The Two Faces of Trolling

The distinction between good trolls and bad trolls is subtle

Trolling is more than just an art; trolling is a lifestyle. It attracts a very wide range of people. So wide a range that some of the people who troll are quality, while many others are dogshit. This essay attempts to distill the range of trolling behaviours on the Internet into two major categories: bullying and challenging.

Not everyone can tell the difference, and the more narcissistic a person is, the more likely they are to confuse a challenge for bullying. Moreover, the more a person dislikes the person making that challenge, the more likely they are to confuse a challenge for bullying. Keeping on the right side of this fine balance is where much of the art of trolling takes place.

In short, bullying is attempting to knock down something good while challenging is attempting to knock down something bad. For the person who values the target of the knockdown attempt, the distinction is seldom meaningful. But for the person who regards that target with low or negative value, the distinction is colossal.

Challenging in the form of gentle pisstaking and banter is a regular part of verbal discourse between friends. In essence, friends challenge each other for the sake of knocking down that which is weak in the other, so that their friend might replace it with something strong. The friend might not know they are weak in a certain area, or perhaps they cling stubbornly to the weakness and need to be disabused of it for their own good.

This pisstaking is an essential part of the culture in New Zealand and Australia, and in the other Anglo countries to a lesser extent. It’s how we keep ourselves humble in the absence of a shared spiritual tradition. The idea is that anyone who becomes too prideful is mocked back down into a more socially useful level of humility.

Bullying is different, because it seeks to shame for qualities that cannot be changed. Ripping someone down because they are short, or because their parents are poor, or because they are of a certain race or hair colour are all acts of aggression because the person targeted cannot do anything about those things. There’s no mutual exchange of sentiment.

The intent of pointing out these qualities is to humiliate, not for the betterment of a person who may have become too prideful but for the self-aggrandisement of the bully. Thus, the targets of bullying need not have become too prideful to get attacked. For these reasons, bullying is in most cases vile and gratuitous.

The art of trolling is to skate close to that edge where challenging becomes bullying, for the closer to it one skates the more effective the challenge will be (especially if there are neutral onlookers). Too much bullying and the troll will look crude and aggressive; too little bullying and the troll will appear meek and ineffective.

The best kind of trolling is when you can get an egotistical person to make an arse of themselves. Hopefully they learn something in the process, becoming less of an arse and thereby more pleasant for others to deal with, but that’s not the main concern. The important thing is that the egotist is made to look like a chump, thereby lessening the chances that anyone observing the interaction will go on to behave like them.

Usually this is achieved by goading them into telling obvious lies or making transparently false boasts about their current or future prowess. If the troll can bait an egotistical person into destroying their own reputation through rank hypocrisy, logical incompetence or descending into mindless abuse then the troll wins (and so does society).

The worst kind of trolling is to cause suffering for suffering’s sake. In fact, this sort of behaviour is unjustly dignified by calling it ‘trolling’. Really it’s just rank bullying of the kind inflicted by schoolchildren before they develop the wit to examine their own motives – the discharging of a sadistic animal impulse. It’s very different from a challenge that brings out the best of someone.

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