Whitney Phillips hunts trolls. For the past four years she's watched them on forums and Facebook, studied patterns in their behavior, chatted online with a few, and even met a small handful.
It's no small feat. These are tricksters prone to digital disruption and online hijinks for all kinds of reasons or none at all. And their dependence on anonymity makes them harder to track down than their Grimm namesakes. "You can't just walk up to a troll and have a heart-to-heart," Phillips says. But over the years, she's built up relationships with trolls of all stripes and gotten as close as anyone to understanding what makes their tribe tick.
A troll once described a troll as "a normal person who does insane things on the Internet." "Insane" could mean a whole range of different things—from mildly annoying behavior like Rickrolling to vicious attacks on Facebook memorial pages dedicated to dead children. So what, exactly, makes a troll a troll? That's been the focus of the last few years of Phillips's academic life, leading up to her newly earned PhD. She's Dr. Troll now.
It Takes One To Know One
Trolling has been around in some form since the beginning of the Internet, but took on a very specific meaning by the mid-2000s. Phillips says there are four characteristics that distinguish trolls from other mischief-makers on the Internet ("I'm not responsible for assholes," Phillips clarifies). True trolls self-identify and think of themsleves as a troll. They mark their territory on forums with very specific references—a "trollish vernacular"—to let other trolls know that trolling is on. They seek "lulz," "a particular sort of amoral laughter" at inappropriate jokes (think: disaster humor, racist humor, or just plain cruel humor) once confined to private living rooms or clubs but now amplified by the web, Phillips says. "It's sort of similar to schadenfreude except it's much more pointed." Schadenfreude would describe your glee if someone you didn't like fell down, but with lulz, "You either participate in that misfortune or you're living vicariously through the people who are. It's much more active." And, although they're willing to refer to themselves as trolls, they're always anonymous, which is what makes trolls as a group hard to study—unless you’re Whitney Phillips.
The spirit of trolling traces its roots to the beginning of the Internet, but organized itself in the online community 4Chan. "4Chan was the place where term 'troll' fixed itself," Phillips says. Trolling lives on in the community today, most prolifically in the /b/ forums—a "trollspace" Phillips describes in a recent paper as "[A]n epicenter (arguably the epicenter) of online trolling activity, and consistently pumps out some of the Internet’s most recognizable, not to mention offensive, viral content."
Of course, trolling's come a long way since its early days on 4Chan. It's become common enough now, though, that it's often confused with other disruptive behavior on the Internet. In an age where laws are being crafted to define and punish behavior on the Internet, being able to understand and distinguish trolling from other behavior is all the more critical. "Knowing what you're dealing with before you legislate is almost always a good rule," Phillips says, and her four-pillar theory is a solid start. "It wouldn't just be trolling speech that gets caught in that dragnet, it would be political speech, unpopular speech.... We're going to start seeing more and more state laws that overreach."
Trolls Set Boundaries
Trolling comes in a variety of flavors, and, as Phillips discovered, some trolling was surprisingly altruistic. One troll friend told her how he'd taken offense to Facebook's anti-troll stance and infiltrated a Ku Klux Klan group that was on Facebook. Phillips's troll friend set out to troll the Klan, but according to his account, "All they did was play FarmVille and send each other hugs," Phillips says.
Other trolls set out to bother commenters who make sexist or racist remarks in public sites. But it's not a straightforward attack by any means. "It's a weird troll-by-parrot thing," Phillips explains, "You trick misogynists into saying really ridiculous obnoxious things about women and you pretend to be agreeing with them, and you turn suddenly. And the person you're trolling has no idea what just happened, but he knows he's really mad about it."
Within the trolling community, there are differences in acceptable behavior among trolls themselves. Facebook RIP trolling for example, where trolls post nasty messages on Facebook memorial pages (as on the memorial page of the murdered teenager Chelsea King)—that's where many trolls draw a line. This may not be evident to casual observers because disapproving trolls don't voice their objection. "Trolls typically don't advertise the stuff they're not comfortable doing, they just don't do it," Phillips says. "If you're a troll and you come out against something on ethical grounds, then you become subject to trolling—you become troll bait."
So how do we, as humans, deal with trolls? The general warning on the Internet is: "Don't feed the trolls," and to Phillips, that message goes deep. She sees troll behavior as a subtle reflection of latent nasty streaks in society on and offline. Hot troll targets and trends follow discussions in the mainstream media—race for example, was a fiery theme when Phillips began trollwatching in earnest, around the 2008 U.S. presidential elections.
"Trolls are symptomatic—there's not doubt about that—and by dealing with just the system, you're not dealing with the underlying cause," she says. "Let's deal with our problems first, and then more than likely, you turn that faucet of hatred off and there's going to be fewer trolls holding up their water glasses."
As for Phillips herself, she says it's been tricky navigating turf that is filled with men between 18 and 34 making rape jokes (female trolls are a rare breed, by her count). But juicy troll bait as she may seem, it hasn't been so hard that it hasn't worked out—in the three and some years she's been out troll watching, she's found and conversed with 30 in the wild.