A Troll Case Study

Last week, interactive media producer Courtney Stanton gave an Ignite talk in Boston. The subject of her five minutes was Trolling, in the context of the 900 comments she got to a series of late-January blog posts about the overlap of rape culture and gaming.

Due to the topic and depending on your own experiences in the world thus far, the links might lead to insensitive, inappropriate, or even traumatic commentary. I’m mostly going to focus on this as an example of negative participation in public discourse.

The previously-on-The-Internet scenes that are relevant include:

  • Courtney Stanton is a producer for DINO Interactive Studios, a storytelling and game application publisher in Boston. She also graduated from Indiana University back in 2002, so yay!
  • Penny Arcade is a webcomic about video games and video game culture. Creators Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik also put together an “semi-annual” conference (PAX).
  • In August 2010, Penny Arcade publishes “The Sixth Sense,” which references rape by creatures called dickwolves.
  • Some people objected to the frivolous use of rape as humor, and then a bunch more objected to PA’s sarcastic response.
  • Mike draws a dickwolf at PAX (NSFW), leading the following month to a t-shirt of the creature for sale on PA.
  • Courtney objects, offering a survivor’s guild t-shirt for sale.
  • A few months later, Courtney is asked to speak at PAX and declines, citing all the above. She is immediately griefed on social media channels, most notably her blog

Although the story continues, that was how Stanton got her data.

Setting aside the important catalyst for all this activity, the high-level (but presumably tedious and probably painful) analysis Stanton conducted on her blog comments led to some interesting data-driven insights. She divided all of the comments up into groups, first separating based on agreement with her post and the level of aggression shown by the commenter. The final grouping looked at whether the comment tried to share information or hurl personal attacks. The result was a definition:

Troll (n.): 1. One who contributes nothing but noise to a conversation. Often disagrees aggressively and insultingly using personal attacks.*

Stanton acknowledged that the comments she is most likely to want to block are the ones attacking her.

When looking at how the comments were threaded and directed, she discovered that two-thirds of all comments were responses to other comments while only 17% of the comments by trolls were focused on others. In other words, most blog conversation doesn’t involve the original poster, yet the overwhelming majority of trolls ignore the conversation entirely.

The text visualizations are also informative. In a word net, rape is the most used word among all comments, but it is a word with peers (including: penny, arcade, culture, people, dickwolves, people, comic, shirt and more). For trolls, however, the message is all the same: It is overwhelmingly a one-word message. The word trees for “fat” and “I hope” are equally supportive of Stanton’s definition of troll. “The trolls only have one hope,” she said in her talk, “and it’s like they’re reading from a script.”

Jiwon Shin (Columbia University) theorizes that it is the absence of an online morality reinforced through education that allows a troll to exist. Susan Herring and other researchers examined the strategies of trolls almost a decade ago. Their work pointed to a few suggested interventions to mitigate the effectiveness of trolls. These included killfiles or other controls that allow one member to mask the contributions of another, and education, to improve members’ ability to recognize trolling tactics. Strong and clearly-worded policies also can establish a framework for discourse that establishes the boundaries of acceptable behavior.

* One of Stanton’s commenters pointed out that trolls might also agree with the original poster. Jaishankar and Sankary might classify such people as “Love Rats.” If not trolls in the way described above, then perhaps we can call them jötnar for their wisdom, or think of them with a flop of pink hair. Of course, the correct etymology refers not to the Norse creature but fishing, as in “trolling for newbies.” In that sense, both positive and negative are acts of trolling, albeit for different fish.

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