Internet IRL: They see me trollin’

March 3, 2011

Those who take advantage of free speech can be inspiring. They can also be really awful, and sometimes really, awfully interesting. One of the greatest enjoyments I’ve derived from editing Vox Populi is observing how commenters respond to different posts. Many posts float by without being noticed, but others quickly erupt in an avalanche of opinions, humorous one-liners, and royal personages.  And then, of course, there are the obligatory trolls.

Trolling demonstrates the full potential of the first amendment in a domain where censorship is focused on larger problems, like covering up nipples and taking the fun out of hit singles by Cee-Lo Green.  It demonstrates how someone can be hugely disruptive and divisive with as little effort as possible. In a sense, it’s the pettiest, most perfect crime—little chance of being reprimanded, and a high success rate for getting a rise out of at least somebody. People will take anything personally.

Trolls’ anonymity is what makes them so infuriating and captivating. Reading blog comments raises various questions about why commenters say the things they do: What are they trying to achieve? What is the point? In a conversation where everyone might assume what you’re saying is your honest opinion, it’s easy to divert attention with a racist comment or red-flagging the Stewards.

So, is this behavior playing nice? Is it comedy? Pulling pranks and teasing people can be fun, and if it means well, it can teach people to not take themselves too seriously. Thanks to its infinite mutability and adaptability, trolling is like a live, public Candid Camera, where the punch line never drops.

Georgetown students remember the arrest of Kelly Baltazar for possession of marijuana. On the related Vox post, comments were disabled because they were not only hateful and defamatory, but violated the blog’s comment policy. It was a difficult decision, but a line needed to be drawn between freedom and slander. Its moderators’ and administrators’ responsibility to step in when things get out of hand. The Internet can’t be policed, but we can try to “scalpel” the junk out.

Ethics are weird, maybe weirder when you’re dealing with something that naturally lacks a moral code. Behind the guise of an “Anonymous” name, agency and guilt can be very far removed. This problem has been around for years, and the term “cyberbullying” has entered the lexicon of middle-school guidance counselors nationwide. We all know it’s wrong, but why is it still funny? Are CopperCab reaction videos hilarious, or voyeuristic?

But on the other hand, people’s reactions to trolling are often as emotionally immature as those who troll. Those who try to defend themselves often don’t get the joke, and are defiant to the point of self-righteousness—some people are just too naïve to understand the panoptical Internet.

So my message to trolls: keep on trollin’. At best, you’re keeping us on our toes and providing comic relief in situations when funding and neighbors are getting out of hand. At worst, you’re not thinking about what you’re doing, hopefully, and you’ll be deleted. Otherwise, it’s creative, dirty, and often, passionate. Just leave out the Hitler references, please.

Ask Nico about his favorite voyeuristic videos that they won’t show you on YouTube at ndodd@georgetownvoice.com

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