Under the Bridge: The Side Benefits of Troll Culture

by Mike Barthel

The problem with making the Internet safe is that it would necessarily make the Internet the same. That’s the reason Facebook creeps people out: it tries to impose a uniform user interface on the existing heterogeneous online experience to make it appear homogenous, and in so doing actually transform the culture into one where everything is the same. In an op-ed in today’s Times, Julie Zhuo, a product design manager at Facebook, goes further, proposing that non-Facebook content providers standardize their approach to anonymous commenting to rid the Internet of trolls. (Or hey, maybe they could just use the Facebook commenting system!) But what would the Internet be without trolls? Hell, what would New York City be without trolls? Denying the ability of different online communities to respond to disruptive or contrary commenters in a way that reflects the values of that community ultimately denies the wonderful cornucopia of microcultures that is the fantastic, awful Internet we all know and (mostly) love.

Most writing on what makes a “good” online community tends to come from people who are, let’s say, a bit too rational for their own good. They tend to assume that there is no such thing as an online community other than the ones they participate in. Oh, sure, alternatives may exist, but they are simply less-evolved versions of the Platonic type inhabited by those paragons of substantive discourse known as “computer nerds.”

I’m thinking here of Slash, the open-source message-board and news programming that has as its most visible component the undeniably innovative commenting system displayed on ur-nerd site Slashdot. Instead of just listing all comments chronologically or in threads, users voted for which comments were the best, and you could then set your filter to only show highly-rated comments and/or commenters. I used it extensively on the post-Suck discussion board Plastic (where, somewhat distressingly, my username still appears in the top-rated posters list), and I liked it! But my subsequent experience in other communities showed me how other forms of filtering could work, too.

And these systems tend to both be informed by and promote the values the community is interested in promoting. For instance, if I may be so bold, the Awl is interested in a sense of empathy and collective enthusiasm, so commenters reward people who promote these values (by replying en masse) and ignore commenters who don’t, thus encouraging people interested in becoming part of the community to conform to the community’s values.

The current incarnation of Gawker, meanwhile, seems overall interested less in community than in making commenters a form of unpaid content contributors, which is why (at least some) editors promote particular comments based on entertainment value and legibility rather than creating a shared identity. Another forum to which I previously contributed was (or became, anyway) more gladiatorial in tone, and newcomers were roundly (and sometimes unintelligibly) mocked until they learned to hold their own in a way the community could respect, which reflected values of shared knowledge-building over inclusion or engagement. And you can think of the values of mommyblogs or neighborhood blogs or religion blogs as places where different values might lead to different attitudes toward anonymity and new contributors.

What interests me most, though, are those feminist blogs and bloggers which seem to consistently engage with people who wander in and say something clueless and/or confrontational. This strikes me as extremely brave and impressive, representing a commitment to dialogue and discourse above, say, one’s own time and sanity that I simply cannot manage myself. (Just one recent example.) I’ve never been an active participant in these forums, so I certainly can’t say for sure that this is what’s going on. But it seems to me to represent a true translation of feminist values into action, and as frustrating as these debates can sometimes be to watch and (from what people say) engage in, it is truly walking the walk by talking the talk: they refuse to silence people even when they know they’re wrong, and can only be content through extreme engagement with the other point of view.

And it is particularly that kind of relationship between a community’s values and a community’s commenting system that a standardized treatment of anonymity and commenters would erase. Not all online microcultures want to engage with every ill-informed yokel who staggers in to blurt out an opinion, and for them, there are certainly options. But eliminating anonymity and encouraging everyone to act online in the same way they would in real life essentially ruins the point of going online in the first place. There’s a real value in being able to try on different identities and code-switch at will rather than by necessity. And there’s a real value in communities being able to enforce their particular values rather than those of society at large. I don’t act everywhere like I act on the Awl, but I would like to! If my comments here are held accountable to everyone else I’ve ever known, then I can’t do the Awl-specific things that are such fun.

The ultimate counter to all this, of course, is 4chan. But that seems undeniably like one of those “I disapprove of the fact that you have a child-molesting bear meme, but I will begrudgingly grant your right to do so, I guess” kind of situations. As awful as 4chan (or /b/, or anon, or whatever) is, it’s certainly something, and it would be impossible without the entirely unique commenting system it has in place. It’s totally illogical and yet, somehow, it works. It is a form of communication made possible entirely by the Internet, and it seems not only like a shame but like an impossibility to lose that. It would make more sense, instead of trying to find some universal solution to the problem of trolls, to look at the ways in which individual communities have dealt with the issue and admit that every venue will have to design its own solution unique to their context. Facebook wants to make everywhere online the same, and I don’t think they’ll be able to. But I also wish they’d stop trying, if only so we could have a more productive discussion about the whole matter. If anyone is the troll in this debate, it’s Zuckerberg and company.

Mike Barthel is not trolling on his Tumblr.