“Give a man a mask,” it is often said, “and he will show you his true face.”
Never has this sentiment been more appropriate than in the world of cyberspace. In an environment where any man can be whoever he wants and anonymity is so easily achieved, almost anything can be done or said without fear of reprisal or consequence.
The term “troll” most likely comes from the practice of “trolling for newbies”, first found in the 1990 Usenet group AFU.
The troll was initially seen to be a positive contribution to the online community, posting contentious topics that had already been discussed in the knowledge that only “newbies” would respond. However, as traffic and participation grew, the act became frowned upon.
In this incidence, trolling was seen to be humorous rather than provocative, and that still continues today.
In less mainstream areas of the internet such as Reddit or 4chan, light-hearted trolling often happens, and is either applauded for its subtlety or totally ignored.
Successful artistic trolling relies heavily on in-jokes, and, as a result, is lost on most internet users.
The more mainstream internet trolling, on which the media places its focus, has mutated so far from its origins that it would be unrecognisable to the early artists.
No longer based on subtlety, wit and inside-jokes, it has absorbed the role of “flaming” and exists to do little more than provoke anger and disgust in online forums. But why?
Internet forums are ripe for trolling – it’s easy to post under a pseudonym and, from Apple fanboys to feminists and beyond, users are often passionate about what they discuss.
Frequently a troll simply wants to sow the seeds of discord and then sit back in their desk chair to watch the fireworks explode, but increasingly it is seen as a way to oppose views the troll disagrees with, because he lacks confidence in his own ability to argue fairly and logically.
Last year, Channel 4 aired Derren Brown’s The Experiments. In one episode, a masked audience were given the power to vote on the fate of an unsuspecting member of public over the course of a day.
They consistently voted for the worst outcomes, resulting in his house getting burgled and eventually in him being kidnapped. It showed that, with the mask of anonymity, most humans are willing to heap misery on others.
In a sense, trolls are not entirely dissimilar to the bullies that we all grew up with, and sadly said bullying has evolved alongside technology.
It wasn’t so long ago that you couldn’t pick up The Sun without an editorial on text-bullying, teenage anorexia or suicide, but as the internet has become more social and somehow less accountable, this bullying has breached the cyber divide.
The same technology that has shrunk our world and brought humanity closer together has also forced us further apart.
The most logical response to trolls would be to offer no response at all. Trolls thrive on the reactions of their audiences; that buzz given to them by the short burst of notoriety and fame offered to them on Twitter and online forums.
The Guardian’s David Mitchell notes that troll comments are like graffiti and should carry as much weight, but like real-world bullies, their actions are difficult to ignore.
We can only hope that trolling will follow in the footsteps of happy-slapping and the many other destructive fads that came before it, but, until then, we can only appreciate that some people just want to watch the world burn.