Trolls: The Bridge-keepers to Digital Utopia
Issues regarding technology seem to be endless; interestingly, the very issue of authority seems to be questioned by the democratic nature of social media technology. Perhaps there is no better example than the internet itself. 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 “is intended to evoke an angry reaction,” and, less-charitably, “not to promote dialogue” (171). For the purpose 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 necessarily easy to prove. 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 need 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 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 could 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 be of benefit in this assessment of trolling, despite trolling not being a “media” per se. I think that 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. I believe that the tetrad lends itself very well to this type of analysis.
Most importantly, I am inspired by the dynamic nature of the tetrad. The theoretical tool demands users 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 chapter. Whenever a technology enhances something, there is simultaneously some aspect or dimension being obsolesced. The pivotal question for this chapter is if users 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 new about the tetrad and internet activity itself.
A Pew Moments
In order to ground my approach initially in some statistics, I will share some surprising data collected by the Pew Research Center. Lenhart et al. found that “95% of all teens ages 12-17 are now online and 80% of those online teens are users of social media sites.” Despite the increase in teenage cyberbullying, “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. In another recent Pew study, Rainie, Lenhart, and Smith 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.” 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 this way is significant and would suggest that perhaps trolls are quite tolerable.
But where exactly are all the trolls? The 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 sites. Some 49%…said they have seen mean or cruel behavior displayed by others” (Rainie, Lenhart, and Smith). 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. By analyzing it further, I hope to unearth a unique approach to viewing internet relations.
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. Eric is about five years older than me, but still qualifies as a young adult. Even working with him at a local grocery store, he exhibited troll-like qualities. He often liked to instigate silly and irreverent conversations, asked almost-too-invasive questions (e.g. “Do you have any sisters?” “Are they hot?”), yet 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 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 with his behavior. However, I slowly 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. I became one of the 88% who had witnessed bad behavior, yet remained undeterred.
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 cyberbullying. 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.
But perhaps Eric’s behavior does not quite fit with the 88%, and instead ought to be further distilled through analysis. Using McLuhan’s tetrad, I want to 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.
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 often to 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 the possible functions 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 believe that instead of any kind of strict correspondence between terms or signifiers, “linguistics implies particular modes of assemblage and types of power” (5). Communicating loses any of its necessary and essential components and instead becomes a kind of “mapping” (9). 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” (7). 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” (Deleuze and Guattari 7). Instead, we can simply relate any two points together and make them 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 signifiers. Instead it is a complex “vector” of overlapping and interpolating points of reference (11). 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, a function of 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 that labels this act as “trolling,” while it is, in fact, as necessary and meaningful as any other opinion or relation on a communicative map. By evading any ostensible utility in conversation, it in fact demonstrates 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.
Beyond their function of articulating the rhizomatic nature of language, trolls also function to enhance awareness of unstable online context. I believe that the importance of context cannot be stressed enough. In a somewhat recent episode of The Colbert Report, host Stephen Colbert joked about the offensiveness of gay marriage. He claimed that even one guy and one girl was still “kinda gay” because it included a man. Instead, he suggested that only a marriage between two women was adequately non-gay. Obviously, this absurd argument garnered many laughs—it was appropriate with the context of his show. But for a moment, imagine if I put his argument into text on a discussion board about marriage rights. Likely, it would be immediately flagged as “trolling.”
This emphasizes one of my fundamental points about trolling. Trolls follow the ‘logic’ of comedy, i.e. inappropriate/ironic relation of points, yet do so in an inappropriate context. However, perhaps similar to some comedians’ work, (consider Sacha Baron Cohen) the comedy itself is a satire of the environment, which is often only appreciated by those detached from the immediate context. Importantly, if the internet is a rhizomatic plane, then it defies any stable context by its very nature. So, again, if the troll evokes an irritable reaction, he is merely being a nuisance for those with unqualifiedly adamant views regarding the context of the social media environment. Following Deleuze and Guattari’s theory, to label a “troll” as anything less valuable is to simply enact a statement with as much meaning as the troll itself. Indeed, one might confidently say, “trolling is in the eye of the beholder.”
