Trolling for the Lulz?: Using genre and character theories to understand the likelihood and severity of transgressive humour and other Internet trolling in online communities

Internet trolling as a term has changed in meaning since it first entered mainstream use on the Internet in the 1990s. In the 2010s it has come to refer to the posting of provocative or offensive messages on the Internet to harm others. This change in usage of the term opens up new challenges for understanding the phenomonen, especially as some are still resistant to taking it beyond its original meaning. This paper tries to distinguish the 1990s kind from the 2010s kind by referring to the former as classical trolling and the latter Anonymous trolling. Taking part in the former is considered to be ‘trolling for the Lolz’ (i.e. positive) and the second to mean ‘trolling for the Lulz’ (i.e. negative). Through using document and genre analysis this paper finds that there are common ways in which Anonymous trolling manifests differently on different platforms. The paper concludes by presenting a model for understanding which genres of online community are at risk for particular types of trolling

5 Replies to “Trolling for the Lulz?: Using genre and character theories to understand the likelihood and severity of transgressive humour and other Internet trolling in online communities”

  1. == Review Summary ==
    ‘Trolling for the Lulz’ is not yet ready for publication nor is it sufficiently well developed to warrant a revise and resubmit rating. At present, this work suffers from numerous critical and fundamental flaws in its writing and argumentation. These flaws can be solved, but not without a near complete overhaul of the manuscript. Further, these shortcomings are so detrimental to the work that they make it all but impossible to perform a review that engages with any possible intellectual contributions of the manuscript. Instead, this review documents the major shortcomings for this work and offers suggestions, where appropriate, on how to avoid such shortcomings in future versions of the manuscript.

    == Areas for Improvement ==
    Citations
    Perhaps the most significant problem with the current manuscript is a shocking lack of citations to validate the many claims and anecdotal evidence provided in this submission. For example, the very first sentence in the article reads:
    “Over the last year, the term ‘Internet Trolling’ has emerged to reflect any form of harassment via a communications system.”

    This is a rather bold statement to make without a proceeding citation. Part of the reason this statement demands a citation is because it does not appear to be accurate at face value. Troll as a term/concept did not just appear in 2012. Troll has been a part of the Internet vernacular since the days of Usenet (1980s). The first Wikipedia page on Troll (Internet) started in 2002 [1] and there is research on trolling in computer-mediated communication that goes back into the 1990s and beyond [2, 3, 4]. Without a citation and explanation, why should the reader believe this statement?
    The problem with citations continues throughout the paper and are too numerous to mention in this review. But, as a general rule, if you make a statement or need to define something (like the definition of troll), then you should provide a citation or make it clear to the reader that this is a new idea and part of your novel work. For example, see page 6 of the manuscript, lines 13-20. Why should the readers believe the statement that Facebook is “no different than GeoCities” without further citation and argumentation? On the surface this looks like a gross oversimplification of the differences between two sociotechnical systems from, arguably, two different eras of the Internet.

    Further, the frequent use of popular news/press stories about Internet trolling all need to be cited. Readers cannot take the authors of a manuscript at their word. For an example, see page 6 of the manuscript, lines 34-48 about the Swansea miners. This is the type of material that needs to be cited so that readers who are not familiar with recent events in Wales can remain informed about the contents of the manuscript.

    While there is no absolute rule for the number of citations that are required in a manuscript, it is not uncommon for a journal article of this length to use a couple dozen references. This particular paper would arguably require even more citations than the typical manuscript due to the high number of news stories that are used as a form of evidence (and need to be cited).

    Argument/Flow
    Overall, the argument and flow of this manuscript requires much additional work. In general, the reader should have a rough idea of the research questions, research method, and contributions of the work by the end of the Introduction. This paper makes almost no attempt to provide the reader with any such information at any point throughout the manuscript.

    After reviewing this work, it is still not entirely clear what was studied or how those things were studied. The paper sorely needs a “Research Design” section that explicitly states the goals and procedures for the research on which this manuscript is based. For an example of why this is important, please see page 8 of the manuscript, lines 24-38. This passage appears to be the novel assessment of how Yahoo!Answers operates as experienced by the authors as a part of their research but there is no way for the reader to know how this conclusion was reached or if it is a valid conclusion given the research context.

    Writing Quality
    In general, the quality of the writing presented in this manuscript needs to be improved and is not up to the professional standard expected at an academic journal. As an example, the ‘Research Highlights’ section has numerous grammatical and stylistic problems that set a poor tone for the rest of the paper. The first bullet point reads:
    “Reviews the impact on Internet trolling on the way different types of online community are used. For instance it is found Twitter is now used more like an instant message application than a blog.”

