Social media can be a fun way to stay in touch with friends or relatives, make plans for the evening, showcase pictures of your pets, children, or bicycle, or share bat-shit crazy conspiracy theories.
It can also be a source of endless amusement for trolls. Or those that like to feed the trolls.
Before we approach the finer points of trolling, we need a proper operational definition for a “troll.” For that, we’ll rely on THE authoritative source for information in today’s world – Urban Dictionary:
One who posts a deliberately provocative message to a newsgroup or message board with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument.
So why is trolling amusing? For me personally, there are several reasons.
First, it’s an excellent thought experiment. Encouraging people to share divergent opinions exposes me to more points of view, which can then be used to empathize with a wider swath of humanity.
Second, it gives me the opportunity to practice a variety of psychological “skills” All of us exhibit predictable individual and group behaviors online, and these behaviors are subject to subtle manipulation. I regularly used when teaching. More on this later.
Third, it forces others to (usually) think about their own opinions. It’s common for people to simply regurgitate crap they learned somewhere else (books, TV, AM radio, blogs, college, or their own experiences.) Obviously not all people engage in the reflective exercise.
Fourth, it’s funny to see people rabidly defending opinions in the face of contradictory evidence. Yeah, I know… it’s a douchey thing to do. I never claim to be a nice guy all the time.
Social Media Personalities
The key to being a successful troll is learning a few basic categories of online personality types. I use a very simple classification system, which includes a rationale as to why they are important for trolls:
- Brick Shit House: The BSH has strong opinions and rarely wavers from those opinions. They will defend their opinion with ferocity. Their most important characteristic- they’re reliable and predictable. We can always rely on them to take a particular stance on any given issue. They will often express opinions to either a) convince others to agree with them, or b) solicit affirmations from like-minded people. Political discussions usually bring out the BSH, which can be either ridiculously right-winged or left-winged. The BSH brings emotion to the discussion often by USING ALL CAPS AND EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!!!
- Prodder: The prodder like to stir up shit. By definition, prodders are natural trolls. The prodder wears many masks depending on how and why they prod. They’re chameleons. They usually assume the role of the BSH or Armchair Researcher, but their goal is decidedly different. Their sole purpose is to cause trouble by adapting to the given situation. Antagonize. Make waves. The prodder fuels the fire in discussions. A firm understanding of current issues, common cognitive biases, and a large repository of insults are usually the prerequisite of becoming a prodder.
- Armchair Researcher: The AR may have strong opinions, but the opinions derive from empirical research (or media interpretations of research.) The armchair researcher will usually participate in discussions by quoting statistics, linking to studies, or referencing books on any given topic. The important thing to know about ARs- they believe they are “correct” because they take a logical approach that’s backed by data. Of course, the data may be flawed or there may be an equal amount of research that refutes the idea, which is what makes the AR valuable. Two diametrically-opposed ARs add an important element of logic and reason to a
fightdiscussion. The AR provides logical balance to the emotional tension of the BSH mostly by using a cool demeanor and big science-ish words.
- Peace Keeper: The PK is uncomfortable with conflict, thus rarely enters heated debates. However, they may if they feel strongly about any given issue. The PK will usually attempt to bring the sides together by finding a common ground. PKs are critically important in a discussion because they control the ebb and flow of emotion. If a debate is left unchecked, the BSHs and ARs will quickly escalate the debate to the point where the participants get so pissed they just walk away from the computer. If we use a running analogy, BSHs and ARs are sprinters. PKs help them slow down so they can run longer distances. If there are no PKs available, prodders will often assume the role.
- Rational Human Being: The RHB is the anti-prodder. They digest all the available evidence, give it objective thought, then adjust their world view accordingly. Sometimes that may require changing their opinion, which is not a big issue with RHBs. This personality type can sometimes have a peacekeeper effect, but more often serve as thread-enders. Since they have the ability to see all angles of an issue, they usually have thoughtful responses to the pros and cons of the arguments of both sides of an issue, which then diffuses the arguments of both sides. Important note- Almost everyone THINKS they are a RHB (especially BSHs and ARs), which is precisely why prodders can troll so easily. Usually the only people that will admit to not being a RHB are RHBs themselves.
- Jessica Simpson: These are the folks that enter debates but have no fucking clue what’s going on. Typically the JSs will have a particular Utopian world view and attempt to frame the whole debate in this world view. On the surface, JSs seem to be useless. However, they DO serve an important role. Their cluelessness is so apparent, both sides will come together to attack them. JSs usually serve as a bonding agent between opposing BSHs and ARs without requiring any agreement on the debated issue. The net effect is to lengthen the
fightdiscussion. Prodders may assume the role of JS on occasion. Personally, my favorite JS methodology is to quote the Bible, philosophers, or politicians in a way that causes everyone to think I’m a fucking moron.
There ARE quite a few people that don’t fit these personality types, but they’re more or less irrelevant to trolling. For the most part, these are the people that have the ability to simply ignore stupid shit.
