According to statistics polled in June 2012, of the seven billionish people alive around the world about 34% of them are online–in North America that number blooms to over 78% of the continent. Worldwide, this amounts to about 2.4 billion individuals who are sharing their thoughts, opinions and perspectives through cybercultural exchange, screen-to-screen. That’s a massive conversation between vast, self-organizing groups of users, predominantly from the English-speaking West, sharing stories, multimedia and original content by talking, listening and talking back to each other outside traditional constraints and historical limitations. For anonymous users the proximal impositions of space-time and the assumptions associated with face-to-face communication like verifiable authenticity, identity and visibility are increasing becoming irrelevant. As time passes and more individuals from developing nations gain access to computers, smartphones, and Internet services, these statistics continue to grow and the global conversation(s) become more diffuse, heterogeneous and obfuscated. As growing numbers of marginalized populations of individuals of all ages, races, politics, and subjectivities venture online, their voices too will enter the cacophony and depending on how long they choose to listen and what they eventually say, they may find audiences where historically they would have been silenced or remained silent. For the minority of users who’ve been online for nearly two decades already, anonymity has become more than just second nature, its become a conscious operating assumption. This assumption is to greater or lesser extents affecting the anonymous awareness of the global communities online and in the world at amazing speeds and at times, to terrifying degrees of intensity. I can say this with only because I have recently become affected as such, and am writing this to share what I’ve learned.
Two months ago I bought a domain name and started my first blog to share the theoretical research I’d been developing for my Master’s degree concerned with better understanding the concept of anonymity. I shared hyperlinks to a post titled ‘What is Anonymous?’ widely and traffic to my blog exploded. After six days, it had received over thirteen hundred visits from over fifty countries. At first I was thrilled by this exposure, but soon I became apprehensive when strange things started to happen on my laptop, smartphone and home network. Threatening messages encoded in ASCII(?) appeared in one of my personal documents (stored in the cloud), logins and passwords to multiple accounts stopped working, contacts in my smartphone inexplicably disappeared and I even received phone calls from individuals refusing to identify themselves and asking me for my personal information. Incidentally, I decided to abruptly stop taking the prescribed medication I’d been on since being clinically diagnosed with adult ADHD in October ’12. In short, I got spooked, big time.
In less than a week all the original content from my blog appeared copied and pasted onto several other aggregate websites (where it was subsequently re-tweeted, re-blogged and commented on) without attribution, permission or context. Soon after, I deactivated the blog and disappeared from the Internet for a few weeks, more paranoid, angry and confused than I’d ever been. After overcoming withdrawal from the meds and completely avoiding screens for over a week, I met with a psychiatrist and was informed that I’d suffered a manic episode as a result of stopping my medication. The symptoms of paranoia, grandiose delusions and confusion such were commonly accepted in the psychiatric discipline as indications of mania, but occurred in remote cases that they didn’t bother to warn me. Trying to explain to the doctor that what had actually happened was that I was successfully ‘trolled’ didn’t make matters any easier for anyone involved to accept. As time passed I was left with more questions then answers, but had commitments and responsibilities in my life that needed attention so I focused on getting myself back to a functioning state, it’s been a slow, difficult process but I am now back to my usual distract-able (and drug free), Internet loving self.
