To Catch a Troll…

By Bill Palmer (

From: Bill Palmer (
Subject: To Catch a Troll…
Newsgroups: misc.writing
Date: 1999/06/30

To Catch a Troll…

Last month a poster in misc.writing made a remark that started me thinking about some matters I would now — with your kind patience — like to share with you.

Essentially, the person did not seem to enjoy what I observed in my misc.writing-posted article, “Close Encounter with Punctuation Bigot”.

Unfortunately, my attacker was not at all forth-right about challenging any of my assertions in that article.

Instead of troubling himself with attempting a reasoned refutation of my assertions, he posted some peevish remarks directed at me as a person rather than at the many ideas in my article.

In the course of his unfriendly comments, he said something that made it clear he was accusing me of being a troll. In fact, he actually used the term “troll” as he did this.

That's right. Me, Bill Palmer, “a troll”!

The person who has posted over 6,000 articles, most by far to generally appropriate newsgroup forums and has done so proudly under his own name every time.

The net writer who has generated follow-up from many thousands of DIFFERENT readers and who has written a significant percentage of the best known original Usenet articles of the past few years.

The proud owner of “Dejamountain”, the only personal archive famous by its own name.

My critic's style of unjust name-calling bothers me because it smacks of witch hunting, certainly so when we throw all reason out the window and start applying vague criteria defining “trolls” and “trolling” to suit our own whims by unfairly branding someone who rubs our nose out joint with his or her controversial (but on-topic) articles.

Further, a few months back when I posted another original article in a different newsgroup someone did in fact call me a troll then too. I thought at the time that the epithet was incredibly unreasonable and I still think that.

Anyway, letting bygones be bygones, let's examine what “troll” in fact means in our newsgroup culture.

In the first place “troll” can mean different things to different people, and I can respect each person's right to his own meaning.

The universally-respected Usenet expert Professor Chudov, for instance, makes it plain he believes in a sort of “productive (my own term trying to sum up what I have read by him) trolling”, where the troll generates entertaining or amusing follow-up for the intellectual and/or amusement benefit of the entire newsgroup by gently (or not so gently) tweaking beaks now and then with thought-provoking postings.

However, since the word was used against me in the negative sense that so many posters seem today to favor, I will focus primarily on that sort of troll here: our “infamous Usenet pest” kind of troll, as opposed to the “newsgroup gadfly” who uses actual wit for stirring up productive or merely amusing posted reactions from newsgroup readers.

A troll in the negative sense is simply a person who will do anything for attention.

The aim of such a troll is not to entertain or enlighten readers, but to have the troll's existence validated by any sort of response at all.

A troll in this same pejorative sense is by nature insincere, too.

Such a “Usenet critter” will generally post what will get the most replies, and not post expressions of ideas and sentiments the troll actually believes in.

This variety of troll has no pride in writing or thought quality either.

Rather, the only goal for our pesky sort of troll is to make the readers aware — and stay aware — of the troll's shabby net-existence.

As you know by now, then, I view this kind of troll as simply but an attention-starved misfit who craves any sort of attention, no matter how unfavorable.

While there are “trolling newsgroups” and while the net is a big place, I feel that ninety-nine-point-nine percent of all Usenet groups, at least, would be far better off without the sort of troll I describe above.

On the other hand, we never want to get into a witch hunting frame of mine regarding trolls.

We must have sensible criteria to apply, if we wish to be at all fair.

I have, in fact, encountered newsgroup situations where anyone who comes into a group and posts *ON*-topic material that does conform to what the more active and often aggressive members of the group deem to be “okay” will be branded a troll.

To help avoid unfair application of the word troll in its highly-negative sense, then, let's work together toward encouraging some sort of just — and practicable — method for determining who is or is not likely a non-productive Usenet troll.

Here is what I suggest regarding questions to be asked — and honestly and reasonably answered — of any troll suspected of merely trying to get attention by stirring up mischief:

(1) Are the suspected troll's posts mostly or entirely OFF-topic?

(*ON*-topic being defined in a fair way, of course, such as inquiring sincerely if any reasonable person was likely to agree that the material in question was close to being on-topic in the newsgroup where it was posted.)

(2) Did the suspected troll come into the newsgroup posting vicious personal attacks having nothing to do with the newsgroup topic?

(3) Does the suspected troll FOLLOW UP on-topic articles by others with personal assaults having nothing to do with the things being discussed on a thread?

The notorious Palmer's Parasites are very big on this. They claim a rather peculiar license for following up any ON-topic article of mine with slimy, OFF-topic attacks having nothing at all to do with a newsgroup subject OR an ongoing thread discussion.

I make no apology for Palmer's Parasites, anymore than I would “apologize” for a gang of muggers who assaulted me at an ATM. People are responsible for THEIR OWN postings. The Palmer's Parasites should therefore be immediately run out of any non-flaming group where they post off-topic rubbish, in my view.

Of course, Palmer's Parasites are naturally trolls, too, which is why I mention them, but when the trolling becomes so personal that you get a half-dozen or so human parasites netstalking a net writer through Dejanews and flooding serious newsgroups with off-topic personal attacks, you have trolling in its ugliest and most vicious form.

In a way, you can call these aggressive, trolling parasites one of the prices of great success as a net writer. You reach a certain degree of popularity, and they start crawling out of the woodwork after you.

Even so, that sort of “netstalking troll” is unusually reprehensible and I suspect most Usenet users loathe them fully as much as I do.

