Skip to content

The definitive guide to Trolls

We have all seen internet trolls. Some are more creative than others. Some are funny, others are mean. All of them are detrimental to community. I had an experience this week with a troll in the Ubuntu Forums that reminded me of an old thread that I had written. The definitive guide to Trolls was something I wrote in May 2006, partly tongue-in-cheek, partly to instruct forums users on what not to do in the forums, and partly to have something to point to when confronted with trolling.

Now, before I get comments reminding me of this fact, I will state clearly that the derivation of the term “to troll” revolves around fishing. There is a way to catch fish that involves pulling a lure behind a boat as you pass through the water, in the hopes of catching a fish that sees the lure and bites. This is the traditional definition of the verb “to troll.” One may also troll for complements, “Do you think this hairstyle looks good on me?” and one may troll for arguments, “Are you always this rude?” Trolling involves attempting to get someone or something to take the bait, to bite, to respond in a predetermined manner for your benefit (and not necessarily theirs, although the motive need not be sinister).

The use of the term to define online behavior goes back to the early days of Usenet newsgroups, and perhaps even predating that in bulletin board systems (BBSs). Let’s be honest. It is more fun to use the term in a modified manner, with a slightly twisted definition, while retaining the original meaning as well. I like it when the image of an ugly, mythical beast is conjured up because of the term “troll.”

The English language is fun that way. One may “troll” a forum, trying to get a response, and suddenly the verb becomes a noun through an accidental correlation between two words that are spelled exactly the same, but have vastly different meanings. Suddenly the person who committed the act of trolling has become an internet troll.

In the context of an online forum, to troll means to post something specifically provocative in the hopes of stirring up controversy. On occasion this can be considered a good thing, like Braveheart riding to the conference of the nobles to “pick a fight” in the hopes of obtaining a positive outcome for a noble cause. That is sometimes what forums trolls seem to think they are doing. Almost all of the time, actions done with this motive will achieve the exact opposite of their intended goal and they only serve to create an atmosphere that is harsh, argumentative, and unwelcoming. In the Ubuntu Forums, trolling can get a person banned permanently, and for very good reason. The overwhelming majority of the time trolling is witnessed, it is done for less honorable reasons.

To keep this short, if you are interested in a sometimes humorous description of internet trolls, including some very specific descriptions of certain types like the “Affected Profundity Troll” and “The Holy Misroller,” please check out this forum thread. I think you will enjoy it.