The time has come for introspection. My co-writers and I have devoted much of our writing to that which exists outside of our community – RS, Jagex, and so on — without pausing to reflect on this sphere in which we cohabit. Given that the Times is the voice of Tip.It, it is the most appropriate place for me to turn my steely gaze on our community and, as I have done once before, make a concerted effort to correct its faults. Just as last time I focussed on the means by which forum users generally debate (the relevance being that we too have a forum), I hope this time to step a little further and criticise not just methods used in internet debate, but to deconstruct one of its most fundamental concepts: I refer, of course, to the troll.
‘Troll’ is one of those words that has metamorphosed as a result of internet culture and takes on a brand new, vaguely related meaning. To give credit where it’s due, the internet meaning of ‘troll’ is a clever one, insofar as it combines the meanings of ‘troll’ as a noun and a verb: the noun refers to the horrendously ugly mythological beast, the verb to a form of fishing that uses bait. So it becomes that while ‘trolling’ in the internet vernacular is clearly modelled on the original verb, it subtly hints at the ‘troll’ themselves being akin to the beast. If the 19th century belief that the value of something can be inferred from its origin were not already discredited, then surely the degeneration of the use of troll, from these auspicious origins to its present state, is refutation enough.
Unfortunately, however, troll is a word that has become too big for its boots. Its versatility as a form of inoffensive shorthand led to its popularity in the canon of internet terminology. Rather than labelling someone either something offensive or long and drawn out, such as ‘a purveyor of inflammatory statements’, one can simply term them a ‘troll’ in the hope of quickly and benignly discrediting them. The result of this is that ‘troll’ has been so massively overused that it has virtually lost all meaning, or at least all meaning as a word of any value. Today, if person A accuses person B of being a ‘troll’, he has the advantage of being widely understood but at the same time risks being discredited by the increasing number of people who view the accusation of ‘trolling’ as simply a lazy way of saying: ‘Stop saying what I don’t like.’
The above phenomenon is often the case with internet vocabulary, which is so informal, so loosely defined, that it can be applied in any number of scenarios. From this, it goes on to grow in meaning until it all but loses any.
Presumably, the expansion of ‘troll’, from being a person who intentionally flame-baits a person to simply becoming a cheap, throwaway attempt to devalue an opinion, came primarily through the internet plebes – that is to say, the most foolish of the lot – as they failed to distinguish between genuine ‘trolling’ and a person’s opining something contrary to their own opinion on a certain matter. This original devaluation of the term has not become endemic per se, but it caught on sufficiently that such devaluation has been widely accepted, or, to put it more frankly, realised.
The failure of distinction arose from two things: the first and simplest being the fact that the internet is a no holds barred sort of place. Anyone and everyone dwell on the internet, from the nouvelle riche to the poorest paupers, from Ivy League professors to the barely literate, from Bill O’Reilly to Bill Maher. The inevitable result is that there are, in frank and concise terms, a great many stupid people dwelling on the internet.
The second factor, which affects people of all levels of intelligence, but in particular those at the lower end of the spectrum, is that the internet has shattered the last remnants of the pathos of distance, first weakened by radio, then by television. The pathos of distance refers to the ingrained distance between people of different societal standing or of differing nationalities, in particular the former, with the inevitable result of those at the top feeling smug over their privilege. Those at the top dominate such cultures. Such a notion, frail at the time of the internet’s arrival, could not withstand it. Though the first result of the destruction of the pathos of distance is positive – a sharp decline in the prevalence and viability of snobbery – its secondary result was less so: the world, especially our internet-centric generation, has become increasingly uniform from a cultural perspective. Why am I digressing so, I hear you ask? To reinforce the point that, just as we have been made more uniform by our newfound proximity via the internet, so too has it become more difficult for people in general to accept that which is different – with regards to this discussion of trolls, viewpoints differing from the norm seem to be harder to digest for some. For those unaccustomed to exchanging views, forums and comment sections on websites – YouTube springs to mind – it is disconcerting and confusing to see things which do not fit the status quo. And it was in these situations that the word ‘troll’ began to appear as a quick-fire means of discrediting; and hence it was inevitably cheapened.
Troll became a cheap and useless word once the twofold process described above began to set in across the internet. I have not been using Tip.It Forums for long enough to know when it began here; though I long used their guides and read the Times, it was not until little over a year ago that I gave the forums a shot. Although I cannot say when it began, the bottom line is that the use of troll in the all-encompassing and cheapened sense is, unfortunately, just as prevalent in our community as elsewhere. It first came to my attention in a Times discussion thread, and, since the incident heightened my awareness, I have spotted misuse and general linguistic abuse (of the English language, that is) everywhere I turn. And this in turn prompted me to ask myself some questions: what can we do about this? what can I do about this, in order to elevate the quality of our forum and its users?
Generally, it is vital that we work towards phasing the word troll out of our vocabulary. The first step towards this would be for a few of us at the Times, perhaps with the cooperation of our readers, to create a ‘Troll Thesaurus’, easily accessible from the website, aimed at enabling people who might have learnt English as a second language primarily over the internet to expand their vocabulary, allowing for clearer and more valuable communication. Following on from this, the next step is that of forcibly removing the word from the community. I believe it a good idea to censor the word ‘trolling’ on the forums – for those unfamiliar with our forums, censorship does not mean using asterisks, but instead placing in square brackets a friendly alternative where a banned word was typed – and replacing it with ‘[offending my sensibilities]’. I say that we should ban the verb form, but not the noun, because I am aware of the potential uses of the noun ‘troll’. Whereas the verb is only used in a very specific way, the troll, as a folkloric creature, occurs in RS and is therefore mentioned in general discussion from time to time. Yet I do not advocate using the noun in the internet sense of the word (far from it) – it is merely important to recognise that a subtler approach must be taken when combating it.
My approach to the noun is therefore that we should first delegitimize it as far as possible. The first step to doing so would be to stop recognising the legitimacy of the concept of the troll on the forum rules, as is currently the case: in clause 1.3 of the Forum Rules, we find such phrases as ‘dependent upon the context these can be considered as flaming or trolling’, and ‘If someone is harassing, flaming or trolling you, do not hesitate to use the Report button’. It is to my mind utterly absurd that this nebulous concept of ‘trolling’ can be equal in terms of recognised legitimacy as a reason for reporting somebody. Flaming is a very simple and one dimensional word, essentially an internet synonym for verbal (typed) abuse. Similarly, harassment is clear-cut. But trolling is an absolute no-no when it comes to stating a rule: even if we take the original meaning, we realise it is often difficult to tell when someone is or is not being provocative over the internet – typed communication is often so brief that tonality is expressed through smiley faces to avoid confusion – that it is all too easy for a supposed troll to be simply misinterpreted. Flaming and harassing cover the grounds of what could be deemed offensive well enough in my eyes.
Once the word has been struck from the rules, it would be prudent to make sure that moderators know not to accept a report that uses the word ‘troll’ unqualified — not being one, I cannot know how often this occurs — in order that people cannot use it as a means of whinging to a moderator. This, I hope, will suffice in suppressing the awful state that has befallen this word.
This is all I have to say on this word and its present scenario. I might like to add that, as always occurs every time an article on this website criticises something that people do – such as a feature they like, or, in the case of this particular article, a word they might use – there will be some that feel personally offended by the conclusions I have drawn. For their sake, I must issue a reminder: this article passes judgement on no particular individual.