09/03/2013 05:27 EDT | Updated 11/03/2013 05:12 EST

Trolling - I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

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.

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