You may have noticed variations of the term "online trolling" creeping their way into the style guides of your favourite news outlets over the past year.
On the coattails of digitally-reified terms like "curation" and "piracy," "trolling" has become the trigger-du-jour for media sources to refer to a wide range of threatening interactions on the Internet: harassment, bullying, stalking, racism, misogyny, q-phobia, pornography, hacking, and even good ol'-fashioned profanity.
Reporting of events as varied as the tragic death of B.C. teenager Amanda Todd, the doxxing (outing, in webspeak [file under "2019 NYT Crossword Clues"]) of prolific reddit moderator Violentacrez, or the emergence of a Toronto creepshots network has almost uniformly characterized trolls and trolling as central narratives for readers to consider.
Particularly illustrative of this dynamic was coverage preceding the November arrest of infamous Twitter-troll Gregory Alan Elliott, who was charged after persistent harassment of Toronto activist Stephanie Guthrie (full disclosure: I consider Ms. Guthrie a friend).
Many initial reports -- and, frustratingly, several published pieces -- characterized Mr. Elliott's alleged actions as trolling, persistent contact, or simply "being a jerk on Twitter."
While few familiar with the situation would object to these as secondary descriptors, many identified a desire to append a universal qualifier to the use of "troll" in these types of instances. For me, it may have been:
"Mr. Elliott was not arrested for being a troll or engaging in persistent trolling. He was arrested for alleged criminal behaviour (in this case, criminal harassment and breach of a peace bond). I actively defend the rights of people to act like jerks or trolls in online contexts, just as I defend the same rights for a stranger in line at a coffee shop.
But if that individual moves to target or threaten a patron of that coffee shop, or attempts to pursue them from coffee shop to coffee shop, my perception of this behaviour changes. I have no reason to understand the dynamics of online interaction any differently."
Contrary to the perceptions of many newcomers to these issues, there is, in fact, broad consensus that it is not (and should not be) illegal to be a troll, act like a troll, or engage in trolling activity on the Internet.
Though specific definitions can be quite subjective, most instances of online trolling involve concealed subversion, often co-opting the norms and conventions of a particular platform to coax tension or hypocrisy from its participants. In this definition, tweeting "you're stupid" to someone you disagree with would not encapsulate the spirit of trolling; wittingly tweeting "your stupid" in order to elicit a self-important correction of your spelling would.
This lens might help explain an emerging sensitivity towards the semantic distillation of trolls and trolling in popular media, particularly in heavily-repurposed contexts like headlines and social posts. An excellent article in today's Guardian, for instance, described a startling link between online harassment and spousal abuse under the headline "Online trolling of women is linked to domestic violence, say campaigners."
What the Internet need not attempt is to expunge trolls; they are perpetual subletters to the bridges that help to define it. Nor should it submit to the stigmatization of acts of trolling themselves, already established as core governing structures of its margins and surges.
Instead, the digital class must work towards a renegotiation of its idioms, promoting precision in the ways we categorize our growing pool of online behaviours.
A key part of this process will be coaxing more nuance from terms like trolls and trolling, insisting on new ways of delineating the undesirable from the criminal: the process from the by-product. The cultivation of these ontologies helps us better navigate the fundamental tensions (freedom and governance, anonymity and accountability, encoding and decoding) that make the Internet such a significant space.
So troll power, not struggle; troll patriarchy, not feminism; troll hypocrisy, not disagreement; troll structure, not station: troll upwards, not downwards. But resist the rush to concede the perch of the troll; it's all many of us have left.
If you're angry at your boss or playing hookey from work, you probably shouldn't tweet about it. Furthermore, warns Amber Yoo of <a href="http://www.privacyrights.org/" target="_hplink">PrivacyRights.org</a>, tweeting your opinions about work-related topics can lead to trouble in-office. "Unless they are glowing, don't Tweet opinions about your company, clients, products and services. Employers are increasingly monitoring employee conduct on Twitter," says Yoo. "A <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/15/fired-over-twitter-tweets_n_645884.html#s112801&title=Cisco_Fatty_Loses" target="_hplink">tweet could cost you your job</a> if you aren't careful."
