I had a vague idea of what/who a troll was on the internet, but Sam Leith gives some definitions:
Two pieces of wisdom today preoccupy me. One, whose originator is unknown, is: “Don’t feed the trolls.” The other—which I’ve heard plausibly attributed to the Guardian columnist Grace Dent—is: “Never read the bottom half of the internet.” The latter—a warning, essentially, against plunging into the foaming cauldron of madness in online comment threads—is a sort of preventative measure. If you don’t read the bottom half of the internet—the bit under the bridge—you stand that much less chance of finding yourself looking down on a hungry troll, with a billy-goat in your arms, and being overcome by temptation.
A troll, in internet terms, is someone who sails into a discussion just to mess things up. He is the poker of sticks into ants’ nests: the commenter who gatecrashes a rape survivor’s messageboard with a collection of Frankie Boyle jokes, or posts fake news stories about stock in forums for investors. The idea is not to contribute to the discussion, but to derail it. Online trolls thrive on rage, hurt and confusion. What they are after is a rise. Hence: don’t feed the trolls. It only encourages them.
Leith goes on to use trolling/trolliness as a key to interpreting contemporary culture.
You can see trolliness in the Twitter feeds of drunken students. But you can also see it in entertainment: the “new nastiness” in stand-up comedy – using offensive material to generate buzz – is troll-work. And you can see it in national newspapers… Provocation has always been a function of journalism, but it’s becoming an ever more central one.
There is a decipherable reason for this. Eyes on a page are eyes on a page. Retweets, whether in outrage or endorsement, are retweets. The currency of the internet is not agreement but attention. So trolling – whose only raison d’être is the gaining of attention – is a central dynamic of modern media. It could, arguably, be seen as the characteristic communicative gesture of the internet era. We live in the age of the troll.
But the currency of all entertainment and journalism has always been, to some extent, not agreement but attention. I don’t think there was some kind of pre-internet purity about ‘communicative gestures’ – editors have always wanted to sell papers; journalists have always wanted their stories to be popular. The only difference now is that Joe-punter can get his oar in to stir things up and grab everyone’s attention, whereas before if was just the professionals who had the tools and the power to enter the fray.
But maybe a fundamental difference between editors seeking attention and sales, and commentators trying to provoke a deluge of re-tweets, is that the editors were at some level accountable. You can’t call a troll to account – they just slip off into cyberspace and create another login name, another avatar. Perhaps trolling has more in common with graffiti that anything else – be it the day-glo tags on the side of a train, or the scrawl on the toilet door. It’s there to be seen and to provoke you – and you’ll never know the face of the person who put it there.