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photo courtesy of BeWytch Me

I’ve been online since, believe it or not, 1982.  Yes, the Internet existed then, but it was tiny, and primarily limited to universities and military or government installations.  And as luck would have it, my career in high tech has almost completely coincided with the exponential expansion of the Internet, the birth and explosive growth of the Web, and the penetration of computers into basically every home and practically every pocket.  So I have a little bit of perspective of things of an online nature.  I’m not an expert by any means; I haven’t studied it.  But I do have more than 30 years of experience in it.  For whatever that is worth.

I mention this to provide a little context for my observations about trolls.  I was thinking about this recently after reading an interesting article in Slate that cited a scientific study of trolls and trolling.  The gist is, bluntly, exactly what Slate’s title notes:  Trolls are awful people.  I had always wondered what kind of personality got actual pleasure from pissing off complete strangers, starting online fights (and then leaving them), creating havoc, and engaging in this kind of anti-social behavior.  Your assumption is that they are dicks.  And now the evidence is in, and it tells us:  Yup, they’re utter douche-bags.

And here’s the thing: They’ve always been around.  Even when I was on a university forum (text-only, limited to students and faculty), people would troll just to be obnoxious jerks.  And about the same thing that people troll about now:  Abortion, homosexuality, politics, sexism, racism, and the like.  The same damn things.  The only big difference now seems to be that more people have access, so there are more trolls.  But they’re still jumping in their with their homophobic polemics or whatever to stir people up.  It’s predictable.

And because it’s predictable, in my standard bury-the-lede style, I thought I’d outline a few common behaviors over the years to help you spot trolls sooner, and so maybe avoid some personal aggravation.  Also, I’m procrastinating on working on my novel.

  • First and foremost, trolls are bullies.  They’re not online to debate; they’re online to piss people off.  If you see someone bullying over and over, they’re probably a troll.  Do not engage.
  • They employ name-calling, often of the most juvenile sort.  I’ve lost track of the number of trolls who have called me “Moron” (sometimes with the capital “M”, sometimes not), an insult that was a tired trope in, literally, my grandfather’s day.
  • In the same vein, trolls often resort to simple, ad hominem attacks, often out of the blue.  If you push them, they won’t engage, they’ll attack.  Usually by calling you stupid, a “libtard”, an idiot, or some other juvenile epithet.
  • Some trolls like to employ ALL CAPS.  And they do this because they know that it pisses people off (see how this is a recurring theme?), and that people will respond to it.  Think of the two year-old mentality of your toddler pushing their zippy cup off their high chair just to watch you pick it up; that’s how they like to use all-caps.
  • When bullying, name calling, ad hominem attacks, and all-caps fail, trolls often switch the subject, what I call the “shiny object” method.  Say you are arguing about a particular behavior patter of Republicans.  A troll will sail in and start talking about Democrats that “do the same thing”, or start chattering about Benghazi, or some perceived right-wing slight from 10 years ago.  Anything so long as it’s a shiny enough object to distract attention away from the main point, which is that they don’t have any argument worthy of the name and are just trying to piss you off.
  • And of course it almost goes without saying that these creatures never, ever, ever acknowledge mistakes or apologize.
  • A quick and easy method to recognize trolls is:  Did this user (and they always hide behind aliases) just join up in the last few days, or even hours?  It doesn’t matter if this is just a new alias for a pre-existing troll; if they’ve just joined up, and all 12 of their posts are berating “libtards” or “socialists” or something, they’re almost certainly a troll.
  • Does this person tend to post their inflammatory B.S. and then vanish, with no follow-ups or attempts to engage?  Classic trollism.
  • And finally, your more clever troll will appear to engage you, but in reality they’re laying rhetorical traps to try to catch you so they can scream “Ah Ha!  Hypocrite!” and pretend that they win the discussion.  This type is rarer, because it takes some intellect, and most trolls in my experience don’t have all 52 cards in their mental deck.  But you do run across them at times.

So there you have it.  You see these behaviors, you have yourself a troll, and you shouldn’t bother responding to them because–to repeat–all they want to do is piss you off.  If they succeed, they’re happy.  If you ignore them, that makes them mad.  I know which option I prefer; how about you?