Dealing with the Trolls Among Us

The online troll is a hot topic of discussion these days. Read any online forum (that involves people) and you’ll see the most vocal responders often use the word “troll” to describe another forum poster.

Trolls were made possible by the first online web app that provided a forum for user comments and allowed users to sign up with a username other than their real name. This type of username is typically referred to as an alias or pseudonym.

I see the term being thrown around in online forums often with reckless abandon because it’s often one troll versus another. “You’re an Apple fanboy.” “You’re a Microsoft fanboy.”

What exactly is a troll? The term “troll” can be challenging to define because most people don’t think of themselves as trolls, even if they exhibit the classic behaviors. Naturally, people use the term troll in many contexts (with the traditional one being an ugly and scary cave-dwelling being), but I’m going to define it with regards to its new use in the technology industry.

Keep in mind that even if my definition were perfect, the trolls among us will disagree with my definition. But I won’t be alarmed or feel besmirched – this is the job of the troll and anything less would (frankly) be disappointing.

We’ll also cover how to deal with trolls because someday you too will have a troll in your life. Hopefully he/she isn’t also a stalker, as stalking trolls are difficult to shake!

So here we go. The new troll is anybody who hides behind an alias and replies to online articles and users in an online forum with content intended to generate a negative emotional response from another online poster who authored or commented on an article. Ultimately, the troll would love to also elicit a written response to their inciting post to verify that they’ve truly accomplished their goal of pushing someone’s buttons – icing on the cake for the troll!

Trollish behavior is built into the human DNA, as evidenced by my older brother. When we were kids, he knew exactly how to push my buttons to make me mad. If there was something he could say to me or a constant noise he could make while I was trying to focus on a task, he would say or do it, sticking with the obnoxious behavior long enough to send me into a fit of rage (he was a persistent offline troll).

Same with the online troll. The online troll often responds to an article’s author (or another poster) with a mean or controversial statement meant to elicit an emotional response. First, you read the troll’s comment, which is either in complete disagreement with your response and/or a personal attack on your character, and when the troll has got you good and mad, you respond with something that’s really going to get him/her. This usually backfires, especially if you misspell a word or use bad grammar.

Trolls are contrary to the point of self-contradiction. I once replied to a story online regarding terrorism and said the people doing the nefarious behavior had been brainwashed. One troll responded to my post with a “… and you’re not brainwashed?” comment.

Of course our beliefs are based on our experiences, including all of the good and bad information we put into our brains on a daily basis. It does take a bit more brainwashing, however, to be motivated enough to torture another living thing, especially a fellow human being. It’s unlikely that any amount of propaganda supporting the opposing view on this type of torture would change my mind on this.

Yes, like most people, I sometimes temporarily and, perhaps during an emotional moment, feel I’d like to see someone evil suffer, but then I come to my senses and realize everyone has a reason for where they are in life and I can’t know how they arrived there.

Not all trolls are bad and in fact many of us have a favorite or two. The rare troll has built a charismatic online persona with a preposterous, but entertaining point of view. Others have perhaps softened an extreme position over time or claim a charming alias like “Loverock” that enables non-trolls to tolerate the occasional trollish post.

My best advice for dealing with trolls is very effective – DON’T! Just like Mom advised about how we should respond to name calling and having sticks and stones thrown at us. Ignoring a villainous response to a post you made online is not much fun, but is better than the alternative. Arguing with a troll is a dead end. You’ll never win. Even if you think – no, know (or at least are pretty certain) – that white is white and not black, the troll will soon bring doubt into your life on this point. Don’t go there!

Some online entities have attempted to deal with the online troll by requiring forum posters to use real names and aliases. These efforts have mostly failed because many scenarios require people to protect their online identities (especially when sharing personal information) and certainly the freedom of being anonymous online leads to creativity and entertainment that wouldn’t exist otherwise. Think “Fake Steve Jobs” and the plethora of great non-real personalities on Twitter, including some great animal aliases. What would we do without Subtweet Cat?

People are indeed people, but they’re also trolls. Get used to it. But don’t fall into their trap by responding to an obvious troll. Only respond to comments that appear to be from people with at least a hint of common sense (which means some online forums will be off limits altogether!). This is simple, but hopefully also sage, advice for dealing with the trolls among us…

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