One of the key features of online communication that enables trolls is anonymity that leads to what is called “online disinhibition effect”. The ability to communicate, theoretically, without fear of physical or emotional reprisal leads many to adopt behaviour that they would not attempt in real life. From opening up about emotional problems to abusing strangers or writing lists about trolling, the anonymity and solipsistic space of the internet enables people to communicate things they might not consider stating in real life.
This kind of behaviour did not start with the internet though: people have been using the anonymity of the telephone to play practical jokes on people for well over a hundred years. The first known prank phone call apparently happened in 1884 when, according to according to Paul Collins aka @TheLitDetective an American newspaper of the time published this report about a rather ghoulish telephone prankster:
A GRAVE JOKE ON UNDERTAKERS — Some malicious wag at Providence R.I. has been playing a grave practical joke on the undertakers there, by summoning them over the telephone to bring freezers, candlesticks and coffin for persons alleged to be dead. In each case the denoument was highly farcical, and the reputed corpses are now hunting in a lively manner for that telephonist.
Prank calls have been enjoyed by bored teenager and DJs for years. From the Canadian comedian Pierre Brassard who had a chat with The Queen and Peter Cook’s bizarre and unsolicited calls to late night talk shows to the hundreds of Sound Board pranksters on YouTube, the disassociation and disinhibition afforded by the humble telephone has been a joy to mischief makers through the ages. Though, the death of nurse Jacintha Saldanha after she was involved in a prank call to the hospital where the then pregnant Duchess of Cambridge was staying probably means DJs – at least – will be a hell of a lot more cautious about these kinds of calls in future.
In the 1980s the live phone-interview format of Saturday morning kids shows such as Live and Kicking lead to a number of incidents which brought prank calls to a national audience and anticipated the kind of trolling that celebrities endure on Twitter today. Indeed, due to their repeated showings on TV clip shows these incidents have proved more enduring than the shows or the guests who were so gleefully insulted by the oiks of Britain. Pop R&B group Five Star were asked by an Eliot Fletcher why they were “so fucking crap”:
Whilst jazz-pop act Matt Bianco were told by someone calling themselves Simon Roberts that they were a “bunch of wankers”:
In both cases the presenters deal with the unexpected irritants with an unamused air of stern annoyance whilst the guests look a little shocked, one of the members of Five Star in particular appears to be vaguely traumatised. These clips now appear kinda cute, unlike the online trolls of today we can hear the voices of the kids doing the trolling. You can almost visualise them: runty kids in snorkel parkas phoning from a callbox then cycling off on five gear Raleigh bikes. Eliot and Simon (if those are their real names) must both be in their forties by now, but in a few disinhibited seconds with a telephone thing they foreshadowed much of the gleeful immaturity splattered around the internet today.
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