The first, and perhaps most important, thing to know about trolling is that no one quite knows what it means. The word is used to describe a variety of behaviours that can be summarised as “not being nice”. People who disrupt, inflame, argue and bully online are all considered to be trolls.
Tricking people into opening up a Nyan Cat video or sending silly messages to famous people can also be considered a form of trolling.
Of course, there are plenty of people who behave in this way in real life, but internet trolls are slightly different: their behaviour is both enabled and exacerbated by the online world. In real life, people are constrained by the social norms built up over centuries by society, on the internet it’s the wild west. The faceless modes of communication lowers people’s inhibitions and capacity for empathy. Internet users quickly forget that they’re conversing with other humans.
Most trolls, whether they realise it or not, are seeking to provoke a reaction. They have a craving for attention that can only be sated by seeing the fruits of their agitation. It doesn’t matter how reasoned, pleasant or angry the response they get is as long as they get it. The general consensus is that the best way to deal with a troll is not to feed it. Crying to the papers about the nasty people on the internet is not the right strategy – no matter how vile they are.
The final thing to note about trolls is that they do not conform to the stereotype of teenage boys in bedrooms channeling their hormones into a keyboard. It’s testament to the mysterious allure of being able to communicate with anyone in the world from behind the safety of a pixelated screen that a pensioner who wouldn’t say boo to a goose in real life can feel able to forward racist emails to strangers. Anyone can be a troll.