Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The value of internet trolls

One of the more interesting aspects of spending time contributing to online forums (including this blog and YouTube) is getting a front row seat into what is essentially the biggest anthropological experiment in the history of humanity. In fact, it’s a widely held misconception that the internet has its roots in a military project.

What actually happened was a bunch of very smart people sat around and came up with the idea of creating a worldwide computer network that would provide a method of interaction that appealed primarily to people with poor social skills. An integral part of the plan was to remove the primary constraint that makes most people behave reasonably (namely, the fear of being smacked in the mouth).

The central hypothesis of the experiment was that a significant proportion of the human race will behave like total jerks if you give them the chance. Well done those boffins.

All sarcasm aside, I really do see some value in bearing witness to what seems to be the proliferation of anti-social personality disorder that one sees online. (N.B. sarcasm will not actually be set aside in the writing of this post, that’s just a figure of speech) It certainly helps that I’ve chosen an angry persona for my online activities – at the very least, the morons I have to deal with on a daily basis provide plenty of fuel for angry rants.

But it also goes well beyond that. I have come to realise that the insane behaviour of trolls/haters/ whatever you want to call them is a useful reality check. Not in the way they usually mean. Here's a tip: anyone who claims the reason they are behaving like an obnoxious piece of shit and harassing people online because they're "keeping it real", "speaking the truth to the posers" or anything similar is an A-grade fuckwit. If you're such a fucking genius, create something of your own rather than spending all your time trying to drag down people who are actually doing something.

Where I find this behaviour to be a useful dose of reality is that it keeps me from forgetting one important fact: There are some really fucking stupid people out there. And I'm not talking solely about uneducated people (many people without a significant formal education are wonderful, insightful, thoughtful people.) I'm talking about people who will believe any shit that's fed to them, particularly if it plays into their prejudices. I'm talking about people who go beyond ignorance to the point where they aggressively assert their ignorance and loudly celebrate it as a virtue. You know, as opposed to taking some crazy approach like giving thoughtful, reasoned consideration to topics.

You're not exactly separating yourself from the herd by saying you don't believe the media. Many people say this reflexively. Ironically, they're usually the ones who will automatically believe outrageous lies (like Barack Obama is a Muslim) so long as it fits into their set-in-concrete bigoted mindset. But when you put yourself out there, even in a very small way like I have, you see something very interesting first hand. People will deliberately make up lies about you.

I'm not talking about people who say I'm not funny as opposed to bowing down and worshipping me as the god-like being I am, so far beyond their comprehension that they could never hope to understand how much better than them I truly am. No, I'm talking about people who fabricate lies out of whole cloth. Not people who draw incorrect conclusions about me. I'm talking about people who spread stories that they know for a fact are untrue. They assert that easily demonstrable lies are the truth. I'm talking, in short, about people who are deeply, deeply fucked.

It's easy to translate that into the obvious media liars - the tabloids, gossip mongers and entertainment "reporters". When you pay attention to them for a while, it becomes clear that gossip magazines don't just exaggerate, their favourite trick is to start with a photo and then completely fabricate a story to go with that photo. "Ooo, look at the bags under her eyes... let's say she's on drugs." "Hey, there's a shadow on his cheek... let's say it's a black eye from a night of drunken brawling." "Check out her having the audacity to tell the paparazzi to fuck off... let's say she's violent and out of control."

Like I said, it's one thing to know in the abstract that the media are probably lying. It's quite another thing to get first hand experience of some people's compulsion to lie. I mean, I'm nobody and yet people feel compelled to make up stupid bullshit about me. So why should I be surprised that when something that actually matters is on the line (like, say, a US Presidential election) that self interested thugs spread the most vile shit imaginable?

And nothing is so extreme that you won't find some freak willing to believe it. Even I don't believe that George Bush is a pedophile rapist. But apparently there are those who do.

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