Our Inner Troll

One of my favorite observations by David Foster Wallace is about television, which he describes as essentially “watching furniture.”  As a recovered-TV-junkie (20+ years clean), I have long appreciated the sentiment; however, by contrast, the detachment involved in old-school TV viewing may be healthier for some than the two-way mirrors we use in our wired lives. Our screens of many sizes are not only private windows through which we can choose to view the world as we wish to see it, but they are also personal projectors through which we can reveal ourselves as we wish to be seen or even allow us to hide behind masks so that our latent monsters can roam free. These devices are not merely physical extensions of our hands but can be metaphysical extensions of our identities.  I joked with a friend who described herself on Facebook Chat as “moaning her head off” that she probably means “moaning her thumbs off,” complaining as she was via iPhone; but this isn’t entirely a joke, is it?  We might rekindle Descarte’s mind/body question to ask the new mind/body/gadget question. And would we conclude, I tweet therefore I am?

To what extent the id/gadget relationship presents itself must of course vary from individual to individual. Although we can probably assume that the association is strongest within the generation who’ve grown up alongside these devices and the social dynamics they’re programmed to foster, it is also true that some of the most extreme manifestations of this psychological shift are in no way restricted to the young.  Super-troll Michael Brutsch (aka Violentacrez), who was outed by Gawker in October of 2012, is a man in his mid-50s, who spent hours of his time moderating misogynistic and pedophiliac threads on Reddit; and he is cited as a prime example in this video from the series of original projects from Academic Earth entitled The Psychology of the Internet Toll.

Created by AcademicEarth.org

One of the contributors to this video, a man named Jack Collins, contacted me directly and asked that I consider sharing it on this blog, and I do think it offers interesting food for thought on the mechanisms by which two forces that appear contradictory — anonymity and a desire for attention — actually conjoin through social media to spawn the ugliest of behaviors.  What matters of course is not merely exposing extreme examples like Brutsch and labeling the disorders at play, but rather asking ourselves to what extent we are all made a bit more troll-like (I would say narcissistic) through these media and devices.  To quote Jaron Lanier, “It would be nice to believe that there is only a minute troll population living among us.  But in fact, a great many people have experienced being drawn into nasty exchanges online. Everyone who has experienced that has been introduced to his or her inner troll.”

Beyond the value of personal introspection on our own behaviors, I believe the McLuhan question as to what extent the medium becomes the message is particularly relevant when we consider the influence of these media on our political process and the ways in which certain dissociative trends can be unhealthy for democracy. To Lanier’s point about getting “drawn into nasty exchanges online,” how many of those exchanges are about politics? By my reckoning, quite a few. So, the question becomes whether or not this new form of public debate is really fulfilling its promise to add nuance or is instead homogenizing discourse because its mechanisms too often call upon the voices of our lesser angels, who fail to listen, learn, or empathize. And well beyond the matter of us getting a little bitchy on Facebook is the question as to the role of social media in what appears to be a rise in narcissistic behaviors in general.

In my last essay, I wrote about balancing free speech rights between recipients and disseminators because it seems as though the internet itself wants to assert the rights of recipients as somehow more important than those of disseminators.  This would be consistent with an ego that has begun to merge with its appended machine to the extent that whatever that machine may provide is perceived as an entitlement.  Through these devices (which by the way are destined to become wearable), is it possible that we cultivate a visceral association with words, pictures, and sounds to the extent that the body itself comes to expect all content to be a natural right like air is to lungs?  If so, this might explain why, at a certain point, the ego no longer recognizes the right of the other who may be harmed by one’s consumption of said content. This would explain not only the grotesque behaviors of a Michael Brutsch and his Reddit followers, but even the more subtle forms of everyday narcissism, including the ability to rationalize choices like media piracy in the name of an insidious notion called “permissionless culture.”

Popularized by scholars like Lawrence Lessig, “permissionless  culture” is assumed to mean that the permission being ignored or rejected is that of a corporate or government authority — some entity we feel should not even have the right to grant permission in the first place.  Unfortunately, the problem being overlooked is that we may indeed be fostering a permission-free culture — one that ignores individual permission from one another, and it is that permission that is the basis of all civil rights. If you don’t think there might be a relationship between ideas like “permissionless culture” and the rise in a phenomenon people are calling “rape culture,” I would recommend a visit to several of the threads on 4Chan.org, where frat-boy style narcissism is both medium and message in the service of what we might call a Cartesian circle jerk. With its population of anonymous, young males engaged primarily in a less-violent version of Brtutsch’s misogyny, 4Chan is no obscure anomaly, but is in fact one of the nebulae whence political action originates on issues pertaining to free speech and the internet, and it is the site where the hacktivists known as Anonymous got their start.  In his book Freeloading, Chris Ruen even cites 4Chan as one source of the early efforts to stop the SOPA bill, the relevance not being SOPA itself, but the discomforting consideration that my thoughtful, progressive friends and colleagues were to some extent influenced by a lot of teenage neanderthals.  This raises a question about all politics pertaining to the digital age with regard to identifying who exactly are those defenders of the web often referred to as the “internet community?”

Of course we all use the internet and have Facebook pages and some other social media accounts, but are we all part of the internet community?  Typically, this reference is used broadly in news media to describe influential bloggers, activists, or site owners who speak out for the health of the internet on a regular basis and with consistent messages. But every community has its thought leaders and its base, who do much of the disseminating, distilling, and even wrongly interpreting the messages of the thought leaders.  I suspect the base of the internet community is actually quite small, despite its power to influence through viral media, and that it is also demographically very narrow.  Specifically, I suspect that the base of the internet community just might be a fraternity of economically privileged 15-34 year-old males, who are the first generation of guinea pigs in the mind/body/gadget experiment. If this is true, and the politics of digital life are in fact dispersed through what may be a clique of narcissists, this can produce a dramatic change in the social contract on which democratic freedom is based. In light of the fact that, economically, the internet appears to spawn more consolidated, personal wealth while yielding very little middle-class opportunity, paying attention to our collective inner troll may be more important than we think.

© 2013, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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5 comments

  • The anti-circlejerk crowd is in fact a circlejerk itself (ie. hipsters). It’s circlejerks all the way down. Society is a endless cylinderjerk.

    • You have a point there. I believe this is due to our cognitive limitations – the fact we can only remember so many people at once (most of whom will be folks we interact with online). Thus, we will tend to focus on those who stand out in some way: by reason of shoutiness, persistence and perhaps – rarely – the persuasiveness of their message.

      Couple that with the way like-minded people spread the word about those they consider of interest and you see the emergence of foci based around some common ideas where everyone seems to know each other. All rather typical of the human state.

      • David Newhoff

        Of course, in the case of 4Chan, I use the term circle jerk literally, not in its internet jargon sense. And I’m making fun. The internet connotation refers to epistemic closure, where we find proof or support for our biases simply by finding or associating with people through social media who are likeminded. This is an important and interesting subject, and one that is, I think, related to the matter of narcissism or trollish behavior, but not the focus of this essay per se.

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