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The evolution of the internet troll. Part 1: we are all trolls

“Show me a ‘comments’ section, and I will show you an internet troll…”

We’ve all met them. Their main goal in life seems to be to cause mayhem, piss people off, and make inflammatory statements to get attention.

Wikipedia defines “internet troll” thusly:

In internet slang, a troll (/ˈtroʊl/, /ˈtrɒl/) is a person who sows discord on the internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion, often for their own amusement.

That seems pretty bang on to us.

When taken at face value, this seems like an eminently odd way to spend one’s time.

So, who are these people?

Where did they come from?

Why do they do it?

The internet troll

The etymology of the term is a matter of some dispute.

Some say that it comes from the Old French troller, meaning to hunt for game with no specific target or purpose. This term is also used in fishing communities to mean the act of dragging one’s hook behind a moving boat and waiting for a fish to bite.

Easy to see the metaphor here…

Others believe that the term troll refers to the Scandinavian legend turned well-worn tale of the mythological beast that lives under bridges, accosting hapless passers-by. These trolls often required those wishing to cross the bridge to pay a toll or answer obscure questions and did them severe bodily harm or even ate them if they failed to comply.

Again, the parallel is clear…

Indeed, it appears as though the colloquial use of troll and trolling, both as noun and verb, represents one of those rare magical moments in the evolution of the English language where something fits so perfectly that not one but both of these possible origins are equally likely, and probably both true in equal measure.

Whatever the case…

The term troll is generally agreed to have first appeared in internet terminology in Usenet chatrooms in the early 1980s.

Yes, it was clear in the very infancy of the internet that these people were going to have a significant presence wherever the new medium might head.

What was not yet clear was how internet trolling and those who indulged in it would grow more sophisticated and numerous with each passing year.

And so they have… sort of.

Conventional wisdom tells us that the stereotype of the internet troll is male, overweight, unattractive, living in his parents basement, underemployed, unsuccessful, not getting laid much (or possibly a virgin) and trolling on the internet to make up for his miserable failure of a life.

They are trolls because life has dealt them a sh*t hand and they have nothing better to do.

We are safe to claim the moral high ground when dealing with such people because of this, even when they make us look stupid (which they can, because they are often very good at what they do).

There is a measure of comfort in this image.

But is it accurate?

The word troll, formerly used exclusively in a pejorative context and as a noun to label the person described above, has in recent years experienced a paradigm shift. The common understanding of the term and what it represents has completely changed. It is now commonly used as a verb “to troll” or “trolling”, a change that is a reflection of the prevalence of this type of behaviour.

The role of the troll is increasingly being adopted by a wide population of internet users. Maybe we read a post or article that we find distasteful or disagree with and decide to give the author a hard time.

Maybe we are just bored and looking for some kind of interaction to keep us entertained.

Maybe we just want any attention we can get.

Who knows…

The fact is, internet trolls are all around us.

They are our spouses, our employers, our coworkers, and our siblings.

Under the right circumstances, they are us, too.

Image credit: Universal Pictures

via GIPHY

Yes, you.

Trolling has become an indispensable part of online life, and almost everyone now engages in it, to some extent or another.

Of course, we are aware that there are those out there in the vast legions of internet users who abhor and abstain from such behaviour entirely. To such fine, upstanding netizens, we tip our hats.

Image credit: HBO

via GIPHY

Your steadfast resolve to remain sincere in all interactions and recuse yourselves in cases of fundamental disagreement is an inspiration to us all. Kudos!

A tip of the hat is the best we millions here on the moral middle ground can offer, as we scan our social media accounts, desperately trying to sort through the myriad of useless listicles, unfounded and outrageous scientific claims and the offensive and ill-informed political click bait that have come to dominate our online lives.

That’s not to say that the true dyed in the wool, stereotypical troll isn’t still out there, because they are.

As a matter of fact, there are a lot of them.

They have remained true to their troll roots, dedicating countless hours to honing their craft, like the poet laureates of yesteryear.

It isn’t they, but the rest of us, who have evolved.

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