A Sociological Perspective on Internet Trolling

In Internet slang, a troll is someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking other users into a desired emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.


Today’s topic, trolling, was chosen by Vishal J, who attends UT Austin.

For those of you who, after reading wiki’s short explanation, are still wondering what trolling is, just go to any popular youtube video (say, with at least a million views) and check out the comment section. No further explanation needed.

As a former global moderator of a forum and a co-admin of another, I can say that I very much dislike trolling. It is a simply immature behavior. On small blogs such as this one, it is not too bad because I get so few comments, but I can see how it could become unmanageable if the viewcount is much higher.

For example, if each post I made was like the US Census 2010 Win post, I would run into trolling problems immediately. That post has just over 180,000 views at the moment, which accounts for the majority of my total blog hits. Just its sheer number of comments, currently at 195, makes it impractical to read through and look for trolls. Plus, they are normally best dealt with by ignoring them (hence the famous slogan “do not feed the trolls”). An administrator may find it even better to delete trolling posts.

The Sociological Perspective

There is some amount of academic literature about trolling, but as far as I have researched, the study of trolling is (1) not comprehensive, (2) fairly uninteresting, and (3) incoherent. Does trolling deserve to be studied? It is a relatively new phenomenon as it has no good precursor in history. I suggest that we look at trolling from a sociological perspective.

Trolling seems to belong to the field of sociology. If we tie it to other sociological phenomena, then issue (3) suddenly disappears because of its connections to other topics. (1) is an issue but will be resolved as more studies are done. And (2) is because the impact of trolling is still small, usually on a personal level. But as online communities become more important, trolling can potentially have greater consequences, some of which we would more easily be able to control if we tried to understand them as soon as possible.

For example, how do we explain the origins of trolling? Below is a very simplified sociological model. If it looks like common sense, then we have succeeded.

A few things might require additional explanation. The top two rows should be self-explanatory, but there are a couple of things noteworthy. First, some would consider the Internet as part of the macrosociological process of globalization; however, in this article, because I am referring to Internet trolls in particular, it is enough to create a distinction. In addition, it is possible to have globalization without the Internet, and vice versa.

In the second row, the only word causing any confusion should be “space,” which I define to be some abstract area in which people can socially interact. Going from row 1 to row 2 should be straightforward; it is almost the definition of the Internet.*

*Perhaps not on social networking sites, where you DO know people in real life. I am referring to things like forums, on which people rarely know one another.

In the third row I use three sociology terms: impression management, backstage behavior, and social control. The first, impression management, is what it sounds like—how one controls his or her own appearance in a social interaction.

Backstage behavior is a term by sociologist Erving Goffman (wiki), who compared human presentation of self to a stage drama. Essentially, what we do when we know other people are watching is called frontstage behavior, whereas what we do in private is backstage behavior. Backstage behavior is the behavior which you do not wish everyone to see.

But from the second row, we have a space in which people are detached and anonymous. So they have no reason to manage their impressions or put to put up a frontstage show. Therefore, there is very little self control.

What about things like peer pressure? The Internet (especially forums) is generally not a good place for social control. Social control does not have to exist formally as a set of rules and laws. It could simply be that when you are about to make a bad decision your friend says, “Uh, I don’t think that’s a brilliant idea,” an example of informal social control. Social control on the Internet is somewhat less sophisticated. Sure, a forum may have formal control factors such as reputation or a banlist, but they lack informal ones, which, as many sociologists have seen, are usually more effective.

Now we get to the conclusion, that if one’s behavior is neither self-regulated nor regulated by others, it could transform into just about anything, including misbehavior. Thus row 3 flows into row 4, and this simplified explanation of the origins of trolling is complete.

Further Applications of Sociology

Above, we looked at only the origins of trolling. But what about its characteristics and consequences? For these we need more than pure theorycrafting. Observations and experiments need to be performed. Can we find which groups of people who are most likely to troll? Determine which aspects of spaces are most prone to trolling? The long term effects of trolling on a given space? Come on, sociologists, we need to know!

3 thoughts on “A Sociological Perspective on Internet Trolling

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