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Who Are the Trolls?

A folklore expert tries to understand the people who ruin the internet.

mtkang / Shutterstock

No matter where you go on the Internet, there’s a type of user who plays by a different set of rules. These people—somewhere in there, behind the proxy servers and dummy accounts, they are still people—live only to bother others, to waste their time and hurt their feelings. They’re always in search of the worst juxtapositions of images and ideas in the world, and unsuspecting outsiders to fling them at. They sabotage honest, open expression wherever it can be found. Where did all these trolls come from? And, more importantly, how do we make them go back there?

The MIT Press, 251 pp., $24.95

When folklore scholar Whitney Phillips started writing about trolls, it made sense to her colleagues, until they found out she meant Internet trolls. The result of her work is This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture, out in paperback in August. It’s a short but focused book that dives deep into trolling culture and their standard operating procedures. While newly politicized Anonymous has gained some measure of credibility and legitimate attention (notably Gabriella Coleman’s Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, Phillips is more interested in the real weird, fucked-up stuff. Her focus is the nihilist line of trolling that evolved from the tease-and-be-teased survival-of-the-meanest forums like “Something Awful.”

But there’s something better than nothing when it comes to trolling: The Lulz. Phillips defines lulz as “acute amusement in the face of someone else’s distress, embarrassment, or rage.” Lulz are the object of trolling, the gold coins in the videogame of human interaction. To the troll, other people exist to taunt for lulz, to laugh along, or for both. Drawing on the Marxist idea of “commodity fetishism,” Phillips mints the term “lulz fetishism” for the trollish mindset. Just as the commodity form obscures the production process—you don’t see labor exploitation when you buy a product, you just see the iPad or whatever—lulz fetishism flattens everything into teasing. You don’t see the anguish of the person on the receiving end of the harassment or abuse.

“Through the magic of trolling,” Phillips writes, “all that remains are the absurd, exploitable details; trolls do not, and in many cases cannot, connect their object of ridicule to the emotional content out of which it arises, resulting in highly dissociative and often rabidly antagonistic laughter.” Trolls take the absolute value of social conflict and individual tragedy, converting it into one big mean-spirited joke. They’re big fans of teen suicide, racism, lazy misogyny, and calling everything fags. If society has a wound, then trolls are there to poke at it.

As part of her research, Phillips infiltrated a group of trolls that was flooding Facebook memorial pages with digital trash. Why would anyone track down grieving people just to bother them? “Trolls believe that nothing should be taken seriously, and therefore regard public displays of sentimentality, political conviction, and/or ideological rigidity as a call to trolling arms,” she writes. “In this way, lulz functions as a pushback against any and all forms of attachment, a highly ironic stance given how attached trolls are to the pursuit of lulz.”

When people go online to mourn strangers, they leave an emotional surplus hanging out of their pockets, an irresistible temptation to lulz-hunting trolls. The victims are choosing to make themselves vulnerable, going out of their way even. The trolls that Phillips eventually confronted and interviewed were particularly galled by what they saw as others’ phony emoting. There’s a strong Holden Caulfield-cum-Fight Club vibe to trolling culture; “normies” lack the courage or intelligence or insight to disregard conventional standards for acceptable behavior. Trolls know what’s really going on, and they’re not afraid not to care. From there it’s a game of chicken to see who doesn’t care enough to post child porn first.

The relationship between trolls and mainstream culture is ostensibly hostile. If the Internet is a marketplace of ideas, trolls are lurking in a corner pissing on someone’s merchandise like bumper-sticker Calvins. But as Phillips came to understand exactly what motivated trolls, the picture began to look more nuanced. If trolls and Fox News are enemies, then why are they both obsessed with near-identical pictures of President Obama in a turban? The metaphor Phillips lands on is owl scat; if we want to know about the organism, we can look at its waste. It’s not clear if the trolls themselves are being compared to animal poop or just their presence in the world, but it doesn’t really matter.

Trolls are processing mainstream culture, but not according to new standards. When the news anchor race-baits, trolls translate it into hate-speech. When Nancy Grace frets about a pretty missing white girl, trolls literally draw out the grotesque racialized picture she’s implying. “Today, when the media bombard us with shocking revelations of different kinds of madness that threaten the normal course of our everyday lives, from serial killers to religious fundamentalists, from Saddam Hussein to narco-cartels,” writes philosopher and troll Slavoj Zizek, “one has to rely more than ever on Hegel’s dictum that the true source of Evil is the very neutral gaze that perceives Evil all around.” If a bank robber is nothing compared to a bank owner, then what’s a troll compared to Bill O’Reilly?

In the post-Carlin American free speech tradition, we are inclined to equate humor and social critique. Criticism is broadly protected under the law and enjoys a wide berth culturally, so if jokes are a kind of criticism, then “It’s just a joke” is a workable defense. At times Phillips notices herself falling into this trap, unconsciously shifting the trolls into a scrappy underdog hero role. But a symptom isn’t made pleasant by comparison with the disease. When the trolls tell Phillips that their “real selves” are distinct from their troll selves, she doesn’t find it any more credible or significant than a hatemongering right-wing pundit making the same claim. The trolls that Phillips studied, even if they occasionally land on a worthwhile target, do their best to make the world a worse place.

Sidestepping the wild-goose-chase question of true troll demographics, Phillips describes “the observable fact that trolling behaviors are gendered male, are raced as white, and are dependent upon a certain degree of economic privilege.” Thankfully the author doesn’t make an indictment out of identification; what interests her more is the discourse these trolls are so attached to. It’s a “rigid rhetorical model, one that privileges and universalizes a male-focused worldview. In others, such rigidity would be unacceptable. But as long as they’re the ones tossing off the philosophical or emotional imperatives, the problem of attachment is apparently moot.” Everyone has to play by their aspiring-sociopath rules, or else the trolls will throw emotional fits for which we lack male-gendered terms.

The metaphor of the gross maggot that cleans a wound by eating dead flesh is tempting, but just because trolls are annoying doesn’t mean they’re helpful. To quote Zizek again: “Far from containing any kind of subversive potential, the subject hailed by postmodern theories—the dispersed, plural, constructed subject, the subject who undermines every performative mandate by way of its parodic repetition, the subject prone to particular, inconsistent forms of enjoyment—simply designates the form of subjectivity that corresponds to late capitalism.” If you put Fox News through a fun-house mirror, you still get, more or less, Fox News.

Flies circling a pile of trash are only a helpful warning system if you don’t know there’s a pile of trash. Mainstream American culture is a pile of trash, but you can get that critique just fine from a rerun of Daria, and a rerun of Daria won’t call you names. That trolls aren’t any worse than their environment isn’t news, and knowing that doesn’t stop them buzzing.