Lastly, let us throw our newfound rhizomatic thinking into McLuhan’s tetrad. If a trolling comment can fairly be considered a type of tetradic medium, then it surely enhances and obsolesces something, suggesting an irreducibly dynamic nature: it cannot be explained by any one of its functions alone, but rather only in the relation of functions and parts. Just like a rhizome, the medium of trolling is “not amenable to structural models” and is an “acentered system…running from any neighbor to any other” (Deleuze and Guattari 7). Similarly, Deleuze and Guattari speak about the simultaneous “deterritorialization and reterritorialization” in any relation (10). A cynic might argue that trolling enhances annoyance and obsolesces intelligent conversation. But following the same line, and only looking at it from another point, it enhances discomfort with an unfairly judged contextual social environment and obsolesces simple ‘either-or’ thinking. In fact, it might enhance a sort of meta-analysis of the venue itself. And in the rhizomatic field, neither perspective is wholly right or wrong; they are both merely possible points of relation, which are influencing and influenced by the environment (or context).
Just how is context created on the internet? Merriam-Webster.com defines context as “the interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs.” A rhetorician might stress that a context often supplies constraints for a discourse, i.e. it delimits a specific environment which people must orient themselves to. Another way to conceive of it is in relation to procedural rhetoric: what does a given technology, or medium, encourage you to do, and what does it limit? In order to explore this practically, I want to consider a trolling example related to the social media community Youtube.com.
The (in)famous trolling group “Anonymous” has been an active group of hackers, deviants, anarchists, and, in general, trolls since 2003. They collaborate in hacking and trolling various websites in an anonymous way that has been coined “hacktivism.” Several years ago, they targeted the video-sharing site Youtube. The members simultaneously began uploading pornographic (yet not illegal) videos onto the site at an alarming rate. To make the censoring process even more difficult, Anonymous started flagging clips that did not contain any offensive or explicit material. Furthermore, they began mashing the pornographic images with wholesome footage, making it even more difficult to detect.
This situation offers a fascinating insight into not only Youtube’s procedural rhetoric, but the context of online communities in general. Youtube encourages people to post and watch videos—two things that the group not only did, but did excessively. One might note that Youtube puts a premium on quantity (i.e. the more hits, videos, comments, and ‘likes’ the better), and Anonymous simply took it to an exorbitant degree. Furthermore, Youtube has the context—or procedural rhetoric—of privileging creation and sharing over the censorship of videos. The human need for censorship became grossly overwhelmed by the actions of Anonymous.
Trolls represent the unsustainability of digital control on sites that encourage digital democracy. This case study reveals the inability of websites to create and enforce a strong context. At least in data-sharing and social media sites, it seems that the more constraints imposed the less democratic and user-friendly the website becomes. Given this point, we might consider Anonymous users as a kind of digital-political ‘free rider,’ i.e. one who exploits the agreed upon freedoms of a community. Although the democratic community of Youtube hopes to stimulate creativity, by exploiting the freedom (by doing an ‘inappropriate,’ yet committable action), they are labeled “trolls.” Indeed, the trolls reversed the creative process of the users into mere data-management by the viewers and censors. Here, the big question must be asked: Do trolls serve to actualize our hidden insecurities regarding the internet/democracy?
The internet is often lauded as a wholly democratic—nearly utopian—community. However, in reality, a democracy is often a democracy for a specific group of people; therefore it has some inherent exclusionary tendencies. When social media and new new media invite a worldwide network of people to participate, there does not seem to be any clear-cut exclusionary imposition. In this political vein, we might consider trolls, much like Anonymous, as representing a fundamentally human problem: the inability to be wholly inclusive and still maintain order and safety. Trolls, by my definition, do not commit cyberbullying, but merely articulate a relation of points—or a symbolic meaning—that was committable, but generally frowned upon. They are the ones who seem to waste their vote—who write in “Donald Duck” on a voting ballot. However, by calling them deviant and kicking them out of the community, we are making an important value judgment not only about their individual behavior, but about what constitutes acceptable democratic behavior. Truly, one could say that trolls force upon us a revaluation of our given utopian fantasy.