I realize now that my attempt to theorize a concept which not much (if anything) had been written from within was not coincidence. I didn’t know at the time, but my desire for immediate feedback and dissemination of my work was my critical gap and my naive (ignorant) optimism, my fatal flaw. As I genuinely tried to share my work in some of the oldest, most active (and chaotic) anonymous communities, I soon realized that there was much I did not grasp. Having only participated in anonymous cybercultural production for three years, I soon realized that the duration and amount of time and attention I’d spent online was still only a fraction of what other users have experienced (by orders of magnitude no less). I assumed that I was in some sort of privileged position to describe my experiences and the that by virtue of my naive optimism, I would be protected, accepted and engaged with on my open blog, about matters which are largely and have up to recently, been hidden from public discourse. My work, regardless of any ostensible soundness, dealt with anonymity acutely and in a frivolous and irreverent way. As such, I was open to be perceived variously as: arrogant, amusing, mundane, offensive and maybe even incisive. In reality, I’d broken the first two ‘Rules of the Internet,’ (yes, such a thing exists) which to paraphrase, amount to: ‘specificity is bad’. As a result, my personal network security, privacy and ultimately mental health came under attack in an equally irreverent and frivolous manner and my assumptions were brought to bear on my work and my life in a very real, affective way. After debugging all this I decided to try again, and return to sharing my work here on specktral speculations.
This time, I am working from the assumption that any theory concerned with the relations between affect and anonymity must be conceived in terms that can be related by positive differences between a wide array of heterogeneous haeccities. While focusing on describing the motion, in degrees and gradients of becoming, in and between unique anonymous users and their local minorities communities’ (lack of) awareness, I hope to better understand trends amid the unity of their becomings while not eschewing the complex relationality of the individuals abstract motion in relation to the awareness of adjunct majority communities’ perceptions both online and in the world. Online, the multiple subjective becomings of discrete users in and between massive fields of data, semantic nuance exchanged. This hidden meaning is contingent on the gradual and related motion and articulations of greater majorities articulations, although it largely remains hidden in plain sight by virtue of the overwhelming abundance of obvious, superficial and repetitive representations that seem to ubiquitously mediate cybercultural exchange. Though largely imperceptible, this motion of semantic nuanced does exist:
Movement has an essential relation to the imperceptible; it is by nature imperceptible. Perception can grasp movement only as the displacement of a moving body or the development of a form. Movements, becomings, in other words, pure relations of speed and slowness, pure affects, are below and above the threshold of perception. Doubtless, thresholds of perception are relative; there is always a threshold capable of grasping what eludes another: the eagle’s eye… (281 Deleuze & Gauterri, A Thousand Plateaus)
It is the relation of thresholds of relative perception between various users’ ostensible anonymity that allows the more experienced minority to affectively perceive and exchange meaning that eludes the majority. Having nothing to do with the faculty of sight, D&G usefully put this weird phenomenon in optical terms to convey a sense of how the perception of the motion of essential becoming might work. The ‘eagle eye’ certain users are developing manifests online in the increased capability to quickly focus, assess, discern, decode and react to the minute presence of affects. This heightened, acute, new sense perception allows certain anonymous users to interact on a different plane of meaning, communicating not by speaking their minds, but by relating, perceiving and responding to that which is not so obvious. By simultaneously acknowledging and ignoring the content and predominant attitudes continuously re-represented in cyberculture, certain anonymous users target and cause certain implied audiences to respond to original content outside the intention of conscious volition by triggering intense responses and affectively and causing emotional outbursts.
The motion between obvious and hidden meaning represented in cybertext is also paradoxically, perceptible as D&G go on to characterize how such differences in thresholds of interpretability can and do coexist, they distinguish between the abstract planes that cohere around transcendent and immanent meaning:
If movement is imperceptible by nature, it is so always in relation to a given threshold of perception, which is by nature relative and thus plays the role of a mediation on the plane that effects the distribution of thresholds and percepts and makes forms perceivable to perceiving subjects. It is the plane of organization and development, the plane of transcendence, that renders perceptible without itself being perceived, without being capable of being perceived. But on the other plane, the plane of immanence or consistency, the principle of composition itself must be perceived, cannot but be perceived at the same time as that which it composes or renders. (281)
The abstract principle of composition on the plane of immanence is in this sense the latent, implied assumptions present in superfluous redundancy in majority communities that can be perceived and decoded by examining the most common, prominent or intense recurring offensive tones. User’s who have been parsing cybertext for many years are able to recognize and perceive these common tones by intentionally and silently saturating themselves in the offensive experience cause by constantly interpreting streams of cybertext that they perceive to be the most distinct or offensive and then using the accumulation of this experience to target other users with similar tones, with subtle, affective precision. At best, a targeted user can be made aware of their offensive hypocrisy through a compassionate call to attention using copy/paste analysis and logical argumentation the communicate why a particular unspoken bias or assumption is so violent. At worst, a targeted user can be maliciously trolled indiscriminately in order to evoke rage, frustration, fear and helplessness. In either of these bipolar cases, the targeted audience is shocked out of the redundant oblivion caused by their own blindnesses and tacit assumptions and made more aware, but only if they are willing and able to focus on and see through the shame, traumatization or humiliation associated with the nature of their particular, targeted bias or hypocrisy. To be clear, in either of these extreme cases the specific anonymous user is not the actual target, it is the distinct attitude that incurs a trolls wrath.
