Trolling was never an admirable pastime. But the term had a very specific meaning as applied to social networking, forums and chat facilities online. Over the last year or two, the mass misuse of the term by media has all but eliminated the original meaning in favour of something far more simplistic and generic.
I don’t imagine for a moment the original meaning can be retrieved; but then I’m often reminded that language is dynamic, that it evolves, and that meanings do naturally shift with usage. You can’t stop it. No matter how much the Hoover company’s lawyers might object to someone “hoovering the floor” with their Dyson vacuum cleaner, the word has been genericised, as words will always tend to be.
All right: so ‘trolling’ now means ‘abusing someone online’. It didn’t used to.
If you were a troll, before the media got hold of the concept and failed to understand it, it was more about why you did something than it was about what you did. You could troll an individual, or you could troll forums, websites, companies, organisations, faith groups – you name it.
‘Trolling’ meant, in effect, fishing for a reaction. The word comes from an early 15th century form of the word ‘stroll’, and was applied in the 16th century to a fishing technique involving pulling a lured line through the water to attract fish. It has no relationship with troll – the ugly creature that lives under bridges – until we get all the way back to the Proto-Germanic language, where the creature is first named for the short-stepped gait that ultimately gives us ‘stroll’.
That hasn’t stopped the media representing ‘Twitter trolls’ as ugly little monsters hiding under bridges – and as far as that goes, the representation isn’t unreasonable. That’s most certainly what most of them are – at least metaphorically speaking.
But trolling didn’t originally necessitate being abusive or harassing people online. It could, but it didn’t have to – and in fact, the ‘best’ (read: most effective) trolls were the ones you’d never realise were trolls in the first place. Like I said, it was about their motivation more than their actions. A troll’s goal was to go into a forum and generate a reaction. This would usually be achieved by introducing some topic they knew would be emotive and contentious. For example, going into a hardline conservative Christian forum and making comments in favour of gay rights; or piping up in a One Direction forum to point out that Zayn Malik’s actually a pretty decent sort of lad.
No abuse required; no harassment, no doxxing, no swatting. Just the words necessary to create an emotional response from other users for your own entertainment. You could easily be quite a polite troll if you wanted to.
A great example of a very powerful, very effective troll – in this specific sense of the word – would be the Daily Mail newspaper, which publishes stories, either carefully spun or entirely made up, which it knows will play to its readers emotional side. The Daily Mail plays on people’s prejudices, their fears and anxieties, to create angry and frightened reactions. It’s been doing it since the dawn of the twentieth century, and most of its avid readers simply don’t realise they’re being trolled over and over again. But the Daily Mail isn’t abusive to its readers: it’s friends with its readers. It’s the source they can trust. It tells them the truth. It’s a very effective troll indeed.
Why does it matter how words are used? Well, the current, generalised use of ‘troll’ to mean ‘abusive person’ or ‘harasser’ plays into a current problem our culture has dealing with crime and abuse online: namely, we artificially make it separate from offline crime, which we therefore think of as more ‘real’ than offences over the Internet. Calling someone a ‘troll’ plays into that: it makes the public think of ‘trolling’ as somehow different, less severe, than threatening someone or harassing them ‘in real life’.
But the Internet is ‘real life’. Yes, we might play games on it; but by now it’s as much our ‘real life’ as any pastime or hangout we might have in the physical world. The Internet is ‘digital’, it’s ‘cyber’, it’s ‘online’, whatever – but it’s still real. If someone’s making rape threats against a woman online, that’s a real person making real threats against a real woman – that it’s over a relatively new communications channel is irrelevant. If someone threatens to kill someone in a forum, that’s still a real threat against a real person. The phenomenon of ‘swatting' – making malicious calls to police to generate an armed response at an opponent’s home – shows that online activities have real-life consequences.
Trolling isn’t just being a dick online. You can troll perfectly well offline, and crime and abuse are crime and abuse whether they’re offline or on.
[1 – The term ‘swatting’ comes from SWAT – ‘Special Weapons And Tactics’ – the highly militarised arm of American police forces which are deployed to deal with large-scale or serious incidents, especially those involving firearms, explosives, sieges and the like.]