During the summer of 2013 I only worked three days a week. I had just finished working on a moderation management team at the BBC. This job had entailed me interacting on a daily basis with people who’d had their posts removed from the BBC’s comment sections. For the most part this entailed emailing back and forth with racists, climate change deniers and fans of The Archers. When clicking away from my work I would follow the various arguments playing out on Twitter – mainly between journalists, celebrities and people who vocally disagreed with them.
It was around this time that a moral panic around the concept of trolls started to take shape. As someone immersed both professionally and personally in the murky world of trolling I kinda felt I had something to add to all this. First I wrote an essay called Who Makes The Haters which took an ambivalent view but came to the conclusion that a toxic media culture was to some extent to blame for the trolls it now condemned.
Having left the job at the BBC I saw a chance to seize a moment and become the guy with the big opinions about trolls. I decided to write a list of the thirty one greatest trolls of all time. I only got far as the first ten. As I wrote the list I became more aware of the contradictions of the stance I was taking. Whilst I was working towards some idea of the righteous troll – a cosmic jester calling out and humiliating the privileged and powerful – I was also painfully aware that this wasn’t how it often worked out, either online or in the real world. The more I looked into trolling the less I saw to celebrate. So much of what was generally considered trolling didn’t overturn power, it in fact reinforced existing structures. Writing the list stopped being fun and I decided maybe working towards some great theory of trolling possibly wasn’t my calling in life.
I did though write one final piece, which I didn’t feel like publishing until now. It is a sort of homage to Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces – which I was reading during that summer of 2013 in an attempt to find some Gnostic thread between internet trolls, punks and the whole of human history. It’s kind of a cute piece playing on the “your a dick” in-joke which was kind of a thing in 2013. If you aren’t aware of it, this in-joke involved using the wrong grammar to tell problematic Twitter celebs such as Richard Dawkins and Glinner that they were dicks. It was kind of an insult to injury type thing and was probably funny at the time.
Back when I wrote this piece I was aware of how un-intersectional it was. How the historical figures I was putting the words “your a dick” in the mouths of were all white and mainly male. It was fun but kind of proved the point that trolling was perhaps a somewhat privileged pursuit. In 2017 the rise of the alt-right and meme-powered fascism has shown that having power on your side unfortunately makes trolls more effective and much more dangerous. A few nostalgic tweets about some of the in-jokes of that era reminded me of this piece and maybe now I’ve caveated it a little I think I’m happy to publish albeit with an introduction longer than the actual piece. Though even if from a certain distance it looks a little like a naïve celebration of nihilism.
Your a Dick Traces: A Secret History of Trolling
Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell leave the library. On the shelves they have left surprises for unwitting patrons. Pictures are defaced; obscenities are slipped between the lines. In years to come their vandalism will be exhibited in museums – for now it will simply see them jailed. Orton and Halliwell get on a bus and play their favourite game. They look at people on the street and pick them apart, they insult and mock. They feel the hate welling up inside themselves; “your a dick” they say, “and your a dick and your a dick.”
Karl Marx is 25 years old and thus not yet dead. He writes “I am nothing and should be everything” some people think he means “check your privilege” but he might mean “your a dick”. Richey James is a year or so younger, he too writes “I am nothing and should be everything” but he gets his friend to sing it over a tentative impression of Guns ‘n Roses. He definitely means “your a dick”. Even when he says “You Love Us” he means “your a dick”.
Lenny Bruce looks at his audience. They’re all cops and narcs. He smiles and says: “your a dick”. They storm the stage, they take him out, to be fair he’s more than capable of taking himself out.
The man looks at Jonny. The middle-aged man looks at Jonny with drunken contempt, the middle-aged man looks at the girl with a drunken leer. “Your a dick” thinks Jonny, but Steve says it. They cut to credits but you can’t take back these things you said; even if it was nothing, even if it was just a naughty word. Behind bedroom doors plans and schemes are no longer dreams; they are daubed onto clothes and skin. A computer programmer decides his role in life is to be a professional irritant, he changes his name to Elvis, his first song is about Oswald Mosley, it’s not called “Your A Dick” but it could be. Girls act in untypical ways, and scream those three words louder than anyone. Sometimes it sounds like:
“This is happening without your permission”
And sometimes it sounds like a clattering, of Russian syllables screamed across a congregation. Mainly it sounds like “your a dick”.
Virginia Woolf applies problematic make-up and masquarades as Abyssinian royalty. The British navy roll out the carpet and fall at her feet, she talks a made-up language that refuses to debate. A vague translation might say she was saying “your a dick”. War happens and somewhere across the English Channel Hugo Ball puts on the old grease paint and speaks the same language.
Chris Morris looks at the MP, he aims a camera at him, “your a dick” he thinks to himself “you are the biggest dick”. The MP reads from a cue card: “Im a dick” he says. He will repeat this performance in the house of commons, “Im a dick” he says to the chamber “Im a dick, Im a dick, Im a dick”.
Wat Tyler looks the king of England in the eye and says “your a dick”. The king slices his head off with one stroke of his sword. Some bystanders swear that the king muttered “troll: blocked” under his breath as he did this but their accounts are – at best – unreliable, at worst locked.
Nietzsche declares God is dead – I’m sure you can grasp the implication by now.
A boy or girl or someone beyond binaries in their bedroom in front of a flickering screen types three words and presses the “tweet” button, they feel the power in their fingers as they conjure a storm and for a moment they are no longer nothing, they are everything and your a dick.