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Why Trolls Matter

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So, here's a thought: without the trolls, the internet wouldn't be worth having.

No doubt you've heard by now that anonymous commenters who are destroying the web, vicious trolls who are gleefully trampling on the virtual communities that other people have calmly and carefully built from the electronic ground up.

And that's where I'd say we have it all wrong. The internet doesn't simply encourage trolls, it thrives precisely because of them.

First let's rewind - while the term 'troll' is a catch-all umbrella for abusive and unwelcome behaviour online, it hasn't always meant that. Rather, a troll was someone who peppered online conversations with questions or comments designed to trap unsuspecting newcomers
into silly mistakes, or pi-faced explanations of things they already knew. They'd been lured. They'd been trolled.

A classic I remember from the pre-Web days of Usenet was the message seemingly posted to all sewing groups with a straight face: SATIN IS EVIL. Cue dozens of messages from smug posters, correcting the obvious misspelling. Congratulations! You have yourself a troll. And they, more than any other group, epitomise why the internet is different from other human interactions.

Trolls aren't always anonymous - and trolling doesn't always happen in the comment box or "below the line". Newspapers trying to lure your clicks are trolling you, too. Trying to figure out what they need to do to get a response, even if it's an outraged one. The internet, remember, is the first truly two-way mass medium. They want and need your outrage.

But in fact, trolls predate even the internet. Graffiti artists ridiculing the quality of wine served up by Pompeii's innkeepers? Trolls. The saucy commentators gluing poems to Rome's "Talking Statues"? Trolls. Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift? Trolls par excellence. Snappy headlines are trolling. Puns are trolling. Right now, whether you know it or not, you are probably even someone else's troll.

What we need is a return to trolls qua trolls. Let's call non-trolling abuse what it is. Hate speech and threats are hate speech and threats; not trolling. Criticism is criticism - something
people seem increasingly unhappy to take any of, especially if they are even peripherally part of the media establishment, and especially if their critics are online. In some circles, it would
seem making claims of being "bullied off Twitter by trolls" is this year's It handbag. You're not anyone in media these days until you've been convinced, reluctantly, back (and hailed for your
bravery in standing up to... um, pixels?)

I've had my ups and down with trolls, as you can probably imagine. Being anonymous and doing a job a lot of people dislike pretty much begs for it. Then one day, I shook off the self-pity and started having fun with it. Suddenly the dark corners of the internet weren't so dark anymore, and I learned how to tell the difference between trolling for a reaction and a credible threat.

So I'm here to point the way to a new, more tolerant, and pro-trolling internet future: we can have a safer, more interesting, less abusive internet, and we don't need to demonise trolls in
order to do it. Wouldn't you know, those arch trolls over at Anonymous are already doing exactly that.


Brooke Magnanti will be speaking at this year's HowTheLightGetsIn, the world's largest philosophy and music festival held in association with the Huff Post UK. For more information, see www.howthelightgetsin.org

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