When online discussions break down, we often point the finger at the illusive troll or identify behaviors we would describe as trollish. In my research I’ve been studying literacy practices in online, social spaces. In this context, I need to come to terms with the role of trolling and these anti-social behaviors.
This post will unpack what is meant by trolls, or trolling behaviors. It is important to remember that behind these activities are (possibly) human beings that display attitudes, values, and decisions. Understanding these elements and the inspiring and depressing conversations we have online may be key to having more productive online discussions.
What is a troll?
In Internet slang, a troll is a person that starts a quarrel or upsets people in order to distract and sow discord. They do this by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in online, social spaces. The intent of these behaviors may be to provoke others into displaying emotional responses and normalizing these off-topic messages and discussion. The purpose for these messages and behaviors may be for the personal gain of the troll, or others…or just for their amusement.
Although this usage of troll, or trolling behaviors comes from Internet discourse, it is important to note that the word has been recently used much more widely. The term has been used to describe characters in fiction or pop culture. The term has also been used to describe these behaviors that occur online as well as offline, or in the hybrid spaces in-between.
Why do people troll?
Although there may be a multitude of reasons why people troll, there are eight factors that may determine the likelihood that someone may engage in these behaviors.
- Anonymity – People believe they can say anything and get away with it;
- Perceived obscurity – People believe their online expressions are fairly private;
- Perceived majority status – People believe their opinion or experience is the majority, and that people agree with them;
- Social identity salience – People believe that their online identity means more than their offline identity. That is, online they are guided by “mob mentality” and mimic members of their group;
- Surrounded by their friends – People believe everyone in their network, or online social circles thinks and acts like they do;
- Desensitization – People over time see others make so many nasty comments, or they do it themselves, that it doesn’t seem like such a big deal;
- Personality traits – People are sometimes outspoken by nature, and believe they can express themselves online without a filter;
- Perceived lack of consequences – People weigh the risk vs. reward of engaging in these behaviors and believe that the benefits outweigh the costs.
Social exchange theory
Social exchange theory describes the psychology and sociology behind the decisions people make as they engage and/or communicate with others. It is a negotiation that individuals make as they create, test, and possibly break connections with others in their networks. In short, people conduct a cost/benefit analysis as they think about how to interact with others.
From the perspective of social exchange theory, society can be characterized as an exchange system in which social interaction consists of trade in valued resources. Resources exchanged can include any combination of consumable goods, money, affection, attention, and perhaps most basically, information. Individuals weigh various alternatives as they consider whether they want to work individually or collaboratively. They also consider whether they want to be cooperative or coercive in their discourse habits.
This consideration includes an examination of the amount of risk involved in the cost/benefit, or give/take ratio of these connections. In some relationships, we’re more willing to give more than we take. Whereas in other relationships we have no problem expecting more of the power in the relationship.
All of these costs and benefits are weighed out and tempered by the factors listed above. A person may believe that their anonymity and relative obscurity will mean that they won’t be personally held responsible. They may believe that, since others in their filter bubble speak like they do, they’re in the majority, and everyone agrees with them. They may consider their habits to be safe since they’re surrounded by friends, and their online social identity is supported by their tribes. Finally, they might be a outspoken person by nature, and desensitized to gaining, and losing friendships…or worse.
Where do we go from here?
Trolling, identified as the practice of posting inflammatory, derogatory or provocative messages in public forums, is a problem as old as the Internet itself. Psychological research has shown that anonymity increases unethical behavior. Road rage bubbles up as we zoom down the highway and interact with others. When we step online, and into the cloak of (supposed) total anonymity, the effect is even more pronounced. People, even ordinary, good people, often change their behavior in radical ways. We identify this behavior as the online disinhibition effect.
Some researchers have suggested that trolling and flaming is caused by de-individualization or decreased self-evaluation online. The anonymity of online postings leading to disinhibition amongst individuals. Other researchers have suggested that although flaming and trolling is often unpleasant, it may be a form of normative behavior that expresses the social identity of a certain user group. This is part of the normal process that occurs as societies adapt to new literacy practices and norms.
In upcoming posts, we’ll look at what to do when faced with trolling behaviors online. If you’d enjoy a complimentary piece that discusses the different typologies of Internet trolls, in a slightly NSFW manner, please check here. I’d also suggest reviewing this research that frames trolling as a constellation of three social practices (learning, assimilation, transgression).