Troll (n): ?

First things first: I in no way endorse, condone, support, or even tolerate the kind of hateful bile that fucktards on the internet spill at those they take a perverse fascination with. The misanthropic, hyper-aggressive, frankly insane tripe that people post on the web disgusts me no end, and I broadly subscribe to many of the arguments made about it.

But when Catherine Deveny is invited back to the Age to write about trolls, I feel like there is something that needs clarifying. As the phrase ‘troll’ has migrated from the discussion boards of Reddit and tech blogs to the mainstream (primarily as news websites have embraced comments as a means of increasing pageviews), so has it been distorted to mean, well, almost anything.

Originally – and frankly, presently, as far as I’m concerned – a troll has a fairly narrow definition. It is someone who, for whatever reason, says or writes things with the express intention of starting a blue.

Not knowing anyone who has admitted to being a troll, I can’t speak with any certainty to their motives, but chances are they’re a little sad, a little lonely and feeling a little irrelevant. So they thrust themselves into other people’s discussions in a manner that basically insists on their being attended to. If a well-behaved child doesn’t get attention, they chuck a tanty.

I wrote for Things Bogans Like for years, and most of the time, was the chief comment moderator, and saw this kind of behaviour first-hand. We had only a few of the kind of hateful ‘I’ll punch your eyes out and fuck your skull’, and they were easily blocked and deleted. Far more common, and harmless, were the trolls. The queen of which was a guy (we assumed) posting as ‘Fiona of Toorak’, who stalked our pages for some time needling other commenters, intentionally dragging their discussions (which could sometimes tend to the highbrow) into the gutter. Any time others took her on, she simply gained strength and fervour. She was a classic troll. The kind who should not be fed, according to the online truism.

What Fiona wasn’t was violent, aggressive or threatening. Simply playful and deeply irritating. Yet today’s debate about trolls entirely overlooks this fact. It simply takes people who are clearly unbalanced, and dedicate themselves to the destruction of those they irrationally decide to hate, ¬†and applies a pat term to dismiss them.

A classic example of ‘trolling’ is right there in Deveny’s piece (quelle fucking surprise). Six paragraphs in, she turns her gaze to the sexism in the whole thing.

Men speak, women are outspoken. Men have opinions, women are opinionated. Men are passionate, women rant. Men have mouths. Women are mouthy.

Having the misfortune of being born with an opinion and a vagina, I am no stranger to these trolls who try to get my attention on an hourly basis.

She is trolling. Taking a debate about behaviour online and giving it a volatile gendered slant. She’s riling people up. It’s why The Age gave her a gig in the first place.

In a related piece of irony, Marieke Hardy posted on her blog, suggesting that there is a distinct difference between the kind of biting insults that she and Deveny have been guilty of in the past bear no relationship to the kind of evil nutcases that the debate is dealing with now. In one way, she’s right. But in several others, it’s deeply disingenuous.

First, she differs greatly from Deveny. Deveny is a provocateur. She tosses of insults with the intent of riling her readers. Hardy always gives the impression that she simply means the insults quite deeply and personally. Not exactly trolling. Hell, I wrote exactly such a piece only last week.

Still, it feels like so much arse-covering for Hardy to disavow any relationship to this week’s events. While trolling and bullying are hardly linked, they do rest at different points of the internet behaviour spectrum, the far end of which we saw leaving a TV personality checked into a psych ward.

When anyone writes on the internet, they need to be aware that if they want to use some fiery language and imagery, they are in some way contributing to the general lack of civility everyone complains about. And anonymity has nothing to do with it. Just look at Bolt, Blair, Deveny, Jones et al. Bloody hell, Graeme Morriss called one of our most respected newsreaders a cow live on radio the other day.

Trolls, as they should really be termed, are harmless. Deveny, while often supremely irritating, is causing no real damage, and is available to retract, clarify or be sacked if she oversteps. Hardy, who I tend to find far wittier and more charming (and less needlessly provocative), is also relatively harmless. We should include them in a discussion about online civility, which would help in dealing with nasty Tweets. But while they need to be aware that they’re in some way involved in the culture of harassment, they’re not closely linked to what the MSM is calling ‘trolls’.

Likewise, the people who harried and harassed Charlotte Dawson to the point of breakdown are not trolls. They are awful, evil people who in all likelihood are not right in the head.

So let’s talk about taking care of these people. But let’s not give them a name that makes them seem harmless. They are not trolls. Trolls were so named, at least in part, because of the dolls that are quite gentle and cute. The word perfectly captured the irritating, but anodyne nature of online irritation. The people we’re talking about a c-nts. Stalkers. Abusers. We need to be vigilant against them.

We should stop calling them trolls.