How Trolls make Arguments better (!)

This is the most incredibly awesome analysis of trolling ever.


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

8 thoughts on “How Trolls make Arguments better (!)

  1. I thought the analysis completely missed the point. It’s a matter of elementary logic, using their own data:

    1. There were trolls in the past: Socrates and the Sophists
    2. Socrates and the Sophists are all dead

    *Therefore*, conclusion so obvious only an idiot could miss it:

    3. There are no trolls in the present.


    What I do think they missed is the religious element of trollery. Trolls are priests in a mystery cult. They are in possession of special knowledge lacked by the profane masses; demonstrating this is an act of devotion.

  2. Agreed, it is the best I have seen yet…. But that’ snot saying much. Much of the essay reinforces the limited construct that trolls are just argumentative people, and perhaps even serve a useful purpose, shoreing up other people’s arguments and social skills.

    I agree there are disruptive people on any forum, but trolls and other sociopaths are a different animal entirely. They are uniquely motivated to destroy any rational or constructive discourse. This knowledge is noted in fragments throughout the piece, but it seems the authors’ desire to befriend their subjects overtook their analysis.

  3. ps. the article Chris cites is “Conversation Hackers”:[ by Olivier Morin and Sophie Claudel.

  4. Textile is, let’s face it, an absolute pain in the ass. Most sites I go to come equipped with formatting buttons. And three common HTML commands for links, blockquotes, and italic are enough for most purposes. Yes, one could try to learn textile. But why bother, when it’s never used anywhere else? Can we get our Pensée Sauvage around that?

  5. Hugh, I agree that the true vocational troll is more than just an extraordinarily argumentative person. There’s a threshold on the continuum. But what I liked about the article (which I did find a little superficial, I must admit, but it’s a blog post so ideally the nuances come out in the commentary there, here, and anywhere else the conversation gets taken up) is the refusal to reflexively defend a purified image of discourse by ritually casting out the Evil Other. And trollery is therefore taken to be a strategy of intervention rather than an essence of persons, which I think is correct.

    In one sense trollery is no more than a matter of perspective: any of us may appear trollish in the heat of argument (and there are ways of deflecting or withdrawing that are every bit as trollish in their subversion of the dialogic project). Perhaps this shouldn’t even be called trolling, as they say. I don’t know how well they do at drawing this out, but true trollery is interesting as a perversion of empathy: on the one hand, the perspective of the other has to be taken to determine what strategy will most successfully infuriate and derail them; on the other hand obviously that project is not empathetically mindful of the other.

    I think they’re right that it’s generally a power game. But again I think they miss the religious element of special knowledge, and therefore their analysis won’t quite open out into a consideration of how trollery, like so many other aspects of net life, might be a ‘natural’ outcome of modern anomie.

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