Friday, March 7, 2014

Looking at Trolls From an Academic Perspective

A fair amount of academic and scientific research on trolling has been emerging in recent weeks. In mid-February, a psychology paper found that internet trolls have high levels of narcissism, sadism, and sociopathy (big surprise). And now a peer-reviewed academic publication called The Fibreculture Journal has devoted its entire new issue to the topic of trolling.

I confess that such content generally leaves me cold. I'm sure there are some genuine troll-related insights lurking within that Fibreculture Journal issue, but the writing is so dry and stilted that I can't muster the energy or interest to plow through it. If anyone else wants to go through the journal and report back on any interesting finds, I'm all ears.

Meanwhile, if you have any trolling-related stories to share, I'm all ears for those as well.

(Special thanks to Robin Edgerton for letting me know about the troll-centric journal issue.)

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

An Unhappy Ending

As most of you know by now, when I decided to confront Big Cock Johnson, our encounter turned out fine. But not every troll story has such a benign ending.

Philadelphia sports talk radio host Mike Missanelli (shown at right) has apparently had a very devoted troll who has peppered him with abusive emails from a variety of aliases and phony accounts over the past several years. At some point last year Missanelli began writing back to the troll. In the course of those emails, he repeatedly resorted to the same rhetorical tactic: insulting the troll by calling him a closeted homosexual.

The troll forwarded those emails to the sports website Deadspin, which on Monday published the emails under the headline "Philly Radio Host Gets All Homophobic In Email Fight With Listener." The following day, Missanelli was suspended by his radio station, which issued the following statement:

We are aware of the email communications between Mike and one of his listeners. This individual has been harassing Mike by email for several years, which is cause for concern, and we are working with Mike to try to identify this person and stop the abuse. However, that does not excuse Mike’s conduct. The content of his emails is unacceptable and does not reflect our values as a company. Mike has been suspended and understands that future similar conduct will not be tolerated.

Obviously, the troll is a jerk and possibly a criminal. Just as obviously, that's no excuse for Missanelli's repeated homophobic language (which, as Deadspin pointed out, was not just offensive but also disappointingly lazy and uncreative). So could it be argued that the troll actually did a public service, by exposing an ugly, small-minded side of Missanelli that the public had a right to know about? Would it do all of us some good to have a personal troll, just to see how we'd respond?


(My thanks to reader Jason Libes for letting me know about this story.)

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Amanda Hess on the Subject of Misogynistic Trolls

Last week I wrote about the gender politics of trolling. One of the articles linked within that piece was by Amanda Hess (shown at right), whose recent column in Pacific Standard magazine is about a particularly abusive troll who stalked and threatened her over the course of several years.

Hess was interviewed this morning on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show. I happened to be listening at the time, and she did a good job of spelling out some of the bullshit women face on the internet, along with some of the details of her personal experience. You can listen to the interview with her here:

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Gender Politics of Trolling

If you've followed the Big Cock Johnson story, then you know that Joe Johnson's commentary was often brutally misogynistic, and that this commentary was sometimes directed specifically at my ex-girlfriend, Kirsten Hively. Kirsten later wrote about how upsetting this was, and she did a good job of framing Joe's trolling in the larger context of bullshit male behavior that women often have to deal with.

Earlier today Kirsten let me know that The Atlantic has published a really good piece about how misogynistic trolling is even worse than you probably think, and how it has probably led some women not to pursue journalism or media careers. Definitely worth reading — check it out here.

This brings up a question I hadn't considered before: Is trolling an exclusively (or at least overwhelmingly) male phenomenon? If you look at caricatures that make fun of trolls, they invariably portray males, like in these two examples (click to enlarge):

There are several similar illustrations floating around the web, and they all portray male trolls. Of course, ridiculing a hypothetical male troll carries more power than ridiculing a hypothetical female one, because men are more culturally powerful and entitled to begin with, so you score more points by humiliating them, by depicting them as being pathetic, and so on. It somehow feels intuitively obvious that most trolls are male, but is that really true? Are there any female trolls out there? If you know more about this, fill me in. Thanks.

