The art of trolling: Arguing for the sake of conflict as opposed to the seeking of truth

Anonymous. Because none of us are as cruel as all of us

The daunting thing about writing for a newspaper, is the deafening silence that follows the publication of our articles. Every month we diligently hand in copy, that is printed, and sent out to the readers. And that is where it ends. There is no box at the bottom of this text where people can leave their comments, there is no direct line back to us. Writing for a newspaper is one-way communication. Very undemocratic, and so old-fashioned compared to the fantastic opportunities afforded to us by the world wide web.

If only we could give You, the reader, a voice. How soothing might your expressions of gratitude and admiration sound to our ears. How interesting the parallels you draw, and how heartwarming to hear that our texts have changed your lives. But also how annoying your insistence on pointing out those pesky little mistakes that really are irrelevant to the big picture. And how infuriating, your obstinate refutation of our visionary insights. The impertinence! How dare you suggest that you are smarter than we are, you anonymous, and ungrateful multitude!

We know who you are. You may have been hiding behind cryptic aliases on the Internet, but you have left behind you a vitriolic trail of offensive messages that serve no other purpose than to trick the righteous into responding. And we are on to the game you play. You prey on the weaknesses of those of us who find consolation in on-line communities, by disguising your true identity and making us believe that you are one of us. Then you betray our trust by violating the hidden codes of conduct we had started to take for granted. You provoke us into exposing our less noble impulses, while you sit back and laugh gleefully. And if we try to ignore you, by not responding to your insidious comments, you erupt into a terrible and abusive temper, spewing forth obscenities and insults that won't stop until someone steps in and does something about it.

The sheer weight of the polemic you bestow on us would be bearable, if there was any purpose to it. If only it was your non-conformist sense of idealism, that compelled you to test the limits of interpersonal dialogue. If only your real mission was to expose the hidden power structures that lie beneath all collective forms of communication. But alas, to conceive of your antics as some kind of coherent and critical project, would be to fall yet again in the trap you have laid for us.

Take, for example, the Times magazine election of 100 most influential people in the world in 2009. We couldn't find your name on that list. But when we discovered that you rigged the votes so that the first letters of the top 21 names spelled out MARBLECAKE ALSO THE GAME, it felt as if God himself had spoken, even though we didn't understand the message. For it is within our nature to peer into the blackest black, and pretend to see something. What? A reflection of ourselves? The Truth? Anything at all? Overeager and gullible, we will go to any length to ascribe purpose and meaning to the world that surrounds us. Blindly we stumble along, clutching the hand of the next person in line, hoping that he or she is holding onto something more structural, all the while suppressing the image of the bottomless void that surrounds us.

It explains the strange attraction you hold over us. You may not have a name, but you have charisma. You are the ambiguous, yet single-minded defender of the Freedom of Speech, the irreverent child of Enlightenment, who promises to lead us out of the darkness, by releasing us from the shackles of our own false pretenses. But all you really achieve is to make us aware that we are naked, vulnerable, and helpless, and that we need to build a wall around our garden of conviviality. You make a mockery of the empowering and democratic potential of social interaction, by pushing moderators out of their shadows of discretion, forcing them to wield their authority to impose rules, to ostracize you and to clean up your filth.

And now that we have lost our innocence and raised our defenses, it is with dread that we oversee the scorched earth that lies between us. For it has become virtually impossible to distinguish between constructive criticism and your uncooperative provocations. All contact is viewed with suspicion, and the slightest hint of an unfavorable judgment is condemned with disproportionate fervor. We have become aggressive and strong-willed, in order to cover up our insecurities. But as we grit our teeth and wade through the ad-hominem arguments, hasty generalizations and sarcastic retorts, it dawns upon us that we ourselves have become a sad reflection of your quarrelsome persona.

This poisoned interaction is unfortunately not confined to the recesses of obscure discussion forums, chat rooms and blogs. Bubbling up and boiling over into the real world, it is contaminating the public sphere, turning it into a cacophony of opinions, rather than ideas. Populist rhetoric is becoming the lingua franca of a democratic society that is no longer concerned with ideology, organizing itself instead according to the guiding principles of “common sense”, an elusive mirage which it chases after with perpetual market research and public opinion polls.

But perhaps our reluctance to embrace this new logic is fueled by a misplaced sense of loss, a residual nostalgia for the way we used to relate to each other. For we have come a long way since we stopped walking on all fours, straightening our backs to stand upright, opening our mouths to talk. To paraphrase Walter Benjamin; we stand in the midst of a powerful process of the transformation of literary forms, a process in which many of the oppositions with which we used to work could lose their power. And as the art of the storyteller gave way to that of the novelist, and the latter to that of the newspaper, so must we now surrender to the whims of the once silent majority.

Let us therefore ask you one more question, before you turn the page, eager to move on. If we were to ask you what you think, would you be telling us the truth? Share your answers with us at

Tuesday, 12 October, 2010

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