An Intelligence Below all Bounds
I have come this far: trolling, as a medium subject to the tetrad, seems to be too dynamic an action to stay exclusively under one appellation. By emphasizing the importance of context in the act of comedy, and deciding that—like comedy—trolls seek a sort of inappropriate relation, I then suggested that perhaps the internet does not offer a strong context for participants to operate within. However, one might argue that when it comes to discussion boards, the majority of people do expect a non-deceitful conversation about facts, rendering communicators little more than attendants to information with little room for ‘appropriate’ creativity.
However, there seems to be more to understand from trolls. How are trolls different than people who simply type gibberish on a message board? These people often receive entirely different reactions—usually just a quick ‘flagging’ as spam or harassment and then a prompt deletion. But trolls thrive off of creating digressive, convoluted, and asinine conversations by exploiting other users’ naivety or differing orientation to the ambiguous context. Therefore, it seems that trolls require a requisite level of intelligence. In order to test this hypothesis out, I decided to give trolling a try for myself in hopes of gaining a new perspective.
On February 2nd, I attacked Youtube, particularly Justin Bieber fans. Following the recent allegations that Justin Bieber had sex and possibly impregnated a fan backstage, I left comments on two of his videos, each one with a slightly different attitude. One video involved Justin singing onstage to a small baby. My comment was: “Is this his illegitimate child? He’s off to a bad start in parenting by having that child near high-decibel speakers…” Surprisingly, the response was slim. The user “juliaaaaamusic” left the most reactionary reply: “ehh.. it’s his little sister……… And this is sweet & adorable. If you think he’s stupid, you should watch better.” “Zlullez” merely replied, “its [sic] his little sister ..” One other user joined in with the friendly correction: “Hey.. no its [sic] not true its [sic] a fake thing..” Obviously, my attempt at being inflammatory was only mildly successful—most users assumed that I was simply misinformed. Taking up their role as information attendants, they perfunctorily amended the ‘error.’ My trolling IQ appeared low.
With perhaps marginally better results, I took one last foray into my own trolling. On a Newt Gingrich video displaying contradictory accounts of his (extra)marital woes, I wrote “Come on! We’re all cheating, ya know! At least Gingrich asked his wife if she was okay with it… if anything he just needs to get a little backbone ;-)”. Fortunately, I received a response somewhat dissimilar to the others: “no we’re not all cheating. If you think everyone is unfaithful then that is sad.” I believe that if I had persisted, I could have successfully carried out a long and drawn-out, albeit uncharitable, argument—I was attempting to be satirical, at best. To be an effective troll it appears to take a couple qualities: adequate savvy and considerable time.
An excellent example of such wit and dedication is the Yahoo! Answers user RBX. He has become an infamous case study in “advice trolling.” Many of his comments have been voted up to “Best Answer,” likely for their humor. In this case, we get someone who has eventually become recognized for his comedic art, which makes his case all the more fascinating.
Yahoo! Answers are riddled with all kinds of questions, ranging from serious existential issues to mundane factual questions. Somewhere in between these, RBX’s trolling thrives. His most popular victims are those who ask romantic advice, and more likely than not, his advice is sexually suggestive, if not explicit. However, as the blogger Aditya Madanapalle noted, “RBX…gives them a politically incorrect, rude answer, which may actually work.” His skill is in imbedding a bit of truth into an ostensibly inappropriate response—again, this is an important aspect of comedy, and suggests again that the function of trolls is markedly different than cyberbullying or spamming.
