The word “troll” - in an internet context - was never specific. Everyone thought they knew one when they saw one, but nobody exactly agreed what it meant and certainly not who they were. In fact that was part of the point of trolling - there was a particular sweet spot of effectiveness where one part of a community (the moderators, maybe) had you pegged as a troll, and another thought you were A-OK. That was exactly the idea - divide and, no, not conquer, sit back and laugh.
Trolling was something everyone fell for and almost everyone did - a bit, anyway. At the centre was posting something you knew people would react to, and posting it because you knew people would react to it. And if that motive was more important than your actual belief in it, you were trolling. That question of motive was why trolling couldn’t really be proved, something that massively increased its effectiveness.
Or that was my definition. Like everyone else, I thought I knew it when I saw it. Like everyone else, I was probably wrong half the time.
Trolls were creatures of communities. To troll effectively you needed a basic understanding of what would push a community’s buttons. They would occasionally be rawly abusive and hateful, but that stuff tended to get jumped on: it wasn’t effective. Some trolls - quite a few, but by no means all - were bigots, or played them on the Internet (though then and now the difference didn’t seem worth indulging).
As well as trolls, there were a lot of scumbags, psychos, sociopaths, anonymous cowards, creeps, racists, women-haters, etc. on the Internet. Over-indexed compared to the real world? I don’t know. Some of the scum were trolls, some of the trolls were also scum, but the two still seemed useful and distinct categories.
A couple of years ago the media - in the UK especially - got hold of the word “troll”, and its meaning has been subtly expanding, colonising the categories I just dumped in the “scum” bracket. It’s now used mostly about people on Twitter, YouTube, social networks and newspaper comment pages who specialise in race hate, rape threats, death threats, and so on.
These are repulsive people. But I don’t think we need a collective, media-friendly new word for them, and even if we do I don’t think we benefit from it being “troll”.
Why not? Firstly, I think it encourages the idea that online hate is special and different and needs to be fought in special and different ways. If the argument is “people say horrible things online that they wouldn’t say to someone’s face”, then why give them a special different name just because they’re online? Plus having things said to your face is a reality for most targets of prejudice anyway.
Second, a word which spans ‘teasing a pop forum about its music tastes’ and ‘sending death threats by email to someone about their kids’ is not a sustainable word. Something has to give, and it’ll be the older meaning of “troll”, which is a shame, since we already have words for people who send death threats, but “troll” was a useful category for filtering life online.
Third, calling it trolling means battle-hardened old webheads’ knee-jerk reaction is not to take it seriously. You see lots of comments talk about “thin skins”, mostly from people who - I’d guess - have never had to deal with offline hate and who’ve never been called worse than nerd. Old-school trolling targeted communities, and basically involved pissing in the swimming pools of online trust, which is what made it such a nuisance. You’d invest a lot in a community and here were people trying to kick over your sandcastle and run off laughing.
But communities and trust work in different ways now. Most of the attacks reported as “trolling” are targeted very much at individuals, and ‘communities’ only by proxy, and are happening as much in private or semi-public as in public. “Do Not Feed The Troll” - i.e. ignore it, don’t give them the satisfaction - remains excellent advice for dealing with old-school in-community trolls, but far less useful if the word has suddenly changed meaning to include stalkers and people trying to defame and silence you.
And finally, there’s a small irony in that the people pushing this semantic shift are newspaper columnists, whose modus operandi - particularly in the eyeballs-first web age - is often precisely to goad a reaction, deploy specious arguments, spread knowing untruths, and generally do everything old-school trolls used to do with the authority of a masthead and a byline.