions would be annoying at best and life-threatening
The radio example is helpful for another reason:
with countless people having a legitimate need to use radio communications,
it is important to ensure that nobody is 'monopolizing the channel'. There
are only so many clear channels available in each frequency band and these
must be shared.
When a troll attacks a message board, he generally
posts a lot of messages. Even if his messages are not particularly inflammatory,
they can be so numerous that they drown out the regular conversations
(this is known as 'flooding'). Needless to say, no one person's opinions
can be allowed to monopolize a channel.
The ultimate response to the 'free speech' argument
is this: while we may have the right to say more or less whatever we want,
we do not have the right to say it wherever we want. You may feel strongly
about the fact that your neighbor has not mowed his lawn for two months,
but you do not have the right to berate him in his own living room. Similarly,
if a webmaster tells a troll that he is not welcome, the troll has no
"right" to remain. This is particularly true on the numerous
free communications services offered on the net. (On pay systems, the
troll might be justified in asking for a refund.)
Next time you are on a message board and you see
a post by somebody whom you think is a troll, and you feel you must reply,
simply write a follow-up message entitled "Troll Alert" and
type only this:
The only way to deal with trolls is to limit your
reaction to reminding others not to respond to trolls.
By posting such a message, you let the troll know
that you know what he is, and that you are not going to get dragged into
his twisted little hobby.
Read whole article:
From all the evidence, then, we can deduce that:
1. Trolls love to cause anger, hurt, flame wars, mistrust.
2. Trolls do not understand that they are hurting real people on the other
end of the monitor.
3. You cannot reason with trolls or appeal to their compassion.
4. You can refrain from being baited. However trolls often spot your weak
links and keep digging until you succumb.
5. The best way to handle trolls is (a) ban them from the forum; and (b)
ignore them. Trolls cannot thrive on being ignored.
In our Vanguard community, we have a wonderful group of people all with
a common goal...with one exception--the trolls. The more we understand
what trolls are actually up to, the better we can deal with the hurtful,
unnecessary damage that these people do.