Picture Yourself in a Boat on a River

Welcome to Fertile Medium, an advice column for people who live online. Each edition, I’ll take a question from you about living in and building social spaces online, and do my best to answer. Want to ask a question? Tweet to @fertilemedium or call (415) 286-5446 and leave a message.

Article Continues Below

Let’s get right to our first question.

I like to fuck around on the computer. I play pranks on my friends and stuff like that. Am I a troll?


“Troll” is one of the most misunderstood terms in online community, which is too bad because understanding trolling is increasingly a requirement for using the internet.

Let’s start with what a troll is not. A troll is not someone who disagrees with you. A troll is not someone who is angry or upset. A troll is not someone who is behaving within the social norms of a community.

“Troll” may conjure up images of a middle earthy creature under a bridge, but that’s not right. Instead, think of a fishing boat, lures in the water, floating along, looking to pick up the fish that bite before thinking.

Trolls throw out lures designed to create an emotional reaction and ensnare people who type before thinking. If you see someone freaking out in a comment thread, they’re not the troll, they’re responding to the troll.

Trolling has two key giveaways: Context and intent. Context is easy to spot. A classic example of trolling is posting “I love my PC” in the “Mac lovers” community. There’s nothing inherently wrong with saying “I love my PC” (I’m resisting the urge to put a joke here), it’s the context that gives it away as a troll.

But intent is harder to determine. Perhaps the PC-lover was just a little lost (again, resisting joke urge) and mistakenly posted in the wrong place? If so, they may be an accidental troll. Or maybe they know exactly what they’re doing by posting something sure to incite a mob reaction, in which case they’re definitely a troll.

For you, Anonymous, I’d suggest that you check your intent. If you intend to freak out your friends, then yeah, you’re trolling them. But I don’t know what the social norms are here. Perhaps this is an accepted part of your relationship. Either way, you might want to check your assumptions with your friends. They may not enjoy being on the receiving end of your pranks. If they prank you back, they’re probably fine with it.

For everyone else, don’t let the difficulty of determining intent get you down. Lots of human communication is about intent. Comedy is (Did he really mean to step on that banana peel?). Sarcasm is, too (I TOTALLY don’t mean that.). We’ve figured out how to communicate these things in person and we’ll figure them out online, too. It just may take a generation or two.

Until we do, here’s some helpful tips if you suspect you’re being trolled.

  1. Are you typing angry? Stop. Trolls are playing a game, and your upset reaction is a point in their favor. Go walk around the block and come back to it.
  2. Are you thinking, “I can’t believe he thinks that”? Consider that maybe he doesn’t and it’s just designed to upset people. Feel smart for outwitting them and go on with your day.
  3. Do you know the person in another context? Try reaching out to them there. Changing the context is a great way to find out if the person is trolling. Since trolling is often a public performance, taking the conversation private can short-circuit it. So, if you must respond, try responding to a public post in a private email or direct message.
  4. If you don’t know the person in another context, check their profile. Most online community systems have pages that show the member’s history. If the PC-lover has a history of expressing affection for things in the wrong places, they’re a troll. If this is too much hassle, then it should be too much hassle to respond at all.
  5. Most importantly: Trolls do what they do because they’re attention-feeders. They thrive on the negative reactions. If you want them to go away, don’t feed them!

That’s it for this first edition of Fertile Medium. I hope it helped. If you’d like to leave a comment or question of your own, tweet to @fertilemedium or call (415) 286-5446 and leave a message. See you next time.

1 Reader Comments

  1. Playing pranks on others on their computers or such, e.g. faceraping is definitely not trolling. So as such this Anonymous most likely is not a troll. Trolling is a conversational trick, which can be done on facebook and in person as well and the intent is always getting an upset reaction. Also I’m not really sure messaging in private will help much, unless one has the proper attitude when doing so, since most trolls will happily continue escalating the situation even in a one-on-one situation if you continue responding upset.

Got something to say?

We have turned off comments, but you can see what folks had to say before we did so.

More from ALA