We use the word “troll” liberally these days. Take a spin through Google News using the word as a search term. You’ll see Maxim calling Kanye West a troll for tweeting that Mark Zuckerberg should give him a billion dollars. Then you’ll see Sports Illustrated saying the Grammys “trolled” Kanye. A 12-year-old with Down’s Syndrome is being trolled by anonymous strangers after being named a Celtics super fan. The Street has a profile of a guy who slept behind Trump at a campaign event, headlined “Donald Trump’s troll,” which makes him a troll’s troll, as Trump has been dubbed “the world’s greatest troll.” Given how often the word is used to describe our behavior both online and offline, it’s worth digging in to understand what it really means.
Trolling is applied so many different types of actions now that it’s better to think of it as a taxonomy than a word with a singular definition. It encompasses a range of varying actions, identities, and events that span from humorously annoying to dangerous. Inspired partially by Whitney Phillip’s tome on trolling, This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, this diagram breaks down the spectrum of internet trolling.
I spent the past few months researching digital memes, movements, and events to illustrate how trolling ranges from casual to serious, and from harmful to absurdist. A particular troll is charted in the matrix based on the legality of the behavior, how hard it is to fix the effects, American/Western culture and taboos, the emotional weight for the trolled individual, and the societal and personal power of both the troll and the trolled.
The word “troll” often describes a digital subculture, one that combines an irreverent sense of humor with a kind of abuse. For example, pollsters trolled voters by asking them if the U.S. should bomb Agrabah, home of Disney’s Aladdin. (The 30% of GOP voters and 19% of Democrat voters who said “yes” completed a joke about political ignorance.) But the word is also used for activities that have serious emotional and legal ramifications. We use “trolling” to describe tweeting sarcastic things at Donald Trump hoping he’ll retweet them as well as to describe someone tweeting that he wants to rape a woman whose writing he dislikes. Humor is not the same as abuse, but calling both ‘trolling’ links them together.
You’ll find Trump all over the chart, as he does troll and get trolled with greater frequency than the average human being. When Trump calls for a ban on Muslims, we have trolling from a political platform that could result in serious harmful consequences. When Trump says racist things on the campaign trail and has supporters shouting “Hail Trump,” it is again serious trolling, but more absurdist. As for Trump’s whole presidential campaign: a four-times bankrupted businessman famed for a reality TV show, who has no serious political experience and retweets Neo-Nazis? That seemed, when I made this chart, casually absurd, but if he actually gets the Republican presidential nomination, we will need to upgrade it to serious.
Language matters. Trolling shouldn’t be a catch-all phrase. Describing both a rape threat and a prank phone call as “trolling” means a prank call is treated more seriously than it should be and a rape threat treated less seriously. Let’s make sure harmful, abusive behavior doesn’t get lumped in with our jokes, memes, and pranks. Otherwise, the internet is going to be a lot less fun.