Trolling for Ethics: Mattathias Schwartz’s Awesome Piece on Internet Poltergeists

By Virginia Heffernan
The New York Times

July 31, 2008

Consider this question from David Hume: “Would any man, who is walking alone, tread as willingly on another’s gouty toes, whom he has no quarrel with, as on the hard flint and pavement?”

In other words, would any solitary human worthy of the name be recreationally cruel to a sick or weak person when he stood to gain nothing?

(Remember, Hume was Scottish; this is no translation. He asks the question so as to exclude the recreational cruelty of a woman, or someone in a pack, or someone not going somewhere, or someone who steps on toes by accident, or someone who steps on unswollen toes, or someone who treads with more or less intensity than his regular sidewalk strike.)

As I have learned from the unstoppable Mattathias Schwartz’s [ ]page-turner magazine story [ ], in which he cautiously rolls with some screwy Internet figures, the long-awaited answer to Hume’s question is yes.

Internet trolls regularly tread on gouty toes. They trick vulnerable people with whom they have no quarrel; they upset those people; they humiliate them; they break their hearts; they mess with them. They do it for something Hume didn’t perfectly name: the lulz — the spiteful high. (Lulz [ ], like much else to do with trolling, is defined here in sporting and then obscene language. Check it out at your own risk. Cleaner, clearer definitions appear in Schwartz’s article.)

So do you troll? Trolls occasionally use hacking or identity-thieving skills, but you don’t have to have special skills to become a troll — just a cast of mind. Theirs is not a federal offense. It’s rarely even actionable. But, holy, is it mean. Stomp, stomp, stomp-on the parents of a young man who committed suicide. On a sweet girl looking for love on MySpace. On light-sensitive epileptics looking for information on a health site.

Then, when the ouch comes, or worse — gouty toes are supremely tender — trolls get their lulz. Kicks, I guess, are why they do it. I remember in ’70s kids’ fiction, “kicks” was the most depraved of all reasons for doing something bad: “I steal hubcaps just for kicks.” Hume agreed that actively hurting someone weak for kicks or lulz, in the absence of a dispute, might be an individual’s greatest moral crime. Martha Stewart lied for money, Eliot Spitzer cheated for sex, Saddam killed for glory and power, but riling up some mentally ill shut-in by mocking his ideology online? Come on, trolls, just why?

Schwartz ingeniously suggests some answers, but you’ll have to read his terrific article to see. Hints: one troll believes he can wise people up by revealing their unguarded flanks. (That one seems like a child who, in mothering parlance, tests boundaries so someone will erect them.) Another is a 20th-century type: a Fed-fearing anti-Semite who curses the vagaries of the commodities market, and believes it’s testament to his free will that he’s not bound by conscience. An overman.

I have my own ideas about trolls — from Joybubbles [ ]days, from the days of the “mad scrollers” on Xcaliber. But most of all, I idolize the message-board vets who seem to have a sixth sense for trolls. Not kidding. A newcomer to some ladies’ board will say, “Hi, I’m Jayne,” and the alpha girl with the troll radar shoots back, “Go away, troll.” And it’s gone.

If you’re one of these trollspotters, how do you do it?
If you’re a troll, why do you do it?
If you’re a victim or an observer, what should we do about it?

Read the article, too, all of you. What an intriguing cast of characters Schwartz found in these trolls. Maybe they should be in jail; maybe they’ll spam this blog into dust. Maybe they should be protected like porn people and performance artists.

In any case, trolls make you think about good and evil, so we should thank them for that.

Copyright 2008