Update: Reader shivaun points out that Pacific Standard magazine has just published another article relating to this subject. It's more about cyber-stalking than trolling, but it's definitely related — check it out here.

Friday, January 3, 2014

With a Devil on His Shoulder

My original plan for this site was for it to serve as a repository for the Joe Johnson story. But I was also aware that creative projects — especially ones on the internet — have a way of veering into new, unexpected territory. And now that's what's happened with this one.

Shortly after My Pet Troll went live, I heard from a reader who claimed to be a troll on assorted sites. The reader, who we'll call Gerald (not his real name), has given me permission to share his story, as follows:

Hi Paul,

I checked out My Pet Troll, and I'm a bit alarmed by how comparable Big Cock Johnson and I are. Just like Joe, I'm about 30 years old, I'm married, and I work a desk job. For the better part of the past year or so, I've been addicted to trolling professional wrestling fandom sites, whether they be message boards or Facebook groups, to the point where I've been kicked out after multiple warnings from nearly every one I've been a part of.

It's become a growing compulsion. It's not uncommon now for me to get drunk on weekends and have fun with the people who show up on my news feed. My closer friends think it's pretty funny when this occurs, but my brother's girlfriend wouldn't speak to me for a while after I told one of his Facebook friends (a girl) that he has a "giant schwanz." Why do I do this? Is it a need for attention? A need to be provocative?

My wife knows about my trolling. While she's not a fan, she views it as harmless knucklehead behavior. I know I should just leave well enough alone because there's enough in our lives to keep us occupied, but it's almost to the point where I'm crusading against moderators and studying gang mentalities. I feel that bad moderators are more abusive than most trolls, just in a covert way. I'm often putting my digital existence in the hands of a hair-trigger amateur who's more concerned with eliminating any trace of discord than promoting original discourse or dialogue.

Example: The moderators happily approve banal conversation-starters like "Was Hulk Hogan overrated or underrated?" But I don't care to hear the answer to that question. I'd rather know: "Do you think wrestlers who were breast-fed perform better than those who were formula babies, and why?" That'd require some creativity to answer, even if it is fairly nonsensical. But the moderators don't like that kind of question.

Another example: There was a time when WWE was taking place at an arena in South Carolina, and I remembered that a woman had once given birth in that arena's bathroom during a concert and left the baby in the toilet. So I mentioned that in a post and asked the group, "What was the strangest encounter you've ever had while attending a live event, wrestling or otherwise?" I felt it was fairly innocuous, but the post was deleted. When I reposted it, it was deleted once more and I was told that I was upsetting the moderator, whose wife had just had a child.

I realize this stuff probably sounds tame compared to Big Cock Johnson, but I think he was an outlier. He took things to the point where you had no choice but to restrict him, but there are far more trolls out there who are shaded gray. As I read your interview with him, I found myself relating to thought processes and, like you, wonder if he really feels conflicted. ''

Is this note a "cry for help"? Maybe, yeah, because there's a disconnect from reality. Reading Kirsten's response to the Joe Johnson interview, that's a big reality check. It makes me wonder if I've ever made anyone feel the way she felt. I know the remedy — stick to the Golden Rules, try to wean myself from these outlets, etc. — yet I'm finding it really tough. I wasn't a bully in school growing up, so I often wonder why there's this devil on my shoulder.

So that's Gerald. His story could be an act, of course (in which case he'd be trolling My Pet Troll, not bad!), but I had a fair number of email back-and-forths with him and found him credible.

I'm not looking to turn My Pet Troll into a support group or a series of therapy sessions, but I'm curious about the troll dynamic and would welcome more entries like this one, just to see where they go. If you have some experience as an internet troll and would like to share your story, contact me (I'll safeguard your anonymity, just as I've done with Joe and Gerald). And for the non-trolls out there, what do you think of all this? What advice or insights can you offer to Gerald?