One of the less vulgar examples dates back three years when “Renni” asked for advice about a potential love-interest who may or may not be sending her romantic signals. RBX (with the “Best Answer” vote) replies:
We can see from this example that there seems to be tangentially related issues: the happy possibility of love coupled with the frightening possibility that it is reciprocated in an entirely different and violent way. Clearly, RBX puts thought, or at least exercises some level of intelligence, in his response—enough that he eventually received acknowledgment and even popularity on the website. A fan might claim that he changed the dominant contextual mood of the particular questions from serious to playful. In fact, this case demonstrates the potential value in embracing, and in a sense integrating, a troll: trolls can change the contextual atmosphere and add levity and creativity to a given digital sphere.
A detractor might rebut that the woman genuinely wanted help and RBX used his energies to contribute in a nearly meaningless and unproductive way. Indeed, trolls—even given their contested status as comedians—might still be susceptible to contempt because they are wasting the global community’s time and energy. You could write the world’s funniest joke on a presidential voting ballot, but it would still be a wasted vote.
In Defense of the Weak
Thus far I have discussed several ideas that seek to cast new light on the social media phenomenon “trolling.” In a Deleuzian sense, it might articulate to us the very arbitrariness of all dialogue. In a less radical sense, it serves as an indicator of the fluid and insecure context of various internet locations—indirectly emphasizing the predilection of users to simply attend to the information and remain oriented to it in mundane and non-comedic ways. Lastly, I would like to consider the worst-case scenario: trolls are weak users who waste their democratic vote. In the smooth digital world of communication, trolls serve as veritable “friction,” causing inestimable amounts of damage and lost capital.
In a recent New York Times article, psychologist Barry Schwartz discussed a commonly overlooked factor in economics: friction. He notes the desire in markets to garner as much profit with as little “negative externality” as possible—put simply: maximum profit and efficiency with minimum cost and friction. Schwartz highlights the dangers of “unbridled, single-minded capitalism” which focuses on their single piece of the pie without taking in the whole kitchen (forgive my metaphor). Like “black ice,” Schwartz claims that there are unforeseeable dangers constantly lurking, and concludes that “A little something to slow us down in the uncertain world we inhabit may be a lifesaver.” So instead of merely considering “shareholders,” Schwartz hopes that economic friction will make us all more aware of “stakeholders,” i.e. a more global view of a market and society.
Similarly, Slovenian social theorist Slavoj Zizek, in his book Violence, cites some of the merits of “resist[ing] the temptation to engage immediately and to ‘wait and see’ by means of a patient, critical analysis” (7). Zizek states that our contemporary society likes to claim to be “depoliticized, socially objective, [with] expert administration and coordination of interests” (40). However, Zizek highlights the various ways that violence occurs (e.g. systemic, objective, and subjective—the latter of which society likes to fixate on) and that we are unable to see all three perspectives at once, hence the subtitle “Six Sideways Reflections.”
Consequently, I want to consider trolls as a kind of digital friction. They interrupt the usually steady flow of information and communication. And perhaps we can think of some of them as exploiting the sense of urgency that Zizek claims typifies our administrative-oriented society. By using feigned urgency—whether explicit or implicit via the context—trolls slow people down and make them re-assess the troll, and by proxy the digital/informational environment.
Furthermore, Zizek’s Lacanian-inspired analysis goes further to say that our desires contain “the infinite…striv[ing] for the absolute [which gives] rise to an irreducible ambiguity: the source of the good [i.e. infinite striving] is a power that shatters the coordinates of our finite existence, a destructive power that, from the standpoint of our limited stable life-form, cannot but appear as evil” (65). While this may not seem immediately applicable to trolling, consider the words carefully: if we cannot ever perceive all facets of violence, and our desire for the good contains within it ripples of what we would deem evil, should digital users be so fast to label users as “trolls,” with all the negative baggage that it has, or are they simply a subjective (as opposed to systemic or objective) manifestation of the universally lived contradiction? They use their infinite striving (the source of good actions) to ‘endanger’ the security of other users, but in the Lacanian analysis, the users’ status is always-already insecure.
