September 2012

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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, 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”.

I have 178 people in my Google+ circles, most of them co-workers, techies and early adopters. Four of them have posted something in the last day. I have 203 Facebook friends, a mixture of co-workers, techies, family and friends. Six of them have posted something in the last hour. Obviously, at least amongst my circles, something isn’t working out.

On the other hand, I’m seeing a slowly growing use of Hangouts, Google+’s teleconferencing feature, which at least in my office is beginning to supplant Skype.

Long a “how cool is THAT?” staple of science fiction and 1980s future technology TV shows, the "video phone" is one of those places where the future happened, and when it did we barely blinked.

It was one of those office Hangout sessions that prompted me to install the Google+ iPad app. I don't know quite what I was expecting, probably something very Google and utilitarian and “we spent all our time on the Android version”. What I didn't expect was for it to be slick, responsive, and pretty damn gorgeous, right down to the way new entries sweep into place as you swipe into the past.


And yet I'm still not going to use Google+ any time soon. As beautiful as the app was, a first impression that inspired me to blog about it, I’m unlikely to launch it very often. Social networks live or die on the content being published to them keeping people interested.

On the other hand, there’s Path. It’s another gorgeous-looking app (this time on my phone) that posts to a social networking service. It has a built in photo app with sub-Instagram quality filters. It has a neat hook in to a song recognition service. It can be pretty slow on my iPhone 4 and it used to crash all the time. I don’t care in the slightest about their built-in social network, but still I launch this application regularly and post to Path.


Because it also lets me cross-post my thoughts, pictures, and location check-ins to Facebook and Twitter.

Path has a Foursquare button as well, and it is just as easy to select that option as it is not to. Now, after months of mostly ignoring the stand-alone Foursquare app, I’m mayor of my apartment building.

While there are third-party solutions for cross-posting G+ content to Twitter and Facebook, they’re generally quirky, unreliable Rube Goldberg-style contraptions that lose important things like photos along the way. Which is a pity, because Google+ could have me posting to their service in an instant if there was a G+ button in Path. And from what I've seen of the new G+ mobile apps, Google+ could have me ditch Path in an instant if there were Twitter and Facebook buttons in the G+ app.


Google has its ongoing fights with both Twitter and Facebook, but I can't see either being able to dig up reasonable grounds to object to Google allowing people to throw more stuff into their walled gardens using published APIs. And from Google’s point of view, people are already sharing things using Facebook and Twitter, so who cares if it means they are also seeding Google+ with valuable content?

edit: The above paragraph previously assumed that YouTube and Reader also lack functions to crosspost to Facebook/Twitter. It turned out they both do, although both are a little bumpy (Reader requires you to share with each site separately, for example, and while I can make the YouTube Like button crosspost the video automatically to Facebook and Twitter… Google+ is still a separate button!)

When Google came out with their search engine, they famously didn’t care about making the site “sticky”. That worked pretty well for them.