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Following up on the previous post, see Emma Grey Ellis, "Nobody knows what 'troll' means anymore — least of all Mueller", Wired 4/26/2019:

GREETINGS, TROLLS OF Reddit! Tell me: What’s a troll?

“Memester that hates normies,” says suicideposter.

“Someone who only interacts for reactions,” says _logic_victim.

“Lives under a bridge, votes Republican,” says TW1971. (“no u,” replies Popcap101z, taking the bait, baiting the hook, or both. I can’t be sure.)

“I prefer not to apply labels to myself,” says MyFriend_BobSacamano. (Lulz.)

Asking a troll to define trolling is a bit like asking a terrorist to define terrorism. The question backfires; it invites prevarication and propaganda. But in the past few years, an answer has become increasingly necessary—and elusive. Without one, can we clearly distinguish teasing from hate speech?

Then there are the traditional forms, as illustrated in a recent New Yorker cartoon:



  1. V said,

    May 12, 2019 @ 5:38 pm

    In the mid-nineties, "trolling" meant putting forth statements that you hope would provoke emotional responses in your interlocutors, regardless of your opinion on the issue being discussed. It has mutated in various ways since then, but I have not followed. It seems to have shifted in meaning.

  2. Levantine said,

    May 12, 2019 @ 5:44 pm

    Those are gnomes surely!

  3. Bathrobe said,

    May 12, 2019 @ 5:50 pm

    Poor old garden gnomes. Ever since Harry Potter, they've been getting a bad press…

  4. eub said,

    May 13, 2019 @ 12:11 am

    As used on alt.folklore.urban, it was not in general to elicit an emotional response, it was often in-group making a ridiculously wrong statement to elicit corrections from out-group. The term "trolling" was in the sense of pulling bait through the water.

    Yeah it still doesn't sound great when you describe it. It self-identified as light fun.

  5. the Other Mark P said,

    May 13, 2019 @ 12:36 am

    But in the past few years, an answer has become increasingly necessary—and elusive. Without one, can we clearly distinguish teasing from hate speech?

    The writer thinks a *definition* is going to help!

    But what has trolling got to do with hate speech anyway? You can give the hatiest speech every seen without being in any sense a troll.

    And the best trolling is one in which the *victim* gets cornered to say stupid things — a troll should never give their own position away, that really is Trolling 101.

    Hate speech and trolling are unrelated, other than a lot of trolls aren't very nice people.

  6. Rube said,

    May 13, 2019 @ 7:22 am

    @ eub

    "Yeah it still doesn't sound great when you describe it. It self-identified as light fun."

    Yeah, it's the standard defence of all bullying assholes: "Can't you take a joke?"

  7. David Udin said,

    May 13, 2019 @ 2:30 pm

    Definitely comes from fishing, not living under bridges, and originally a posting intended to make responders that took it seriously look foolish. On the bulletin boards I recall it was often intended to elicit a much-repeated and tedious argument, especially from those who hadn't seen it before, that is, aimed at this type of person:

    Of course, it degenerated, just like "hacking" degenerated, into one or another form of malice. Whether or not bullying, the practice was always disruptive and tedious, just like it still is. One of the reasons we can't have nice things on the internet.

  8. Ray said,

    May 13, 2019 @ 7:10 pm

    ironically, the writer of this "culture" piece is herself trolling. by retroactively wanting trolling to mean today's "terrorism" or "hate speech" or "white supremacy" or "white male misogynists" or "alt right" or "radicalized" or "terrifying" — all while claiming that those who have never been trolled "tend to be men and are most often white" and that the targets are "disproportionately women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community" — and then wondering (in a "crisis of language") how trolling could mean something else? kinda hilarious.

  9. TIC said,

    May 14, 2019 @ 8:40 am

    FWIW, I've long bristled at the notion, expressed both explicitly and implicitly here and elsewhere, that trolling was once some sort of glorious art form that has sadly "degenerated" over time… It seems to me that it began as nothing more than the amusement and aggrandizement of oneself and/or one's in-group (from an anonymous and safe remove) at the expense of others… That's not a very lofty perch to begin from… So it seems more accurate to say, rather than that it has "degenerated", that trolling has "gotten even uglier"… Then again, mebbe I've just fallen victim to trolling on the subject(?)…

  10. klu9 said,

    May 14, 2019 @ 8:59 am

    re fishing analogies (dragging to see what you'll catch), I've often wondered if the use of troll as a verb was due to the US caught/cot merger equating "troll" with "trawl".

