In this election cycle, the mainstream media frequently publishes stories about the more inflammatory tweets put out by the two candidates for president of the United States. More often than not, the most outrageous tweets garner the largest amount of attention, which is exactly what they are intended to do. Paying attention to outrageous tweets has been called “feeding the trolls,” in reference to an online phenomenon known as “trolling.”
To understand what it means to be “trolled” on the Internet, it helps to understand what the term means in the physical world. Two weeks ago, I traveled to Newport, OR with my family, to see live fish in the Newport Aquarium and eat fresh fish in the restaurants. We rented rooms in a condo hotel on the marina. My 19-month son loved looking at the fishing boats docked right outside our hotel room patio. Many of these boats had a specific design — they were equipped with outriggers, poles which allow a boat to tow multiple fishing lines through the water without tangling. This method of fishing is called “trolling.”
So, you see, troll is not a noun, it is a verb. And, just like fishing boats troll with bait to catch fish, some Internet users troll with bait to “catch” other Internet users. The history of trolling online goes back to the early 1990s, as in the phrase “trolling for newbies.” Veteran users in a newsgroup might make a post on a topic that had been discussed a lot already, then sit back and wait to see who responds. Long-time readers of posts in the group would recognize the name of the poster and the stale, or overdone, topic, and leave the post alone. But new subscribers to the group would take the bait and respond.
An important lesson in “digital citizenship” is to appreciate diversity online. Merriam-Webster defines diversity as “the condition of having or being composed of differing elements.” Internet users reflect the same diversity we see in “meatspace” (the non-digital, un-mediated world). Some people, including political candidates, may use the Internet for “trolling,” and if other Internet users don’t understand their motivations and intentions when “trolling,” they just might find themselves “hooked.”
Your students spend many hours of their waking lives each week navigating the oceans of Internet culture, sometimes skimming the surface, and other times diving into the depths. These digital seas contain a diverse group of other people, and the dangers they pose are real. In the public areas of the Internet, the trolling hooks rarely find their mark. But, in other, more exclusive communities online, such as multi-player games or chat rooms, unsuspecting “newbies” can feel the pain of getting caught, and not even realize what has happened.
As much as possible, teachers and caring adults need to become informed about the diversity of online groups, and engage students in productive conversations about the dangers of getting hurt while participating in online culture.
What conversations are you having with your students about trolls, and Internet trolling, particularly as it relates to political figures and the coverage they receive from the media?