A Troll’s Way of Knowing

The advent of the Internet era unleashed a great optimism for people to experiment with new identities beyond their real life selves. The great hope was an imagined new era of empathy as people could virtually see the world through others eyes. In many ways the legacy of this optimism remains a part of web 2.0. Buzzfeed.com’sfounder and CEO Jonah Peretti has written that capitalism needs to be constantly producing identities for peoples if the system is to survive.

Growing up on the Internet, traversing wikis, message boards and article comments I encountered the worst of the identity flux on the net, the troll. Older and wiser net navigators warned newbies not to “feed the trolls” but they kept on multiplying and invading every crevice of the web.

Commercial interests soon took note of the power of trolls. From product reviews to political campaigns, trolls (and the more sophisticated astroturfing) became a way of either simulating support or denigrating others.

Yet trolling eventually confronted the legal system of the real world in serious ways. In one case, a middle-aged woman impersonated a teenage boy on MySpace, met and developed a relationship with another teenager. When the impersonator broke the young girl’s heart – the young girl committed suicide. This was of course an extreme case, but it shows the ways the real and virtual worlds collide.

Julian Dibbell in the article “A Rape in Cyberspace” concludes by making a provocation following his observation of the online space after the digital crime;

I have come to hear in them an announcement of the final stages of our decades-long passage into the Information Age, a paradigm shift that the classic liberal firewall between word and deed (itself a product of an earlier paradigm shift commonly known as the Enlightenment) is not likely to survive intact. After all, anyone the least bit familiar with the workings of the new era’s definitive technology, the computer, knows that it operates on a principle impracticably difficult to distinguish from the pre-Enlightenment principle of the magic word: the commands you type into a computer are a kind of speech that doesn’t so much communicate as make things happen, directly and ineluctably, the same way pulling a trigger does. They are incantations, in other words, and anyone at all attuned to the technosocial megatrends of the moment — from the growing dependence of economies on the global flow of intensely fetishized words and numbers to the burgeoning ability of bioengineers to speak the spells written in the four-letter text of DNA — knows that the logic of the incantation is rapidly permeating the fabric of our lives.

What are the implications of trolling for our conception of the public sphere? An identity that exists for the sole purpose of angering and disrupting discourse cannot constitute a rational public sphere.

What are the implications of a person saying and claiming things only as an online persona? Some claim their online persona is completely distinct from their “in real life” persona. How do we understand first amendment protections in such an instance?