Sep. 07, 2012

Trolling for Annoyance

by Marc Abrahams

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Trolls – call them Internet trolls, if you like – are distant behavioural kin to Plasmodium falciparum, a protozoan parasite that causes malaria in large numbers of human beings. Both kinds of parasite are maddeningly difficult to suppress. They manage, again and again, to return after we thought we’d seen the last of them. Each can, if left untreated, cause agony or worse.

These trolls infect any place where people gather electronically to converse by writing comments to each other. Trolls creep into and crop up anywhere they can, wheedling for attention in chat rooms, listservs, twitter streams, blogs, and as you may have noticed, in the comments section of online news articles.

One of the many annoying things about Internet trolls is that it’s difficult to define precisely, with academic rigour, what they do. Claire Hardaker, a lecturer at University of Central Lancashire’s department of linguistics and English language, took up the challenge. Her study called ‘Trolling in Asynchronous Computer-Mediated Communication’ is published somewhat counter-intuitively in the Journal of Politeness Research.

Hardaker presented an early form of the paper to a mostly troll-free audience at the Linguistic Impoliteness and Rudeness conference held at her university in 2009.

After much research and hard work, Hardaker came up with a working definition. A troll is someone 'who constructs the identity of sincerely wishing to be part of the group in question, including professing, or conveying pseudo-sincere intentions, but whose real intention(s) is/are to cause disruption and/or to trigger or exacerbate conflict for the purposes of their own amusement'.

She arrived at this after much trolling (in a very different sense of that word) through data. Lots of data. A '172-million-word corpus of unmoderated, asynchronous computer-mediated communication', a nine-year collection of commentary in an online discussion group about horseback riding. She focused in on the huge number of passages where people mentioned trolls, trolling, trolled, trollish, trolldom, and other variations on the key word ‘troll’.

Distilling the wisdom of the horse-talk crowd, Hardaker set up this handy guide to interacting with trolls: 'Trolling can (1) be frustrated if users correctly interpret an intent to troll, but are not provoked into responding, (2) be thwarted, if users correctly interpret an intent to troll, but counter in such a way as to curtail or neutralize the success of the troller, (3) fail, if users do not correctly interpret an intent to troll and are not provoked by the troller, or, (4) succeed, if users are deceived into believing the troller’s pseudo-intention(s), and are provoked into responding sincerely. Finally, users can mock troll. That is, they may undertake what appears to be trolling with the aim of enhancing or increasing affect, or group cohesion.'

Any comments?
Hardaker, Claire (2010). ‘Trolling in Asynchronous Computer-Mediated Communication: From User Discussions To Academic Definitions.’ Journal of Politeness Research 6 (2): 215–42.
Excerpted from This Is Improbable by Marc Abrahams.  ISBN: 9781851689316 
Author photo by David Kessler
About Marc Abrahams

Marc Abrahams is the editor of the parody magazine Annals of Improbable Research and the founder of the internationally renowned Ig Nobel prizes, which honor bizarre, questionable, and downright funny scientific research.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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