Trolling was something everyone fell for and almost everyone did - a bit, anyway. At the centre was posting something you knew people would react to, and posting it because you knew people would react to it. And if that motive was more important than your actual belief in it, you were trolling. That question of motive was why trolling couldn’t really be proved, something that massively increased its effectiveness.
Or that was my definition. Like everyone else, I thought I knew it when I saw it. Like everyone else, I was probably wrong half the time. (…)
A couple of years ago the media - in the UK especially - got hold of the word “troll”, and its meaning has been subtly expanding, colonising the categories I just dumped in the “scum” bracket. It’s now used mostly about people on Twitter, YouTube, social networks and newspaper comment pages who specialise in race hate, rape threats, death threats, and so on.
These are repulsive people. But I don’t think we need a collective, media-friendly new word for them, and even if we do I don’t think we benefit from it being “troll”.
The word “bully” has experienced a similar, perhaps even greater semantic drift, or semantic expansion rather. An activity in which a person or persons exerts undue force derived from some clear form of superiority on an obviously less-powerful person, with the full knowledge of this power gap as their intent, is now applied to any situation in which someone says something about another person that the latter doesn’t like, regardless of power—sometimes, it’s even reversed. Which is too bad for the actually-bullied.
Once a word is upstreamed into popular stream of discourse, everyone with a bone to pick wants to grab it off its hook on the wall and see what it can do for them. Sometimes, it’s because the word, like “bully,” retains a heavily-coded signification from its original, or earlier context—a scummy politician purposefully uses the term to talk about a mean comment in the paper from a rival, knowing full well that the public’s minds will likely draw some sort of neural connections to the willowy kid in junior high who got beat up daily. The process of using “bully” is almost like the act of trolling! God, my brain hurts.
Linguistic anthropologists call these words shifters (Cultural Studies theorist Raymond Williams called them “keywords”)—part of another, very powerful semantic context and meaning travels with a word, but it’s twisted and re-focused in a new context, with different social aims. We’re often under the assumption that we’re talking about the same thing in a syntactical manner—same letters, same pronunciation—but the aims are clearly different (and need to be accounted for). You can see arch-conservatives doing this in speeches designed to rally their (race-focused) bases without their rhetoric being seen as inflammatory. Even a simple possessive pronoun like “our” has a subtle, yet powerful ideological underpinning in the right context (“take back our country”).
Back to “troll.” I definitely agree with Tom, and think that in some cases it’s a way of bringing otherwise disparate activities together under a sign system appreciable by those whose social lives were forged in online domains. I remember, maybe around the 10th anniversary of 9/11, seeing Richard Reid (the “shoebomber”) called something like “the world’s biggest troll” because his attempted act of terrorism resulted in innocent citizens having to take their shoes off at airport security checks. I can’t tell if this is a serious accusation or a snarky one, but if we go by Tom’s definition (in the full post), it’s sort of ridiculous. Reid’s intent wasn’t to rile people up and make them mad at his annoying behavior, let’s put it lightly.