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troll

verb [transitive/intransitive]

to write negative or provocative comments on a website in order to deliberately cause others to react in a particular way

trolling

noun [uncountable]

troll or troller

noun [countable]

'Even Olympians like Rebecca Adlington Get Trolled … the 23-year-old is vowing a self-imposed Twitter prohibition for the duration of the Games so as to avoid abuse. Boasting some 50,000 followers the medal hopeful is very aware of trolling about her appearance.'

Rant Sports 31st May 2012

'Manchester United star Ashley Young has become the latest celebrity to fall victim to the growing menace of internet trolls. … He was subjected to vile taunts by a Twitter user following his failed spot kick during the quarter final against Italy in Kiev.'

Manchester Evening News 26th June 2012

'Imagine the unbridled chaos if trollers could comment on something, elicit reactions, and then edit their initial comment to make the responders look bad.'

Hot Hardware 22nd June 2012

There was a time when, if you mentioned the word troll to someone over the age of 40, then the first image they'd be likely to bring to mind would be of a mythical, dwarf-like creature who lives in caves and pops up as the bad guy in certain fairy tales. All that has changed in recent months, however, as the media machine has latched onto the word in an online context, bringing the concept of the Internet-based troll very much into the public eye.

the aim of trolling is to intentionally cause a bit of mayhem within online communities, just for the fun of it

In the context of the web, the activity of trolling is to post a comment, typically on a social media site such as Twitter or Facebook, which is deliberately designed to provoke a reaction in someone, either by inciting them to post a comment in response, or persuading them to navigate somewhere else on the web. Central to the concept of trolling is the idea that you deceive your victim, either by convincing them that you truly believe what you are saying, no matter how outrageous or hurtful the comment was, or by giving them instructions which look like they are helpful but in fact trick them into doing something inane and not in any way related to what they wanted. In short, the aim of trolling is to intentionally cause a bit of mayhem within online communities, just for the fun of it.

An example of a totally harmless instance of trolling is a phenomenon popularly described as rickrolling, in which, under the guise of giving helpful information in response to a query etc, a user posts a link to a website which in fact links to a video featuring 80s pop star Rick Astley singing his 1987 hit "Never Gonna Give You Up". Verbal trolling can be equally innocuous - just a comment designed to provoke a bit of a reaction and intended as a practical joke which users either fall for, or if not, can end up being 'in on'. Predictably, however, the phenomenon of trolling has taken a rather unpleasant turn, with some web users exploiting it as a way to make particularly offensive comments, which if challenged can then be passed off as 'only a joke'. The media coverage of certain high-profile targets, as exemplified in the citations above, has consequently begun to widen the meaning of the word troll to refer more broadly to the posting of negative and offensive comments, regardless of whether there was any underlying deception involved. As a result, the word has taken on decidedly negative overtones.

Background – troll, trolling

The Internet-based sense of the word troll first appeared in the late 80s, where it was used in a relatively innocent way to expose a newbie (a new Internet user) on forums and bulletin boards. Trolling usually involved asking a stupid question or making a deliberate mistake, and seeing which users would rise to the bait by responding or correcting, in doing so betraying their newbie status.

Use of the word troll is based on an original sense of the verb meaning 'to fish, entice or bait'. By extension, trolling on the Internet is fishing for people's confidence and gratuitously exploiting it.

Lexically the Internet sense of troll has already been pretty productive. The verb can be used both intransitively and transitively, the latter often realized in the passive as in be/get trolled. Troll is also used as a countable noun, which can refer either to an instance of trolling, or the author of it. Perpetrators can also, though less commonly, be referred to as trollers.

The trolling phenomenon is so rife that there's already evidence for use of words such as anti-trolling and counter-trolling (or reverse trolling) in reference to counter tactics, the latter involving taking the topic you were being trolled with, and using it against the troll who targeted you.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 23rd July 2012.

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