(4) Does the person crosspost from your group to the flaming newsgroups?

Trolls love to crosspost between serious newsgroups and flaming/amusement newsgroups because they view their goal as one of causing annoyance, and they know that if they can suck additional off-topic posts into the target newsgroup, the “annoyance factor” increases proportionally as new trolls crosspost their rubbish to the non-flaming group targeted.

(5) Are the person's posts poorly-written and generally quite skimpy in — or entirely devoid of — intelligent content?

Trolls take pride in getting ANY sort of reaction, good, bad or wrathful. Development of a writing style to be proud of, then, has little to do with to with a troll's raison d'etre. After all, when they drive away enough newsgroup readers with their drivel, they simply pop up with a new moniker and start over.

Most parasiteical (netstalking) trolls specialize in the “snip and drool” follow-up, which means they favor splashing puerile insults after every few lines written by the poster targeted.

This snipping-and-drooling behavior is “writing” on the cheap, involving reposting the trolls' (current) names while saying nothing entertaining that a naughty computer-literate sixth-grader could not have said better. You have seen quite a few of the parasitical trolls pop up in misc.writing, with no inhibitions at all about the rubbish they post. (How “brave” people get while hiding behind phony names!)

The “parasitial”-type trolls' purpose involves annoying all, while associating themselves in the readers' minds with the writer/target. As a result, actually posting anything that is intelligent, well-expressed or original has nothing to do with the aims of the “Here I am again and ain't I cute?” snip-and-drool assault by the parasitical troll.

(6) Does the suspected troll post under a phony name?

Now, I am not suggesting pseudonyms are wrong, but in general trolls will use false names because, as I mentioned above, people soon catch on to trolls and stop reading their posts. When trolls of this sort feel have driven off most of their readers, they change their names again, and of course the false name using makes them “braver” about the ugly, malodorous slime many of them flood the net with, too.

Even so, I defend everyone's RIGHT to post under pseudonyms, and I don't want that misunderstood. But allowing that all people have the RIGHT to do something in no way makes the lowly behavior of a few (who are exercising the right only for mischievious purposes) suddenly admirable.

Okay, think of someone you suspect of being a troll. Ask yourself how many affirmatives you get to the above questions when you are trying to be completely unbiased in your responses.

If the person is indeed a troll, you will have likely answered YES to most or all of those questions above.

Examining the matter from a slightly different viewpoint now, I might add that there is nothing at all wrong with a poster's wanting to get lots of intelligent feedback to his or her articles.

I say that because I have read posts by people who seem to insinuate that if you generate a good deal of interesting follow-up, you are a troll per se.

That notion boggles the mind for its silliness.

In reality, one test (and I don't suggest it's the ONLY one) of any poster's standing in the intellectual portion of the Usenet community involves the question of how many original, on-topic stand-alone articles generating lots of interesting follow-up the person has posted.

A true Usenet intellectual is by nature a thread starter.

A Usenet genius, then, would have to be the genius of thread-starting, would have to be someone proving capable of starting thousands of successful threads — not with “Star Wars sucks” trolls, of course, but with original articles containing unique, fully-realized ideas that can challenge or otherwise inspire others to post creative or informative thread-responses in their turn.

That's not trolling, at least to the extent the term represents activities now causing unneeded annoyance in so many Usenet newsgroups.

I can't imagine a nuttier, topsy-turvyier state of affairs than what we would have in Usenet if posters had to hesitate before clicking “send”, thinking, “Gee, I hope a lot of people DON'T follow me up on the article I'm posting — someone might think I am a troll.” (We are to imagine the speaker shuddering and wringing his or her hands.)

After all, the best of Usenet has a lot to do with DISCUSSION, and discussion does not occur when we have a state of affairs where people simply post their own ideas and that's the end of the matter.

Discussion means give and take, and at best that's “give and take” leading somewhere productive in the intellectual or the creative sense, not a very brief series of curt, unresponded-to statements going nowhere.

Let's leave the “You had your say and I had my say so let's drop it” stuff to those who make no pretense at all of having even a slightly above-average command of the English language.

Frankly, and I say this only in the “if the shoe fits wear it” vein, if you want to impress others as being a person of few words, I think you can make a far better impression in a auto repair shop than in a Usenet writing group.

As a Usenet poster, one of the things that makes me proudest occurs when I post an original article that garners plenty of entertaining and/or informative feedback.

And believe me, I don't define “good feedback” as being something that compliments me personally or even agrees with anything at all I assert in my article.

Good feedback consists of interesting, reasonably well-expressed, somewhat-original thoughts. That's all, and I feel that almost everyone in Usenet has the capacity to add worthwhile follow-up remarks, if inspired by others to do so.

When this newsgroup thing works the way it's supposed to, I call it “swimming in the thoughtstream.” I love being a part of it.

Getting back to trolls, though, let's apply the above sensible criteria before we accuse.

Let's not cry troll when someone rubs us the wrong way with on-topic opinions, either.

Finally, I would ask something of every reader, including the person in who so rudely accosted me last month screaming “Troll!” upon being upset by the frank, on-topic views I posted in misc.writing:

Let's not start throwing people in a pond and saying if they float they are a troll and if they sink they are not a troll.

Let's use reasonable criteria understandable and applicable to all, newbies as well as “oldbies”.

You now have such criteria, so feel free to use them. Fair enough?

Bill Palmer