Malwebolence in the Sunday Times Magazine

by Art Fag City on August 1, 2008 Blurb

Loretta Lux, Troll 2, 2001, Color photograph. Image via: Artnet

Mattathias Schwartz has a brilliant piece in this week’s Sunday Times Magazine on Internet trolls, the one unasked question in this article being whether their online behavior changes the troll offline. Although not explicitly stated, the answer lies within the piece, RT troll quote after troll quote revealing a remarkable lack of empathy, the closing even employing the word. Skipping over some of the profoundly sad effects the activity has on people, I’ve selected a few of the more interesting passages on how trolling works, and some of its defining characteristics.

Fortuny sipped a white-chocolate mocha. He proceeded to demonstrate his personal cure for trolling, the Theory of the Green Hair.

“You have green hair,” he told me. “Did you know that?”

“No,” I said.

“Why not?”

“I look in the mirror. I see my hair is black.”

“That's uh, interesting. I guess you understand that you have green hair about as well as you understand that you're a terrible reporter.”

“What do you mean? What did I do?”

“That's a very interesting reaction,” Fortuny said. “Why didn't you get so defensive when I said you had green hair?” If I were certain that I wasn't a terrible reporter, he explained, I would have laughed the suggestion off just as easily. The willingness of trolling “victims” to be hurt by words, he argued, makes them complicit, and trolling will end as soon as we all get over it.

I doubt anyone is “willing” to be hurt by words — certainly we’d all like to be rid of our insecurities — though indeed, trolling doesn’t work if the victim is unaffected by the attack. Speaking to the characteristics of the troll, Schwartz begins by providing basic behavioral laws on the Internet, which I like because it generally defines good blogging practices (at least in the sense that Postel instructs the user to be cautious of the dropped inhibitions the net inspires. )

Is the effort to control what's said always a form of censorship, or might certain rules be compatible with our notions of free speech?

One promising answer comes from the computer scientist Jon Postel, now known as “god of the Internet” for the influence he exercised over the emerging network. In 1981, he formulated what's known as Postel's Law: “Be conservative in what you do; be liberal in what you accept from others.” Originally intended to foster “interoperability,” the ability of multiple computer systems to understand one another, Postel's Law is now recognized as having wider applications. To build a robust global network with no central authority, engineers were encouraged to write code that could “speak” as clearly as possible yet “listen” to the widest possible range of other speakers, including those who do not conform perfectly to the rules of the road. The human equivalent of this robustness is a combination of eloquence and tolerance — the spirit of good conversation. Trolls embody the opposite principle. They are liberal in what they do and conservative in what they construe as acceptable behavior from others. You, the troll says, are not worthy of my understanding; I, therefore, will do everything I can to confound you.

The article is 7 pages long, so reserve a bit of time for it. It’s well worth the read.

Administrative note: In light of it being summer and a Friday, we’ll see you Monday.

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