the age of the troll

Checking my Disqus profile just now, I see that I joined on July 28, 2013 and have made a grand total of 3031 posts, an average of about 2 1/3 posts per day. This is somewhat astounding! I remember the original motivation: I had simply come across a comment somewhere I either wanted to praise or add to, and that was it. I’d never planned or dreamed I would make any kind of habit of it, but before very long I was regularly contributing thoughts within a couple of different online communities (not mainstream political ones but sites focusing more on ideas, where longer and more considered posts are far more common). There were a few periods along the way where I stepped out of regular writing, and then others where conversations became quite extended, where I would be responding to one or several people many times a day.

This is one of the main reasons my contributions to this blog became so sporadic: my online writing time had already been spoken for. And looking back I do understand how I got hooked. When you reply to another contributor you know that at least that one person, and usually many others, will be reading and (to varying degrees of course) considering what you have spent time and energy putting down on (virtual) paper. In my case the time and energy were generally quite extensive — a large proportion of my posts were substantive, many very long for an internet “comment,” mini-essays. Often there would be a reply awaiting you later that day, or even within the hour. So comment threads are much more akin to an ongoing conversation than posting within a website such as this one.

(It might be asked why I have disallowed comments here in that case. The answer is simply that I would feel too great a sense of responsibility to respond to more or less all replies, positive and negative both, and this could easily end in swallowing up too much of the time I have for writing here in the first place.)

For the past couple of years I have limited myself to one particular site, one that attracts a number of thoughtful, widely-read contributors. Many have academic posts. Some, inevitably, even there (since it is a public site) are trolls.

The phenomenon of the troll is of course a product of the internet age. I found it (and still find it) infuriating having to deal with them, but the experience has taught me a lot about online communication in general, about the state of our culture and world, about what constitutes “skillful (and unskillful) means” — to use the buddhist term. I’ll say something more about all this at some future point. But it seems clear to me that we have reached the apotheosis of this development, as we now have a supreme troll occupying the highest and most powerful office of the land.

simple truth of the day: 1) that beastly internet

If you have a disagreement with someone in your family or community, someone you love or at least are closely connected to, you can have a personal conversation with that person about the subject. Since you know a lot about them already, a ground of trust exists.

If a more widespread misunderstanding has arisen within a family or community, again a foundation already is in place to build upon. Slights, insults, or slanders don’t happen every day at this level of direct acquaintance. When they do they are relatively exceptional and meetings to address them can take place within the real world.

Here is one of the huge and constantly overlooked troubles with the internet: far too many people are paying attention to what any of several … billion people are saying. Within a “community” that vast, and with such a substantial percentage of said community broadcasting their thoughts where any can encounter them, it is guaranteed that at each individual moment enormous numbers of things are being said which are stupid, thoughtless, mean-spirited, vile, disturbing. This is unavoidable, at least in this human age far, far, painfully far from maturity.

So when we find ourselves being diverted or upset by what any Joe Schmidt on the planet has to say, and choose to respond in some way, most of the time, despite our very best efforts, we are simply multiplying the amount of noise and confusion in the world. The internet is an unthinkably vast resonance chamber, and unfortunately a good proportion of what is echoing around and bouncing off all its walls is negative or at best frivolous, a waste of precious human energy. Can we really still be surprised at the amount of angry polarisation and hatred in the world?

Worse still, we virtually never know any of these people, as we do when we communicate with a member of our family or community. We know absolutely nothing of their history, nor they of ours. Instead we react to the merest shell of who they are at that moment in time — a single expression, in the form of a post, which in turn is only reacting to something else, a single thought or two, transmitted without the benefit of those countless nuances of feeling our voice is capable of manifesting, and even more our body as a whole.

The internet does seem not only to be affecting our capacity for sustained attention and reflection (George Saunders puts this well here), but also generating large amounts of needless aggression as well.  We can each do a little something about that.