The other day I wrote a column criticizing iTunes. It was somewhat harsh. “Each new upgrade brings more suckage into your computer,” I argued under the headline, “Won’t Someone Take iTunes Out Back and Shoot It?” Predictably, the column got some people riled up. Commenters complained that I was getting unnecessarily overheated, that I didn’t have my priorities straight (“first world problem!”), and that my subjective opinion of the software was simply incorrect. None of these comments bothered me. Well, OK, they bothered me a little bit, because I want everyone to be won over by my genius insights. But there are loads of dissenters on every column I write, so nothing about this situation was particularly unusual.
I was slightly more annoyed, though, by the few comments that suggested I was being disingenuous—that the headline and my stridency were evidence that I didn’t actually believe the horseshit I’d written. Instead, I was just being controversial for controversy’s sake. What if the point of the column wasn’t to make any coherent argument about iTunes at all but instead to kick up a hornet’s nest—to get Apple fans frothingly riled up for no good reason other than to laugh at their misplaced passion over music software? In fact, that’s probably what I was doing right then—sitting in my big comfy recliner, laptop resting at my feet, and laughing deep, belly-pounding, Santa Claus-like laughs at all the stupid readers who were falling for my page-view-hoarding punking. Because that, you see, is the real goal of writing controversial things online—to see how crazy people become when they mistakenly think you’re being genuine, which you never are.
People didn’t spell all this out, of course. They didn’t have to. Instead they reached for a bit of Internet slang that connotes all these sly intentions in a single, efficient syllable: troll. “Are you just trolling with the iTunes piece?” Christina Warren, a writer at Mashable and my Internet friend, asked me on Twitter. “Our experiences [with iTunes] are totally opposite.”
I was honestly surprised by Warren’s and other troll-hurlers’ reactions. Sure, my piece and its headline were hyperbolic—nobody, not even software engineers, gets that fired up about software. But that over-the-top stance was intentional, a rhetorical device to make a point about iTunes’ awfulness. (And iTunes is genuinely, unmitigatedly awful.) This seemed obvious to me. So why had some people misinterpreted my passion as a sign of insincerity?
I’ll tell you why: Trolling has been defined down. Not long ago trolls were easy to identify—they were the kids on 4Chan who caused trouble just for the lulz, or the delinquents who disrupted otherwise serious online discussion of folklore with out-of-nowhere, baiting speculation about Tolkien’s cross-dressing fetish (or something like that). Trolls, these people who picked fights just to pick fights, soon escaped online bulletin boards. Now they’re everywhere, and rather than just cause trouble for kids who love Zelda, trolls have put themselves at the center of serious, high-minded discussion.
Trolls now write prestigious opinion columns, edit newsmagazines, and land cushy gigs on radio and TV. The thing about trolls is that you never quite know when you’re dealing with one; they come in all shapes and sizes, and even if someone seems halfway genuine about what he’s saying, you’d be a fool to buy it. Even someone as anodyne as David Brooks—David Brooks!—is secretly trolling you, and you’re an idiot for taking him seriously. Juan Williams? “Most successful troll in America,” says noted troll-hunter Jay Rosen. Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge, Fox News, the Daily Caller, the late Andrew Breitbart—troll, troll, troll, troll, troll! The Daily Mail. The New York Times. Donald Trump, obviously. Cornell students. Henry Blodget. Glenn Beck. Folks who disagreed with Nate Silver. Slate’s Dan Engber, who has always seemed like a really nice guy to me—he’s a troll! Katie Roiphe—big, big troll. But why should I be surprised? So too are Slate’s William Saletan, contributor Jonah Weiner, and, of course, the late Christopher Hitchens. Even NPR might be a troll. And then, finally, there’s the troll of trolls, the woman who has elevated trolling into an art form—Tina Brown.
On the off chance you have trouble spotting a pattern in that list, let me offer this helpful rule, a definition for troll circa 2012. Anytime you don’t like something someone else is saying, or even if you do like what he’s saying but think he might be saying it the wrong way, there’s a very good chance you’re dealing with a troll. This could be true even if the guy is making an argument that purports to bolster your position—in that case, he may be a “concern troll.” The corollary to making this identification is that you’re free to ignore him, per the universal troll-handling guidelines: Don’t feed him! (Although I should note that no one does this; Google overflows with the phrase “I know I shouldn’t feed the troll …”)
Or, on the other hand, let me suggest something somewhat unconventional, maybe even downright #slatepitchy. What if all these people aren’t trolls? What if they’re just, you know, disagreeable or stupid or merely wrong? What if, despite holding opinions that you don’t like, and despite expressing those opinions in a manner that seems a tad impolite, they came by their views honestly?
