Internet trolling is officially mainstream now. Trolls haven't been in the media this much since those action figures of naked old people with rainbow hair inexplicably became all the rage the '90s. It seems like every month it's something new, from leaking stolen celebrity nudes, to harassing the families of suicide victims, to tricking teen girls into cutting themselves, to trying to drive transgender people to mass suicide, to divulging murder photos before the police even find the victim, to kick-starting a righteous crusade for gaming ethics. Part of me wants to tell the little scamps to turn off their computers and then set them on fire, but I have no right to say that ... because I, too, was a teenage troll.
In fact, back in 2001, my 15-year-old self and some friends trolled a previous version of Cracked.com so hard that the editors almost went mad. (Or Crazy, or whatever competitor would hire them.)
Yes, only millionaires could afford emails in 2001, so trolls got banned by telephone.
But trolling back then and trolling now are two very different things. For starters, I never told a single woman to kill herself because her cultural Marxist agenda might risk my ability to run over digital hookers on my TV. Not even once. Modern trolling has given us some truly beautiful things, such as fucking with the Church of Scientology and banishing Pitbull to Alaska, but there's no doubt that today's average 15-year-old troll is much nastier than the junior spammers of yesteryear. How did such a simple, innocent pastime morph into a screaming mass of literal psychopaths and sadists? Here's how:
4Trolling Used to Involve Some Amount of Creativity
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Back in the Old Days:
When I tell people I used to troll websites as a teen (which I'm legally required to do in some jurisdictions), they assume I'm talking about flooding them with photos of prolapsed rectums. But bear in mind that I was most active from 1999 to 2002, which was before sites like Photobucket or ImageShack gave every jackass the ability to upload their own photos to The Web (this is what we called the Internet back then). In fact, most message boards didn't even allow embedding pictures into posts -- unless you were some sort of wizard (i.e., someone with basic web-design knowledge), the most complex image you could post was one of those winky emoticons.
As a result, we had to get creative.
Maybe "we" is a strong word.
Our objective as trolls was to go into a community and piss off as many of the locals as possible -- but without breaking any rules, because then you'd get banned and all your brilliant posts would be deleted. So we found loopholes -- for example: I realized the old Cracked forum had no character limit for signatures (the space under every post usually reserved for pimping your Angelfire page) so I put Julio Cortazar's entire short story "Las Babas del Diablo" in mine. The moderators didn't appreciate this, but they couldn't ban me for it, which was endlessly hilarious to my stupid young brain.
Everyone knows the only way to read Cortazar is in Spanish.
Another good technique was the shockingly effective "pretend to be a moderator." Since avatar-picture technology hadn't been perfected back then, many times the only way to distinguish a moderator from a regular user was the phrase "I am a moderator." While trolling the old Marvel Comics message boards in 2002, I noticed that one of the heads of the company at the time, Bill Jemas, would sign his posts with "Best, Bill J." So I started doing the same thing, and people started calling me Mr. Jemas. I was halfway through officially canceling the entire X-Men line when they caught me and gave me a warning.
But Now ...
Today, I could take a photo of my butt and put it online within five seconds, and while this is objectively a good thing (at least in my case, because I have a sweet butt), it comes with the side effect of making trolls lazier. Most raids now involve flooding sites with gore, porn, or various combinations of both. While you can't argue with the effectiveness of this method, there's zero effort there. Where's the love for the craft? What amusing story did you get out of this experience that you'll tell your grandchildren eventually?
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"One time, I attached a photo of a decapitated woman to a post and hit send. It was most kek."
Of course, contemporary trolls aren't really in it for the amusing stories, because ...
3Complete Anonymity Has Made Trolls Crueler
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Back in the Old Days:
Technically, I was on the front page of Cracked.com way before any other current columnist. Yes, even Gladstone. I was also, however, begged to leave Cracked.com before any other current columnist, even Gladstone (we asked him to stop sending columns in 2009, but he just keeps going). I say this because back during the Great Cracked Message Board Invasion of 2001, my fellow trolls and I even made it to the official newsletter:
That's Cracked: refraining from pushing the envelope since 1958. For a long time this was one of the highlights of my trolling career, because it was the ultimate acknowledgment. Yeah, whether we admitted it or not, we were all doing it for attention -- from our fellow trolls, from the random people who overreacted to our antics, and, in the case of places like the Marvel website, from comic creators. I still value this brief interaction I had with Jemas after he sent me an email saying, "No F-words":
He currently follows me on Twitter, presumably just to verify how often I say "fudge."
The more attention we got, the better, and as soon as they stopped giving it to us (or if they never did in the first place), we'd go away and find other dopes to make fun of. It's not like there was any shortage of them on the Internet.
But Now ...
"Don't feed the trolls" isn't really an option anymore when they're attacking you so brutally that you have to leave your home, or when they're actively trying to ruin your life for some bullshit reason (like creating a piece of art they didn't like, or being the wrong race/gender/height, or because they were bored). The roles have flipped: now the target of the trolling is the one trying to tell people what's going on while the trolls themselves shy away from the attention. Because if they didn't, they'd fucking go to jail.
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Body count: 472.
One of the things that made old-timers drift away from the wonderful world of trolling was that, suddenly, everything was completely anonymous. We were like, "Fuck that! I want people to know I wrote that epic own of Batmangoku69!" The usernames and personalities from before have been standardized -- everyone's a number, and everyone talks exactly the fucking same, which is some George Orwell bullshit. Meanwhile, that same anonymity and the total lack of accountability that came with it both allowed and pushed new trolls to get more and more vicious. Because when you can't be creative, you have to outshock the last guy.
That's basic human nature: if it's possible to get away with something, someone's gonna do it. And then someone else, and someone else, until you find yourself feeling numb to gore pictures or hate speech because you're used to scrolling past that shit every day while searching for your dose of lulz. Which leads us to ...