The reason certain audiences are targeted by both compassionate and malicious acts of trolling is related to the nature of the particular attitude and violent intensity with which a troll has experienced and encountered the particular attitude in their own life experience, whether online or in the world. A particular attitude is necessary for the entire phenomena of trolling to exist, since a troll doesn’t succeed if a targeted user does not respond to being baited. A troll is an individual who has sustained and survived enough encounters with a particular notion or attitude that its offensive nature no longer has the ability to affect or shock them into an emotional frenzy. This neutralization is not so much a desensitization to violence which is undoubtedly still present in users comments and individuals in society in vast amounts, but the cognitive mediation of the affects associated with experiences usually bound to be triggered by the particular kind of violence experienced. By exploiting the ability to perceive and convey meaning outside the common threshold of violent perceptions and expressions, certain anonymous users are able to lace their contextual exchanges with semantic nuance with the intent on demonstrating that the targeted audience’s particular attitude is their weakness and that this vulnerability exists and is real. This seemingly vindictive cruelty, is actually a measure of offensive security, since though violent itself, if sustained for a long enough amount of time, has the results of a successful trolls tend to strengthening the stability of those users who unknowingly espouse harmful or violent perspectives, not only to their own personal detriment but at the expense of the users and relations of their local and majority communities, online and in the world.
During the targeting of a particular attitude, it is the attitude itself that creates the contingency for a potential troll to target a particular user. Those trolls who have experienced or embodied a particular violent attitude are best able to detect its presence in cyberculture and therefore successfully target and exploit those anonymous users whom cohere to it. Having personal experience with the nature of a particular offensive attitude (perhaps even unknowingly possessing it themselves), certain trolls and the attitudes they target are the associated by internal and external vulnerabilities, biases and assumptions. By this blurring of the boundaries between troll and targeted attitude, more oblique (and relatable) methods and means are devised and deployed. A troll perceives this immanent meaning as transcendent and by trolling users with familiar attitudes, is eventually able to transform the attitude within themselves, if not the one they sought to troll without. The accumulation of this type of feedback loop among large numbers of anonymous users, tends to lead to a transformation whereby the pain and sadness of hidden omnipresent violence becomes joy and relief of a greater commonly recognized situation.
By successfully causing themselves and others to respond and react outside of one’s perceived ability to control of their thoughts or the thoughts and attitudes of others, the illusory, vulnerable nature of mechanistic certainty is affectively exposed. What is revealed is the messy emotional and common nature caused and shared by trolls and the trolled. The affect of this realization is a visceral reminder of the complicated, paradoxical and chaotic nature of humanity and a testament to our ability to survive, adapt and evolve even amid the most violent or critical environments. Being itself, the essence of the human condition is brought to bear on the nature of consciousness among crowds anonymous users who have otherwise have developed strategies to avoid and deny their common nature. It is this ultimate blindness that trolling serves to reveal, and which is done in the open in societies around the world, though veiled in plain sight throughout history by dogma, indoctrination, fascism, nationalism or elitism which has only served to perpetuate the violence done to and by individuals, societies and nations around the world. Although mental and emotional violence is undoubtedly sustained by the troll(ed) user online, the vital introspection and self-awareness that is shocked free from the habituated restraints of abstract apparatuses like rationalization, capitalization and modernization, becomes fluid, malleable and organic again once affected. The rigid morbidity and abstract stasis caused by individuals constant exposure to fear and violence returns to a fluid form and flows through the abstract body fueled by the the touching and ceaseless effort of the human heart and spirit.