I’ll go further: I think it’s time we took back troll. Let’s reserve the term to refer to people who are being actual nuisances. To apply it to punditry is to dilute it of all meaning—and, in an odd way, it also ascribes unnecessary genius to people who might just be misguided.
Take Donald Trump, for instance. What evidence do we have that the soul of a troll lurks beneath his alopecic squirrel-tail hairdo? Is it just that—as BuzzFeed documents in this montage—he’s said a lot of dumb things in his life? Or that he’s often called news conferences to make sure millions of people stand witness to him saying dumb things?
That can’t be it. To prove that Trump is a troll, we’d need to show that he doesn’t actually believe what he’s saying. In other words, to call Trump a troll is to suggest that he’s not nearly as dumb as he looks.
And that’s what trips me up. Donald Trump is a guy who responds to critical articles on the Web by printing them out, scribbling on them, and mailing his scrawled print-outs to the author. Donald Trump once sued a guy for calling him a millionaire rather than a billionaire (and lost). See what I’m getting at? Maybe Donald Trump really is as dumb as he sounds; indeed, if anything, the totality of the evidence suggests that he may be much dumber than he’s made out to be. Why can’t we all come to grips with that? Donald Trump isn’t trolling us. He’s just not very bright.
Another example: Ross Douthat, the conservative New York Times columnist who wrote a column last week arguing that Americans should be having more babies. Among the reasons Douthat floated for a recent decline in national fertility were “cultural forces that no legislator can really hope to change,” including “a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe.” Douthat did not say that today’s women, specifically, are decadent, but he didn’t have to—people all over the Web took his column to mean that. And given some of his views, they’d be justified in believing so.
But what about Douthat’s column amounted to “trolling women,” as Salon put it in a headline? I don’t know; the Salon piece doesn’t say, which bolsters my suspicion that the term is being used in the most generic way possible, meaning, more or less, “Ross Douthat said something we don’t like.” Because, for Douthat to be trolling according to the classic definition, we’d have to believe that he doesn’t actually believe that “cultural forces” have shaped American fertility planning and is just saying so to make liberals mad. But he’s a conservative columnist. Of course he actually believes that.
But does the troll have to know he’s a troll in order to be a troll? Does he have to be disingenuous to troll? In my research—that is, Googling—on how trolling has been redefined recently, I came across a year-old post in which Choire Sicha, of the Awl, compared the trolling abilities of Katie Roiphe and Pico Iyer, who had both recently written pieces about how the Internet is distracting the world into oblivion. What struck me about Sicha’s explanation was his implication that Iyer was the better troll because he, as opposed to Roiphe, didn’t understand how incendiary and stupid his argument was:
Roiphe shows her hand too much, relishing in her trolldom, always crossing little lines of sense, drawing leaping bizarre conclusions, knowing that She Is Controversial. She just exists to stir pots, and so her strange, sometimes seemingly put-on beliefs seem so much thinner than Iyer’s, whose work rings with true, if unintentionally hilarious, conviction about the way the world is. (Emphasis mine.)
Wait a second—so you can be a troll even if you have “true conviction” in what you’re saying? That, to me, is bizarre.
I’m not arguing that trolls don’t exist. Rush Limbaugh’s success suggests a keen intelligence, so there are likely many moments when he’s simply faking stupidity and, thus, being trollish. And a string of recent sensational Newsweek covers—“Muslim Rage,” calling Obama “the first gay president,” asking why his “critics are so dumb,” calling Mitt Romney a “wimp,” and telling Obama to “hit the road”—shows that Tina Brown doesn’t mind outrage. To the extent that she recognizes that some of those covers advance hollow arguments and only put them out to sell magazines, she’s being a bit of a troll. (Though the case is stronger for some of those covers than others; I don’t really see what’s so trollish about publishing a piece by a noted conservative calling for an incumbent Democratic president to hit the road.)
But to call everyone a troll, even those who are advancing their true beliefs, is to let genuine trolls off the hook. If you don’t like something I’ve written, don’t assume I’m punking you. I’m not. I really am that stupid, trust me.