Details from your personal history are best left out of your Twitter feed. You can put yourself at risk for identity theft by revealing your birth date and place, your social security number, your maiden name or your mother's maiden name. Twitter also advises users to be wary of phishing schemes. "People are not always who they claim to be on their Twitter profile and you should be wary of any communication that asks for your private contact information, personal information, or passwords," according to the <a href="http://support.twitter.com/entries/115246-safety-privacy-cyberbullying-and-cyberharassment" target="_hplink">Twitter Help Center</a>.
Twitter's <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/12/twitter-location-tool-exp_n_496464.html" target="_hplink">geolocation tool</a> can help you broadcast your location without squandering precious text space. However, geotags could potentially be used by stalkers to <a href="http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2010-08-08/foursquare-and-stalking-is-geotagging-dangerous/" target="_hplink">secretly track</a> someone's location. The good news is that you can <a href="http://support.twitter.com/articles/78525-about-the-tweet-location-feature" target="_hplink">turn this tool off</a> at any time.
Burglars have admitted to using social networks to plan <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/20/burglars-using-twitter-fa_n_652666.html" target="_hplink">home invasions</a>. If you share a public tweet saying that you'll be on vacation for a week, you're also telling your followers that you've left your home untended.
"Be careful not to share your daily routine," says Amber Yoo of <a href="http://www.privacyrights.org/" target="_hplink">PrivacyRights.org</a>. "Tweeting about walking to work, where you go on your lunch break, or when you head home is risky because it may allow a criminal to track you."
Children can be easy targets for online predators and identity thieves. You can keep your kids safe by leaving their names out of your Twitter feeds and refraining from tweeting about where you pick them up or drop them off every day.
Insurance companies have been known to check Twitter when <a href="http://www.ama-assn.org/amednews/2011/02/28/bisb0228.htm" target="_hplink">investigating compensation claims</a> and may even look to social media when <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/02/22/facebook-twitter-users-co_n_471548.html" target="_hplink">assessing a customer's risks</a>. Tweeting about frequent climbing trips, for example, could result in a premiums hike. If you've filed for disability compensation, your insurance company could search for your tweets about high-risk activities and use them to supplement a fraud case against you.
The Twitter Help Center <a href="http://support.twitter.com/entries/115246-safety-privacy-cyberbullying-and-cyberharassment" target="_hplink">advises</a> users not to engage with bullies: <blockquote>You may encounter people on Twitter who you don't like or who say things that you disagree with or find offensive. Please remain courteous, even if the other people are not. Retaliation can reinforce bad behavior and only encourages bullies. Don't forward or retweet bullying or mean messages. Remember that the things you say can be very hurtful to other people. Don't turn into a bully yourself.</blockquote>
It's a risky move to tweet photos that show what you look like and what your home looks like. Including geotags with these types of photos could put you at risk. Moreover, some smartphones <a href="http://www.switched.com/2010/08/24/i-can-stalk-u-reveals-twitpics-as-creepy-tracking-devices/" target="_hplink">automatically embed geolocation data</a> into your photos, and you may not realize how much private data you're revealing with a simple snapshot. According to <a href="http://www.privacyrights.org/geotagging-privacy" target="_hplink">PrivacyRights.org</a>, "Your real-time location may indicate your home and work addresses, your commuting patterns, what religious institution you visit, how often you go to a doctor, political rallies you attend or whether you are seeking the advice of a lawyer."
"Employers routinely check out Twitter prior to hiring an individual, and have referenced social networking as helping them make choices on future employees," says <a href="http://www.reputation.com/" target="_hplink">Reputation.com</a> founder Michael Fertik. "Use better than average common sense when uploading photos to Twitter - if you wouldn't want your boss or grandmother to see it, it's probably a good idea to hold tight and keep it offline."
Some Twitterers annoy other users by tweeting constantly. Sifting through minutiae on Twitter can be a chore. "It gets annoying and takes space and attention away from other Twitterers' links and observations," <a href="http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2345283,00.asp" target="_hplink">writes</a> PCWorld. "If you have that much to say, maybe it belongs on a blog."
Follow Seb FoxAllen on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@purpledocket