The trouble with trolls

I have been digesting the fascinating blog post by Whitney Phillips over at Ethnography Matters about her ethnography of trolling. Phillips studied trolling communities like 4chan's /b/ board, the Internet Hate Machine (Anonymous), and Facebook troll groups; from her observations, she called trolls "agents of cultural digestion", those who "scavenge and repurpose mainstream content" and mimic the voices of dominant cultural figures and institutions. By doing so, trolling is a critique of dominant culture through parody. (This is a sadly brief summary of her argument -- go read her post for more fascinating details!)

wizardtrollTrolling is not a particularly new topic of study for digital ethnographers -- it was often studied right alongside the practice of "flaming" in the early days. However, it still remains a contentious practice, and is increasingly difficult to define as the practice itself evolves. I think most people have a general idea of what a troll is (someone who instigates arguments or presents an over-the-top opinion designed to raise the hackles of others), but the precise meaning of trolling can vary from community to community. Trolling in gaming communities may take different forms from text-based or social media communities, but overall I think Phillips's analysis applies to games too -- trolling is essentially a critique through grotesque pantomime of dominant culture.

For instance, in my ethnographic work from World of Warcraft, I often encountered so-called "trade chat trolls". These are popular (although often hated) personalities whose names are known by large swaths of the playing population because they were always present in public chat channels, either starting arguments or antagonizing other players.

Why troll in World of Warcraft or any similar multiplayer online game? "Don't they have enough to keep them occupied?" asked one of my interviewees from my ethnographic work. It's hard to ask about motivation -- first of all, anonymity makes it difficult to keep track of trolls, and second of all, the trolls themselves are likely to troll you with their answers. I sometimes tried to ask the trolls why they did what they did; the only responses I ever got that seemed legitimate were "boredom" and "trolling is a fine art". Whitney Phillips's analysis certainly aligns with the latter, and suggests that trolls have their own motivations for their behavior that are both intimately connected to and operating outside of the marked rules of the game.

My colleague Ben Friedline and I worked on this problem a little bit back in 2008 by trying to fit trolls into a classification schema of language styles and power in World of Warcraft. We did a survey where we asked players how they viewed power in the game community -- answers were, as expected, that powerful players had both impressive in-game items like armor and weapons that could only be obtained by killing difficult bosses, as well as a lot of knowledge about how the game worked. These powerful players demonstrated their power by lecturing noobs about the "right" way to play the game and by engaging in very technical discussions in public chat channels.

However, trade chat trolls were also brought up consistently in our survey when we asked "who is a powerful person on your server?". When we looked them up, the trolls had none of the characteristics of other powerful players -- they were almost always low-level characters with underpowered or silly-looking armor (one was always wielding a fish for a weapon, for example). This certainly goes against the expected norms of powerful players being experienced and knowledgeable about the game as well as having high skill level and impressive gear.* (Again, this is a simplified view -- read the chapter for more details.)

Some of our participants mentioned that these trolls had "bully power"; even though they did not have any game-valued sources of power like good gear or knowledge, they still spoke like powerful players -- namely, they lectured players for being "noobs" and took over chat channels in the same ways that hardcore powerful players did, except they gave the wrong information or purposefully brought up contentious topics. Ben and I eventually came to a similar conclusion as Whitney Phillips -- we suggested that WoW trolls were an active parody of power in this game community. They were trying to use the same language styles as other players to purport false knowledge or disrupt the play of others without having the game resources like gear or levels to support their assertions. They were mimicking the hardcore players but without the obvious signs of being a hardcore player themselves, and snatched for themselves their own type of power through troll-style commentary. In many ways, trolling the game's players was a form of play itself -- a social game within a game.

Players often express the wish for trolling to be eliminated somehow. However, if we follow Phillips's conclusions about trolling as an art form, it stands to reason that in any player community where there are ideologies and cultural constructs, you will inevitably have trolls arise to critique these norms and play with their implications. Do you agree or disagree with Phillips's analysis? What kinds of other approaches to trolling have you experienced?


*Note that we were working on this in 2008, when good gear in World of Warcraft was more difficult to acquire and norms were consequently a bit different.

The trouble with trolls by Lauren Collister, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

5 Responses to “The trouble with trolls”

  1. Travis Ross says:

    I should be working on my dissertation, but... I have a question.

    If trolls are artists then that suggests there are many different skill levels, right? Are there categories that trolls get broken into to differentiate? How do you differential between a master troll, artisan troll, or apprentice troll?

    Do the master trolls transcend the level? Are they the Steven Colbert and "Anonymous" of the world? If so then it also seems like trolls stand on some rather fluid moral ground. The trolling that Colbert does is interpreted as rather harmless - while Anonymous is generally always criminal.

    Are there any master trolls in World of Warcraft? Trolls who are revered or respected for their role in the social sphere?

    Thanks Lauren, cool thoughts and great post.


    • Re: trolls being artists and therefore having levels -- absolutely! People even comment on this metalinguistically in WoW that I've seen, and on some forums that I still read. People who make a really heavy-handed bad attempt to troll someone are often called "troll noob" or something similar.

      There was even, for a time, a website/forum called "Troll Academy" where one could learn to be a master troll. I'm not sure it still exists, as I can't find it anymore, but I wonder what their criteria for troll levels would be.

      There's even a cheezburger for Art of Trolling where people rate the trolls.

  2. Teresa Lynch says:

    Interesting post! There's a psychologist named John Suler who discusses the idea of an "online disinhibition effect" under which people operate in a veil of anonymity in game, social, or other online environments. His work suggests that most often this anonymity leads to toxic behavior (i.e. harassing or threatening).

    I think this goes hand in hand with trolling. The interesting difference with trolling is that there is a nuance and level of skill necessary to enact it, right? Unlike people who are just harassing others or verbally attacking them, trolls really dig at people.

    • I think it depends on their motivations as a troll. Some trolls are motivated just to annoy people. I once knew a group of graduate students who brought this young person into their guild and did these really terrible social experiments on him to see how he would react. Pretty mean stuff, I think they were just doing it because they thought it was funny. Kind of reminds you of High School.

      What I really want to know is if there are trolls who move to another level instead of picking on particular people they satire the powerful institutions of World of Warcraft. Perhaps the video of the Guild that disrupted another guilds funeral is an example of this… but still its just to hurt people really.

      Are there any examples of trolling for what might be considered a good cause? Is that possible?

      Does someone have to get hurt for it to be trolling?

      Ahhh! Why did you make me start thinking!?!?

      • I think these are all great questions and ideas, Travis and Teresa, thank you!

        In my experience watching the trolling that goes on in World of Warcraft, the term "troll" is mostly used to refer to someone who is creating a satire or being annoying (infuriating) and not specifically being criminal or harassing. When you go into clearly illegal acts, then you become something else. For example, for a while there was a guy harassing members of our guild. He would troll them on forums, posting as anonymous no-named alts and making snide and often hateful comments -- but when that behavior changed to threats of physical violence and acts of dubious legality, this person became a stalker.

        As for Anonymous, from your example above, I believe they are most often referred to as "hackers" or "hactivists", though who may engage in trolling behaviors. The terms change depending on the activity, if I'm observing correctly. (This might be a fascinating study to do.)

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