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For an essay about trolls on Wikipedia, see Wikipedia:Troll.
For other uses, see Troll (disambiguation).
In Internet terminology, a troll is someone who intentionally posts derogatory or otherwise inflammatory messages about sensitive topics in an established online community such as an online discussion forum to bait users into responding.
1.2 Trolling in the 1990s
5 See also
5.1 Specific trolling subcultures
5.2 Related trolling terminology
5.3 Related terms
6 External links
6.1 Troll FAQs
The contemporary use of the term first appeared on Usenet groups in the late 1980s. It is widely thought to be a truncation of the phrase trolling for suckers, itself derived from the sport fishing technique of trolling. The latter can be compared with trawling. Another plausible derivation is that it may be a shortening of "patrolling", with the common meaning of "searching," especially, "searching for those who do not wish to be found."
The word likely gained currency because of its apt second meaning, drawn from the trolls portrayed in Scandinavian folklore and children's tales; they are often ugly, obnoxious creatures bent on mischief and wickedness. The image of the troll under the bridge in the "Three Billy Goats Gruff" emphasizes the troll's negative reaction to outsiders intruding on its physical environment, particularly those who intend to graze in its domain without permission. The word occurs also in John Awdeley’s Fraternity of Vagabonds (1561) to characterize the first four of twenty-five types of disobedient male servants or "knaves." The first entrant in Awdeley's list is particularly illustrative:
Troll and Troll by is he that setteth naught by no man, nor no man by him. This is he that would bear rule in a place and hath no authority nor thanks, and at last is thrust out of the door like a knave.
It seems a singularly apt description, though no provenance has ever been demonstrated to connect it with the modern usage.
The origin of the phrase has been discussed in oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court concerning the related term "patent troll" (eBay v. MercExchange, 29 March 2006):
JUSTICE KENNEDY: Well, is -- is the troll the scary thing under the bridge, or is it a fishing technique?...
MR. PHILLIPS [attorney for eBay]: For my clients, it's been the scary thing under the bridge....
JUSTICE KENNEDY: I mean, is that what the troll is?
MR. PHILLIPS: Yes, I believe that's... what it is, although...maybe we should think of it more as Orcs, now that we have a new generation.
Prior to DejaNews's archiving of Usenet, accounts of trolling were sketchy, there being little evidence to sort through. After that time, however, the huge archives were available for researchers. Perhaps the earliest, although poorly documented, case is the 1982-83 saga of Alex and Joan from the CompuServe forums. Lindsy Van Gelder, a reporter for Ms. magazine, documented the incident in 1985 in an article for her publication. Alex (in real life a very shy 50-year-old male psychiatrist from New York) pretended to be a highly bombastic, anti-religious, post-car-accident, wheelchair-bound, mute woman named "Joan", "in order to better relate to his female patients". This went on for two years, and "Joan" had become a hugely detailed character, with an array of emotional relationships. These only began to fall apart after "Joan" coaxed an online friend of hers into an affair with Alex.
"Even those who barely knew Joan felt implicated — and somehow betrayed — by Alex's deception. Many of us on-line like to believe that we're a utopian community of the future, and Alex's experiment proved to us all that technology is no shield against deceit. We lost our innocence, if not our faith."
 Trolling in the 1990s
One early reference to troll found in the Google Usenet archive was by user "Mark Miller", directed toward the user "Tad", on February 8, 1990. However, it is unclear if this instance represents a usage of "troll" as it is known today, or if it was simply a chance choice of epithet:
You are so far beyond being able to understand anything anyone here says that this is just converging on uselessness. The really sad part is that you really believe that you're winning. You are a shocking waste of natural resources — kindly re-integrate yourself into the food-chain. Just go die in your sleep you mindless flatulent troll.
The more likely derivation can be found in the phrase "trolling for newbies", popularized in the early 1990s in the Usenet group, alt.folklore.urban. Commonly, what is meant is a relatively gentle inside joke by veteran users, presenting questions or topics that had been so overdone; only a new user would respond to them earnestly. For example, a veteran of the group might make a post on the common misconception that glass flows over time. Long-time readers would both recognize the poster's name and know that the topic had been done to death already, but new subscribers to the group would not "get it" and respond. These types of trolls served as a Shibboleth to identify group insiders. By the late 1990s, alt.folklore.urban had such heavy traffic and participation that trolling of this sort was frowned upon. Others expanded the term to include the practice of playing a seriously misinformed or deluded user, even in newsgroups where one was not a regular; these were often attempts at humor rather than provocation. In such contexts, the noun troll usually referred to an act of trolling, rather than to the author.
