Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.
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Monday 20 August 2012

How to be a troll.

I HAVE a confession to make.

I'm a troll.

Not the type that lives under bridges - or at least not yet - nor the kind that is inexplicably rammed on children's pencils for amusement. No, it seems that I am an internet troll, dark and anonymous, clawed and ugly, who sets out to ruin days and destroy lives.

Or at least I have been called that on the internet, so of course it must be true. We have come to accept words on the screen as somehow more reliable than words in books or newspapers, despite the fact these forms of publication require lots of people and lawyers, and to publish on the internet requires two fingers and the wish to stick them up at someone.

But then again, I'm not really what a troll is supposed to be. I don't post on the Facebook memorial pages for people who are murdered or missing saying they deserved it; I don't search out people on Twitter to call them a whore; I have not emailed any death threats to anyone's children.

But you do not need to do those things to be a troll any more. You need only to be yourself.

I have said things knowing they're controversial. I have disagreed with others, both celebrity and otherwise. I have waded into rows, picked fights for a laugh, and on occasion I've written something on the internet I realised ten seconds later was stupid and should be deleted.

You've probably done the same, and we've both made the mistake of thinking that's what the internet is for.

We're wrong, because apparently the internet's only purpose is to ensure uniformity of thought. The rules for what you're allowed to think change all the time but today's top ten would probably include:

* Julian Assange is the victim of a CIA and media conspiracy aimed at causing his eventual death
* Throwing a bottle of urine at a 19-year-old girl is funny
* Rupert Murdoch is Satan
* Caroline Flack is a paedophile
* You are compelled to say RIP about the death of strangers
* You are not allowed to offend anyone, ever
* Anything someone else says can be taken as offensive
* Being offensive is illegal
* Cats do the cutest things
* Jeremy Clarkson is a c***

It does not matter that all of the above are opinions, and it is both possible and entirely legal to have a different one. The fact is that if you do, it's best to keep quiet about it. Being different is not allowed.

If you happen to contravene one of the unofficial rules which change all the time, you are a troll. If you criticise someone, you are a troll. If someone wishes to disagree with you, you are a troll. If they do not want to consider the possibility they might be wrong, you are a troll. If you try to suggest a new rule, you are a troll unless lots of people agree with you in which case anyone who doesn't is a troll.

Everyone seems to be a troll in some way or another. It's almost a badge of honour, something which we used to differentiate people with and is now just a tag for vast swathes of humanity. And if no-one's told you that you're a troll then you're probably spam.

In the past 48 hours, for expressing an opinion others disagreed with, I was called a troll, a whore, a fool, a conspirator, a liar, a spy and unemployable by people who don't know me, my pimp or my MI6 handler.

I could call them trolls in return, but they're just people who want to tell off a stranger in as rude a way as possible. They haven't threatened, harmed or seriously upset me - they've just sent the one message in 30 or so which niggles a bit. They're not trolls so much as people who would like to be trolls.

But why would anyone want that? Well, because the rules are so very silly, that's why. The internet was designed to be a free exchange of views and information, and as we are forced through peer pressure and fear of ostracisation into being bland and inoffensive so there will be people who strive to be different.

And in a busy, anonymous world shouting and pointing at someone who is different delivers them celebrity, attention and validity. Therefore people who crave those things try the hardest to be noticed. Like the X Factor some of them are worth it, some are just deranged, and only a few get noticed.

There is someone I won't name - for reasons that will be obvious - who got lots of attention for writing offensive things about Gary Barlow and wife Dawn's stillborn baby. When asked why, he said he wanted to use the notoriety and besides, he could say what he liked.

And as unpleasant an attitude as that is, he's right. He can say (almost) whatever he likes within the law, with the exception of bomb threats and racist abuse. And if we choose to take the offence he gives us and reward him with attention, we're encouraging him to do it again.

Do you think Frankie Boyle would make nicer jokes if you told him often how much you disapprove of him? Do you think the 17-year-old who sent a stupid tweet to Tom Daley is a mentally healthier person having been arrested at 2.45am after trending on Twitter? Do you think someone with a disagreeable opinion about what constitutes rape will change it if you shout loud enough?

No, no, and no. And nor are they really trolls.

They're people. You might not like them, you might not want to share a pint with them, and you might think they have a serious personality disorder. They probably think exactly the same about you. But to call them a troll - even if they promote anorexia, threaten to kill your children, or call you a whore - means we stop noticing everything else about them. The fact they're unwell, for example, or that we'd do better to ignore them.

Any large group of people has its weirdos, and up close there's not a lot of difference between a genius and a whackjob. Neither washes very often, in my experience. The point of the internet was to bring all of us together, not dehumanise us to the point we all forget there is a person with eyes and ears and feelings and flaws at the other side of the keyboard.

We could introduce some proper laws to stop people being trolls, but that would be a lot like introducing a law forcing people to be nice, and the problem with that would be who gets to define 'nice' and whether we don't inadvertently outlaw being 'different'.

Better instead, perhaps, to set our own rules for the internet. You'll have yours - these are mine:

* Avoid the mentally ill unless you're qualified to deal with them
* Remember this is supposed to be fun
* I'm allowed to think Jeremy Clarkson's funny
* If you want the internet to agree with you, switch it off and go outside
* Shouting is not the same as proving your point
* Swearing at things is fine, swearing at people is not
* Insults and compliments should be received with a smile
* The people who don't tell you what they think are the most interesting
* Rules need to be tested
* Do not live under a bridge and shout at schoolchildren about pencils

It's a work in progress and I expect they'll change later today. The good thing about them not being official is you can tweak them as you go. But generally it comes down to the fact the web is only 22 years old, Facebook is eight and Twitter is six, and we are cavemen who have not evolved as fast as they have.

Some people get a kick out of saying something intentionally hurtful to others. This is the only thing that can be called trolling, and it's a bad thing to spend your time doing. It's just plain silly to not bother being polite, to rely on the internet as a form of undeniable truth, or to think an opinion is worth holding if you can't be bothered to argue it coherently.

It is never, ever, bad to be different - and it certainly doesn't make you a troll.

 Caveman or pencil accessory? You decide.