There's no denying that the Internet is an amazing invention. It allows people to communicate around the world at speeds approaching real time. But this connection can be a double-edged sword. Not only are you able to interact with people you like and respect, but you can also meet people who take pleasure in disrupting the conversations and activities of others. There's a name for this kind of person: troll.
While the word troll might conjure up images of billy goats and hobbits in your mind, the Internet variety doesn't really owe its name to the monsters of fairy tales and fantasy. Originally, the Web version of a troll alluded to a fishing technique. In fishing, to troll is to pull a fishing line behind a moving boat in hopes of coaxing a fish to take the bait. Web trolling is very similar -- trolls try to lure unsuspecting victims into responding to pointless or rude questions or statements. The goal for the Web troll is to get the victim riled up as a joke. But usually the troll is the only one laughing.
What is an Internet Troll?
Just as it's common for people to call any kind of malware a computer virus, it's not unusual for people to call any kind of disruptive person online a troll. Here are a few of the broad categories trolls might fit in:
•The breed that started it all is the Usenet troll. Usenet trolls use several different strategies to disrupt discussions online. One common tactic is to cross post the same message into several newsgroups. This helps increase the likelihood that the troll will get a "bite" from an unsuspecting victim. By posting off-topic messages into multiple groups, the troll has a higher chance of annoying someone.
•Many trolls find it amusing to pose as new members of forums or chat rooms -- also known as newbies -- and ask clueless questions until the discussion collapses as a result. These trolls often attempt to present themselves in a sympathetic light. The goal here is to encourage others to start flinging insults. The troll can then point to the other person and accuse him or her of being unfair or mean while maintaining the role of innocent victim.
•Some trolls don't use subtlety at all and go straight for insults. These trolls are easy to spot, as they come right out of the gate with inflammatory language. For example, a troll visiting a message board about Star Wars might create a thread that says "Star Trek Rocks! Star Wars Bites!" The goal isn't to actually start a debate or conversation -- instead the troll just wants to encourage Star Wars fans to lose their tempers and post angry messages.
•Sneaky trolls will sometimes pose as people who are genuinely interested in the topic before posting a message that undermines the discussion. This is common in political forums -- a person with opposing views might pretend to be sympathetic to other members in the community while simultaneously posting messages and threads that criticize their point of view. For example, the troll might say, "I really like Politician X, but do you think she's really strong on domestic policy?" The goal of this troll is to foment doubt within the community at large. Trolls who pose under a false identity are also known as sock puppets.
•Colluding trolls are people who work together to create chaos. One member might use classic trolling tactics while the others pose as normal members of the online community. These trolls in disguise can publicly defend the obvious troll and claim that the troll is really trying to add to the discussion. Another tactic is to pit one online community against another. Trolls do this by posting messages within one community while posing as members of the other one and vice versa. The goal here is to cause an all-out online war between two victimized communities.
•Griefers are a very specific kind of troll. A griefer is someone who finds it amusing to log into online games and ruin the experience of other gamers. There's a host of strategies griefers use to do this: Insults, team killing and cheating are common methods. Griefers are more concerned with being a nuisance than playing the game.
Trolls are troublesome and distracting -- that's their very goal. But it might surprise you to find out there are communities that allow and even welcome trolls to participate. Find out more in the next section.