Having set myself up with an online presence, I have been thinking a bit about the phenomenon of trolling. Fortunately I am still far, far, too obscure to attract any trolls myself, but you can’t be on Twitter, or read any comment thread, or just spend any time anywhere on the internet really, without coming across them. Ignorant, offensive, poorly spelled comments are all over the place, inflaming wars of words on any given topic. Are the trolls actually as stupid and/or sociopathic as they seem? Are they trying to be amusing but misjudging the tone? Are they just bored and trying to wind everyone up? All of the above? Nobody knows – and the usual suggested approach is to simply ignore them – ‘Don’t feed the trolls’.
The traditional troll is an anonymous poster on a message boards, hiding behind an avatar. But one of the interesting things about the internet is the way it breaks down the barriers between ‘normal’ people and professional writers – and exposes the fact that many mainstream journalists can produce stuff ‘above the line’ that’s just as trollish as what’s below, albeit usually better spell-checked. And why do they do this? Because controversy generates readers. The Daily Mail – as per the graphic – is particularly good/bad at this, but it’s by no means unique: two recent articles which attracted the ire of some of my friends were Giles Coren being rude about comic book readers in The Spectator and Julie Burchill being even ruder about transsexuals in The Observer. Now I personally didn’t get particularly hot under the collar about either of them. Coren’s piece I found actually quite funny, plus I thought his underlying point (that comic books have no need to be included in pompous literary prizes) was sound. Burchill’s was just surreal and incoherent, like watching someone who’s too drunk to stand up straight rant about how much they hate alcoholics. Having said that, I don’t think Coren needed to express himself in quite the way he did, and Burchill should probably have just written something else altogether. But whether I found the articles offensive or not isn’t really the point: the only reason I read either of them in the first place is because of links which were posted by people who did find them offensive.
So, taking a step back, we find that these articles are getting traffic directed to them, by people who hate them. Hmm. I’m not sure this is an ideal situation. This sounds a bit like buying a copy of a print book for the bonfire: you’ve still bought it, and the author is crying all the way to the Bahamas. Perhaps, on reflection, it would be better to try to restrain the outrage, and not give bile-filled rubbish extra publicity. Perhaps it would be better to post links to blogs and articles which are actually thoughtful, well-written and informative. Or, if they don’t exist on a particular topic, write them. Perhaps we should just try to treat all trolls the same, whether the picture by their work is a squiggly avatar or a professional photograph : don’t feed them.