4 Things I Learned About Teenage Trolls (From Being One)
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:
Trolling Used to Involve Some Amount of Creativity
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?
"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 ...
Complete Anonymity Has Made Trolls Crueler
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.
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 ...
Trolling Has Become More Like Work
Back in the Old Days:
Even as far back as the late '90s, troll invasions have always been known as "raids," but back then they were less reminiscent of an army of Mongols raping and pillaging everything in their path and more like some happy drunks stumbling into a party and refusing to leave. Maybe "happy stoners" would be more appropriate, since one of our strategies was going into a thread and trying to have a conversation made entirely from Big Lebowski quotes.
Thus making everyone else feel like a child who wanders into the middle of a movie.
The "planning" stage of a raid always consisted of 1) someone posting a link to the target, 2) others saying, "I'm in," or, "Sorry, I'm grounded because my mom found my folder of fake Jennifer Love Hewitt nudes," and 3) that's it. The most organized we ever got was the time we went to the Green Day forum and decided beforehand that we'd start a bunch of threads about Billy Joel's greatness, which made the posters completely lose their shit.
And that's about as complex as the raids got. I mean, all of us as kids did the old "go into a chat room using a female name, get hit on by 40 guys, ask one guy for his phone number, give the number to another guy, tell him to call and say something naughty, laugh at the resulting angry meltdown" joke (right?), but when you're in a group, anything more complex than "let's go there and say dumb stuff" would feel too much like work.
Wait, you don't have heaving breasts at all!
But Now ...
Modern trolls have so many fancy terms, buzzwords, and specialized techniques that they need a fucking Wiki to keep track of them. Old-fashioned raids are being replaced by hacktivist-style operations, only instead of unmasking awful racists or pedophiles, the objectives are often stuff like manipulating teen girls for creepy purposes (like cutting their skin, or showing it) and the ever-popular "filling the Internet with more Hitler love." In other words, actually being awful racists and pedophiles. Incidentally, there are like four different troll phrases for the act of driving someone to suicide, but I won't link to them because I don't wanna ruin your day. Or make your day, if you're a psychopath.
Being part of an operation can involve anything from filling out a short survey in coordination with hundreds of other trolls to writing long emails to a site's advertisers while making sure you use or avoid certain keywords. In my day, we called that "doing homework." I mean, on one hand you kind of have to admire the dedication, but on the other hand FUCK THAT SHIT. We used to troll because we were fed up with school or work; now it's turning more and more like those things. Holy shit, trolling sold out.
"I'm sorry, but I just don't have time to make fun of your dead son today."
Perhaps more importantly, trolling just doesn't sound like fun anymore. And that's mainly because ...
Trolling Is No Longer About Fun, It's About Ideology
Back in the Old Days:
Out of all the despicable deeds I've admitted to in this article, this one has the biggest chance of getting me fired: I didn't even know what Cracked was when I first joined the site. My entire motivation for trolling this website as a kid was that my good Internet friend Maradonio Bimshwelino liked Mad Magazine (Cracked's biggest rival years ago), but I didn't know a whole lot about that thing either. All I knew about Mad was MadTV, the sketch show you bought when the store had run out of Saturday Night Lives.
I didn't even find out Cracked had a magazine until this kind fellow informed me:
And I say "had" because this is the exact reason it went bankrupt.
What I'm getting at here is, we didn't troll Cracked (or any website) because we hated it. It wasn't about hate: it was about having a good time messing with people who, we thought, took themselves too seriously. It was also about being young and stupid, which I think everyone should try at least once. But, even then, once we inevitably got banned we just accepted it and moved on, because, well, that's what you get when you're a dick to strangers online.
But Now ...
Here's how some youngsters with Internet connections and too much time on their hands talk today:
Doctor Doom should pay more attention to what his children do online.
I think at some point the trolls forgot that Billy Joel isn't actually in Green Day and you can't get upset when someone points that out. In the words of another former troll who wrote a much better article than mine: "The trolls these days are the red-faced ones, the ones who cannot stand to have their worldview made fun of. 'Butthurt' used to be a schoolyard taunt for our marks, not us."
I think that's because the self-aware stupidity from before has been replaced with a shared ideology that's rarely stated but always there. Looking over the burning hatred for teen girls, the attacks on female professionals (and their fierce justifications), the flippant reaction to real pictures of dead women, and the 200 instances of the words "bitch" and "cunt" you'll see in an average conversation, it's not hard to see a pattern -- it's like all of our super-conservative great-grandparents started getting reincarnated at the same time in the late '90s, and now they're calling bullshit on all the advancements made since they died. These kids are following the reanimated corpse of the anti-suffrage movement.
And the thing is, I could at least get close to understanding this if any of it looked like fun. I can't put it better than my friend Bimshweldo, a fellow veteran of the Cracked invasion, who told me: "Chan-derived self-styled 'trolling' seems mostly about adhering to an unexplained grand directive, like one must always use this specific wording to say anything and then dump your inside jokes on people outside the loop without any context and criticize anyone who doesn't get it. If they enjoy it, that is only because the rules say they do. Even when it is not used to hurt someone it is terribly boring."
Of course, there are still people doing good old-fashioned trolling, but I'm concerned about the state of our troll youth. If I could leave them with one piece of advice, that would be: take it easy. Chances are, in 10 years you won't give a shit about the stuff that upsets you now. Also, you're fat and I hope your parents die.
For more from Maxwell, check out 4 Smug Predictions That Were Hilariously Wrong. And then check out 19 Changes to the Internet If All Prejudices Were Reversed.
And to further expand your noggin, check out Cracked's De-Textbook: The Stuff You Didn't Know About the Stuff You Thought You Knew.