Feature on Internet Trolls in NYT Magazine

Mattathias Schwartz has written a fascinating article for the New York Times Magazine about Internet trolls, titled “The Trolls Among Us.” Internet trolls have been a part of the Internet since the days of Usenet groups.  Some would argue that Trolls are a malevolent scourge in cyberspace that prey on the innocent, the unsuspecting, and the naïve, like a roving band of scalp hunters, morally bankrupt and cruel.  Some trolls argue (as one does in this article) that they a merely carrying on the traditions of classic gadflies, such as Socrates and Jesus, and trickster gods, like Loki or Kali.

While it’s easy to dismiss trolls as capriciously juvenile, Schwartz does a good job exploring the greater sociological questions as they relate to the troll phenomenon:

“Does free speech tend to move toward the truth or away from it? When does it evolve into a better collective understanding? When does it collapse into the Babel of trolling, the pointless and eristic game of talking the other guy into crying “uncle”? Is the effort to control what’s said always a form of censorship, or might certain rules be compatible with our notions of free speech?

One promising answer comes from the computer scientist Jon Postel, now known as “god of the Internet” for the influence he exercised over the emerging network. In 1981, he formulated what’s known as Postel’s Law: “Be conservative in what you do; be liberal in what you accept from others…  Trolls embody the opposite principle. They are liberal in what they do and conservative in what they construe as acceptable behavior from others. You, the troll says, are not worthy of my understanding; I, therefore, will do everything I can to confound you.”

It’s interesting food for thought.  Is troll behavior more than simply being mean-for-meanness sake?  Are they challenging the limits of acceptable social mores?  Or are they the unfettered amplification of the innate misanthropy that resides in all of us?  Like all good reporting, this piece generates many more questions than it answers.

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