I started writing a couple of articles for a website last summer. It was kinda fun and I enjoyed interacting with the readers who post their thoughts in the comments section.
I don’t mind criticism. I am critical of many things myself, including myself. I encourage dissent and argument. I think these things are healthy.
One thing has bothered me, though. A few weeks after I published an article about my dislike for the orange foods – sweet potato, pumpkin, carrots, butternut squash and the like – that are so disappointingly prevalent on menus in the autumn.
Shortly after it went live, a commenter weighed in.
“Ah… a trolling article,” he or she wrote. “Anyways… your loss… as I love the autumnal soup season… I love roasted pumpkin all nutty earthy and sweet… sweet potato is great in curries. I do one with sweet potato, spinach and chickpeas that is a total winner.”
First of all, that curry doesn’t sound like a total winner to me. It sounds disgusting. But that’s not my main complaint. I am much more bothered by the accusation of “trolling”.
It’s a fascinating word. With origins in the earliest internet message boards, it plays off of both meanings of a pair of homonyms: the verb “to troll”, a method of fishing; and the noun, the monster from Scandinavian folklore. Trolls try to lure unsuspecting victims into conflict (and eventually exasperation) with the bait of an exaggerated, if not fully fabricated argument and inflammatory rhetoric. The person engaging in the behaviour is called a troll because he or she is acting grotesquely, monstrously, with the safety provided by the internet’s secrecy and anonymity.
This was not the first time I was accused of trolling, nor, probably, the last (it happened again later in the month). But the word implies dishonesty, and honesty is important to me. So I am here to clear my name: I was not trolling, and I am not a troll.
Troll is a perfect word for the internet age, speaking to the general sense of distrust we operate under on the web. We receive tweets, emails and Facebook messages from people pretending to be people other than themselves, or robots pretending to be people, forwarding an informative link, just like we do. “Check this out,” it says casually, the voice of a friend. “You’ll love this. Click here.” Sitting at our computers for so much of the day every day, reading words typed by someone somewhere far away, scrolling through lists of screen names and columns of carefully chosen avatars, we’ve been taught to watch out for the impostor.
But I think we have more to lose by erring towards suspicion than we do towards gullibility. We hurt ourselves when we dismiss people too quickly. It’s easy to just lob an accusation of intellectual dishonesty out there and skate past any disagreement without engaging it. Better, I think, to suspend suspicion whenever possible, to give the benefit of the doubt, to take statements at face value.
I take care to represent my true feelings when I write. It’s important to me that I believe every word that’s published under my name, or my pseudonym. Notwithstanding, obviously, instances when I am making an ironic joke. And I trust readers’ discernment. I might use exaggeration for effect (“I would rather die than eat sweet potato curry.”) But never to a point, I hope, that clouds my meaning. Trust me, I say implicitly, with every keystroke. I would not lie to you.
For years the news has been awash in stories of identity theft, credit-card scams and instances of “catfishing” – when an especially cruel fraudster engages a victim in an online romance with ulterior motives, like the Manti Te’o scandal from 2013. Seems we read about new breadths of the GCHQ dragnet every day. It’s no wonder we’re paranoid.
But paranoia is a very unhealthy outlook, one that we should eschew. (Scepticism and vigilance are fine, even advisable; paranoia is, by definition, an errant excess.) It is, as Ray Davies told us, a “destroyer”. It destroys possibility. It cuts off communication. It makes the world smaller.
“Don’t feed the trolls” is the popular expression, warning against the wasting of time and energy in fruitless argument. Because the troll is not really arguing – the troll is laughing. The troll is laughing at you for taking him seriously. The troll does not take you seriously.
I, however, do take you seriously. I imagine you are a person much like myself, sitting in front of a computer screen, reading and writing words just like I am. Communicating in these new, exciting and sometimes treacherous ways that these marvelous new machines now allow.
So please, do feed me! Feed me your comments, your complaints, your arguments. But do not feed me orange vegetables. Honestly, they’re the worst.