We’ve already breached the subject of trolls and haters a couple of times. Will talked briefly about how he and I manage to put up with hate online, whereas I chose to take a more sociological approach and tried to speculate exactly what makes a troll tic. But when I came across this particular Time article last week, I realized that there were a couple of components to trolling that neither of us have really addressed just yet.
It’s always interesting when I watch outsiders to the internet community attempt to analyze and decode online culture. It’s not just cute to watch someone try to decode something that I’m already very familiar with. Sometimes, it’s also cool to get a completely outside perspective on things. Here’s why I say that. To someone like me or Will, trolls are like mosquitoes. They’re annoying and a nuisance, but they’re also simply a reality that comes with living where we live. You want to live in a warm climate? You’ll have to deal with a lot of mosquitoes. You want to become online personalities? You’ll have to put up with trolls. Yes, it’s irritating and a nuisance, but we’ve gotten pretty used to dealing with it by now.
This article, however, realigned my perspective a bit. See, I had heard of the Amanda Todd controversy, and was somewhat familiar with that “Violentacrez” guy on Reddit (granted, I kinda avoid Reddit altogether anyway). However, this article just reinforced how much trolling is becoming a real problem on the web. It has progressed from nuisance to an issue of life and death in certain instances. Let’s not forget that online harassment was also at play with deaths like Tyler Clementi as well. When I first read about to Amanda Todd’s death, my reaction should have been one of shock and horror. Instead, it was a much more complacent “another teen killed themselves?” (the shock and horror was then directed at myself). Let’s also not forget that trolls are also often the main distribution source behind some of the most vile, disgusting, and sometimes illegal pornographic materials across the internet. Sure, this guy on Reddit may have been one of the main culprits, but how many of you out there punked your friends into watching “Two Girls One Cup”?
Forget that the guy who posted Amanda Todd’s photo was a complete violation of her privacy and the law. Forget also that much of the stuff that “Violentacrez” posted was often illegal as well as illicit. But what bothers me most about these situations is, as this article mentioned, the fact that neither of these culprits acted alone. As vile as their actions were, there were plenty of other people online who were enabling them by consuming their material and sometimes even giving them positive feedback. I was genuinely disturbed when Michael Brutsch, the middle-aged programmer behind the “Violentacrez” Reddit account, described how much recognition he got from other Reddit users. He got so many points from Reddit that they actually started sending him real prizes.
I can’t help but see a parallel between this fact and shows like Jersey Shore and Hoarders and The A-List and, most recently, Here Comes Honey-Boo-Boo. Let me explain. These shows are absolute trash. There’s no denying it. Every fan that I’ve ever talked to recognizes the fact that these are terrible shows that frequently exploit people’s personal and private issues for public enjoyment. Hell, one of the Real Housewives husbands even ended up killing himself. And yet while millions of people recognize the fact that these shows are a wart on the genitals of humanity, they still cannot bring themselves to turn the channel. Instead, they just chock it up to a “guilty pleasure”.
Here’s my issue with that mentality. Everyone has guilty pleasures, be they fattening foods or expensive clothes or the occasional naughty movie. Hell, part of the pleasure inherent in a “guilty pleasure” is the knowledge that you shouldn’t really indulge in said activity. Hell, if you follow my Twitter, you know that I enjoy the occasional troll tweet directed at the likes of Mitt Romney, Nancy Grace, Ann Coulter, Margie Phelps, and so on. But there’s one key difference between Double Chocolate Milano Cookies (ahem, Will) and situations like Amanda Todd and Michael Brutsch. Mainly, when someone scarfs down a few too many Milanos, they’re only really hurting themselves. Sure, I have told my fair share of jokes at people’s expense online, but I also make it a point not to cross the lines of threatening or maliciously harassing these people. For genuine trolls, though, there’s no such thing as too far, and when the trolls who swarmed the likes Amanda Todd and Jamie Rodemeyer took it too far, their victims were the ones who suffered harm. Meanwhile, they suffered no consequences whatsoever.
Maia Szalavitz, the article’s author, offers one solution, which is for sites like Reddit to censor content and take down any potentially harmful material. Of course doing so would only drive such content underground, but Szalavitz argues “that’s where such trash belongs”. I beg to differ. One of the things that, in my opinion, makes the web so great is the fact that information is allowed to, for the most part, flow freely and relatively uninhibited. While I do recognize the dangers of certain content on the web, I also recognize the dangers of censoring information. Instead, I would argue that a large portion of the guilt falls upon the rest of us on the internet. These trolls are nothing without their audience. For content creators, it’s up to us to ignore these people, or block/remove them should they start crossing the line. For consumers, it’s up to us to ignore these people at first, and then call them on their shit or report them when they start crossing the line. These trolls are like cockroaches. Driving them underground doesn’t fix the problem. If anything, it exacerbates the problem when they multiply and then come back tenfold. No, when I see a roach in my house, I don’t chase it away. I crush that little bastard underneath my foot. Same goes for any trolls that pop up on our channels, our site, or anywhere else we go online. I think we should all make it a point to do the same.