The common existence and motion of emotion, passion and self-awareness was, at least in my experience, the greatest lesson learned from being trolled. If a troll is successful and both the troll and the targeted audience have the will not to give up and look away, the contingent ground on which trolling relies to affect violence eventually crumbles into nothingness. At first I was furious and full of fear and resentment, but as time has passed I’ve learned to appreciate my difficult experience. I was foolish, cavalier and oblivious to the practical nature of a phenomenon that I had too quickly become invested in understanding theoretically. I learned some hard but valuable lessons regarding the vulnerability of my online presence, not to mention the so-called security of my personal information. My first attempt at sharing this research in theory and practice also elided the important and easily overlooked reality that there are crowds of individuals online who have used, conversed and lived in cyberculture, mediated by anonymous abstraction for much longer then my mere three years. This minority may not be obvious, but they are certainly not oblivious. Alone, they have developed techniques of monitoring, sharing and parsing vast amounts of data at speeds that give them a powerful position from which to make and affect choice in strange new ways. The accumulation of these crowds of users’ weird, disparate, little choices online, in the right conditions can and do affect other anonymous users in their lives online and away from the keyboard. This phenomenon went to work on me at a personal level and resulted in this essay, my renewed passion for jogging and the re-formatting my personal computing technology, but it has (and will undoubtedly continue to) also occur on a global scale as evidenced in the political protests and spontaneous public assemblies of hundreds of thousands variously identifying as Anonymous, or under banners like the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring a few short years ago. Most presently this phenomenon, which don’t qualify as ‘trolling’ per se, is visible in over fifty countries protesting the use of genetically modified organisms in the Millions Marching Against Monsanto on May 25th, 2013.
In modern industrialized societies, our individual security, privacy and well-being have been more or less appropriated by those majority communities (usually governments and corporations; entities with capital) who presume to know best and who have controlled a monopoly over the flow of raw data and information necessary to allow people to judge for themselves, for a long time. Online however, for certain anonymous users, these traditional barriers and blocks act more as gestures than as indictments, and the historical monopolization of information prohibiting the spread of power-knowledge relations is increasingly becoming moot. These individuals resemble what McKenzie Wark describes in A Hacker Manifesto as the hacker class . Today, the concept Wark unshackled from its original use in the electrical engineering and computing domains in 2004, can freely be applied to those individuals that possess a broader awareness of the abstract relations between various thresholds of perception within themselves, between each other and in local and majority communities. How these individuals are choosing to relate both online and across the world is already beginning to redefine how the world relates to us as essentially anonymous. From the fluid position of crowd-sourced power that is presently growing in speed and intensity theres is an emergent potential to bypass the historical limits, myopia and rigidity of tradition in whatever structures, spaces and domains they appear. These are a growing class of people who find kindred among the historical working and farming classes, but who’s labour is not physical or material, it is abstract. As such, this work cannot be commodified, accounted for or hedged by any amount of capital. In our increasingly networked world, the awareness of all human beings immanent, abstract power to affect and be affected becomes even more enticing and intoxicating, and must continue to be explored carefully by those who are ready with caution and patience and with respect to those who’ve come before. Rule number twelve of the Internet isn’t there just for kicks, it is after all, serious business.
