Shouting ‘LOL’ in a crowded theatre

My presentation at this weekend’s SocialMediaCamp London 2009 – entitled “Shouting ‘LOL’ in a crowded theatre: trolling, griefing and Web 2.0 dickery” – is now available over at Slideshare:

This was meant to be a lighthearted, last-one-before-the-beer presentation, but it turned out to be a lot more serious and thinky than I initially intended. What follows is my recollection of what I spoke, which in some cases doesn’t match exactly what the slides say – I did improv this a bit based on thoughts I had during the earlier sessions (who says you have to be prepared for these things?).

We kick off with a definition of trolling, that the point of trolling is to evoke an emotional response in the rest of a community. As these emotions vary – from anger, to fear, to genuine upset and shock, the methods used by trolls vary. In return, communities have their own tactics for telling what trolls are, and so in effect it becomes one big game. The topic doesn’t matter – politics and religion get their fair share of course, but then so does canoeing. So why do they do it? Is it because people are deep-down bastards (the misanthropic explanation) or does the Internet have some perverse transformtive effect on us all (the Luddite explanation aka John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory). I try to steer a middle line between the two. Judith Donath’s theories on identity online prove a useful pointer – the Internet allows people to explore facets of their personality, and these can be both good or bad. Nothing to say they can’t be both.

Combined with a wealth of material to shock or delight people, and we end up adopting multiple behaviours that differ from environment to environment. If this sounds familiar, it’s because we all do the same – I adopt a different tone and stance on my own blog to when I am on someone else’s blog commenting, as the former is my space and the latter is someone else’s. I reveal different facets of my personality when on Twitter (a geekier audience who don’t necessarily know me) as opposed to when on Facebook (people I have met IRL). You do the same too, even if you don’t realise you’re doing it. Turns out we’re not so different from trolls after all.

But does this really matter? A few anonymous trolls on a BBS is hardly concern is it? Don’t we deal with it the same was as we can with spam? Well, perhaps it used to be like that. But now with a wealth of Web 2.0 tools available for collaboration, the rules have changed. 4chan isjust one example of what happens when the mischevious come together, and while it’s given us the Rick Roll, it can also be supremely dickish, as in the case of Mitchell Henderson.

The barrier between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ has come down, and what happens online can now very easily spill over into offline. There is no inherent morality within Web 2.0 – tools can be used for good or evil. Trolls are now their own separate problem within themselves – they allow efforts to be distributed to many human actors over a variety of technologies, and collectivised to any particular end, over a mere matter of minutes, hours, days or months. It’s a different problem from spam (mainly bots) or hacking (mainly individuals or small groups) and as the social web gets ever more ubiquitous and less distinct from the ‘real’ world, it’s only going to be more of a concern. Successfully fighting against them is a distinct concern – but at the same time let’s not get obsessed by it; letting it stifle innovation would mean the trolls truly have won.

Update: There’s some video here: the sound’s a bit off and I speak way, way too fast (it’s only after watching myself on video do I realise how bad it is) – it also covers some of the interesting conversations from the floor from Terence, Ryan and Lucia as well:

2 thoughts on “Shouting ‘LOL’ in a crowded theatre

  1. The barrier between ?real? and ?virtual? has come down, and what happens online can now very easily spill over into offline.

    Yes, exactly. The other way around as well: what happens “in real life”is now often just fodder for online dickery/humour, as with the “Don’t Tase Me Bro” hilarity. As if the whole world is just a show put up for bored American or Dutch teenagers.

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