A Pew Moments
In order to ground us initially in some statistics, I will share some surprising data collected by the Pew Research Center. A startling “95% of all teens ages 12-17 are now online and 80% of those online teens are users of social media sites” (pewinternet.org). Despite the increase in teenage cyber bullying, “69% of social media-using teens think that peers are mostly kind to each other on social networking sites.” It would seem that, at least on the teenage front, people are enjoying their overall online experiences, despite negative behavior, such as trolling.
These studies continue to suggest that people in general are very pleased with their social media encounters. Another recent Pew study stated that “85% of SNS [Social Networking Sites]-using adults say that their experience is that people are mostly kind, compared with 5% who say people they observe on the sites are mostly unkind” (Pew Research Center). Obviously, the majority of social network users feel as if they are reaping benefits from their online community. Even, “61% had experiences that made them feel closer to another person.” Despite the entirely subjective assessment of what qualifies as being “closer to another person” on the internet, the fact that people are feeling it is significant.
So where exactly are all the trolls? Our picture of the internet seems awfully rosy at the moment. However, the study continues: “notable proportions of SNS users do witness bad behavior on those sites and nearly a third have experienced some negative outcomes from their experiences on social networking sits. Some 49%…said they have seen mean or cruel behavior displayed by others.” With nearly half of the surveyed adult population having seen some negative behavior, one would think there would be less overall satisfaction. But negative behavior, such as trolling, seems to remain an admissible exception to at least 85% of SNS users.
The last statistic I wish to share is one that might seem particularly shocking: “88% of social media-using teens have witnessed other people be mean or cruel on social network sites.” Apparently, there is a considerable amount of bad behavior on the internet. Perhaps similar to the real world, we see bad behavior occasionally, but not enough to keep us in our houses (or away from our computers). I believe trolling serves as a particularly unique example of social behavior. It has emerged culturally as a type of “meme” (full-fledged with its own smirking avatar), yet it does not seem to be a wholly cruel act.
Personal Experience: You Got a Troll in Me
Have you ever had a friend that showed his affection in unconventional ways, especially on the internet? At what point does a friend in the real world lose the privilege to be your friend on Facebook? I had to face this very decision about three years ago.
Eric W. (who encouraged me to use his entire name) is a friend of mine from Mississippi. Hurricane Katrina displaced his brother and him, so they came to Fargo where they have family. He is about five years older than me, but still qualifies as a young adult. Even working with him at the grocery store, he exhibited troll-like qualities. He often liked to instigate silly and irreverent conversations, ask almost-too-invasive questions (e.g. “Do you have any sisters?” “Are they hot?”), and did not even have a cell-phone. For all intents and purposes, it seemed as if Eric was destined to remain a funny, yet at times annoying “real world” friend.
After a couple months of working with him, Eric joined Facebook. He immediately added me as a friend, posted “Hey Dirty D” on my wall, and created a Group Page for a non-existent gang of which he claimed to front. Repeatedly, he would write seemingly random, yet disruptive comments on his friends’ posts, such as “BULLSEYE,” “Hilaaaarious,” or “Oh, Domboy…. How do you keep your boyish charm?” He also had a penchant for posting obscene rap videos on his friends’ walls. Eric was a Facebook troll par excellence.
Initially, I had the same reaction as his friends: acute annoyance. Facebook was a place for me to prune my digital avatar, maybe make new friends, and rekindle old friendships. I did not need anyone posting a faux-rap video called “Lemme Smang It” on my wall. Many of Eric’s friends initially ‘defriended’ him or at least asked him to cease and desist in his behavior. However, I began to appreciate his behavior. He never meant to be cruel—he was a friend to all of us. Eric began to represent to me the limits of socially acceptable behavior online.
When given the liberties of digital indirectness (i.e. no face-to-face), Eric did exactly what one could do, but most would simply be too embarrassed to do. His behavior seems like an exemplary case of trolling because it never resorted to cyber bullying. Like trolling, Eric was being purposefully disruptive, perhaps even to the point of burying conversations, yet he at least made me aware of a very real dimension of internet potential—irreverence and asininity.
Using McLuhan’s tetrad, let’s briefly consider Eric’s behavior in a novel light. If Facebook enhances social interactions, then it could very well reverse into social nuisances. If Facebook obsolesces the demand for intimate encounters as a pre-requisite for befriending (i.e. it puts a premium on casual friendships), then it might very well enhance the friction between casual friends. If trolling enhances harassment and annoyance, might it not also obsolesce a purely innocent attitude toward digital democracy? If Eric retrieved my real-life annoyance, then perhaps he enhanced some real-world accountability on the internet. These are all issues I hope to address.