There’s a popular equation about internet trolling called the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory (GIFT):
I like the sentiment of this theory, but I think it’s missing a wee little detail. You see, before Al Gore invented the internet* there were these things called bathroom stalls, and that’s where trolls used to find release (sometimes literally) before the internet. I conducted an informal study of bathroom stall walls for a few years in the 1990s. One of my findings was that swastikas and KKK scratchings were rampant, not to mention a scourge of other racist and misogynist and homophobic drivel (along with pictures of penises). Now, if we go back to the Fuckwad Theory, it posits that the spewers of this fuckwaddery are otherwise normal people. Really? I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had the urge to bust out the Sharpie and draw a swastika while my cheeks are a-flexin’.
Of course, swastikas and KKKs are pretty extreme and hateful examples but, in a way, that’s the point. Trolls can be incredibly hateful, urging people to kill themselves, laughing at people who have killed themselves, telling people they deserved to be raped. There is no “normal” there – there is something quite abnormal about someone who posts “She wasn’t bullied for being a rape victim, she was bullied for being a slut, which she was” on the Facebook memorial page of a girl who hanged herself after a picture of her being gang raped was posted online.**
As with many things, there’s a trolling continuum. The above example is at one extreme. At the other end, trolling may even be mildly funny at times. But mostly it just detracts from what could be meaningful discussion and information on the internet.
I would guess that the vast majority of internet users are interested in having a civilized discussion about topics,*** but a small minority of trolls can quickly disrupt that. So here’s Poppa’s Internet Fuckwad Theory:
Now I’m going to delve into some wild speculation to complete my thesis. Most, but not all, of these Fuckwads are dudes. As with our theory of assholery, men are the worst perpetrators of antagonism toward other humans. Humans are products of evolution, and men are particularly predisposed to aggressive competition for mates. My cousin once laughed at me when he noticed that I lowered my voice while speaking with a Blockbuster employee (Blockbuster was a store where you could rent these things called DVDs to watch movies). Why did I do that? Was the skinny pimply kid at the Blockbuster counter a threat to my manhood, a competitor in the primeval desire for a cavewoman? Maybe all our testosterone predisposes us dudes to more aggressive behavior, including writing “Fucking gay!!!” in the YouTube comments section.
But we are not just products of evolution; we’re also products of our environment. There aren’t a lot of great data on trolls, but many speculate that trolls are often products of fairly shitty environments. In general they may be more lonely, depressed, angry, wary, repressed, and have lower self-esteem. Which isn’t to excuse their behavior. If they had read Climbing the Totem Pole of Magnanimity, they would realize that sowing hatred does not actually make one feel better, and that, no matter your circumstance, you can always try not to be a dick (Wheaton’s Law).
In a societal sense, a society that fosters creativity, critical thinking, and civil discussion will harbor less trolls under its collective bridge. A society that builds community, broadens equality, and promotes a sense of civic duty will be riddled with fewer fuckwads.
But until that utopia unfolds, what are some practical means to curb internet hate and drivel? I think it comes down to the owners of sites (from the big players like YouTube to the news outlets to individual bloggers) to come up with policies that work for their users. Some people recommend getting rid of anonymity for commenters.
Personally, I like the idea of having a moderator for comments, separating the wheat from the chaff. That may not be practical for sites and videos that receive thousands of comments, but the New York Times seems to do a decent job. Moderating comments can also be crowdsourced. If enough people mark a comment as bullshit, it gets removed. If a particular fuckwad keeps trying to spread his bullshit on a particular site, he gets banned from commenting. Having a good commenting policy also helps.
YouTube is particularly debased when it comes to the comments section. Imagine if the Harper’s magazine letters section were like YouTube. Instead of “As Cockburn demonstrates, fundraising takes up an enormous amount of a candidate’s time…” you might have “Cockmonster!!!”
But as an owner of a blog and a YouTube channel, I have the option to moderate the comments that are displayed, and I do. Most of the comments (after weeding out spam, which YouTube does automatically) are constructive or encouraging, but some are just useless, so they go in the trash bin. One guy, after watching my concrete sink video, said that if he were in my house, he would have to bite his tongue to avoid saying how crappy my sink looks. Well, you are in my house when you’re on my channel, so bite your tongue. Which isn’t to say I wouldn’t publish any kind of criticism, but it has to be constructive.
My buddy Mr. Money Mustache, who has a blog with millions of followers, put it this way to a rude commenter:
You’re right that I did ban you from future commenting, and here’s why. The blog is not a public space, it’s my living room. People are there to be entertained, and if I’m lucky, occasionally learn something. But in this case, you barged into my living room and started being a big fucking asshole.
I recently posted on the site of another blogger friend, Mr. 1500 Days, and his commenters must be some of the pleasantest people on the planet. But even Mr. 1500 gets occasional dipshit comments (“U R COCKMASTER!”), which he promptly flushes down the toilet.
Ultimately, there are companies or institutions or individuals who run websites, and it’s up to them how they want those sites to be perceived. Troll-filled sites take on the taint that their trolls tarnish them with. A little vigilance from the people who run websites will go a long way toward vanquishing trolls and providing a better service for all internet users.
And, lest you get the feeling that the world is full of bad guys, I’ll leave you with a take from John Oliver, one of the best guys in the world (if nothing else, forward to the parody of a 1995 AOL ad at about 14:40):
*Poor Gore got excoriated for this nonexistent claim, when in fact he was largely responsible for facilitating the unveiling of the internet.
**And women seem to be especially targeted by (mostly) male fuckwads, as is poignantly brought home in this YouTube vid about what some female ESPN reporters have experienced. Scrolling through the comments of the video, you can see that the fuckwads are out in full force.
***Which isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be a place for humorous irreverence (see every post on this blog).