How to Troll
Once we understand the personality types, We can get down to the business of being an antagonistic jackass. It’s critically important that trolls take on the role of prodder. It is possible to be a BSH or AR and be a troll, but the debates tend to flame out rather quickly. Here are the steps:
Step One: Find a hot-button issue. Luckily, popular media is awash with tinder for prodders. Journalists, by the very nature of their jobs, tend not to spend a great deal of time investigating all angles of any given issue. Also, they have have obvious biases. Just look for issues that seem incendiary. If you haven’t developed that sense yet, look for articles that produce a lot of comments. Comment count is always a good measure of controversy.
Step Two: Pay attention to your friends’ online participation habits and try to identify the BSHs and the ARs. Knowing where they stand politically, socially, and spiritually will give you a sense of what issues will set them off. Also pay attention to the veracity of their participation. Eventually you’ll develop the ability to predict their participation level.
Step Three: Frame the trolling attempt. Any given issue has potential to be troll material if it’s handled correctly. Sometimes asking an open-ended question is most effective. Sometimes making a vague statement works best. Occasionally including a controversial topic as part of an apparent rant works, too.
Let’s say we want to start a gender debate. A lame framing might be something like “Hey guys, what do you think about gender?” A better solution could be “Are women drivers worse than male drivers?” Even better: “Just got back from the mall. Some dumbass driver cut me off. The dumb cunt wasn’t even looking where she was going. When are we going to finally bite the bullet and ban women from driving?!?”
See the difference?
The first question may work, but not likely. It’s easily ignored because it doesn’t really stir up emotion. The second sets up a potential debate by raising the issue in a specific way, but you’d need several BSHs and ARs to fuel the flames for it to turn into a decent fight. The third statement intentionally elicits strong emotions, which compels people to participate.
Unfortunately I see a lot of wannabe trolls framing issues in an overly cautious way. In most cases, you have to go balls to the wall. You may start a fire by rubbing two sticks together, but it’s a lot easier with a few gallons of gas and a Bic.
Step Four: Monitor the fight, participate with the appropriate role when needed. This takes practice. You need a keen diagnostic sense coupled with the ability to see the big picture. The novice troll will often do anything and everything to fan the flames, but that causes the debate to die out quickly. The secret is to suck people into the discussion. Make it impossible for them to leave. This is where the art of trolling really comes into play. Keeping the discussion going requires the ability to be seductive. All of the participants have to get a sense of give and take- winning and losing. It’s like a close football game (American football, not that silly game where drama queens flop on the ground when an opponent invades their personal space.) People are intrigued by back-and-forth action… not a blowout. A good troll accepts their role as a prodder and keeps the game close. It’s also important to realize a good troll can separate their actual beliefs from their trolling behaviors, which requires the ability to see any issue from multiple perspectives.
Step Five: Know when to call in reinforcements. Sometimes a discussion dies out prematurely. When this happens, a good troll knows when to bust out the big guns. This is why knowledge of friends is important. If you’re having a debate about the stupidity of atheism and it’s dominated by strong-willed secular folks, simply tagging your crazy-ass religious fanatic friend can breathe life into the discussion. Both BSHs and ARs can fulfill this role. However, always keep a few aces in the hole- your fellow prodders. Prodders will usually jump into a discussion on their own because the allure of trolling is strong. However, they may simply miss the discussion because they’re busy doing something productive. Usually a well-timed tag is all that’s required to get their attention. For all you aspiring trolls- feel free to use me as a default prodder whenever needed.
Step Six: Be wary of Godwin’s Law. If trolling had a formal scoring system, it would probably involve determining a) how many people are involved, and b) how long the debate lasts until someone makes a Nazi analogy. The more people involved and the longer the debate before Godwin’s Law is invoked would equate to a higher score. So why should you be wary of Godwin’s Law? It tends to end discussions. Once one side plays the Nazi card, there’s really nowhere else to go. The other side can play the card, too, but it comes off as desperate. Some clever people will invoke other examples of genocide, but we’re much more familiar with the Holocaust than the exploits of Pol Pot or even the Trail of Tears.
The Nazi analogies always come out when the debate hits a crescendo. Either emotions are running too high or one side runs out of logical arguments. This is the reason it’s important to manage both by being a good prodder.
Step Seven: Foster longevity. It’s important for the troll to realize that all non-trolls think you’re a douche for being a troll. We’re sort of like magicians, mimes, or Twilight fans- the only people that really like trolls are other trolls. It’s important to balance your troll behaviors with pro-social behaviors. If not, people will get sick of your shit and defriend you. Be aware of how others probably perceive you. In short- mix your trolling with being a decent human being.
Trolling is an art. Some people are natural trolls. Others have to learn the craft. Either way, understanding the dynamics of trolling will advance the art for all. I think we can all agree there’s nothing sadder than a poor attempt at trolling. If you wish to be a troll, don’t embarrass yourself. Learn the art. Practice the craft. Respect those that came before you. Take pride in your work. Make us proud.