To remain receptive to friction—to take in the opinion of least regard—is to slow down in the midst of the uncertain. It is to genuinely apprehend the ambiguous environment. Instead of merely referencing the “harsh reality outside their area,” the “post-industrial rich”—or digitally saturated—will be forced to slow down, deliberate, and attempt to create substantive and practical insight into a situation (Zizek 17). Ought we to literally troll ourselves, or ought we to realize that, like the tetrad suggests, whatever behavior seems to be enhancing one aspect, such as efficiency, is simultaneously “deterritorializing,” or obsolescing another, such as critical thinking (Deleuze & Guattari 10)?
My last assessment involves considering trolls, at their absolute worst: as democratic free riders. They are those who challenge the very foundation of a democracy because, while they exist and, in some regard ought to be included in the rawest definition of a democracy, they do not contribute. In fact, all they do is raise up an opinion laid to rest—they say what is regarded as asinine; they state the opinion of least regard. In the sharpest criticism, one might consider them as “subhuman,” i.e. not even “falling below” democracy’s line, but simply never rising up to it (Bull 40).
Thus far, I have explored several perspectives of trolling, and in the process discovered that it can tell users more about the dynamic character of any social media interaction (via the tetrad), comment on the nature of digital context, and also serve as a point of tension in any sort of democratic ethic. This last point is more fully discussed in Oxford philosopher Malcolm Bull’s most recent book The Anti-Nietzsche. It is a subtle and astute critique of Nietzsche’s philosophy of the Superman and the will to power, as well as the struggle to genuinely overcome this all-too-challenging philosopher. The book can also offer users a challenge to their utopian notions of digital democracy.
Malcolm Bull looks at the “ecology” of Nietzsche’s Superman—the willful positer of values, who is unshackled by society’s norms. In Nietzsche’s system, the Supermen are those who can fully grasp the absurdity of life and affirm it. Since they can genuinely grasp life in its utmost existential sense, they are in a privileged position and can therefore more appropriately act to enhance the species-being of mankind. In no sense would I consider the “troll” a superman—instead, they would operate as a kind of weak individual who does nothing ostensible to strengthen society. Trolls are the “subhuman.” In democratic terms, they are the ones who waste their vote.
In this ecology, the Superman is favored over the slaves, the herd, and those who fall even further below: the subhuman. These demographics are to be subjected or sacrificed for the highest good of the true value-positer. Indeed, Nietzsche favors a kind of aristocracy of the few who, although they might act in a super-utilitarian (i.e. species-enhancing) way, they operate at the cost of those underneath. Bull sees this kind of thinking as rhetorically appealing yet unrealistic (35). He offers a new approach: the embracing of the subhuman—an extraegalitarian gesture of inclusion (of even the trolls).
Bull centers his argument for the inclusion of subhumans on his concept of nihilism. He claims that there is an “inexorable internal logic of negation/nihilism” wherein the “highest values devalue themselves” (73). My earlier tetrad analysis overlaps with some of this. The tetrad forces us to consider obsolescence as part and parcel with enhancement. To enhance, to expand, or to define is to damage, to hurt, to do violence or nihilate something else. It is the humans, as “world-forming” creatures, who share in this relationship with nihilation (127). And, ultimately, Bull argues that to overcome nihilism (as Nietzsche did in fact desire) was to go against Being’s very nature.
The political implications have strong parallels with the democratic utopian dream of the digital world. In terms of communication and interpretation (an integral part of digital activity), Bull discusses “reading like a loser” which is the opposite of the reading technique that Nietzsche seduces the reader into (i.e. “reading for victory”). To “read like a loser” is to “interpret to one’s own disadvantage” (Bull 34). It is this Nietzschean “failure” that Bull wishes to cultivate, in which “surplus failures open a gap…egalitarianism makes all equal at the level of the exploited, while to fail is extraegalitarian…it is less than zero.” It is this extra-equal space that only the “losing” and “failing” can create (139). Thus, a more equitable reading of internet users might not be to consider oneself privileged in calling another a troll, but instead reading as if they are trolls themselves and in danger of being censored.
