What’s so funny about trolling? ‘Every joke calls for a public of its own,’ Freud said, ‘and laughing at the same jokes is evidence of far-reaching psychical conformity.’ To understand a joke is to share a culture or, more precisely, to be on the same side of an antagonism. Trolls do what they do for the ‘lulz’ (a corruption of ‘LOL’, Laughing Out Loud), a form of enjoyment that derives from someone else’s anguish. Whitney Phillips, whose research has involved years of participant-observation of trolls, describes lulz as schadenfreude with more bite. The more furious and upset the Henderson family became, the funnier the trolls found it.
In 2011, one of these ‘RIP trolls’, Sean Duffy, a 25-year-old from Reading, was jailed for posting messages online about dead teenage girls. He called Natasha MacBryde, who had killed herself aged 15, a ‘slut’; on Mothers’ Day he posted a message on the memorial page of 14-year-old Lauren Drew, who had died after an epileptic fit: ‘Help me mummy, it’s hot in hell.’ Often, trolls gang up on their targets. Phillips details the case of a Californian teenager called Chelsea King, who was raped and murdered in February 2010. Her relatives were treated as fair game, and supportive strangers who tried to intervene were themselves tracked down and hounded.
RIP trolling treats grief as an exploitable state. It isn’t that the trolls care one way or another about the person who has died. It’s that they regard caring too much about anything as a fault deserving punishment. You can see evidence of this throughout the trolling subculture, even in more innocuous instances. In one case, participants phoned video-game stores to inquire about the non-existent sequel to an outdated game. They called so persistently that the workers answering the phone would fly into a rage at the mention of the game, to the amusement of the trolls. The supreme currency of trolling is exploitability, and the supreme vice is taking anything too seriously. Grieving parents are among the easiest to exploit – their rage and sorrow are closest to the surface – but no one is invulnerable.
The controlled cruelty of the wind-up didn’t need trolls to invent it. In the pre-internet era, it perhaps seemed more innocent: Candid Camera; Jeremy Beadle duping a hapless member of the public. The ungovernable rage of the unwitting victim is always funny to someone, and invariably there is sadistic detachment in the amusement. The trolls’ innovation has been to add a delight in nonsense and detritus: calculated illogicality, deliberate misspellings, an ironic recycling of cultural nostalgia, sedimented layers of opaque references and in-jokes. Trolling, as Phillips puts it, is the ‘latrinalia’ of popular culture: the writing on the toilet wall.
Trolls are also distinguished from their predecessors by seeming not to recognise any limits. Ridicule is an anti-social force: it tends to make people clam up and stop talking. So there is a point at which, if conversation and community are to continue, the joke has to stop, and the victim be let in on the laughter. Trolls, though, form a community precisely around the extension of their transgressive sadism beyond the limits of their offline personas. That the community consists almost entirely of people with no identifying characteristics – ‘anons’ – is part of the point. It is as if the laughter of the individual troll were secondary; the primary goal is to sustain the pleasure of the anonymous collective. (...)
If the yield of trolling is the outcry of the aggrieved, it depends utterly on the preservation of value. Trolls depend on there being enough people who care about enough things – an indifferent shrug means failure. The choice of victim almost always conveys a moral position on what it is more or less appropriate to care about. RIP trolls are most incensed by the suicides of seemingly privileged white people; they see such deaths as self-indulgent, and public displays of grief over them as a façade, as one troll put it, for ‘boredom and a pathological need for attention’. Other campaigns, such as the trolling of the National Security Agency after the exposure of its extensive wiretapping, suggest that another cardinal sin for trolls is the suppression or misuse of information.
The troll has it both ways. He is magnificently indifferent to social norms, which he transgresses for the lulz, yet often at the same time a vengeful punisher: both the Joker and Batman. The troll acts ‘as a self-appointed cultural critic’ in a tradition of clowns and jesters, according to Benjamin Radford, while simultaneously ‘plausibly maintaining that it’s all in good fun and shouldn’t be taken (too) seriously’. According to John Lindow’s ‘unnatural history’ of trolls, the original trolls of Scandinavian folklore punished improper behaviour and upheld social norms. If you take the behavioural code of lulz seriously and erase any commitment to social norms, what you are left with is the logic of punishment in its distilled form: if even the grieving are punishable, who isn’t? ‘None of us,’ goes the refrain, ‘is as cruel as all of us.’ It is around this principle that the most infamous trolling community forged its identity: ‘We are Anonymous, and we do not forgive.’ And what goes unforgiven is weakness.
Sociological analyses of ‘online deviancy’ tend to focus on such traits as Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy and sadism. Phillips debunks all this. It does little more, she says, than redescribe the phenomena with a particular moral accent, while asking us to take for granted the meaningfulness of the categories (‘deviancy’, ‘personality type’) used. Instead, she stresses the role of mainstream culture, arguing that trolls are ‘agents of cultural digestion’.