AOL Keyword: Troll

April 25, 2012 § 2 Comments

Last night while watching tv I stumbled upon the above story, 20/20’s take on what they are calling trolls. This morning a friend of mine sent this story, the Daily Mail’s take on what they are calling trolls. This afternoon I happened upon this story, the Sun’s take on what they are calling trolls.  Trolls are so hot right now you guys! No seriously, this is all very weird. Not just because 4chan isn’t mentioned a-once (it’ll take a while for me to get used to that; welcome to the future though) but because none of the three stories bothers to define exactly what they mean when they talk about trolling. This is sort of important, and strikes me as a harbinger of things to come. Specifically, a deluge of stories about and inevitable legal pushback against a poorly defined post-hoc non-category of behaviors that neatly subsumes every asshole on the internet.

Who cares, they’re assholes, what’s it matter what people call them? you might ask. WELL, I’d say, it matters because what people call things often dictates what people are willing (or feel compelled) to do about them. Post enough stories condemning “trolls,” whatever that means in the context of these three articles –apparently a) people who like watching Faces of Death videos b) misguided vigilantes who conduct poorly-executed character assassinations of people who they believe are guilty of sexual assault and c) dickish Facebook users –by all accounts, posting under their real life names and profiles– mocking the developmentally disabled– and eventually you’ll start seeing legislation with the same kinds of equivocations. In other words, eye-of-the-beholder language. Again, what’s the big deal about that? Bad people shouldn’t be allowed to do bad things, right? Well sure, but it all depends on whose definition of “bad” you’re working with. You don’t want that definition to be SO broad that it could be anything to anyone, including to those who are looking for an excuse, any excuse, to clamp down other forms of “problematic” speech, including explicitly political speech.

Ultimately, that’s what I worry about here. Which isn’t to say that these three stories aren’t upsetting; I dislike assholes as much as the next guy. But you would be hard-pressed to see a piece of “anti-asshole” legislation, for very good reason — unless you want to actively monitor every single person in the country, and put everything everyone says under review before anything goes public, and shut down everything that might be construed as assholish by anybody, then the laws in question wouldn’t do much except maybe provide a legal avenue for targeting particular undesirable groups, some of whom might actually be bad guys and some of whom might be the guys the powers that be have decided are (or should be regarded as) bad. That’s a big risk, one that few non-crazy people would be willing to take.

But trolls, on the other hand —- “trolling” is a concrete enough category to take a stand against, but is nebulous enough to subsume almost anything (at least if the media coverage is any indication). Color me paranoid, but nothing justifies institutional lockdown faster or more effectively than scary abstract nouns, particularly when there’s no consistent definitional criteria explaining exactly what X means, exactly what X looks like and exactly who is guilty (War on Terror, anyone?). Hence my trepidation over this sort of framing, which I suspect is only just beginning to crystalize. I for one am not particularly encouraged.

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