I still remember the first time I got access to the Internet. I was 15 years old. I opened up Netscape — that blue ship-wheel icon! — went straight to Yahoo!, and searched for chat rooms. The first chat room the directory recommended to me, oddly enough, was "Christian singles chat." This is going to be good, I thought. Logging in under the name of "Satan," I entered the chat room and declared: "I am Satan! Bow before me, Christians, or I shall devour your souls!!" This was back in the days of unmoderated web chat, and I wrote my declaration in huge red capital letters that filled the screen.
For about five minutes, I sat there chuckling as the poor Christian singles shouted at me to get out. But then, to my horror, another user logged in under a very similar name ("Satan666," or something like that), and started doing the exact same thing I had done.
I was crushed. I had thought I was so clever, so edgy and rebellious. But I saw now that I was uncreative and boring and unoriginal. I was stupid.
Over the years, my trolling technique improved by leaps and bounds, gaining in subtlety, replacing offensiveness with absurdism. I came to see trolling as an art — the art of shocking people out of their biases and preconceptions and everyday boring sameness. Trolling, when done right, makes life a little more like "Monty Python."
Trolling, in the form of pranks, has been a key outlet for the expression of creativity and humor for centuries. Physicist Richard Feynman was trolling when he stole his fraternity brothers' door — but his true master stroke came when he admitted his guilt and no one believed him. Tony Hsieh, chief executive of Zappos.com, is famous for office pranks. Our comedy, from "Borat" to "Jackass," is filled with trolls. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, of course, is the home of some of the most ingenious pranks in history. And lest you think trolling is unique to Western civilization, just go and watch "Tricky Brains," a full-length Hong Kong comedy that contains nothing but continuous, wacky, brilliant pranks.
The Internet, of course, with its relative anonymity and global reach, is the perfect place to troll. There are some real virtuosos out there, whose efforts put to shame anything I've done. The anonymous image-based bulletin board 4chan lays a good claim to being Troll Central, and has given us many of the Internet's most creative memes, from LOLcats to Rickrolling.
Trolling can even be used to further human knowledge. In the field of macroeconomics, where true knowledge is scarce, immense brainpower can be applied to poke holes in the ideas of others. Real Business Cycle theory might not have explained recessions, but it raised the idea that maybe the business cycle was simply not a very interesting phenomenon in the first place. Early New Keynesian models offered only a small advance in terms of explaining the world, but they showed that if the assumptions of Real Business Cycle theory were modified even a tiny bit, many of its conclusions would be stood on their heads.
Elsewhere in the econ world, trolling can make for fun and lively intellectual food fights. Two years ago I created an illustrated bestiary of all the "EconoTrolls" who frequented the comment section of my blog.
These days, I am hearing more and more about trolls as a menace. And indeed, many of them are. Trolls, we are told, are narcissistic and Machiavellian types whose goal is to cause other people suffering, fear and shame. In the media, the word "troll" is becoming associated more with racists and makers of online rape threats than with merry pranksters and creative absurdists.
The shame is that the often creative, hilarious world of trolling is being polluted and ruined by uncreative, stupid, aggressive people. The trolls whose best idea of humor is racial slurs and rape threats are the bottom of the barrel. They aren't just vile and reprehensible — they're dumb and boring. They're like me at 15, except they never progressed beyond that point.
And they're ruining the Internet for the rest of us. Bloggers are considering shutting down their comment sections to prevent abuse. Even 4chan, that bastion of freewheeling offensive creativity, has been forced to crack down as a result of the huge flame war known as "GamerGate."
If this is how things are going to be, then so be it. Maybe it was always true that the Internet can only be made tolerable for the great masses of humanity by blanket suppression of trolls — smart, well-meaning trolls and vicious, unintelligent trolls alike. If so, I'm sad. It means one less place to break through the predictability of daily life and unleash silliness upon the world. Maybe someday I'll recall the cowboy days of the Internet as an evanescent moment of freedom, a Wild West that flourished until bandits and rustlers brought down the long arm of the law.
To contact the author of this article: Noah Smith at [email protected]
To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Greiff at [email protected]