    Statement Issues
    1. It is not clear if this paper is about the impact *on* trolling itself or the impact trolling has had *on* the use of online communities.
    2. Arguably, it is awkward to say that an online community itself is “used.” Communities are complex social entities and not objects that get used in the same way as a blog or email. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that community technologies or platforms are used differently based on the nature of the trolls that inhabit those communities.
    3. The second sentence is cluttered (“it is found” is unnecessary), missing a , after “For instance”, and poorly worded.

    Unfortunately, the writing quality does not improve by the end of the manuscript. The authors are strongly encouraged to submit their work to trusted peers and advisors for feedback on their writing before submitting that work for professional peer review.

    == References ==
    [1] http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Troll_(Internet)&dir=prev&limit=500&action=history

    [2] http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol2/issue4/danet.html
    [3] http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol8/issue3/stromergalley.html
    [4] http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol10/issue2/honeycutt.html

  2. The topic of the paper is extremely relevant as it demonstrates how the politics of transgression can reveal the diversity of online cultures. In other words, how transgression is defined and appropriated says a lot about the nature of these groups. The author shows a clear understanding of this in his/her discussion of a wide array of online communities in which trolling appears. Specifically, the paper closely follows a model that discusses different categories of trolling in order to bring an in-depth understanding to the topic. Unfortunately, it falls short of this goal and instead ends up giving examples for each category. The paper has the potential to develop into an interesting piece, but it requires extensive revisions, more research/reading, and critical analysis of the case studies. While I recommend rejecting the paper for this journal, I sincerely encourage the author to revise his/her work to develop a critical stance of the category-based model that forms the backbone of the paper. Some of the flaws I saw in the paper are noted below:

    1) Overall this paper lacks a strong cogent argument. The Introduction engages with some of the scholars in the field, but the author’s position is not clearly stated. In other words, the “so what?” question is at large. Also, the author seems to be closely following the theoretical framework of one of the scholars whose name has been removed. I think it would serve her well if she were to examine this model with a more critical eye and think about ways in which she can revise or improve this model.
    2) The paper has a variety of specific examples, but it would be nice to hear the methodology of the paper. How was the data collected for instance? What makes the selected examples most suitable for the topic?
    3) What is good about this paper is that it touches upon a variety of platforms. This makes the paper interesting and engaging. But the author should make it clear what the purpose of each section is. Otherwise, the paper appears to be made up of fragmented sections that don’t form a cohesive whole.
    4) Throughout the paper, there are instances of sloppy use of terminology:
    i. Facebook is not exactly a personal homepage, the latter term denotes a web page
    ii. Twitter is not an instant messenger, if anything Twitter is as an asynchronous communication platform.
    iii. Wiki (peida) is most definitely not hypertext fiction, please visit Eastgate.com to see what hypertext fiction looks like.
    5) I urge the author to do more reading on the topic. Especially, the section on 4chan is lacking. I recommend reading Lee Knuttila’s piece http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3665/3055

    i. Cole Stryker’s book Epic Win for Anonymous
    ii. Kelly Bergstrom’s Don’t Feed the Troll, http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3498/3029
    iii. Gabriella Coleman’s “Phreaks, Hackers, and Trolls and the Politics of Transgression and Spectacle” Social Media Reader.
    iv. Judith S. Donath “Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community,” http://smg.media.mit.edu/people/Judith/Identity/IdentityDeception.html
    v. Julian Dibbell’s work
    vi. Bakioğlu, Burcu’s “Negotiating Governance in Virtual Worlds: Grief Play, Hacktivism & LeakOps in Second Life.” and “Spectacular Interventions of Second Life: Goon Culture, Griefing, and Disruption in Virtual Spaces.”

    The paper is riddled with awkward phrasings, grammatical errors, punctuation mistakes that require editing.

    Detailed Comments:

    Introduction:
    I understand the media is hyping the trolling incidents to gain viewership and that they are causing moral panic, but I don’t see this being a “science-fiction like dystopia.” More importantly (since the author seems to be aware of Whitney Phillips’ work), trolls use media to amplify the spectacle they create. So Phillips argues that both trolls and media have developed a symbiotic relation of some sorts (The House that Fox Built: Anonymous, Spectacle, and Cycles of Amplification).

    I am not sure I see a shift in the understanding of trolling per se the way it is phrased here. I also disagree with the author’s suggestion it was Whitney Philips’ interview that led to the change in the perception of trolling to be “the posting of electronic messages that are either provocative or offensive.” Lately, her name has been in the foreground on account of her research on trolling but the topic was discussed by other scholars such as Judith S. Donath “Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community,” http://smg.media.mit.edu/people/Judith/Identity/IdentityDeception.html much earlier. A lot of other scholars have written about the anti-social behaviour and transgressive activities here and there too: Howard Rheingold comes to mind, within the context of virtual worlds Julian Dibbell wrote a Rape In Cyberspace, Gabriella Coleman has a chapter called Phreaks, Hackers, and Trolls and the Politics of Transgression and Spectacle.

