How Can You Tell A Troll From A Critic?

I’ve been reading a lot of pieces about trolling . And I’m always a bit fascinated by trolls because, I think, on some level, when I was a teenager, I probably would have really enjoyed going into extremely right wing webpages and trying to pick fights with people. I joined the debate team and got it out of my system. But! I can see the appeal of going someplace and trying to fight with people, especially if you’re convinced you are smarter than them (nothing gets that out of your system except age).

But, what always defines a troll in my mind is that they have an ulterior motive. They have deliberately singled out an article to pick a fight with, not because they genuinely care about the topic at hand, but because they like picking fights with people. That is the end game.

That is not the end-game for people who just disagree strongly with something you have written.

To some degree, when people talk about how they are being trolled, I always wonder if they are not seeing just what they want to see. I remember after The Game came out, there were certain woman who would hear an offensive comment from a man and immediately reply “he’s clearly negging me.” And I always felt like replying “No. That man was not doing that to pick you up. That man just did not like you. There was no secret ulterior motive. He just didn”t like you.”

How can you tell the difference between someone who is out to infuriate the commenters – which is legitimate trolling – and someone who just has decided they hate you?

People often say that you should consider whether this person is giving you constructive criticism or not, but, no. That’s just a test of whether an unusually polite person is responding to you. Most people are not unusually polite.You have to assume people who comment on the internet are going to be, at best, only somewhat polite.

This can be tricky, because people who decide that they hate a stranger because of something that stranger wrote on the internet are sometimes very, very dumb. Sometimes they will write things so ridiculous that you will assume that they have to be doing this for lulz.

But sometimes, this is not the case. At those times I wonder – and I feel like this is something I do – if we’re a little quick to jump to the conclusion that we’re being trolled. Because really, people can just hate you. And the thing about the internet is that they are allowed to hate you.

The answer is: there’s no true way to tell.

Except! While common wisdom goes “don’t feed the trolls” I would say – if you don’t have a website where you have to maintain some position of authority – feed the hell out of them. Just gorge them with it. Just give them long, like, 1,000 word responses. People who love picking fights will love this. They will engage with you forever. That’s a troll. You can poke their little gemstone belly and move on.

Someone who legitimately hates you will not reply, because they do not enjoy fighting. They are just swirling around in a little hate-tornado. That’s not a troll. They will go away.

I mean, the downside is that you’re going to have to write really insanely long responses, but, hell, that can be fun. Just write about what you ate for breakfast, or something. Try it! See if it works! Try it because I cannot!

Picture via World of Troll Dolls

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    • Jamie Peck

      Sometimes I drive myself crazy trying to figure out if someone is a troll or just someone who disagrees with me. At the end of the day, though, I don’t really have time to engage with them either way so I ignore ‘em. Then again, sometimes I get sucked into making them see that I am right, especially if they seem like a real person who is just misguided on the issue. Those are the days I finish work late, sweaty, and stressed out!

    • alexandra

      That photo is super super creepy.

      I think sometimes I get a bit feisty on comment threads, but I also think sometimes people are more defensive online than they would be in real life. Because so much shit gets hurled at bloggers and essayists of all types on the internet, it can be hard to communicate levelheaded, earnest disagreement without it coming off as a personal attack. It almost makes me miss real life, sometimes.

    • Kj

      Well, I think a lot of it has to do with how coherent they are, overall.

      For example, one particular commenter (who I shall not name here, lest I call down his wrath upon this innocent page) called everyone who disagreed with him about the death penalty “jungle people.” (In fact, I suspect that this page might have been inspired by him……..? *shifty eyes*)

      At any rate, I think that anyone who can’t articulate an argument beyond random generalization – “but it’s uncivilized! You are savages!” – is a troll, at least in my books.

    • Lo

      ‘Someone who legitimately hates you will not reply, because they do not enjoy fighting. They are just swirling around in a little hate-tornado. That’s not a troll. They will go away.’

      Someone who hates you will invest a lot of time and energy in trying to prove that you’re wrong and/or despicable. They will hate to the bitter end, unlike trolls, who get bored if you’re not sufficiently provoked.

    • Lastango

      Heh! Actually, I’m surprised you folks haven’t invited me to blog with you, maybe to write a weekly piece. Just kidding — I’m not expecting you to actually do that. But think about it for a moment as an approach, just to turn it over in the mind.

      Consider an example. A dozen years ago or so, makers of handheld electronics, video games, and other software were fretting about people hacking into their devices and adding aps. They made noises about calling their lawyers. Then they had a brainstorm. They realized those garage programmers were their most enthusiastic community, and that tapping the ingenuity of the these people could be a big asset. These days, devices are built to be as ap-friendly as possible, and all sorts of companies have been started to create add-ons. All software was once super-secret, but now lots of it is put out as open-source.

      When I look over your sites, I see post after post without a single comment. Ask yourselves, why is this happening? Why aren’t we engaging our readers? Sure, some posts get action — Amanda gets a lot of feedback on her frank talk about her personal struggles — but that’s unusual. Here’s a thought: it may have something to do with you all being ideologically on the same page. As you can tell from the commenters on the Chik-Fil-A threads, not everyone who comes by thinks people who oppose gay marriage are racists and haters. And some people who support the company do so because they consider it an important freedom-of-speech issue; that is, their backing has nothing to do with hay marriage per se. CNN tried being only hard-left (the joke was that CNN stood for “Clinton News Network”) but discovered it’s hard to build a big thriving network while actively repelling a huge slice of the American public.

      What to do? Well, your team might consider recruiting some conservative women — there are plenty of them… most married women vote Republican. And perhaps supplement this by inviting your readers to send in guest posts. If you want a broad traffic, try hosting a diversity of opinion. Or find another way… but at least get together to talk about it.

      (IMO, being surrounded only by people who agree with crowds out healthy diversity, and leads to intellectual sclerosis.)

      As an aside, I notice that several of you suppress my posts. It’s your site, so run it the way you want to. I actually don’t mind. But ask yourselves whether you are accomplishing your own goals.

    • Jon

      most fun to troll: jamie

      least fun to troll: amanda

      • alexandra

        so true.

    • kel

      You’ll never be people!

    • Maggie

      I think ‘you’ll never be people’ is exactly how you can tell if someones trolling or just giving you an honest opinion. also, in crushable there are occasionally posts that will attract an insane amount of negative comments, usually when it’s something beiber-ish, i think its pretty obvious when someone is being a dick and when someone just disagrees with you.

    • Fabel

      I think the definitions of “troll” are widely varied among people. I don’t assume anyone is a troll unless they’re just outright attacking baselessly & being indiscriminately negative to any/all replies they might receive. Sometimes this could just mean they’re a combination of crazy & unsure how internet communities work, though. A “real” troll is probably someone who deliberately visits sites KNOWN to support beliefs he/she doesn’t, & then rapidly posting opposing views or baiting other commenters.

    • Tania

      It’s true no one can tell. When I played a text-based RPG, I trolled the HELL out of the forums, and no one knew. They thought I was the nicest person, when I was being incredibly sarcastic and picking at people all the time. It was amazing.

      The only real way to tell is over time. I have a friend who also trolled the same forums, but everyone knew he was a troll. He was always so mad that no one thought I was one.