Troll: v.i. to fish by trailing a lure or baited hook from a moving boat. — The Merrriam-Webster Dictionary
Around twenty years ago when I first set foot on Usenet, trolling had a much gentler meaning than it does today. Trolling was the art of saying something wrong, but in such a way that everybody except the target of your trolling could tell you were being deliberately obtuse.
Trolls ranged from throwaway jokes like the deliberately typo-ridden spelling correction, to elaborate long-term performance art; for example the jokers who completely derailed the Star Trek newsgroups by dragging half the readers into a choreographed argument about whether sound (and, when that got too boring, light) could travel in a vacuum.
On one hand this kind of trolling was elitist and exclusionary, often a way for forum regulars to one-up newbies who didn't know the pecking order. On the other hand it served to discourage the very common nerd trait of wanting to one-up the world by leaping in to correct the most trivial of errors, a defence against the kind of knee-jerk pedantry that can clog otherwise interesting discussion.
“Don’t feed the trolls” was a warning as much as anything else. Don’t jump into a newsgroup discussion before you’ve read enough to know who is who; don’t make it your job to correct every trivial, irrelevant misteak. Learn the ropes first, and you might just avoid being the butt of everyone’s in-joke.
Some people claim that the troll (sense 1) is properly a narrower category than flame bait, that a troll is categorized by containing some assertion that is wrong but not overtly controversial. — The Jargon File
As the early 90s drifted on, the definition of trolling broadened to encompass anyone who acts like an asshole on the Internet just to get attention. By the end of the decade, few people even remembered the original definition.
The reason for the sudden shift? The rise of the consumer Internet and with it, easy anonymity.
Anonymity on the old-school Internet of shell-accounts granted by universities or employers was a rare currency, mostly limited to “anonymous remailers” like anon.penet.fi, addresses that made it obvious that the author was masking their identity. In the 90s, with the rise of dial-up Internet and subscriber online services, throw-away anonymity became the norm rather than the exception. And with anonymity came the ability for anyone to be an asshole without fear of repercussions.
While anonymity was the catalyst for the ‘rise of the trolls’ in the 90s, the behaviour of these trolls was quickly normalised, and now you see the same toxic garbage signed with real names in Facebook threads that you find next to eggs on Twitter.
The accepted wisdom was that the best way to react to the influx of assholes was “don’t feed the trolls”. Starve them of attention and they would get bored and go away.
Looking back from 2012, I can’t see any evidence of that tactic having worked. Ever. What happened was the opposite. By normalising the idea that the only way to deal with assholes is to pretend they aren’t there, we made the Internet a safe space for sociopaths.
[Trolls’] own online activity tends to be dull and disruptive, but they think they're entitled to the kind of large audience for their behaviour you can only get by being interesting. This is why they don’t actually want free speech. All that would give them is the freedom to call the shots on their own websites. What they really want is someone else’s audience. — Teresa Nielsen Hayden
Trolls get more than enough validation from each other, or from knowing they have successfully hijacked somebody’s audience, that any reaction from their target is secondary. And yet there is always some well-meaning sea-lion ready to blame the victim, and to reinforce the trolls’ own excuses for their behaviour.
We need to do something about assholes on the Internet, and “Don’t feed the trolls” is not only the wrong thing, it’s not a thing at all.
This post was originally meant to be a two-parter, but soon after I published it, all the things I wanted to say in the second part had been covered by commentators with far more experience than I. As a follow-up, I would recommend Sarah Jeong's “Internet of Garbage”.