April 24, 2015
I’m guessing it was 1991. I was probably 14. My father was the earliest of early adopters and for years there had been a modem hissing through our phone lines. Email and online forums were new frontiers for us, however. So when we were enticed to give them a try compliments of CompuServe, we jumped at the chance. Oh mighty mighty CompuServe, the only game in town during the George H. W. Bush era. My family signed up for a single account because that’s all we needed. One log-in and email address to access kilobyte-upon-kilobyte of text!
I’m not sure when I found out about the forums, but as a seasoned prank-phone-caller, I immediately saw their appeal. I could chat up strangers. More specifically, I could needle strangers. I could pretend to be someone else, and I didn’t even have to change my voice. I could deceive and outwit people. It was the outwitting that really hooked me. Outwitting was addictive. Because it was a form of winning.
The forums were heavily moderated and had clear policies, even back then. No harassment, no insults, no foul language. In the beginning, I abided by those rules, even while taking on different personas, even though my goal was always to enrage and provoke. To outwit. To win.
I must note: I was a dabbler. Most of my time was still spent on school, the outdoors, TV and video games. I’d only log on when I was hanging out with a friend or my brother, because I viewed this as a spectator sport. Like a prank phone call, it was no fun to perform alone. In fact, doing such things alone seemed more than a little sad. Online anonymity was essential, but at the same time, someone else had to know about my winning.
As far as I recall, nobody used the term “troll” back then. That’s clearly what I was, though. I probably would’ve claimed, “I’m just playing devil’s advocate,” something people still claim with shocking regularity. Of course, playing devil’s advocate in the faceless world of the internet is akin to walking down the street and yelling insults at strangers. Without any context, you can never be some theoretical advocate. You will always be the devil himself.
Thankfully, I wasn’t the devil for long. I was warned by a moderator for pushing the boundaries of their policies, so I pushed them even further by calling someone a “crack baby.” The moderator immediately suspended the account. Now remember, my family had just the one account and CompuServe ran the show. So my actions basically banned us all from the internet.
My parents were not pleased. We had to wait until AOL came onto the scene almost a year later to get back online. By that time, I was either too ashamed or too busy to resume the trolling. Probably the latter.
I finished high school. I went to college. I played devil’s advocate in dark dorm rooms with friends who always knew when I was pushing buttons merely for the sake of pushing buttons. Feelings were rarely hurt and when they were, apologies followed. My online life at that time consisted exclusively of occasional emailing and visits to IMDB. Usenet newsgroups were popular then, but I didn’t bother with them because most of the people I knew didn’t bother with them.
That was about 20 years ago.
These days, I (and most of the people I know) spend an excessive amount of time online. I can excuse some of it as work, but certainly not all of it. Especially the hours I spend in comments sections. Yes, I have read the comments…far too many times. And yes, I have contributed to the comments…and regretted it every time.
Because whenever I comment, I feel myself turning into that 14-year-old boy. Of course, I try not to be a troll. I try to employ logic and compassion. I convince myself that I’m there to pacify the trolls, to reason with them. This is “feeding” them, of course. But it’s also feeding me. That addiction to outwitting–to winning–always surfaces. And it’s all-consuming.
Good ol’ science has proven that if an addiction takes hold of you early in life then it’s harder to beat. I’m lucky. Trolling in my formative years was a brief affair. We can thank that CompuServe moderator who slapped the addictive substance from my hand. And yet, I can’t imagine if I had been born just ten or fifteen years later. I would never have been kicked off the internet. The very notion of that is absolutely laughable now. Odds are, I’d probably be an adult man, lurking online somewhere, fixing to be vile.
Of course, plenty of people can dip in and out of online worlds without consequence. Just like plenty of people can enjoy a glass of wine without downing a bottle or two. But many can’t and like all addictions, trolling can be affected by your environment. If you hang out with smokers, then you are more likely to smoke. If most of your social interactions play out in comment sections and on social media, then you are more likely to troll. No brainer, really.
So what are today’s young trolls-in-making to do? Even for disadvantaged kids, it’s nearly impossible to step away from the online world. They don’t have the luxury that I had.
And yet, they have a perspective I didn’t. They can see the hurt they’ve caused, because people are being more vocal than ever about the hurt. I suspect that many of the trolls are probably ashamed of the hurt. Sure, there are sadists among them who get off on the hurt, but I suspect that most are getting off on the outwitting, on that addiction to winning. The hurt is an unpleasant bi-product, something they try their best to deny.
I don’t know if I hurt someone when I called him/her a “crack baby,” but I realize long ago that I wasn’t particularly witty. I certainly didn’t win anything. So while I’m not going to take sympathy on the trolls out there, particularly the ones who have moved from provocation into the despicable world of harassment, I am going to make a suggestion to the young ones.
Print out some of the very best comments you’ve left anonymously online. Hand them to your parents or to the person you have a crush on. Tell them that these are your trolling masterpieces, the things you are most proud of in your life.
That is, if you are proud of them. If you aren’t, well, then perhaps there are better ways to spend your time.
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