    The term “elder” is being used in a specific way here so it needs to be explained before it is used.

    The author seems to suggest, that Philips characterise trolls as “vile” creatures as suggested in the sentence, and that others have jumped in the bandwagon just a year after Phillips gave her interview. I don’t think she ever considers her subjects in a negative light.

    I agree with the author’s statement that it is important to distinguish between the trolling activities done for entertainment and those done to harm others. However, I don’t think any of the scholars are treating trolling as a single category as it manifests itself in different forms in different platforms (as the author herself has demonstrated in the rest of the paper). Phillips herself acknowledges as much in her Atlantic article located here:
    http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/10/what-an-academic-who-wrote-her-dissertation-on-trolls-thinks-of-violentacrez/263631/

    As explained in the paper, I am not sure I understand the difference between classic trolling and Anonymous trolling. The author suggests that classic trolling is the one done for entertainment and Anonymous trolling is done to harm others. But I disagree with this classification. In fact, some of the trolling gets out of hand and may harm others, for instance, it may cause psychological distress etc., but there is really no way of knowing this in advance.

    I do think the concept of transgressive acts needs to be explained defined since it is a complex term laden with meaning.

    AWK: “Original genres like home pages” The term “genre” has a very specific meaning which does not relate to “home pages.” That sentence needs to be revised for clarity and meaning.

    The Introduction section ends with an overview of various platforms, but what is the purpose of this overview?

    There are some thought provoking ideas here, but I am not clear what the goal of this paper is. In other words, thesis statement/argument is missing.

    12 Types of Internet Troller:
    Personally, I heard the word “troller” for the first time here. So the author suggests that a troll is the one who engages in these activities for the entertainment. These classifications seem to be pushing it a bit and aren’t so convincing. From my own research, I know that it would be erroneous to view trolling/griefing groups as distinct: they tend to merge, appropriate different strategies or deploy several of them at once etc. What about emergent trolling behaviour? Is this table able account for those?

    More importantly, the reader needs to know how this taxonomy is relevant to the overarching argument.

    Jarring transition to viral e-mail and viral transfer of transgressive humour What is the relationship of the paragraph on viral e-mails to the troller categories? Flame trollers use viral transgressive humour?

    This section is somewhat confusing especially since the reader isn’t sure where the discussion is going.

    Personal Homepage (Facebook)
    Facebook pages are not really personal home pages. The term personal homepage refers to one’s website.

    The first sentence needs to be revised for grammar/style/clarity.
    AWK: “self-authored Facebook pages”

    Trolling of memorial Facebook pages is a fascinating topic. What can we say about the trolls’ motivation? For instance, Phillips and Alice Marwick have interesting papers on this topic. One of their arguments is that trolls don’t attack these sites to be vicious, but they do so because the people who are posting on those pages are merely “grief tourists.” Oftentimes, they don’t even know who the deceased is. That is what the trolls are reacting against. So I guess we need some kind of explanation/description of what separates this type of trolling from others.

    Weblogs
    I think the term “genre” is being used for the term “type” of trolling… If this is correct, it is an inappropriate use of the word. We can’t talk about genres of trolling. Do we mean racist comments here when we say transgressive jibe?
    The section needs to be edited/revised.

    Wiki and Hypertext Fiction
    The last two sections focus on how trolls harass the Welsh people, but the truth of the matter is that trolls harass various ethnic groups and minorities like African-Americans, women, gays etc. So Welsh happens to be one of the groups.

    4chan
    The author’s knowledge of 4chan boards is limited. 4chan was originally created as an image board for Manga fans. It is the American version of Japanese Futaba Channel (2chan). Offensive content is getting posted, so is porn, sure, but we need to acknowledge that 4chan is much more that trolling.

    And in these boards, Welsh is not the only ethnic group that gets harassed: African-Americans, women, gays get trolled worse than the Welsh.

    I stopped writing notes here.

  3. The manuscript addresses an issue that is interesting and important, but does so in a way I found confusing and incoherent. The author is apparently concerned with a minor corner of the Internet and some peoples’ misbehaviours there. What importance that has, what it might teach us, or how it relates to the more widespread issues of trolling are not clear from reading this paper. If illustrative examples are to be used, they need to be connected clearly to the general topic.

    The paper claims to be using “genre and character theories”. So far as I can tell only one theory is referenced, and it is one that does not seem to be widely used in the literature. Theories used to ground a paper’s discussion should be introduced and at least minimally explained, which this paper does not do.