Bull claims that it is “fascism” to believe that only “particular human ecologies are ultimate sources of meaning.” His “subhuman ecology might sustain nihilism (via the unexploited lower types)” (149 Bull’s main point seems to be that the spirit of nihilism (or obsolescing) is inherent and inevitable, so to follow Nietzsche’s call to the Superman to overcome it is to, in effect, nihilate—or obsolesce—a vast majority of beings. We can start to get a glimpse of a more somber democracy. Not only is the Superman ecology not egalitarian, but it likely means that we are indeed in danger, despite the tendency of readers to read like they are the Superman. It is my interpretation that Bull is recommending a safer and more life-affirming direction of nihilism—one that paradoxically undermines life as secure. Instead of focusing on the ultimate enhancement for the ultimate technology, we ought to approach media and technology as an obsolescing mechanism, not as a way of hating technology, but as a way of minimizing the violence done to those outside the sphere.
So, some might consider online trolls as a kind of “subhuman,” or a sort of “sick” person who “infects the strong” resulting in a “collective loss of energy” (Bull 45). While Nietzsche seems to favor the “uncompassionate strong,” Bull advocates a far stranger path: “the trajectory of the compassionate strong (who undermine themselves via pity) and the savage weak.” He wants an “inclusion of the unmediated failure of the weak… [a kind of] denial of the individual will via an abolition of differences” (165). By taking the weakness of the troll into our internet relationship, we can experience the “dissolution of principles of reality into the manifold of interpretations” (147). Again, not only should we approach the technological ecology as if it obsolesces, but as if we are the very ones in danger of being obsolesced—and our opinion is the one of the least regard.
This orientation to technology will create a more sustainable and equitable society. The trolls are the “failure [that] creates extra people and requires the counter-interest of the strong to sustain them.” Instead of a bourgeois-technological egalitarianism, a “move from egalitarianism to inegalitarian distributions” is recommended, but from beyond the limit of the bottom (i.e. “outside it from below, yet always returning”). It is this kind of “passive revolution” that Bull predicts would be a permanent and healthy manipulation of the inevitable act of nihilism. Bull suggests that “by leveling down we can pivot to leveling out…opening up equality to those below the existing threshold.” It becomes an expansion of the proverbial “desert,” yet an entirely “open world” (170-171). The internet no longer becomes a utopian space for democratic dreams, but a potential darkness that must be cautiously handled.
It would appear that the last function of trolls is to represent the imperative gesture of an equitable society. If there is indeed a necessary human activity of nihilating, whether it be via obsolescence or language, perhaps the best way to sustain a healthy amount of change and equality is by realizing pure equality is not possible. But by becoming unequal via dipping below, rather than trying to “overcome,” we might create the most equal, or extra-equal world. Trolls, to me, represent the obsolesced comment trying to re-emerge. The opinion of the lowest common denominator—perhaps even lower than that—might be the very one that ought to be embraced. The space that such an opinion creates—the feeling that obsolescence gives us—the acceptance of digital-social failure and appropriating it, might be the healthiest means towards advancing a realistic democracy.
In conclusion, digital users ought to look more openly at what they perceive as ‘flaws,’ such as trolls. They might very well be the ‘friction’ that we need, the chance to remove ourselves from the insecure context and deliberate, or even to experience the arbitrariness of communications (if one so believes). Ultimately, Bull’s imperative for democracy remains one of the most challenging: that trolls ought to be, by nature of their subhumanism, included from below instead of nihilating them from the top. In my final assessment, perhaps we need not change the name of these deviants—we can call them “trolls,” but in an extraegalitarian gesture, we ought to consider ourselves as trolls, as the weak, as the digitally humble.
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