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Enter the pit of internet trolling subculture

In the London Review of Books, Richard Seymour reviews a handful of books on the sociology and history of internet trolling. As Seymour writes, these book portray trolling subculture as a curious mix of truth-seeking and truth-obscuring. He points out, however, that trolling is less a novel phenomenon than an extension or mutation of the time-honored practice of sensationalistic journalism. Here’s an excerpt from the review:

The troll has it both ways. He is magnificently indifferent to social norms, which he transgresses for the lulz, yet often at the same time a vengeful punisher: both the Joker and Batman. The troll acts ‘as a self-appointed cultural critic’ in a tradition of clowns and jesters, according to Benjamin Radford, while simultaneously ‘plausibly maintaining that it’s all in good fun and shouldn’t be taken (too) seriously’. According to John Lindow’s ‘unnatural history’ of trolls, the original trolls of Scandinavian folklore punished improper behaviour and upheld social norms. If you take the behavioural code of lulz seriously and erase any commitment to social norms, what you are left with is the logic of punishment in its distilled form: if even the grieving are punishable, who isn’t? ‘None of us,’ goes the refrain, ‘is as cruel as all of us.’ It is around this principle that the most infamous trolling community forged its identity: ‘We are Anonymous, and we do not forgive.’ And what goes unforgiven is weakness.

Sociological analyses of ‘online deviancy’ tend to focus on such traits as Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy and sadism. Phillips debunks all this. It does little more, she says, than redescribe the phenomena with a particular moral accent, while asking us to take for granted the meaningfulness of the categories (‘deviancy’, ‘personality type’) used. Instead, she stresses the role of mainstream culture, arguing that trolls are ‘agents of cultural digestion’.

The dissociation and detached humour of trolling subcultures is perhaps best displayed in the extraordinary variety of jokes and memes about 9/11. Phillips believes this is an outgrowth of the cynicism that pervades the heavily mediated culture of the US. The television coverage of 9/11 and its aftermath consisted in 15-second snippets of horror and atrocity sandwiched between prolonged stretches of ‘rubbish’, in such a way as to provoke ironic detachment. The Bush administration extended the invitation to dissociate. ‘Stuff happens,’ Donald Rumsfeld said with psychopathic cheer in response to chaotic scenes of destruction in occupied Iraq; ‘Now watch this drive,’ Bush said, returning to his golf swing after delivering a sober message about the need to resist terrorism. After a brief interval of ‘moral seriousness’, the administration urged the people to have fun and go shopping, while driving up panic with colour-coded terror alerts. The affective gap formed in this period may have been widened by trolls, but they didn’t create it.

Image: Internet troll Milo Yiannopoulos.