June 15th, 2016
(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: firstname.lastname@example.org
A few years ago, Jamie Bartlett, a social media analyst and author of The Dark Net, met up with the man behind a popular online white supremacist account in the UK. The meeting took weeks to set up—numerous calls and emails were exchanged before the man (whom Bartlett calls “Paul”) agreed to meet him in the small northern English town where he lived. When the two finally linked up, Bartlett said he was surprised to find that the man behind the screen didn’t match his online persona at all.
“It’s the same with a lot of these people—you find that their online characters are very one-dimensional,” he told VICE. “They almost have to be.”
“People create personas for themselves that they can’t break out of. If you’re a rabble-rousing, hardline white supremacist online, that’s what your followers expect of you. You can’t really break out and start talking about your family, or the football team you like, or why you’re frustrated. When you meet somebody in person, the first thing you’re probably talking about is the weather.”
Bartlett says the hyperbole spawned from social media isn’t just limited to far-right movements—the extreme back-and-forths that those on the left or those in social justice circles have with opponents online are “symptoms of the same problem.” Bartlett notes, however, that in his experience, the people with the least nuance in their online character tend to have the least options available to them in real life.
“You have to think that somebody who is generally disadvantaged—who doesn’t get to travel or see lots of people or are actually upset with their lives—are going to be more extreme and [hyperbolic] online. That’s an outlet for them and a place where they can find a space that’s their own, but it’s generally not reflective of their true character.”
To Whitney Phillips, however, it doesn’t really matter whether people are being serious or not—the damage is already done.
“When people use the word ‘troll’ nowadays, they’re largely using it improperly,” Phillips, a folklorist and professor at Mercer University, told me during a phone interview. Phillips is the author of This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things—a book that looks at the history of trolling on the internet, in what Phillips says is an “anthropological take” on how our culture sees online bullying and crude humor.
As someone who’s been described as a “troll whisperer,” Phillips spent years on sites like 4Chan and 8Chan—both as a participant and observer—to get a better grasp behind the meme age of political statements and figure out whether people actually supported the insulting stuff they were saying online. Over the last few years, she has been diving deeper while working on a new book called The Ambivalent Internet (with co-author Ryan Milner), and Phillips says the idea of trolling has become so diluted by mainstream usage that it’s become incredibly hard to identify what is and isn’t serious rhetoric online.