Recently, the word troll is also frequently used as a synonym for flamebait, even though the two words have distinct meanings.
Trolls can be existing members of a community that rarely post and often contribute no useful information to the thread, but instead make argumentative posts in an attempt to discredit another person, more often than not based on what they thought was said rather than what was actually said by the other person, concentrating almost exclusively on facts irrelevant to the point of the conversation, with the intent of provoking a reaction from others. The key element under attack by a troll is the forum or group's recognized and agreed upon power structure. To this extent, a troll does not necessarily have to make malicious or incorrect comments. For example, a person with political point of view A who approaches a forum frequented by people with political point of view B, may be considered a troll, even if no lies or attacks are made.
A person who retaliates (using whatever means) as a result of a misunderstanding (or as a way of rebelling against the overzealous application of rules) is not a troll. A troll is a person who approaches a board with the specific intention of stirring things up, either with no particular motive or provocation in mind, other than to be purely destructive or if the motive or provocation is against the ethos of the board. For example, a neo-Nazi approaching a Jewish forum with the intention of attacking the members, purely because the neo-Nazi knows the forum to contain Jewish members, may be considered a troll. A Jewish member of the said forum, who becomes angry with the neo-Nazi and breaks the rules in gaining revenge against the neo-Nazi, and who is subsequently banned and who then begins to rebel, is not a troll (although there's something to be said for turning the other cheek...)
The general element, that determines whether a malicious user is a troll or not, is the level of indignant emotions present in the person, coupled with the person's history with the forum or group. An indignant user who has had a previous normal relationship with the group is not a troll, even if the user uses methods of attack that are characteristic of a troll attack.
The term Troll is often used as an insult in online communications, resulting in it being largely misapplied.
In academic literature, the practice was first documented by Judith Donath (1999), who used several anecdotal examples from various Usenet newsgroups in her discussion. Donath's paper outlines the ambiguity of identity in a disembodied "virtual community" :
In the physical world there is an inherent unity to the self, for the body provides a compelling and convenient definition of identity. The norm is: one body, one identity. ... The virtual world is different. It is composed of information rather than matter.
Donath provides a concise overview of identity deception games which trade on the confusion between physical and epistemic community:
Trolling is a game about identity deception, albeit one that is played without the consent of most of the players. The troll attempts to pass as a legitimate participant, sharing the group's common interests and concerns; the newsgroups members, if they are cognizant of trolls and other identity deceptions, attempt to both distinguish real from trolling postings, and upon judging a poster a troll, make the offending poster leave the group. Their success at the former depends on how well they — and the troll — understand identity cues; their success at the latter depends on whether the troll's enjoyment is sufficiently diminished or outweighed by the costs imposed by the group.
Trolls can be costly in several ways. A troll can disrupt the discussion on a newsgroup, disseminate bad advice, and damage the feeling of trust in the newsgroup community. Furthermore, in a group that has become sensitized to trolling — where the rate of deception is high — many honestly naïve questions may be quickly rejected as trollings. This can be quite off-putting to the new user who upon venturing a first posting is immediately bombarded with angry accusations. Even if the accusation is unfounded, being branded a troll is quite damaging to one's online reputation." (Donath, 1999, p. 45)
The underground blogger group, the ZeitGhosts, started as a troll group, but eventually moved into more acceptable internet practices. They are responsible for starting the forwarding of hello.jpg and also the dancing baby.
The term troll is highly subjective. Some readers may characterize a post as trolling, while others may regard the same post as a legitimate contribution to the discussion, even if controversial. The term is often used to discredit an opposing position, or its proponent, by argument fallacy ad hominem.
Often, calling someone a troll makes assumptions about a writer's motives. Regardless of the circumstances, controversial posts may attract a particularly strong response from those unfamiliar with the robust dialogue found in some online, rather than physical, communities.
Experienced participants in online forums know that the most effective way to discourage a troll is usually to ignore him or her, because responding encourages a true troll to continue disruptive posts — hence the often-seen warning "Please do not feed the troll".
The word troll is often and easily (mis)used as an ad hominem attack against someone whose viewpoints and input cannot otherwise be silenced (i.e., via banning). Its successful use and misuse reveals much about how starkly different the world of technicians is compared to normal social and political discourse.
^ Kinney, Arthur F., ed. Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990. p. 98
^ Van Gelder, Lindsy (1996), "The Strange Case of the Electronic Lover," in Charles Dunlop and Rob Kling, ed, Computerization and Controversy: Value Conflicts and Social Choices, 2nd ed, San Diego: Academic Press, 1996. p.534 (originally published in Ms. Magazine, October 1985)