Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Trolling Relationship

Trolling is not morally good or bad; it is a relationship between a person and an institution.

On Meatspace Trolling

Upon being summoned for federal jury duty, my immediate reaction was not irritation, but amusement. Jury duty is an opportunity to play a game: the Peremptory Challenge Challenge! When one reports for jury duty, it is of course with the goal of having a "peremptory challenge" used to exclude one from the jury - that is, inducing an attorney to use one of his "get rid of this juror free" cards, as my friend Thi achieved in part by dropping an e-bomb[1] when asked to explain what he did for a living. Getting knocked off "for cause" is easy, and will result from being too heavy-handed in one's approach, so obviously the result of a challenge for cause is ignominy. Being placed on a jury is a form of losing, but then one faces the Jury Nullification Challenge (particularly on a drug jury). The path of glory is clearly to be excused on a peremptory challenge if at all.

"So basically, you're trolling the District Court," is how my husband puts it.

Yes! Yes, I am! But this is only one facet, one instance, of a greater social phenomenon that relates individuals to institutions (broadly defined): the relationship of trolling.

As this example illustrates, the phenomenon of trolling is not limited to participating in a conversation in a manner inimical to the purposes of the other conversation participants. The troll is not trolling the conversation: he is trolling the institution of the conversation, made up of implicit rules and purposes.

Andy Kaufman

The public life of Andy Kaufman is illustrative as a bridge between the concept of meatspace trolling and of internet trolling. Kaufman performed in such a manner that he satirized and questioned (rather than naively participating in) certain social institutions defined by implicit rules (and by doing so, helped bring some of those rules to visibility - the project of phenomenology). Frequently, his performances had the effect of causing strong negative affect in some audiences, but that was not the ultimate purpose of his art.

The troll engages participants in a pre-existing institution, but does not observe the rules of that institution. A troll is not a person, and trolling is not an absolute; "troll" is a social role a person may play from time to time toward certain institutions, and "trolling" is a manner of relating to an institution.

Highly effective meatspace trolls include the scatological buffoonery of Mozart, the Sokal hoax, the trial of the Chicago Seven, Issa's famous haiku composed for a poetry contest, the funeral protests by the Westboro Baptist Church, and the Yes Men's impersonation of a Dow Chemical spokesperson taking responsibility for the Bhopal Disaster of 1984 (but see below for a discussion of why the latter two are poor specimens of trolling). Social roles such as "class clown" and "court jester" can be seen as trolling positions. Nasrudin, Bugs Bunny, Jesus, Gandhi, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Richard Feynman are all associated with the phenomenon I call meatspace trolling. As should be clear from my examples, trolling is a morally ambiguous phenomenon.

Evo Bio and Game Theory: Trolling and Fairness

One of the most consistent results from watching actual humans play the "ultimatum game" - in which one experimental subject is asked to divide a sum of money between himself and a second subject, and the second subject can then take it (both subjects get to keep their share) or leave it (neither subject gets his share) - is that people reject "unfair" offers (offers of less than, especially considerably less than, 50% of the pot), even though this is costly to themselves. This may not be rational in the sense of maximizing payoff in the moment, but ecologically speaking, such "spite" may be a very good strategy for a social organism.

Just as the second subject rejects an "unfair" offer out of spite, the troll rejects the "offer" of naive participation in the target institution. It is possible that trolling is the broader phenomenon of which ultimatum-game-type "spite" is one aspect. However, what the ultimatum game ignores, and what is important to understand in order to grasp the wide importance of the phenomenon of trolling, is that (a) trolling is generally conducted with an audience; and (b) this audience may provide benefits to the troll (attention, a social context in which to belong, etc.) that may more than make up for the benefits foregone by refusing to participate in a naive manner out of "spite." That is, "spite" in meatspace may not be as damaging to self-interest as laboratory ultimatum games make it seem - after all, social capital may be the most important kind of capital, both in the EEA and in our world.

In other words, what we often conceive of as "spite" - punishing others at one's own expense - might actually be part of a larger phenomenon of meta-competition, of undermining institutions and the implicit rules that make up institutions not necessarily at personal expense, but often with the effect of increasing one's status in the view of one's audience.