    The author seems to have an idiosyncratic and unique notion of the origin of trolling, relating it to an interview in a UK newspaper and to a Labor Party MP, a student in Swansea and so on. It’s possible that these events, which may be somehow related to Phillips’ publication (referenced) are important in a local context but hardly seem relevant in the larger (world-wide) discussion of trolling that is ongoing. In general, the paper seems not to discuss the larger context, which makes it hard to understand the derivation of the two taxonomies (frameworks) reported in the paper. To put it plainly, the tables and their categories appear made up from whole cloth, rather than synthesised from the sorts of wide or longitudinal studies one expects.

    Finally, I found the wording and sentence structures to be convoluted and overly opaque. The generalised attack on popular media was, I thought, unnecessary and unsubstantiated. The author would do well to consider simpler and less baroque prose while keeping focus on the purported topic of a publication.

  4. The paper does not fit within any recognisable research paradigm for human-computer interaction.

    The paper does not fulfil any promises of its abstract (e.g., to “review recent conceptual understandings of online communities”) – of course, that could be fixed by rewriting the abstract, but the paper has far deeper problems.

    It is written in and reads as if it is a popular media article, perhaps for a South Wales version of Wired. It makes ad hominem asides without appropriate citations, and makes political and other opinionated asides that are not supported by argument or further evidence. (Direct quoting, with sources, to ensure the writing is better objectified, would be preferable to paraphrasing.)

    The paper also makes a variety of condescending and pedantic statements (e.g., on spurious etymology of troll etc), that again are not supported by appropriate uses of the literature.

    The anecdotal discussion is of course fascinating, but for a scientific paper these claims need to be assessed against the baselines. Is, for example, the discussion of suicides in Bridgend and example of a common phenomenon or an outlier the author has selected? It is certainly interesting to see such examples, but unless there is an argument (often, in turn, founded on statistical arguments) that somehow these examples are representative (or counter-examples) of a principled phenomenon, they are just isolated stories and do not support a scientific paper. Is 4chan representative of some social phenomenon, or an outlier, and if so how? Etc. What is the general lesson that can be drawn out of the discussion?

    The paper does propose a “trolling magnitude scale” but a very similar version has been previously published (Bishop 2012c). The scale has unjustified (in the strict sense – there is no explanation) modifications since the earlier published work. The modifications are not explicitly related to any previous discussion in the paper, nor are the differences with the previous publication discussed (this is Chinese Whispers, and means that any person citing “the” scale will be unwittingly citing a variation of the scale). The present paper does not appear to contribute to (e.g., help validate) this off the wall scale.

    The claims of the scale are not evaluated, and indeed it seems to serve no particular purpose. The scale does not help clarify or taxonimise any discussion in the paper. Surely if this scale is relevant to the topic (why else does it appear in the paper?) it might be applied to the evidence already laid out.

    It is strange that the earlier scale in Bishop 2012c is not reviewed at the start of the paper, and its limitations highlighted by the evidence recruited. One might then conclude with insights.

    Interacting with Computers is an international scientific journal. One expects submissions to make clear contributions to the discipline that generalise so that other readers can build on them, ask further questions, do experiments, etc, and do so with confidence. The paper, whilst certainly full of interesting stories, does not make any claims in the relevant field, and does not provide any substantiated contribution to the literature of the field. HCI issues could be based in psychology, social sciences (wherein there is a huge literature this paper has ignored), ethics, the computer science of security, … all sorts of well-known and interesting issues … Unfortunately, the paper is not framed in any recognisable HCI paradigm, and it fails to create a new one, most simply because it is confusing journalism for research. The references actually used are mostly pretty banal.

    To be more positive, I’d strongly recommend the author(s) read, say, Cox & Cairns, Research Methods for Human-Computer Interaction, CUP, that is, if the author(s) wish to publish in this field.

    1. If the paper does not fit within the journal the editor should not have sent it out for review, which will have wasted the time of the author and reviewer. As the editor sent it out a number of times I can only assume it fits within the scope of the journal.
      I write my research for people to read (especially students) not prize-winning laureates! I am the world’s most published researcher on Internet trolling and the first person in the world to have published an edited volume on Internet trolling – I think I have an authority this reviewer is unlikely to have! The trolling magnitude scale is rated 1 to 4 – the model in this paper extends its understanding as do the models in other published work that use it!
      I have a research methods masters and have been taught by top professors. This reviewer can get stuffed if they think they are going to push their research philosophy onto me! I am not a positivist, materialist, or objectivist so this reviewer can stick that philosophy where the Sun doesn’t shine as they are not going to force their worldview on to me!
      The reviewer can stick Cox & Cairns up their patronizing butt!

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