Up Front by Emma Hart


Fairy-Tale Autopsies

I never wanted to be one of those incredibly annoying self-appointed Guardians of Language. Words shift and change, and it's fascinating. I've even been working on not flinching when people say "less" instead of "fewer".

 What I do still find problematic is the point in the shift of language where a word starts to gain more general meaning, and there's no other word that conveys the precision it used to have. Or when a word – say, "significant" – has a precise meaning in one context, and also a more general usage, and confusion arises. I guess I just like having a bunch of different tools.

 So I hope I'm allowed a little moment to mourn the passing of the old, precise, technical meaning of the word "troll", and its morphing into a general insult. It's now seemingly being used to cover two different things I still find it important to distinguish. So I'm going to take a moment to dissect the corpse and see what can be learned from the anatomy of a Troll.

 There are important things – or at least, there used to be, and when I say "important", that's a relative term – that differentiate a Troll from just "some fuckwit on the internet".

 A Troll wants two things from an internet community: its pain and its attention. Positive attention and no attention at all seem to annoy Trolls about equally*. Both will make their bad behaviour escalate. They will say whatever they think it takes to get a rise out of a community, and it matters not at all if they actually believe what they're saying. Attention makes them stronger, but they're specially vulnerable to being ignored, and laughter. And slash weapons.

 Contrast this with what I call the True Believer. They absolutely mean what they're saying. What they want from a community is to change minds, to have somebody say, "Hey, you're right!"  Just like the person who turns up on your doorstep to talk to you about God, they're not interested in an actual conversation. A True Believer won't listen to what you say, or respond to it. They actually can't, because they're Believers. They argue from Faith, not Logic, and your experience, information and scientific studies have no chance against their Shield of Voluntary Ignorance.

 Actually, I told a lie. Let me come clean. I don't call them True Believers. I call them Tinkerbells. They're so bright and happy and sparkly and they make that cheery noise. And then they make it again. And again. Imagine an adorable curly-haired toddler standing next to your ear with a bell.

 So. Let's pop Tinkerbell up on the slab too. Tinks are often unfailingly polite, even while expressing some quite interesting bigotry. They usually have a fairly firm grasp of spelling and grammar, whereas your average troll can misspell some fairly offensive words. Tinks will never call you names. Most importantly, Tinks are not actually trying to hurt you. Trolls are.

 That said, I totally understand why Tinks get called Trolls sometimes.

 Neither a Troll nor a Tink is actually listening to you. The Tink can't, the Troll has no reason to. If you make a point while engaging them, neither will actually respond to it, preferring instead the Shifty Shifty Goalposts tactic. The Troll does this to keep you talking. The Tink does this because their belief has no structure, therefore there is no relation between one idea and the next. And you can't argue with that. Or at least you shouldn't, because it's a crushing waste of key-strokes.

 Both Tinks and Trolls will pursue a discussion to its bitter, bitter end. On the rare occasions that they give up before everyone else goes away, they will pull the Full Flounce. With neither a Tink nor a Troll is there the slightest chance that even your fineliest-honed wittiest response will make the slightest impression. You. Cannot. Win. Fuckers are like Weebles.

 So I'm guessing some of you are thinking, "Emma, given both Tinks and Trolls seem to be utter munting twatcocks, why is it important to discriminate between them? And where's my merlot?"

 Now, of course I think it's important, or I wouldn't be wasting all of this time and wine that, admittedly, I wasn't really using for anything else.

 Trolls are actually comparatively simple to deal with. Give them enough rope, cut down the corpse and chuck it out the door. Hope you haven't let them do too much damage in the process.

 Tinks are much more problematic. They're just saying what they, for want of a snarkier word, think. The last thing you want to do is lose the moral high ground to one – mostly because they absolutely love it. Call a Tink a Troll and they'll prance about being all ostentatiously offended, with their "I guess I crossed the Hive Mind", and their "You're just a big clique of Mean Girls", and their "You can't handle the truth!" and their Fucking Bells. The sound of bells carries a long way from the Moral High Ground.

 Consider Damien O'Connor. Is he a Tink – a genuine anti-union homophobe – or was he just trolling the Labour Party? If a Tink, he's been a massive failure, because frankly I would love it if all our opponents were that stupid. If a Troll, he's had quite the win, even managing to get Phil Goff to sort of say that all West Coasters are rednecks. I'd kind of like to know. Regardless of where he should be filed, though, that was one heck of a flounce.


*It may, in fact, not be possible to give a Troll positive attention without immediately descending into sarcasm. Obviously I'm not going to be the person who finds this out.

Emma Hart is the author of the book 'Not Safe For Work'.

(Click here to find out more)

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