Like a Trolling Stone

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(Troll mom taught baby troll everything he knows. Image credit)

I’ve been more-or-less politically aware since right around the time of the 2000 election, but I only discovered political blogs in 2008, several years after their invention and evolution into a formidable online phenomenon. So widespread and widely-read now, it’s strange to think that ten or twelve years ago such a thing didn’t exist. Now they’ve reached the point where the larger blogs have joined the media machine, driving and affecting the national dialogue on various political issues.* The lines between blogs and older, more traditional media are now rather blurred, as many  media personalities (e.g. Rachel Maddow, Paul Krugman) keep blogs, and some bloggers have crossed over and been hired by television networks and newspapers (e.g. Erick Erickson, Nate Silver). More than that are frequent guests on television and radio, or write guest columns for print publications.

The uninitiated reader might be surprised or put off by the style of political bloggers, almost none of which feign any pretense of balance or decorum. Nearly every political blog in existence comes with an expressed political slant in one direction or the other. The tone is informal, often caustic and frequently very funny, ranging from the sort of lecture you’d hear from a particularly bright and eloquent professor (Krugman, Brad DeLong)  to the sort of thing you’d hear in a comedy club, or read in the Onion (Tbogg, Wonkette). Anyone expecting the formality and politeness of an opinion piece in the Economist or the New York Times could not be more mistaken.

Anybody put off by the tone would be missing the fact that some of those bloggers are exceptionally brilliant people, both in comedy and serious commentary. There is an old joke about bloggers being fat kids in their computer chairs covered in cheeto dust, but as near as I can tell this is condescending nonsense, spoken by members of an industry who know they’re about to be replaced. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the recent presidential election, where various talking heads mocked Nate Silver’s (of the New York Times, and fivethirtyeight.com) predictions of an Obama electoral college landslide. Silver was, of course, utterly vindicated, leaving Michael Barone, George Will and Dick Morris sputtering lame excuses for why some blogger knew what they didn’t. Hell, in the past four years I’ve read blog comments, let alone blog posts, that were better written and better thought-out than anything David Brooks, Ross Douthat or Thomas Friedman have ever published in their years with the New York Times. (It’s a bizarre quirk of the media’s business model that David Brooks ought to be so well-paid while most of these online, undiscovered cyber-Sinclairs toil on for free, but I digress.)

That naked, honest partisanship is precisely why I love them, and now rely on them almost exclusively for commentary. Bloggers often mock the traditional media’s need to appear balanced at all costs, and those bloggers are absolutely right. Even columnists – paid to have an opinion and express it eloquently – are infected with the myth that the truth always lies equidistant between two extremes. Blogs lie outside the centrism-trumps-all philosophy by explicitly rejecting it. Relying on blogs instead of newspapers and magazines for news commentary has made me fluent in a shorthand for somewhat abstract concepts which, as far as I know, had no names before there was a blog to diagnose and categorize them. I’ve caught myself dropping terms like ‘high-Broderism’ or ‘villager’ or phrases like ‘Clearly this is good news for John McCain’ into real life conversations, causing the person to stare at me as if I had three heads.

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(Good advice. Image Credit)

Probably a third of the entertainment value of political blogs for me comes from “trolling,” that is, posting on sites where you disagree with the community’s political slant.** I honestly can’t say what the appeal is for me. Debates are fun, but on blogs it’s common to treat others in a way you would never treat them face-to-face. That is to say, rudely, for comedic effect. In person, even with those with whom we disagree completely, manners prevent us from disclosing the extent of our feelings about a particular opinion. Among a blog commenting community, I wouldn’t say there are no restrictions of politeness and decorum, but there are certainly fewer. Maybe it appeals to that part of us that needs conflict in a story to keep us interested, that can’t help but lend an ear when strangers are arguing in public. It’s more fashionable and considered more mature to avoid interpersonal drama, but if we’re honest with ourselves we’ll admit that there is always some sliver of us that can’t help but watch or listen, just a little.

A rookie reading their first conversation between blog trolls and the community at large might be justifiably horrified at the extent to which commenters will degrade each other’s opinions. Such a neophyte wouldn’t understand that it’s all in good fun, and it would be difficult to help them understand exactly why it’s all in good fun. I see it as a form of the British ‘taking the piss out on each other,’ that is, having a thick-enough skin to laugh at what in most contexts would be rude and insulting. What could take on the appearance of textbook bullying is more like those sessions of the British House of Commons, where the prime minister and the other ministers lob zingers at each other for the benefit of those assembled. I have laughed out loud on frequent occasions at a particularly amusing knock on my intelligence over the course of my time as a troll. Further, I have a theory that most blogs tend to be only as good as their trolls. Comment threads can quickly become a slightly-deviating chorus of ‘I agree’ without an articulate, reasonably intelligent foil for the others to play off. Oddly, while I’ve thought their opinions were so much nonsense, I’ve found myself missing trolls if they stop commenting on a site I’ve read for a while.

I suspect that’s a common enough feeling among the commenters on any particular site. Commenters will insult, mock and degrade a troll to the full extent of their wit, but when that troll vanishes they frequently ask them to come back. But that request is always in code, in the form of “I wonder what Joe has to say about this. Joe? Joe? Too scared to come back, eh?) You have to laugh when those pleas start. It’s plain to everybody – except perhaps themselves – that that commenter misses arguing with the departed troll. But they’ll never say it. The best trolls, of course, do more than simply post ABORTION SUX on a liberal site and sit back and wait for the fireworks. Proper trolling is a fine, difficult art, often like playing several chess games at once. Often enough, a troll is alone in the room and a single comment will elicit a flurry of responses. Credibility – as much as a troll can be granted, anyway, from political wonks on the other side – can vanish in a hurry if you’re caught running from an argument.

Someday, hopefully, somebody with greater resources than myself will will write the definitive guide to trolling and grant it the respect it deserves. I nominate DougJ, whose trolling escapades are often a wonder to behold.

 

 

*It should be noted that certain online writers are circumspect and humble about the power of the internets, and ruthlessly mock their self-important counterparts for excessively trumpeting their small victories.

**The original and more common definition of ‘trolling’ was to post things with which even you didn’t agree, specifically to get a rise, derail the discussion’s topic or simply to irritate, but it’s been broadened through usage to include anyone whose political views disagree with those of the community.

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~ by kroveechernila on December 15, 2012.

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