  11. asc said,

    May 15, 2019 @ 2:34 am

    I’ve seen etymologies make kind of hand wavy gestures in the direction of influences from trawl (and maybe trail?). But I also think it’s interesting that troll and trawl are really quite different methods of fishing: trolling uses a line to drag a lure or bait to tempt specific fish, while trawling drags a big net, indiscriminately scooping up everything on the sea floor.

    I just noticed that Merriam-Webster online (which has an Internet-troll definition) also has what seem to me like rather ambiguous example sentences:

    “They were trolling the ocean floor.”
    “She loves to troll flea markets looking for bargains.”

    The first could easily (maybe even more easily!) be about trawling. The second doesn’t ring true for me. Bargains generally don’t come to you, lured by your bait. I think I’d want to say “trawl” there, as in a sort of wide-ranging, deep-scouring search.

  12. Rodger C said,

    May 15, 2019 @ 9:37 am

    The vowel in "troll" isn't part of the cot/caught merger.

  13. Joe Fineman said,

    May 15, 2019 @ 10:19 pm

    Certainly not. I do not merge cot & caught, and "troll" has neither vowel. It rhymes with "roll"
    At Caltech in the 1950s, a troll was merely a socially inept person. On the other hand, trolling for cops was the amusement of driving along a Pasadena street at 10 mph in the wee hours of the morning until stopped by a policeman, to whom one was polite.

  14. Seth F said,

    May 15, 2019 @ 10:26 pm

    A key part of the definition shift seems to have been from the aspect of "insincere" or "sarcastic" (the "teasing" part) to "obnoxious" intensifying to "hateful" (the "hate speech" part). I saw a fascinating usage illustrating this recently:

    "Such a compelling case built here — without overstating — that a woman wrote plays attributed to Shakespeare. By @ElizWinkler, now under attack from Shakespeare-was-the-man-from-Stratford troll population I didn't know existed."

    What in the world can this person mean by a construction such as "Shakespeare-was-the-man-from-Stratford troll population" ? That they know it's wrong but are saying it to get a reaction? That they're somehow trying to provoke anger by stating the overwhelming scholarly viewpoint?

    And she clarifies:

    "Check my mentions for the trolls to which I was referring. Not seeing
    the early modern historians to which you refer. And IMO hundreds of
    years of failure, etc doesn't excuse mocking, dismissing without
    explanation & willfully mischaracterizing the points raised. That's trolling."

    That's illuminating. "Trolling" has mutated to the point of meaning here basically being mildly rude about a crankish theory (indeed, my phrasing of "crankish theory" would probably qualify as trolling under this description – it is dismissive). It now means something like a modern version of "churlish".

  15. Gwen Katz said,

    May 16, 2019 @ 1:37 am

    I think a key aspect of the modern definition is that it's generally an incited mass action in a social-media context.

    So, with Seth F's example, if someone at a party said "I have a theory that a woman wrote Shakespeare's plays" and you said "That's a load of bollocks," nobody would call that trolling. The part where they become trolls is where the people who disagree with that theory all share around her article to their thousands of followers for the purpose of inspiring more and more people to tell her that she's wrong and her theory is bad.

    The "insincere" aspect of the definition is still present because, while they may act like they want to have a polite and reasonable discussion (sea lioning), their actual goal is to make her feel bad, shut up, and/or go away.

  16. Robert said,

    May 26, 2019 @ 10:33 am

    @Joe Fineman
    >> Certainly not. I do not merge cot & caught, and "troll" has neither vowel. It rhymes with "roll"

    There is a British pronunciation, in my experience more commonly used for the verb (in fishing) than the noun, and listed first in the OED, that rhymes with "moll". US dictionaries list only your pronunciation for both noun and verb.

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