Save the Trolls?

So today’s post is the consequence not of someone’s blog post, but of an email sent out to the Digital Games Research Association list. Apparently, the emailer (Jason Wilson) notes, there has been recent concern in Australia with trolling, which, given the media attention being paid to it here is probably unsurprising. After a fairly comprehensive definition of what a troll is and an analysis of how trolls interact with – and are even produced by – the “desire for deliberative democracy” that characterizes much of the online community.

And this is where things got interesting.

Trolls are usually someone else, defined from our own position and interests. When they are not, and we inhabit trolling, we discover that trolling requires know-how, close reading, experience, sometimes sympathy with those we would disrupt.

 What are the consequences to seeing trolling and other forms of affective behaviour as the norm, rather than the aberrant? The discourse of digital art has long since told this story, but the intellectual desire for open and constitutive democracy has overridden the ‘actually existing democracy’ of bullying, trolling, threats, inane memes and low signal-to-noise ratios. What would happen if we started to think of trolling as the central practice in online discourse? What if trolling is the Internet’s signature mode of discursive politics? What if we started to think about trolling as a practice which is generative rather than destructive?

Having heard the “confessions of an ex-troll” at SMCRVA last month, the idea that trolls might actually be contributing to the production and continuation of online community came as something of a surprise. But the sense that trolls are the perpetual Other – and almost never ourselves – raises some interesting questions. Are we trolling, for example, when we make arguments against a position with which we disagree when we know the other person cannot be persuaded? Is there anything wrong with perpetuating an argument just for the sake of perpetuating the argument? Is a devil’s advocate really a troll?

But I like the question, “What if we started to think about trolling as a practice which is generative rather than destructive?” Because when you stop to think about it, (some) trolling can be generative. For example, Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter project probably would not have garnered the attention, the funding, and the national awareness that it now has were it not for trolls. (That said, I would not wish their treatment of her on anyone, and I stand by my assertion that much of what was said and sent to her should never have happened.)

Trolling can draw attention to those issues that we take for granted but aren’t motivated enough to do something about. Online bullying. Sexism. Homophobia. Bigotry. By hyperemphasizing the accepted and tolerated low-level intolerance that is part and parcel of Western society, trolls are actually making a demand (whether on purpose or by counter-point) that we reexamine the mores that make up our dominant and sub-cultures to see why behavior like theirs is possible. Whether intentionally or not, trolling actually permits the kind of “deliberative democracy,” even though, as Wilson remarks, “Trolls are not interested in redeeming democracy through deliberation, and they mock attempts to do so.”

In short, in order for our society to be motivated enough to make a change, we need to recognize that our ideology is permissive of a degree of behavior that crosses a line. We are willing – whether ethically or not – to tolerate a certain level of bigotry because it doesn’t inconvenience us; trolls raise that level to the point where we are no longer willing to tolerate it, thus actually catalyzing systemic change.

I’m not sure I would call a troll a leader in the sense that we typically mean in leadership studies. Perhaps the internet age requires a new term to describe such leadership (although “troll leadership” just doesn’t sound right for so many reasons), or perhaps this is simply a new form of social satire produced by technological progress. Whatever the cause, perhaps Wilson is right that trolls aren’t all bad, and that maybe we need to leave one or two of the more innocuous ones under a few choice bridges.


[Note: For members of DiGRA, the original email can be accessed here.]