I define “Internet trolling” as posting comments on blogs, chat groups, forums, or any other venue on the internet that makes disparaging remarks about other people, their statements, theories, questions, beliefs, or anything else they post on the internet. It’s irrelevant whether the troll’s comments are intentionally constructed to cause other people anger and pain or the troll’s communication skills are just so uncivilized that that they incidentally infuriate and hurt other people. As long as the end result is anger and pain the perpetrator is trolling. You could say that unintentional abuse isn’t trolling but flaming, but unless the offender spells out their intentions then the victim doesn’t know the difference. It all looks like trolling to them.
Every troll is unique, and each has their own motives for their actions, but after watching trolls in action since the birth of the internet and even questioning them directly I’ve gathered that most trolls are trying to accomplish one (or more) of five goals by attacking strangers on the internet.
- Correct other people’s mistakes.
- Force other people to better refine and articulate their ideas.
- Punish stupid people for being stupid.
- Reinforce their own sense of self-worth by proving to themselves that they’re better than other people.
- Derive pleasure from other people’s pain and discomfort.
- Let’s take a look at each of these goals and see how well trolling accomplishes them.
1. Correcting other people’s mistakes.
Regardless of whether your intentions are pure or even if you’re right, insulting people makes them angry. When people get angry they don’t think rationally; they think emotionally. This makes it nearly impossible for them to think about your point of view objectively. Thus, if your goal is to change people’s minds you’ve just shot yourself in the foot.
Another reason insulting people reduces the chance of you successfully arguing your point to them is because it changes the subject of the argument away from the topic altogether and turns it into a personal argument about the quality of the individuals arguing. Abortion, gun control, politics, immigration, health care reform, drug laws, religion, and other sensitive subjects have many compelling arguments on both sides, none of which are addressed by the statement, “You’re fucking stupid.”
When you make people angry and steer the conversation away from the actual topic you’re destroying any chance of changing your opponent’s mind. In fact, you’re accomplishing the opposite; you’re shutting down their brain and reaffirming their belief that people who belong to your school of thought are arrogant dick heads. Even if you “win” the argument the other person is going to walk away more convinced of their position, which may in fact be wrong about, but they’ll never know it because of you. Trolls aren’t the agents of truth they believe they are. They’re the guardians of ignorance.
2. Forcing people to better refine and articulate their ideas.
Again, starting a flame war shuts down people’s minds and changes the subject to an irrelevant straw man argument. I’ve seen many trolls defend themselves against this criticism by saying things like, “I don’t have time to sugar coat reality for your dumb ass.” Or “If you can’t take a joke then fuck you.” Or simply “You’re a pussy. Fuck you.”
Regardless of whether or not there’s any truth to those defenses, the reality of the situation is that the only people who are going to listen objectively to someone who insults them personally are the most brilliantly stoic and objective thinkers society has to offer. Thinkers of that caliber are probably going to objectively challenge their own ideas themselves without waiting for a belligerent stranger on the internet to offer them that service. So your criticism isn’t likely to help anybody who isn’t already helping themselves.
What your criticism is likely to do is cement ignorant people’s beliefs, discourage budding minds from reaching out to society for help in their quest for understanding, and hurt innocent people who are making the same honest mistakes you’ve made in the past.
3. Punishing stupid people for being stupid.
Imagine an abusive parent who beats his children when they misbehave. When this particular parent beats his children he doesn’t explain to his children why the thing they did was wrong, how they can correct their behavior or what the benefit of correcting their behavior will be. The parent just beats his children while screaming at them that they’re bad people who can never do anything right.
After years of this kind of abuse the children will learn one thing from their parent, that they’re inherently bad people who can never do anything right. That “truth” will define their reality, and they’ll go through the rest of their lives hating themselves and destroying themselves and everyone who comes into their sphere of influence (including their own children). They’ll never be motivated to fulfill their human potential because they’ll be convinced that their individual potential is crap.
That’s what punishing people for being stupid accomplishes. It reinforces and breeds stupidity.
4. Reinforcing your own sense of self-worth by proving to yourself that you’re better than other people.
Self-esteem is something that everyone struggles with. Defining your self-worth is an essential and inevitable part of growing up. It’s also one of the most difficult parts of growing up, especially if your parents are bullies.
We should all be honest with ourselves that there’s an intoxicating lure to establishing your self-worth by putting others down. However, it’s just a quick fix. It creates an external illusion of self-worth. Your true value is internal and has nothing to do with the value of the person next to you.
Measuring your self-worth relative to the accomplishments of someone else is an honest mistake that everyone makes a couple of times in their life. We all deserve a pass for a few lapses of self-control, but if you consistently tear down other people to prove your superiority, that’s a sign that you don’t believe your value as a person is good/solid enough to stand on its own. That or you’re just ignorant of what determines a person’s worth. Either way, trolling provides written documentation in a public forum definitively proving to everyone who crosses your path that you’re worse than everyone else, and everyone can see it except you.
5. Deriving pleasure from other people’s pain and discomfort.
If you derive joy from causing other people pain then you don’t have room to criticize anybody else’s personal or intellectual flaws because you possess the greatest personal and intellectual flaw humanly possible.
Furthermore, while the pleasure of hurting others may seem intoxicating at the moment, when you look back on your life years from now your memories won’t be defined by honest, solid happiness. They’ll be defined by torture. While the happiness you experience by hurting other people may be real it’s also a lesser form of happiness than can be attained by helping other people and celebrating life.
Gaining happiness in life is like a business gaining money in the economy. You’re like a business that’s making a profit. You might be content with the amount of money you’re making, but if you changed your business model just a little you could make a lot more profit. Again, you might be happy without how much money you’re making, but consider that the money you’re not making is money you’re losing.
In order to understand how important that is you need to understand how important money is. Money is a medium of exchange that represents all the hopes, dreams, fears and values of mankind. Money can do anything. Money really does make the world go ‘round.
What I’m talking about is more important than money. I’m talking about your life.
Whether your goal is to correct other people’s mistakes, help other people to better refine and articulate their ideas, vanquish stupidity, define your self worth, or achieve happiness, trolling won’t help you accomplish any of those goals; it will accomplish the exact opposite. What will help you accomplish all of those goals is reaching out to your fellow human in kindness, objectivity and patience to help everyone arrive at truth in a productive manner. In doing so you’ll make other people smarter individuals, which will help them fulfill their potential, which will cause society (which is nothing more than a large group of individuals) to improve and fulfill its potential. By being an agent of truth and productivity you’ll fulfill your own potential and prove your worth to the rest of the world and have written documentation in a public forum definitively proving to everyone who crosses your path that you were/are a great human being. Finally, when you look back on your life years from now you’ll have a long history of creating happiness in this world, not just for yourself but everyone you’ve met and everyone they’ve met, and everyone they’ve met and so on across the world and across generations yet to be born. The happiness you experience from those memories will be compounded a billion times, and when you die you will be one of the few humans to ever live who knew true greatness and true happiness.
Or you can just keep being a dick and devote your life to creating a world defined by ignorance and hostility, chipping away at everything good in this world while making yourself angrier and angrier as you sit in your mom’s basement cursing the world you’re creating.
This essay was originally posted on my main site, thewisesloth.com on November 1, 2009.