“If the right people had been in charge of Nixon’s funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles.”
That line is from Hunter S Thompson’s obituary of Richard Nixon. Published in Rolling Stone in May 1994 it was written a few years before the internet ate the world. Before all of us, not just those with a press platform, could – theoretically – share our opinions with each other all day, every day. Take a look at that line though, shorn from the context of the savagely hilarious screed from where it’s ripped it looks a little like something you might see beneath a YouTube video. As anyone who’s ever worked in social media management would tell you, on many moderated websites it would be an instant fail.
The style of opinionated, abrasive writing that Thompson splashed around ‘70s publications was echoed in the UK music press for many years. Barely a week would go by where the NME’s Steven Wells wasn’t wishing violent death on Morrissey, Belle and Sebastian or any other victims of his splenetic ire. In a recent blog post music journalist Neil Kulkarni called for young music writers to drop Q-Magazine style blandness and return to the fire and passion of days gone by. Wells and Thompson could also infuse their work with insight and pathos but these days it would be very easy to label writers like these as “trolls” or “haters”, to accuse them of attention seeking aggrandisement, block them out, certainly not give them a paid pulpit to preach from.
In the Guardian Zoe Williams made a valiant attempt to rescue the word “troll” from its new meaning of “anyone unpleasant using the internet”. In the past “troll” had generally been taken to mean someone who disrupted a community, rarely through abuse, but through touching a collective nerve. Another term some forums use for trolls is WUM: Wind Up Merchant. For instance, a person who goes onto a film forum and opines that Transformers 2 is masterpiece and films of the Wayan brothers high art would probably be dubbed a troll (or an over enthusiastic Armond White fan) fairly quickly: a person who called everyone a cunt and threatened to kill them would be deemed a psychopath. As Williams points out people like the man who sent threats to Louise Mensch wasn’t really a “troll” in the old fashioned sense; he was a deeply troubled individual with internet access. A troll gets satisfaction from winding you up, not from threatening to kill your children.
Her view though is that trolling – in the old sense – is by nature, anti-intellectual, destructive seeking only to destroy constructive dialogue, to end conversations not start new ones. As the music writer and astute cultural commentator Tom Ewing points out in a recent blogpost (published before William’s article) there is heavy irony in newspapers columnists aiming broadsides at “trolls” when they themselves are pretty much paid to have opinions that cause reactions. The likes of Samantha Brick and Liz Jones at The Daily Mail and basically the whole Telegraph blogs team seem to have brought the basic methods of a good troll mainstream with articles of precision built annoyance.
Of course, so much of the hate and bile spewed around the internet is completely worthless; vile, misogynist, racist; offensive on every level. Stewart Lee’s stand up routines and Isabel Fay’s “Thank You Haters” video have both found a great deal of comedic mileage in plumbing the depraved depths of internet hate. Drawing a line between what is merely criticism or mockery and what is actually threatening, offensive, abusive is much harder than it looks though. In both cases though you’ll see what lingers at the back of this occasionally innovative hate is a deep desire to shut people up, to stop people voicing opposing opinions.
Helen Lewis in the New Statesman recently wrote about the brutal abuse directed at a woman who dared to attempt getting funding for a series of videos examining the treatment of female characters in video games. Much of this particular fountain of abuse seems to be spurted out by teenage boys with internet connections and zero empathy; try typing “#banter” into the twitter search bar and you’ll see something similar. There is a sense the people involved are treating the internet like a video game; where emotional violence replaces the physical violence of a Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty.
Users can get a similar buzz from posting to the internet and waiting for a response to that generated running around a virtual sandbox shooting people in the face. It’s a hate that manifests itself in a way that dehumanises the target, a hate that loses the person behind the persona. The rise of dehumanised viciousness seems an almost inevitable result of the way the internet has developed. From small centralised forums of like minded individuals chatting around a common theme, to huge unmoderated corporate sandpits like Twitter where everyone can slip into a trending topic and start a fight. When YouTube left video comments to be reactively moderated they started a horrible race to the bottom.
Yet dehumanisation is rife in the media that so deplores the folk demon “trolls”. When Richard Littlejohn rips into dead prostitutes, Grace Dent digs her claws into a minor reality star or a Mock the Week panellist lays into Susan Boyle, are they thinking about the people behind the personas? When culture’s commissioned commentators get their claws in the humanity of the target is forgotten; the means, apparently, justify the ends. This process has continued in a warped way online; blogger Richard Cooper has noticed and painstakingly chronicled – an alleged tendency for those with large followings and media presences directly related to their Twitter profiles to use their power to belittle and silence those that disagree with them.
But calling anyone who disagrees with you a “troll” or anyone who criticises you a “hater” is a fairly quick way to stop debate developing. One can almost imagine David Cameron looking out the window at a save the NHS march, muttering “haters” under his breath, keeping calm and carrying on. Being famous or simply putting your head above the parapet should not make you a target, should not leave you open to abuse, but it should not exempt you from criticism. It is one thing to set the parameters of a debate for reasons of taste it is another to refine the discourse into simply letting elites use followers to increase their k/clout.
Comedians, critics and columnists have long held a monopoly on provocation but now in an increasingly networked world everyone gets a say. Looking at comments beneath an article or a trending topic is like looking at the weird, warped subconscious of the world, there’s a lot of anger, a lot of lost, lonely people, some of them may not be worth listening to, but then some of them might. Really, it’s a question of human decency, of basic politeness but when those dictating the rules of the game have – sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for bad – so frequently flounted them what can we expect? The world has the trolls it deserves.
Or, as that great sage Fred Durst once opined:
“Now I know why you want to hate me
‘Cause hate is all the world has ever seen lately”