Trolls: The Bridge-keepers to Utopia
Issues regarding technology seem to be endless; in fact, the very issue of authority seems to be obscured by the very democratic nature of social media technology. Perhaps there is no better example than the internet. Is the internet a direct democracy with every member having an equal voice? Or is it a representative democracy, whereby vote (e.g. money, “hits,” information, etc.) there becomes a regulative hierarchy? One of the best entry-points to any issue is where there seems to be a tension, or better, a near-consensus opinion of “deviance.” The internet phenomenon of “trolling” is going to be the focus of this chapter. Ultimately, I hope to convey the complexity and irreducibility of social media interactions, and express, much like a troll, that perhaps an opinion-of-least-regard is precisely the opinion worth considering.
There are many definitions of trolling. Paul Levinson calls it “behavior that seeks to annoy,” and, less-charitably, “attempting to bury dialogues.” For the purposes of giving myself a firm starting point and consistency for this chapter, I am going to give my own definition of trolling. Trolling is any social internet activity which is “purposefully disruptive.” Any accidentally disruptive behavior is of no interest to me, although intent is not always easy to prove. Therefore, I will limit myself to verified trolling behavior. Importantly, I believe that trolling has a necessary impact on the network in which it is expressed and is in turn affected by the network. These mutual effects ought not to be off-handedly categorized and compartmentalized as simply “deviant behavior,” but instead needs to be investigated as would any other ripple of activity on the internet.
So where does trolling fit into this book? Is it really an aspect of new new media? Well, the consumer (or viewer of any website) is certainly a producer (of a disruptive comment). There obviously is no pre-requisite of professionalism, nor is there any understandable attempt to make money. And if social media puts a premium on free social behavior then it must necessarily include trolls. What about the earlier chapter “The Dark Side of Social Media”? Trolling doesn’t seem to qualify as “cyberbullying,” although it certainly might lead to it. Trolling, as a phenomenon of social media, needs to be understood if we are to understand the continuum of good and bad online behavior.
Marshall McLuhan’s “tetrad” will benefit us in our assessment of trolling, despite trolling not being a “media” per se. I think limiting the “tetrad” to only technological media might be unfair. I wish to look at trolling as simply another medium of social activity on new new media. In fact, if the “medium is the message,” suggesting that the unique assemblage and distribution of information is what is most important to study, then perhaps we can view trolling (a “message” proper) as informing us about the nature of the medium itself. This might seem to be contradictory to the previous quote, but if we are allowed the liberty to consider media within media, then the message becomes important, if not in an indirect way.
Most importantly, I want to focus on the dynamic nature of the tetrad. The theoretical tool demands us to account for “enhancement,” “obsolescence,” “reversal,” and “retrieval” of any media, none of which exist in isolation from the other. The enhancement/obsolescence polarity will be emphasized the most in this essay. Whenever a technology enhances something, there is simultaneously some aspect or dimension being obsolesced. The pivotal question for this chapter is if we are to consider trolling as a medium of social interaction, one in which the obsolescing nature is generally agreed upon, what might it be enhancing? And is this enhancement stable, dynamic, “good,” or “bad”? In a sense, the message and medium itself become arbitrary, and we instead unearth something novel about the tetrad itself.