The events I experienced in mid-March 2013 affected my life, perspective and agency in several ways. I altered thirty different account passwords (which used to be identical) and logged them in a moleskin notebook which I keep on my at all times. I reformatted all my Internet connected devices and physically flashed my router to its default factory settings. I also started jogging, to keep my body active and in touch with physical pain and the real, difficult work and pleasure that a run can yield. I’ve also (much to my own surprise) hung up my agnostic cap and started to read (and be incredibly fulfilled by) the Zen and Taoist philosophy of the East in order to experience mindfulness and mental serenity in the face of the real, at times overwhelming fear and confusion thats comes and goes. Physical, mental, spiritual. All these changes took substantial amounts of time and money to accomplish, as well as a sustained exertion of will that I struggle to maintain and exercise to this day. But for all the trauma and pain I experienced in the last few months (not to mention the collateral damage sustained by my partner, friends and family) an event which began online, has ended up affecting my agency, volition and life in a very real way. I changed old habits, and resolved to form new ones all because of experiences that may or may not have occurred while sitting, staring at a screen and wiggling my fingers for a bunch of hours.
Online, as in everyday life away from the keyboard, essentially anonymous individuals and the affects that circulate between them are beginning to resonate in and between the virtual and physical experiences of everyday life. Existing in intensities and occurring at varying speeds, these phenomena are unfolding on a spectrum that is charged with possibility (and extremity). Individuals are always interlaced by the motion of their essential relations to themselves, each other, and the subjective individual(s) and communities involved in daily communicative social exchange. In either the abstract-virtual or the physical-material domain, no individual is ever absolutely self-aware or their anonymous affect.
Since I learned to stop worrying and love the troll, I’ve become more aware of the subtle power-knowledge relations and new possibilities of agency and volition that are emerging online and in the world, and how certain anonymous users who are more capable and aware of their situation deserve the respect and recognition of the rest of us. Not all users who troll do so maliciously, but one way or another, all expose blindnesses and assumptions in ways that stick whether or not the targeted audience wants to be tutored. These difficult lessons can be learned online today and may be difficult for my thirty year old grad student head to figure out, but will be assimilated as second nature by younger, more malleable and inquiring minds. The Internet is changing us and the world we live in, in very real and very rapid ways. There are generations of kids growing up right now who will become tomorrow’s powerusers (not unlike Mark Zuckerberg, Julian Assange and Kim Dotcom of the first wired (weird) generation(s)) who will know nothing butthe anonymity of the Internet. Some of these kids will have too much free time, not enough guidance or any friends at all to mess around at the playground with, but these kids will certainly not be alone. Together they will venture online in anonymous legions, for more hours in a day I was ever able to play in the streets (even during summertime…). These kids will learner this difficult lessons effortlessly, they will (and likely are already) being exposed to things and ideas that I couldn’t even imagine at that age… But one thing is for sure, these kids are the future and if we want to be a part of their future, then we will have to choose to learn some difficult lessons and face some painful truths about ourselves and the wide, messy world we all live, work and play in, if we want to stay connected to each other and maintain our humanity. This is of course, just one possible choice.
How to Deal with a Troll in 5 Difficult Steps
Note: If any of these steps seem stupid, useless or impossible, skip to step five immediately to avoid unnecessary hassle and heartache.
Take the troll seriously interpret their comments as genuine even if they cause you great offense.
Assume the trolls position (this is going to be hard) and try to engage in thoughtful debate based on specific things they say, try to understand exactly what they are saying and why they are saying it.
Notice how they are saying what they are saying, their tone or style of commenting and draw attention to it in relation to what they are saying- criticize descriptively and genuinely. (this may not work on a determined troll)
If you are able to neutralize the affect of a trolls inflammatory remarks internally (ie. not get worked up into a rage), describe how this is possible to the troll in straightforward, relatable terms that are pertinent to the discussion (also very hard to do).
Ignore, click/look away until step one becomes doable.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1987. Print.
Wark, McKenzie. A Hacker Manifesto. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2004. Print.