The first time you heard the word “troll,” it was likely in the context of folklore or fairytale—a gruesome, mythical creature hiding under a bridge or in a cave to terrorize passing people or goats. But now you probably hear the word “troll” all the time. We use “trolling” to describe everything from innocent pranks to mean tweets to vicious harassment. Putting up with trolls has become the toll we all pay for a life lived online.
The troll, though, is not a creation of Twitter or Facebook or even 4chan and Reddit. The troll is almost as old as the world wide web itself.
The word “troll” first popped up in the early days of the internet, in forums like Usenet and BBS. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest known mention of the word in the context of the internet was Dec. 14, 1992 in the Usenet group alt.folklore.urban, which was dedicated to discussing and debunking urban legends. The full conversation (and context) has been lost in the decades since, but someone wrote, “Maybe after I post it, we could go trolling some more and see what happens.”
That Usenet group eventually created its own jargon guide which defined troll as someone who would “utter a posting on Usenet designed to attract predictable responses or flames.” Back then, trolla was mostly thought of as people who purposefully tried to disrupt online conversations by posting rabble-rousing statements. It was sometimes synonymous with flaming, in which someone would launch a vicious, personal attack against another forum user simply because they disagreed.
One particularly famous Usenet troll was a post titled, “Oh how I envy American students.” The post, which spoke of the author’s admiration of the drinking and “para-homosexuality” associated with fraternity life, attracted more than 3,000 comments. Internet rumor has it that one forum reader even got kicked out of school for reposting it. On Usenet, trolling was a little like a prank phone call—funny if you didn’t fall for it, but terribly embarrassing if you did. “If you don’t fall for the joke,” the Usenet definition advised, “you get to be in on it.” But being in on it often meant piling onto it, a precursor to the mob harassment we see today that can completely overwhelm its target.
Over time, the way that we use the word “troll” online has evolved.
On the early internet, you might call someone a troll for being quarrelsome or for trying to get a rise out of an audience.
“Trolling was used as a general, condemnatory, post-hoc descriptor of an online encounter,” Mercer University professor Whitney Phillips wrote in The Atlantic back in 2012. “It was—and in many circles remains—something you accused someone else of being.”
But by the mid aughts, Phillips told me, the troll became an identity people assumed and embraced. The Guardian even described trolls as “having a certain charm.”
“The term entered the public consciousness [then], due largely to media interventions that solidified that particular meaning of the term,” said Phillips, who has dedicated her academic scholarship to trolling.
The message forum 4chan’s /b board and the Anonymous hacker collective became infamous breeding grounds for self-described trolls, where outrageous and offensive behavior thrived just for kicks. Trolling began to spill into the real world. In 2010, 4chan users piled onto an 11-year-old girl in Florida, circulating her real name, phone number, and address online after the girl got involved in an internet squabble. People prank-called her, spammed her Facebook and MySpace accounts and had pizzas delivered to her house. A satirical website associated with Anonymous called Encyclopedia Dramatica posted a three-part section explaining “How to troll” her that included “Tell her to kill herself” and “Tell her dad that we are going to beat her up.”
Trolling evolved from humorous to cutting, said troll researcher Jonathan Bishop. “At one point in time all trolling was ‘trolling for the lolz’, [Ed note: laughter] but then Anonymous used it for ‘trolling for the lulz.’ [Ed note: laughter at someone else’s expense]. In other words, they called themselves trolls to justify their abuse of other people for their own personal sick enjoyment,” Bishop told me.
In 2011, trolling made headlines in the U.K. after a man named Sean Duffy posted messages to YouTube and the Facebook tribute pages of dead teenagers that mocked their deaths and taunted their families.
The year 2012 was a pivotal moment—it was the year that the word “troll” became a staple of the modern lexicon, the year the troll became a lead character on the internet’s stage. Amanda Todd, 16, committed suicide after years of being bullied online, including attacks from anonymous strangers, while Australian television personality Charlotte Dawson attempted suicide after publicly battling trolls on Twitter. (Dawson survived the attempt, but committed suicide two years later, in 2014.) The BBC and Gawker unmasked racist and misogynistic trolls, respectively, putting human faces on an anonymous web epidemic. Governments considered troll legislation. Troll explainer pieces flourished. Google searches for “internet troll” spiked. Patton Oswalt dressed up like the kind that hangs out under bridges to spoof online trolling for the website Funny or Die.
“The more often journalists used the term, the more behaviors the term subsumed,” said Phillips. “By 2012, trolling was often used synonymously with just about everything that’s irritating on the internet—and is when the term started to become linguistically and categorically useless.”
“Internet trolling is one of the fastest spreading pieces of computer jargon of the 21st century,” Bishop wrote in 2014. “The term trolling has essentially gone from meaning provoking others for mutual enjoyment to meaning abusing others for only one’s own enjoyment.”
Bishop argues that what now exists is two separate, but related definitions of trolling: “classical trolling” in which the end goal is a good laugh and “Anonymous” trolling which is actually predicated on harassment and abuse.
Even the etymology of the word suggests two disparate meanings: while some argue that internet trolling derives from the antagonizing creatures that lurk under bridges ready to pounce on passersby in Scandinavian folklore, others suggest its meaning comes from trolling in fishing, in which lines are baited and dragged through the water.
Now trolling is used to describe a spectrum of behaviors. New York Times writer Farhad Manjoo is a troll alongside revenge-porn king Hunter Moore. On the internet today, it seems like practically everyone is a troll for one reason or another.
Both Phillips and Bishop point to the media’s broad use of the term troll as part of the reason the behavior itself has exploded.
“Media coverage has incentivized antagonistic online behaviors, and sensationalist media outlets and antagonists are locked in a feedback loop predicated on spectacle,” Phillips said. “The media benefits when online antagonists misbehave, and online antagonists benefit when media outlets report on [them].” (Exhibit A: Donald Trump.)
Phillips’ own work led her to the belief that we should steer away from the use of the word troll.
“If an online space is overrun by violently misogynist expression,” she said, “then I call the behavior violent misogyny, regardless of how the aggressors might describe it.”
Phillips pointed to Gamergate, the gaming industry culture war that has at times led to outright harassment. Female gamers have left their homes out of fear after Gamergate threats and bomb threats have forced the evacuation of Gamergate gatherings.
“Trolling became associated with GamerGate because that’s how members of the media framed the movement, rather than using the more accurate description of harassment or violent misogyny, which was what was actually happening,” Phillips said.
For me, the definition of troll has completely shifted over time. When I see the word troll in a headline, I don’t think of a devious prankster. The word troll makes me think of vicious sexism, racism, violence and hate.
The trouble with the term, Phillips argues, is that it means so many different things to different people—its evolution over time has made a clear definition elusive.
And an ambiguous definition also allows the most troubling troll behavior to exist in an ambiguous moral space. Maybe the best way to put an end to the worst kind of trolling is to stop talking about trolls altogether.