It Depends on What You Mean by “All of It”

June 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

Yesterday Charlie Jane Anders published an article on io9 “reality checking” the relationship between trolls and the people behind them. First she challenges the assumption that online anonymity magically transforms perfectly nice, perfectly normal humans into snarling “jerkfaces.” She then asserts –well, she guesses– that the trolls one encounters online are probably just as insufferable in real life. As she writes,

The fact is [ed. note: hold on, “fact?” didn’t she just say she “guessed” that this was “probably” true?], you can meet internet trolls in real life, and they will be just as trollish in person as they are on the internet. It’s just that, when someone starts screaming at you on the street about their crazy conspiracy theories, you can walk away.

Wait, crazy people screaming on the street? Apparently, yes:

[M]ost of us have had the experience of being trolled in real life. Many of us have had it on a regular basis, especially if you walk around a city late at night. Or visit your weird relatives. It’s easy enough to be accosted by drunk people or wild-eyed ranters with no boundaries, if you’re out in a public place and not adequately telegraphing that you do not wish to embrace the tyranny of the commons.

I don’t disagree with the basic assumption that assholes are assholes regardless of where they happen to be standing, but find myself scratching my head at Anders’ use of the term “troll.” Because what she describes in the paragraph above isn’t trolling. It’s certainly shitty, but as I’ve said over and over again, trolling is a subset of aggressive online behavior, not the umbrella under which all other forms of aggression fall.

Nor do I disagree that this is a fruitful conversation to have. It’s critical to think about the relationship between trolls and their rl selves, and is even more critical to think about the role anonymity (or lack thereof) plays in both realms. In my dissertation I spend what feels like years trying to unpack the weird cultural and behavioral crossover between a person’s trolling persona(s) and his or her actual self (whatever that even means). But those are specific questions about a specific population, not something to vaguely equate with schizophrenic homeless people (as is the implicit assertion in the above quote) or our insufferable neoconservative relatives.

Consequently Anders’ conclusion, that

[A] large proportion of the worst, most horrendous internet trolls are probably people who lack a certain amount of social graces in their “meatspace” interactions as well. Including some people you probably would flee, long before they got as far as opening their mouths.

ends up missing the point, in fact doesn’t make much of a point, because it doesn’t define its terms or scope or platform or anything necessary to the conversation. In other words: …..wait, what were we talking about again?

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