A recent foray into Reddit.com exposed me to a unique breed of troll: the Reddit.com “Joke Explainer.” Perhaps an exemplary case of trolling, “Joke-Explainer” is a still-active Reddit.com user who goes to considerable lengths in order to explain jokes. This often involves a subtle (and often, entirely needless) account for the puns, metaphors, and other tropes enacted in the joke. This style of trolling never nears cyberbullying, maintaining an innocent and naive tone, although it is certain that he is a troll—wasting people’s time stating the obvious and possibly degrading comedy by explaining it in drawn-out analyses. But let us consider comedy in general for a moment—it seems to often involve a kind of “inappropriate” relation of terms or ideas. These are the tropes that the “Explainer” goes to such lengths to explain. However, couldn’t we consider his style of trolling simply another “inappropriate” relation, i.e. the relation of a person to a joke? In treating a joke like it ought to be dissected, the Explainer seems to be enacting a type of meta-comedy.
In order to gain a more nuanced understanding of trolling and social media in general, I’d like to briefly explore an idea of the French theorists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. When considering language and meaning, the two theorists believed that instead of any kind of strict correspondence between terms or signifiers, “linguistics implies particular modes of assemblage and types of power.” Communicating loses any of its necessary and essential components and instead becomes a kind of “mapping.” In this way, communication operates like a “rhizome…[where] any points can be related to any other.” It is a plane of “ceaselessly established connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, [and] machinic assemblages.” Fundamentally, the theory serves to disorient us from considering any relation as more privileged in terms of necessity than any other.
If one were to consider the internet as a sort of “rhizomatic field” then the act of trolling might not appear as irredeemably deviant, or detrimental. Following Deleuze & Guattari’s notion of rhizomatic language and meaning, let us consider the internet as a medium (or system of enframement) that operates like a map. Again, on a map there are no essential or necessary points, nor does a map “contain a trace.” Instead, we can simply relate any two points together and make them equally as meaningful as any other. For Deleuze & Guattari, this extends into language and how the mind works, i.e. there is no “arboresque” or essential nature to meaning, or even chains of signifers. Instead it is a complex “vector” of overlapping and interpolating points of reference. Every relation is as arbitrary as any other. In this sense, we might benefit from a look at social media interaction. Perhaps the Joke Explainer is not merely trolling, i.e. being inflammatory, but instead is creating a comedic space by treating a joke as if it had some “trace” or as if the value of a joke came from understanding its derivation in the clearest terms.
If we consider any act of communication as an act of rhizomatic relation (i.e. bringing together two non-essentially related points) then this must include the act of trolling. Here, trolling might offer itself as a benefit. Its benefit is in the very act of relating, or “raising up” an opinion that is of least regard, or has been “laid to rest.” In so doing, we can see the “violence” of a consensus opinion by labeling this act as “trolling,” while it is, in fact, as necessary and meaningful as any other opinion. By evading any ostensible utility in conversation, it in fact articulates a very peculiar nature of language by articulating a sensible (i.e. we understand it), yet senseless (i.e. no general or necessary utility) statement. Trolls simply extend the comedic enterprise into an inhospitable context.