Dr. Whitney Phillips is an assistant professor at Mercer University with a PhD in English. She has done years of extensive research around internet culture, specifically trolls.
She opened up her speech with a definition of what trolling is, or at least what she is referring to when she says “trolls.”
While “trolls” are usually defined as those who are stubborn or who cause unnecessary confusion and chaos for a laugh, too many people have done this at one point or another to consider them all trolls.
Dr. Whitney instead refers to trolls as those whose whole life style seems to revolve around these kinds of laughs, those who identify with the troll subculture—not your everyday jokester.
After all the formal terms were defined, she dove into what she believes to be the origin of trolling. According to Whitney, trolling subculture first surfaced around 2003, in the earlier days of the internet. They were largely unheard of and had no real public attention, that is, until 2008. That year marked the first real media attention given to trolls (mostly by Fox News).
As attention increased, so did the number of people who identified as trolls, and as the internet spread, so did trolling. Now it has become engrained in internet society; it is extremely easy to find examples of polls that have been tampered with for fun and comments designed specifically to provoke.
Despite all of this, Dr. Whitney never came out against trolling. While she was against the extreme examples of harassment and verbal abuse conducted by some, she was keen to make a distinction between harassment and trolling. Harassment is abhorrent and illegal. Trolling on the other hand, while not completely innocent, should not be treated with the same gravity.
She even stated that those who are calling for banning and prevention of trolls are not only fighting a battle they can’t win, but also a battle they shouldn’t fight. This is because trolling has changed and will continue to change so rapidly that it is impossible to counter it in a way that doesn’t hurt everyone. The good news is that as trolling becomes more common, it becomes easier to spot and ignore.
Once she had made this distinction, she moved to talk about the social structure of the trolling subculture. This subculture consists largely of inside jokes. However, unlike a typical inside joke that requires friends to share an event, these jokes are shared by strangers, many of whom were never a part of the original event.
She cited things like mass prank calls as a great example of this as they are still funny years after they take place to those who were never a part of the initial event.
She ended her presentation with a sort of disclaimer, stating that over the last few years, the mainstream media has given so much attention to sites like 4chan and Reddit that most of the “hardcore trolls” have dispersed to other sites in search of a new home. These sites are not less active; in fact, the influx of people coming to these sites has diluted the troll community.
She believes the internet is in a transition period, and for now the days of wide spread malicious trolling are more or less gone.