Wikipedia defines an Internet troll as slang for “a person who starts flame wars or intentionally upsets people on the Internet by posting inflammatory and digressive, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community.” In Nordic folk literature, trolls live deep in the mountains, inaccessible, often alone. They seem to usually be ugly and unfriendly to humans. But it’s all pretty vague. In the end, you have to know them by what they are not, namely people who live together in some sort of durable harmony. The Scandinavian tales are probably very old — transmitted orally long before they were written down or illustrated. By that time, most had been “tamed” into manageable forms like fairies or garden gnomes — no longer really trolls at all.
I think the image reproduced here says more about a “real” troll here and now. It is available for free on Wikimedia Commons to anyone who might want to use it (license for troll picture: Ξερόλας, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons), which suggests that this “author” knew exactly what s/he was doing. Why worry about originality when there isn’t any! It borrows and literally defaces a bronze image of a Greek or Roman God. The alterations reduce the grandeur of the ancient bronze cast to a cheap, childish caricature — a decent description of, say, what Trump has done to the American presidency. What is the opposite of creative? Parasitic?
In his book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (2018), Jaron Lanier acknowledges his own “inner troll” with the observation that no one is fully immune to the impulse to be nasty and divisive and self-important under particular circumstances. As someone who both writes algorithms and experiences them as a user, though, Lanier is in a better position than most of us to see how social media meet, in some cases even impose exactly those conditions. He certainly doesn’t diminish the Internet’s many positive possibilities, but he does think that the models for social media are destructive — some more than others. Nor does he think users can change them. The best plan is to stop using them and set about building up a presence on the internet by other means. In time better models may well prevail. Lanier met Trump informally a few times some years ago and was struck by how well the man’s personality traits suited such powerful global platforms as Twitter.
Generalizations about social media are statistical: it’s impossible to know what will happen with specific user at a specific time. But the odds are overwhelming that such platforms will disappoint those looking for thoughtful, respectful exchanges with other human beings. Instead, users will find an exceptional opportunity to indulge their vindictive, childish, isolating or egotistical impulses over a long enough time to become addicted.
Trolls aren’t new. But trolls today seem to be more numerous and agressive than ever before.