NPR’s On Point Radio Program, On Trolling

November 6, 2012 § 3 Comments

Earlier today, Jonathan Zittrain and I were guests on On Point with Tom Ashbrook. One of the earliest questions –and one to which we kept returning, however indirectly– dealt with the term “troll” itself. Namely, “what is a.” I’ve found this to be an increasingly tricky question to field, especially given the recent onslaught of mainstream media stories that conflate the term “trolling” with “basically everything.” In my most recent revision of my dissertation –now book manuscript– I had to address that question head-on, and reinforce my existing historicization of the term (born on Usenet, the term has in the last 20 years wormed its way into vast swaths of the internet — my research focuses specifically on subcultural trolling, for which 4chan has served as both incubator and amplifier). The short version of that discussion is that it’s complicated, and that conversations about trolling that don’t take definitions (both etic and emic) into account are almost guaranteed to chase their own tail. Even when people do define their terms and do establish the scope of the conversation, it’s extremely easy to catch oneself equivocating, say between subcultural trolls of the 4chan ilk and people like Violentacrez or ComfortablySmug or whoever else that may seem to meet certain behavioral (or even subcultural) criteria but maybe not others.

I am certainly not of the opinion that there is and should only be ONE definition of the term. It should go without saying that language is flexible, and behavior even more so. But I will say that it is critical –if we hope our conversations to go anywhere– to acknowledge a basic difference between the definitions of trolling offered by those who self-identify as such and those who take it upon themselves to bestow the category onto others. Currently, that’s one aspect of the conversation that tends to be overlooked, I think because everyone assumes everyone else’s words mean the same things as their own words, and then proceed to rail against any number of straw men. Or straw trolls, as the case may be.


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