The Evolution of Trolls, or, A Troll Taxonomy


A while back I wrote a piece on the history of trolling for Unwinnable and, in the course of researching it, I came upon this piece.  Ever since then, I’ve been noodling around with the idea of creating a Troll Taxonomy to group together the different tactics that different species of trolls use and explain them according to a “family” of desired outcomes.

Tough Love Trolls

The first troll family I’ve identified are the trolls who see themselves as experienced coaches showing Internet newbies the ropes using tough love.  They see themselves as online versions of the gruff authority figures in movies that are tough to please but whose respect can eventually be earned with hard work and diligence.  Their base motivation is to teach, though their methods might be suspect.

This is the family to which the original instance of the “baiter” belongs.  As I say over at Unwinnable:

Once upon a time, back when Internet was starting to shift from a space belonging to a few elite computer hobbyists to an “information superhighway” open to every Tom, Dick and Harry, trolls served as gatekeepers helping users to distinguish between experienced web-dwellers and an incoming deluge of newbs.

According to Michelle Tepper, trolling used to serve

“the dual purpose of enforcing community standards and of increasing community cohesion by providing a game that all those who know the rules can play against those who do not. It works both as a game and as a method of subcultural boundary demarcation because the playing pieces in this game are not plastic markers or toy money but pieces of information.”

This category also includes the so-called “cannibal trolls” who explicitly target other trolls in an attempt to teach them some kind of lesson about the shittiness of their behavior.  It is unclear how fighting shit with shit will result in everyone coming out clean, however.


Defender Trolls

The next category of trolls have a more militant philosophy.  They see themselves as protecting their communities from newbies and unworthy participants, not as educating and bringing new people into the fold as the Tough Love trolls do.  They are inherently conservative, so they work to drive away possible agents of change.

Their tactics include doxxing, which functions as an attempt to “expose” someone as being unfit to participate in the community.

This family also contains the more pedantic types of trolls: the concern trolls

There are two ways of disagreeing with someone. One is to disagree openly. The other is to say, “I support you, but you’re doing it wrong.”

The second is insidious.

The second is condescending, insincere, manipulative. It even says so in the Urban Dictionary definition.

The darkest moment is always just after the concern trolls start pouring in.

“I’m with you,” the concern troll says. “But surely you must see how this looks to people. Not me, of course. But other people. They might think horrible things of you. People might think you were self-centered, fat, slow, rude. Not me, of course. I’m with you. I have your best interests at heart. That’s why I want to warn you. I, you see, know how this ought to be done.”

and the tone police.

Tone policing – which takes up so much space in feminist movements these days – is when marginalized people speak up about our struggles, and people from more dominant groups focus not on what we said, but how we said it.

For example, think about how frequently people say “Calm down” or “Don’t be so angry” to Black women who call out racism – as if the way a person talks about the racism they’re experiencing is way more important than the actual racism they’re experiencing.

These last two work to discipline existing members and to label those who step over the line as  inauthentic or impure members of the community.


Invader/Crusader Trolls

This next family of trolls has a fanaticism to them that is somewhat disturbing.  They aren’t content with policing their own territory but instead seek to ensure that the kinds of conversations they don’t like are unable to happen anywhere online.  Thus, they hunt it down wherever it exists and attempt to destroy it.

Common tactics include mobbing and harassment, sealioning, and DDOS attacks/hacking.

Chaos Trolls

The last family of trolls “just wants to watch the world burn.”  They are agents of chaos who have no ideological pursuit besides lulz.

The so-called death trolls who desecrate the memorial Facebook  pages of kids who’ve committed suicide are thought to fit under this rubric.

However, it can be very difficult to distinguish between a true Chaos troll and an Invader/Crusader troll who is pretending to be a Chaos troll in order to provide cover for their own agenda.  Thus, it is up to the taxonomist to look for patterns in the targets of those who claim to be Chaos trolls to see if they really are equal opportunity haters or if they have a more coherent campaign of attack.

What do you think?  Did I miss any important troll families?  Can you think of other examples?  Let me know in the comments below!

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