Whitney Philips (University of Oregon, PhD Candidate in English)
About a year ago, I wrote an essay about Dickwolves. Well, tried to write an essay about Dickwolves—about halfway into the project, I realized I was out of my league, or at least was working outside my jurisdiction. Because as trollish as some of the engagement might have been, a large percentage of the responses were clearly more than “simple” trolling. Scare quotes very much intended, as there’s nothing simple about trolling behaviors. But Dickwolves, especially the subsequent attacks against feminist bloggers, was something else, a hybrid mess of trolling and harassment. Despite this, I applied my analysis of the former to what I should have recognized as the latter, which was a mistake.
Even though the resulting essay was a failure, and a spectacular failure at that (hey, go big or go home), my misadventures with Dickwolves forced me to consider the difference(s) between trolling and other forms of online aggression, a distinction with major methodological—not to mention legal—implications.
First, a few notes on the term itself. When I talk about trolling, I am not referring to online aggression generally. The term may have started out as a post-hoc descriptor of nasty online behavior, but in the last few years, “trolling” has taken on a very specific subcultural meaning. Trolls are people who self-identify as trolls; trolling is what they do. And what they do can run the gamut from harmless mischief (redirecting an audience to Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up”) to extreme racist, sexist and homophobic expression.
There is much more to say, including the role of play and performativity in the trollspace, the ethical dilemmas necessitated by trollish laughter, described by trolls as “lulz,” and the homologous relationship between trolling and dominant androcentric ideologies—but space here is limited. So I will return to the basic distinction between trolling and harassment. This is not a point of mere semantics; how we define our terms has, and will continue to have, a profound impact on how we respond to aggressive online behaviors, and how efficacious our efforts are likely to be.
Consequently I am inclined to draw an invisible line between the computer screen and the living room. If aggressive, and as the trolls would say, “lulzy” behaviors can be silenced by closing a window or powering down a computer, it falls under the category of trolling. If the behavior enters the living room, that is, persists in a way that cannot be contained by switching off the computer, then we’re in the realm of harassment.
THERE ARE BIG CAVEATS HERE, many of which I’m sure I’ll address in the comments. The first and most important is that there is not, I repeat NOT, some natural or necessary demarcation between the “real world” and “the virtual world.” I am using the terms “computer screen” and “living room” somewhat metaphorically, to indicate the persistence and relative searchability of data. Nor am I saying that what affects someone in one realm cannot spill over to the next, or that trolling is somehow “less real” than harassment, or even that these categories are static.
What I am saying is how a person responds to a particular behavior (whether legally or within the context of a particular forum or social networking platform) should first take into account what kind of behavior it is. That is the first step. By establishing basic categorical distinctions between trolling and harassment, we will be better equipped to respond thoughtfully and efficaciously to problematic online behaviors. This, ultimately, is the goal—to direct pushback in the right direction, for the right reasons.