You enter a dark forest and encounter a stranger. You both carry something of value. Neither of you can appeal to the police for protection. What happens in the dark forest stays in the dark forest, forever.
How should you behave in that situation? More fundamentally: what’s the right principle of action? Sympathy for a fellow traveler? Hostility toward a potential criminal? Aggression and theft, since these will go unpunished?
We spend a large chunk of our lives in that dark forest. It’s the web. It exists in a state of nature, as I noted as long ago as 2005. The object of value is our new-found capacity to convey information to the world, no matter how far we stand from the centers of power and mass communications. The dilemma of right action centers entirely on the character of that nameless stranger.
On the internet, there are worse things than to flirt, unawares, with a dog: worst, by far, is being stuck alone in that dark forest with a troll.
The troll is an animal without discernible features, except for a protective shroud of obscenities. It joins virtual conversations only to destroy them, and jumps onto online controversies only to threaten and vilify. Trolls can gather in lynch mobs or act as solitary vandals, but they are always bizarrely persistent: they will continue to shout until they outlast you, though they have little to gain by doing so.
Academics have studied the condition without throwing much light on it. One study finds that trolls display “sadism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism.” Another claims that they suffer from “antisocial personality disorder.” These are words that describe what they seek to explain. Yet I can produce a simple explanation without trying too hard. Trolls may be who we are: and by “we” I mean the Big We, our species, the human race.
Our ancestors evolved biologically in hunter gatherer bands, and culturally in villages and small towns, where everybody knew everybody and everybody watched everybody else. Even among the crowds of contemporary Manhattan, signs of public deviance are quickly detected and bring down the police. What happens when these constraints are removed? Nobody could know. We were never free to be our secret selves – to say exactly what we wanted to say – until our late migration into the dark forest of the web.
Now, the returns are in. Some people, a meaningful number, love to say vicious and destructive things for the sheer hell of it. They do it because they can: for the fun, “for the lulz,” for the second-hand thrill of smashing things while nobody’s looking.
Here’s the important point: trolls and trolling aren’t an incidental side-effect of an otherwise benevolent web, like a rash from penicillin. They are intrinsic and foundational to it, emanating out of the heart of the “hacker ethic” that proclaims all information wants to be free, and they have drawn the endless conversation that is the digital universe in the direction of reflexive negation and rhetorical violence.
Two powerful but opposite forces twist and warp the global information sphere: one pulling toward community, the other toward nihilism.
The spontaneous clustering of communities around some shared topic of interest – video games, say, or a political cause – was an immediate and much commented-upon effect of the internet. These communities represented the authentic tastes of the public, very consciously in opposition to the authoritative dictates of the elites. The early blogosphere was thus fiercely anti-“MSM,” for example. Wikipedia became the un-Britannica.
Communities of interest were a revolt against the top of the information order, but increasingly need protection from the depths. Trolls surface, disrupt, and often drive away those who truly care about the topic. A humble example: when the Nationals baseball team came to Washington in 2005, a vibrant community sprang up around a number of new websites. Ten years later, most Nationals sites had been killed off. The aggravation of dealing with trolls outbalanced the joy of talking baseball.
To stay on-topic, digital platforms must wage a Darwinian struggle with trolls. Sites are “curated”: that is, gated to a greater or lesser extent. Comment sections get switched off. Participants and interactions now depend on the will of someone, so that an assault on elite-based filtering becomes a filtering exercise. The new elites, like the old ones, are trapped in a version of the dictator’s dilemma: the more they filter and control, the smaller their reach, and the less authentic the community. In the age of reddit and Twitter, the trolls will flame you regardless.
Trolls exert constant adaptive pressure on virtual behavior. Authenticity is now identified with louder, nastier, angrier. The more enduring and influential sites aren’t just against, but virulently so. Tea Partiers warn, “Don’t tread on me.” Feminists turn into “social justice warriors.” Even Washington Nationals fans have come to be dominated online by angry ranters, nicknamed “LOD”: the legion of doom. The survival strategy seems to be to out-troll the trolls before they arrive.
There are exceptions. You can form an idealistic community dedicated to Deirdre McCloskey’s theories on rhetoric and economics: obscurity will be your friend. Or you can participate in the vast positive enterprise of Wikipedia, where volunteer watchmen keep out the trolls. That is still possible. But obscurity is an uncertain gamble, Wikipedia has ever fewer watchmen along the city walls: and the digital barbarians never rest.
So what is the right way to act, if the stranger in the dark forest is revealed as a troll? Options are limited. You can unplug: wear a hairshirt, hide in a wilderness, feed on locusts and wild honey. Others have tried this. Almost invariably, such information exiles return home.
You can follow the conventional wisdom that says, “Don’t feed the trolls.” Meaning: if you ignore them, they will go away. Andrey Miroshnichenko argues, with sound logic, that the purpose of every interaction on the web is to “elicit a response”: so you have theoretical justification for this approach. Empirically, things look shakier. To ignore the troll means to look away from the vandal heaving a rock through your window. He now has an incentive to come back and try again.
You can anoint curators and erect thick walls around your community, but this, we saw, leads straight to the dictator’s dilemma and a new class of information gatekeepers.
Let me suggest another way to look at the vexing question of trolls and the trolled.
The existential threat posed by trolling is that of the entropy of systems. Every system accumulates noise, and will become increasingly disorganized unless sanitary measures are taken. Mass media applied those measures brutally, upfront. Publishers and editors chopped information down to tiny, discrete, largely unconnected gobs. It became a kind of code only elites could understand – but it cleaned out the noise. Trolls don’t haunt the newsprint edition of the New York Times.
The digital information system works on a different principle. It produces an astronomic volume of stuff every instant. Publisher and audience, author and editor, are all assumed to be the same collective entity, the public, and to prefer signal to noise. The latter is true even of the troll, who sends strong signals about his favorite hipster sunglasses and mobile devices. He’s a part-time troll but a full-time member of the public, and thus a signal amplifier.
It is at the level of the public – not of the author, editor, or publisher – that digital information sorts out relevance from noise. The public, in turn, can be many things: a person, an extended family, a virtual community, a national or global cluster. Each layer of the honeycomb extracts meaning out of the Amazonian flood of content sweeping the landscape. When the system works to specs, the result is far easier access to and a deeper engagement with information than the products of mass media allow.
From this perspective, the encounter in the dark forest resolves into a personal choice. You can deal with the troll as a special case, an irreconcilable enemy, a show-stopper – or as just another feature of a complex landscape, part of the cost of extracting signal from the system. The first tactic is self-fulfilling: the troll becomes a destroyer of digital worlds. The second shrinks the troll to the dimensions of a pop-up ad: he can’t be ignored, really, but in the long journey toward meaning he can be circumvented.
It’s even possible to squeeze signal out of trolling. Under authoritarian rule, for example, online stooges often reveal the fears and pain-points of the regime.
The arrow of entropy moves in only one direction. From the laws of thermodynamics, we learn that disorder must eventually overwhelm all systems, including the digital and physical universes. In the cosmic long run, the trolls will triumph. For the next few billion years, however, we retain the choice to push and shove in the opposite direction.