THE LULZ RESEARCH
CENTRE FOR LULZ RESEARCH
On 15th September 2011 the British tabloid The Sun launched their new ‘Target a Troll Campaign’, a response in part to the recent jailing of Sean Duffy who had just been found guilty of malicious communications after posting videos and messages online mocking the deaths of teenagers. The list of ‘troll’ activities in the article was certainly alarming and over the following months both The Sun and other UK tabloids such as The Daily Mail joined in the scare. Celebrities also used their power to complain – in March 2012 Richard Bacon appeared on TV in a documentary about his own battle with a troll and in April Noel Edmonds published a video about how he tracked down the troll who’d created a Facebook page called ‘Somebody please kill Noel Edmonds’. In May the MP Louis Mensch was in the news as a troll who’d abused her on Twitter and threatened her children was brought to trial. Throughout 2012 numerous other people were investigated or even jailed for offensive or malicious communications, such as the student Liam Stacey, jailed that March for 56 days for posting offensive, racist comments on Twitter after footballer Fabrice Muamba’s on-field heart-attack. Over the next few years a growing and often histrionic debate developed about acceptable online behaviour and the problem of ‘trolls’.
TROLLS AND LULZ
Trolling instead is a cultural phenomenon,and it is not new. I’m not sure how to define it, especially as it includes a spectrum of behaviours and reasons, but I want to defend a form of trolling: one I see as the leading contemporary expression of an older attitude – a historical and cultural spirit of disruption and challenge and play and humour. This is a spirit that, implicitly or explicitly, aims for the overturning or transformation of everyday life; for the exposure of this invisible, naturalized sphere as a construction and the revelation of its underlying values and assumptions and structures of authority. It is a mode of behaviour that is always disruptive, whether in confusing or irritating an individual or spoofing the authorities, and it is always challenging, in forcing us to look at and defend our values and the validity of the authorities we appeal to. And it is also always fun.
Except another point is important here.These aren’t even ‘trolls’ that they are attacking. At some point the concept of troll has been expanded to include almost any online behaviour that one might consider ‘offensive’. Trolls, in fact, aren’t necessarily offensive and may, indeed, be aiming at something other than simple offence. The more accurate, agreed definition of a troll is someone who posts material online to elicit a reaction or strong emotion, often for their own pleasure. But this definition no longer works either. Firstly it is obsolete because, with the rise of web 2.0 platforms and services, almost everyone is posting material to get a reaction and for their own pleasure. Imagine being on Facebook and no-one comments or likes your statuses. Ever. Or no-one replies to your texts. Ever. We all want a reaction. And reactions usually give us pleasure (and if they don’t, for example with a negative response, then we just post more material that counteracts that situation and makes us happier). But the most important reason why this definition of a troll doesn’t work is because it focuses upon the individual and hence treats trolling as a psychological phenomena; one that is implicitly pathologized and seen as needing explaining, usually very critically. But what if we learn nothing important about trolling from looking at the individual? It would be like trying to assess the historical and global meaning of World War I by asking soldiers why they signed-up. Personal meanings and explanations bring one type of knowledge, but they don’t bring the bigger and more significant picture.
Maybe there is also a sense of shifting boundaries that society needed to work through. The rise of a world of digitally empowered content and message creators has led to a structural transformation in the world of communication. We have, rather rapidly, gone from a situation in which only a minority were able to mass-produce and mass-distribute information and content to a world where this is the everyday norm for a huge proportion of the population. This shift was bound to cause problems and in particular it has led to new debates around online and communicational etiquette and the limits of free speech. This is where I begin to get worried. The tabloid anti-troll campaign has created a situation in which many people feel that something has to be done about the internet: that in some way more regulation and more control is essential and a social good. Let’s be clear, this is the first medium ever created in which almost anyone is able to produce for and communicate with almost anyone else, and we appear to be happy to push for this medium to be taken off us and placed more than ever before in the hands of the government and courts. Blaming ‘trolls’ for this situation is spurious. They are just a scare-story for a broader cultural and political assault upon the informational and communicational possibilities digital media offered.
Numerous points could be made here. The tabloid interest owed much to the ongoing Leveson inquiry and the need to deflect attention and public ire from their own excesses. Indeed, the behaviour of the mainstream press over recent decades provides the best example of trolling, including publishing innumerable offensive articles and headlines, exposing the private lives and behaviour of many individuals (the equivalent of the troll’s ‘doxing’) and finally, with the phone hacking scandal, demonstrating morally repugnant as well as illegal behaviour. Arguably, by this definition, the greatest ‘troll’ of UK culture over the last forty years has been The Sun itself. More particularly we could suggest that competition between old and new media was also behind this campaign, and in particular the growing hostility of a professional class to the rise of a public able to publish their own thoughts and more interested in each other than in the professional’s paid-for offerings.
Its power lies precisely in its reversive nature. If it gets too serious it loses the lulz and falls into the reality principle; if it is merely a game it poses no challenge, remaining too obviously within the golden circle of play and being too obviously digestible by the real. Instead it vacillates between the two, feinting from a critique that takes it too seriously to make the critic look stupid and pulling the rug from under the feet of those who dismiss it too easily. Trolling is never more serious than when it is a game and never more playful than when it strikes a serious target. This power of disruption, satire, play and humour cannot defeat the real by force – when threatened enough the order of the real responds with real threats and force – but what it can do is expose the real and stop us from believing in it. And what it can also do is lure the real into a trap through its own inadequate responses, making us immediately aware of its failings. The lulz can’t bring the revolution and won’t bring utopia but it does offer the possibility so beloved of the avant-garde of the a new world, a new life, a break-through into a different mode of experience and meaning at any moment. There is no point at which it is finally defeated. Every everyday reality contains the possibility of its exposure and reversal. And the possibility of enjoying this.
This site, the book I’m writing and the Research Centre are intended to explore the history and meaning of trolls and the lulz. They are also intended to defend a particular spirit as being vital to culture and society. They are concerned with both historical manifestations of this spirit and contemporary expressions online, through the work and activities of, for example, Lulzsec and Anonymous. Far from representing a horror that needs to be eradicated, certain forms of online 'trolling' are closely tied to critiques of existing systems of power and informational control and may well be the best hope we have of resisting, exposing and combating these systems and defending the first public medium allowing anyone to speak to anyone in history.