Countersignalling and Meta-Competition

Trolling is a special form of countersignalling - refusing to "play the game" and naively signal within the implicit rules of the institution, and instead joyfully rejecting the signalling conventions of the institution. Those of very high ability or status

sometimes avoid the signals that should separate them from lower types, while intermediate types often appear the most anxious to send the “right” signals. The nouveau riche flaunt their wealth, but the old rich scorn such gauche displays. Minor officials prove their status with petty displays of authority, while the truly powerful show their strength through gestures of magnanimity. People of average education show off the studied regularity of their script, but the well educated often scribble illegibly. Mediocre students answer a teacher’s easy questions, but the best students are embarrassed to prove their knowledge of trivial points. Acquaintances show their good intentions by politely ignoring one’s flaws, while close friends show intimacy by teasingly highlighting them. People of moderate ability seek formal credentials to impress employers and society, but the talented often downplay their credentials even if they have bothered to obtain them. A person of average reputation defensively refutes accusations against his character, while a highly respected person finds it demeaning to dignify accusations with a response. [Feltovich et al., "Too cool for school? Signalling and countersignalling". Internal hyperlink mine; thanks Rob Sica for the source.]

Trolling is a subset of countersignalling. Not only outside characteristics such as wealth and social status, but also the acts of trolling themselves, may be perceived by one's audience as evidence of high value - of, for example, the capability to perceive institutions abstractly, or the courage to reject and play with the conventions of powerful institutions.

To be successful, trolls must be high-status folks in some sense - possessing high-status characteristics (though these need not be visible to the majority of his audience - only to his relevant audience, which may be a small subset of his total audience). But we could speak of a narrow "status window" to define trolls: why would a high-status individual undermine an institution that accords him high status? Perhaps the troll mind is a different kind of mind, one that is bored by naively playing status games within an institution. Somehow, the rewards the institution accords to the individual must not be "worth" the effort and boredom of playing by the rules to get those rewards. In addition to being a means to get attention and social status, trolling is the infinite fun.

Trolling is more than just a competitive tactic.

Troll = Trickster?

The phenomenon of trolling, broadly conceived, has several salient characteristics:

  1. An orientation toward fun (lulz) rather than making a point; absurdity over sincerity[2]
  2. Distrust of cherished institutions
  3. Engaging with participants of institutions, but not on the institution's terms
  4. Cognitive capacity to conceive of value distribution outside of pre-existing value-distributing institutions (see 6.)
  5. Game orientation (everything is a game)
  6. Display of emotion by target is a form of "winning" (on the flip side, target "loses" by displaying emotion) (see 3.)[3]
  7. Outcome is unpredictable; the troll orientation is chaotic neutral
  8. Trolling is a social phenomenon, distinct from the hermit - the troll seeks out institutions to interact with
  9. Social fearlessness
  10. Trolling is conducted for amusement, not for explicit, material personal gain[4]

At this point, one must connect the phenomenon of meatspace trolling to the widespread "trickster hero" theme in literature and art. Nasrudin and Bugs Bunny, for example, are trickster heroes; they are also trolls. Why should a society value trolling? Why should trolling have such amusement and status value? Why should we preserve the pattern of trolling in our literature, and take so much joy in it, even though most of us do not engage in trolling behavior?

Chuang-tzu is a troll; he says:

Making a point to show that a point is not a point is not as good as making a nonpoint to show that a point is not a point.

Indeed, the winning move is often not to play, as with the Giant's Drink; but perhaps more importantly, the best explanation is often not a naive explanation within the existing framework, but a view of the situation from a more abstract level.

The fact that trolling can be an effective strategy for individuals allows societies a mechanism for questioning its institutions and seeing them from a more abstract point of view. Institutions can outlive (or outgrow) their usefulness and effectiveness as value distributors; but in the face of entrenched, self-perpetuating institutions that do more harm than good, what is society's defense?

It is the troll.

Easier to Criticize than to Build Anew

An important criticism of trolling behavior, as I have outlined it, is that it is directed toward delegitimizing institutions, "tearing them down" in a way, without concern for substituting new institutions in their stead. If we accept this, we may adopt a more negative view of trolling than the one I have proposed above. There are a few responses to this criticism.

First, there are plenty of institution-building processes operating in human groups - what Vernon L. Smith refers to as "constructivist" processes, creating new institutions that will be tested in the real world to see if actual humans can use and sustain them. Trolling, from this perspective, must be viewed as part of the natural "ecological" testing of such institutions - perhaps a crucial function.

Second, there is the Ultimate Troll - the null hypothesis on human institutions (and, indeed, human flourishing). We come into the world with institutions already in existence - many of them created not solely by conscious human agency, but through the natural processes of our social brains. Such institutions are not justified a priori - we have not consented to them, certainly, and they may be terrible institutions that we would not consent to, given the opportunity to choose. The biggest excuse these institutions have is that they have been shown (in Smith's "ecological" sense) to work, at least in the sense of sustaining themselves through human generations. Is that enough? If an institution "works," does that justify its existence? That is the central question of the Ultimate Troll. The question is sharpened by the fact that our lives have become so much more complex than our environments of evolutionary adaptedness that they may in fact be too complex for ecological or constructivist processes to accommodate satisfactorily.

1. Epistemology

2. This is why the Westboro Baptist Church and the Yes Men are poor sorts of trolls; they wish to show the absurdity of a particular institution in order to support the meaning and sense of other institutions. Pure trolling is purely absurd, clean of all sincerity. This is why Andy Kaufman is the troll hero of our time. (Contra Camus, absurdity is the absence of sense and meaning.)

3. Items 1, 4, and 6 relate to the idea of play - the ability to conceive of events as not having their usual meaning. This is similar to when dogs "bow" on their elbows as an invitation to play, allowing the usual dog status rules are not applicable, and that what happens in the play session does not have the meaning it would have in the mundane world.

4. Patent trolls engage with the patent system in a manner that is directly inimical to its ostensible purposes (promoting innovation, etc.) and so they must be considered trolls. They are bad and dirty, but they do bring to visibility the problems with our intellectual property system.


  1. My favorite IRL troll was Socrates who was forced to drink hemlock. ;)

    He pretended to be a dumbass to draw out victims.

  2. Excellent example!

    "Forced" may be a strong word - if you read the Phaedo, he even trolled the legal system and in a way made them kill him, making the system look ridiculous, rather than accepting exile (which was kind of on the table but which he essentially rejected).

    He is my personal troll hero - thanks for pointing that out!

  3. Radio troll honorable mention goes to ... Phil Hendrie:

    And don't forget Joey Skaggs:

  4. I never really understood what made a troll a troll. Now I realize: I am a troll.

  5. Great post. This leads me to ponder not just verbal trolls, but the metaphorical trolls that cause disruption to social and scientific progression.

    Consider internet security, an entire field dedicated to combating hackers (sample of said metaphorical trolls) who are often exceptionally intelligent that spend their time and energy reverse engineering software and hardware to penetrate and exploit systems for any variety of causes which are often destructive.

    Humans are horribly inefficient because where anything is being built, there are others "trolling" as outlined in the article above. Trolling countermeasures require paralyzing amounts of time, energy, and resources that could otherwise be spent in creating and making the world better. Just consider all the laws, systems, and institutions dedicated to fighting trolls, with the ironic meta issue that even the laws themselves cannot be trusted since they too will be exploited.

    The ever-present troll is indicative that we are indeed beings geared towards destruction... and this is where my thought train will stop, since I am all too aware anything I am further inclined to suggest in this mental state will be supported in your upcoming book... ;)

  6. Any category that includes what Socrates did, what "Anonymous" does, Xxsasuke96 posting a link to a rickroll, and Bugs Bunny is broken.

    Consequences matter; surface similarities don't.

    1. Is the relationship I propose to call "trolling" - refusing to take an institution's norms seriously, and instead subverting its goals - really about "surface similarities"? It seems more than surface-deep to me.

      For that matter, aren't surface similarities useful in helping us predict and classify consequences?

    2. It just seems to me like an imprecise way of using the word. We have a word; it has a strongly negative connotation to people who don't self-identify with it. My linguistic intuition tells me you can't (shouldn't?) throw this out to include acts that aren't disruptive/annoying just to be disruptive/annoying. Socrates used questions to reveal holes in explicit reasoning and show everybody how little they knew. Bugs Bunny is trying to stay alive and is entertainment for kids. Internet trolls are what you get when you leave a system alone, a high entropy sort of thing.

      That's what I mean by surface similarity. If you lump more things than what is usually meant by "trolling", you lose information.

      The idea that trolling is actually about fucking with institutions is pretty weak (trolling is its own institution), which leads me to a question I should have asked earlier: Are you trying to redefine 'trolling', describe your observations of what trolling is, or make a new category, for which there is no word, so you borrowed one? (or something else?) If it is the first or third, I object but not particularly strongly; if the second, I think you're describing something else.

      To answer your second question, no.

    3. I should say, in case anyone thinks elsewise:

      I like this post a lot, and I think it is covering an important topic, but you are giving it the wrong name.

  7. I think there's a tension in the concept as you present it here between trolling that seeks to 'win'--aggressive, dominating trolling--and trolling that just wants something *interesting* to happen; i.e. your point 5 seems to be in conflict with 6 and 10. It seems to me that the first type recreates the standard mammalian dominance narrative via nonstandard means, while the latter type seeks to escape the dominance/submission dynamic; cheating at chess versus kicking over the board.

    The goal-directed/win-seeking type of troll would include destructive "LOL u mad" trolls, but also trickster guru types like Jesus, Nasrudin and Zhuangzi; call them chaotic evil and chaotic good trolls. Bugs Bunny and Richard Feynman might respresent the outcome-indifferent, purer kind of chaotic neutral troll.


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