Photo by Amir Hosseini on Unsplash

On Being Called a Troller

A new experience for me today on Medium. I received notice a writer took evident offense to a remark of mine about a series of publications he was promoting. I meant to answer his response, but when I clicked on the notice I got an error message to the effect he had deleted the post. Odd. I searched for his page. Nope, his post promoting the publications still was accessible.

But my remark had been deleted.

Well shoot. And here I was, all prepared to answer his reply. Which seemed to me somewhat bellicose. The young are so thin-skinned these days. (Just as I was, in my own youth. But I was raised to be polite to age. Guess the rules have changed.)

The gist of my ex-tempore reaction to his promoting several publications was I was too old to see the attractions he touted. That I found their themes mind-numbingly boring. I postulated hack writers could make money on such platforms.

His retort was discourteous. I wasn’t too old, I was too closed-minded! Probably didn’t amount to much as a writer. (Oh, wound me, wound me!) I should practice more writing and less trolling. Words to that effect. I wrote a reply to his comments and clicked on the notice. And found our exchange obliterated.

Since I have my own page, here’s what I had to say: “It appears your feelings are hurt my my earlier remark. Other than today’s much-bruited preparedness to take offense about just about everything, I don’t comprehend the evident hostility of your reply. I intended no offense. I AM too old. The topics you recited ARE to me brain-numbing. But there is no shame, in my view, being a hack writer. I made a living and raised a family as a hack writer. I hacked over the years for credit unions, fishermen, hunters, the Navy, a Bahamian publishing house, labor unions, an Oregon publisher, even a holy-roller type church. Retired now, I don’t have to…

“As for age, here’s evidence: I had to look up the definition of trolling which you evidently meant as insult. I’ve seen the word mentioned this century on computer screens, evident children’s slang like emoji and other such things. The King’s English, as it always has, takes a beating each generation.

“Look up trolling: The Google brain gave me “trolling, noun (FISHING) the act of trying to catch fish by pulling a baited line through the water behind a boat: Trolling is another reliable method and accounts for a surprising number of big fish….” Okay, that comported with my hack-writing for fishing publications. Not entirely tone-deaf to metaphor, I parsed that you equated my remarks with a baited hook. Whether you define yourself as a “big fish” chomping on the hook is a question.”

“Subsequent entries explained an ‘urban dictionary’ sort of definition, usually derogatory, among computer users in the eighties. In the eighties I still was a manual-typewriter man. So it appears your evident hostility is informed by an attempt at insult. My initial thought was ‘I would challenge you to a battle of wits, but I see you are unarmed…’”

(A retort discourteous need not be pugnacious, and can even pretend to humor.)

I closed by thanking him for an idea for a post of my own. Google offered rich troves of research. For instance, an online “Quote Investigator” debunks the theory the famous verbal riposte I offered was Shakespearean. And reported earliest printed evidence of such word-play appeared in an 1866 novel by Abby Buchanan Longstreet, released under a pseudonym: “…T — ’s mood was not to be resented, or resisted. A battle of wits was to be fought, and the Boy in Blue was unarmed tonight….”

The original meaning of trolling was expanded in Cambridge Dictionary: (1) the act of leaving an insulting message on the internet in order to annoy someone. (2) the act of searching among a large number or many different places in order to find people or information you want.

Merriam-Webster gave, as first definition, (1) a dwarf or giant in Scandinavian folklore inhabiting caves or hills. Readers of fairy tales will remember few beneficent trolls. H’mm. Was the unhappy young man suggesting I came out of my cave to frighten the fragile? So it appeared.

Troll being a noun, trolling was defined in reference texts as a transitive verb. Usually, fishing was first reference: (1a) to fish for by trolling; (b): to fish by trolling in lakes; © to pull a lure through the water. The came (d): to search in or at. As in “troll” flea markets for bargains. Also to prowl, as in “troll” nightclubs. (What happened to good old-fashioned pub-crawling?)

When the modern usage of trolling surfaced (“to antagonize others online by deliberately posting inflammatory, irrelevant, or offensive comments or other disruptive content”) I learned of its adaptation in the late 1980s. Back when I didn’t know a DOS from a (floppy) disk.

But by now, my “troll” for information intrigued me. In my dotage, wandering through the world’s accumulated data (I hesitate at the word “wisdom”) is a pleasure.

Going deeper, I found troll as a verb from the Middle English trollen: “to roll, rock (the head.)” One thread led to “sing in the manner of a round or catch.” (Call and response; minstrel lays?) Another led to “ roam. (“And thus hath he [Jesus] trolled forth this two & thretty wynter” was quoted.) Another thread linked to Middle French: treler, traler, treiller. “( Hunting dogs seeking prey without a trail.) The 16th-Century troller meant “to wander from place to place (originally a dog).”

And back to angling: “to fish by trailing a lure or bait from a moving boat.” If not of independent origin, sources suggest, the fishing word may have been influenced by “trail” or “trawl” or French “treuil” (winch).” Trolling (for fish) was defined as an intransitive verb.

Wikipedia added the modifier “internet” to troll, to define the modern usage: “Person who sows discord on the Internet.” Yikes, me?

“In Internet slang, a troll is a person who starts flame wars (emphasis supplied; whatever those are) or intentionally upsets people on the Internet. This is typically done by posting inflammatory and digressive, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community… with the intent of provoking readers into displaying emotional responses and normalizing tangential discussion….” Nope, not my intent.

From the Free Dictionary: 1. a. To fish by trailing a baited line from behind a slowly moving boat. b. To fish by trailing a baited line: troll the lake for bass. c. To trail (a baited line) in fishing. 2. a. To move around in (an area) or go to (different places) searching for something. b. To examine or search: trolling the classifieds for a cheap car. 3. Music: a. To sing in succession the parts of (a round…) b. To sing heartily: troll a carol.

At 4, the modern usage steps over the Scandinavian: “To post inflammatory or irrelevant material on an electronic forum to provoke responses.”

Only after that came “A supernatural creature of Scandinavian folklore, variously portrayed as a friendly or mischievous dwarf or as a giant, that lives in caves, in the hills, or under bridges.”

And finally: (Derogatory) “A person, especially an older gay man, considered to be unpleasant or ugly.” Ye Gods! Before age made me an eunuch, I was rampantly heterosexual. Ugly is a value judgment. Unpleasant? Me? Holy smokes!

Then something called “Lifewire” said: “…trolling is when someone comments or responds to something you post, usually in a confrontational way that is designed to garner a strong, emotional reactioninternet trolling can get pretty nasty….” Call me disingenuous if you will, I don’t see my honestly expressed opinion of the publications in the guy’s original post as meeting this standard.

Wikipedia calls a troll: “a person who starts quarrels or upsets people on the Internet to distract and sow discord by posting inflammatory and digressive, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community…with the intent of provoking readers into displaying emotional responses and normalizing tangential discussion, whether for the troll’s amusement or a specific gain…”

Again, I see a disconnect between my remark and his allegation.

Wiki also blends an ancient meaning with the new: “Those who aren’t… familiar with the internet slang definition of troll or trolling might automatically think of the mythical creature from Scandinavian folklore…known to be an ugly, dirty, angry creature that lives in dark places…waiting to snatch up anything that passed by for a quick meal. The internet troll is a modern version…actively go out of their way to cause trouble on the internet. Like the mythological troll, the internet troll is angry and disruptive in every possible way….”

Jumpin Jehoshaphat! Moi? Just don’t see it. I pressed on. Last words from the actual “Urban Dictionary”:

Trolling (verb), as it relates to internet, is the deliberate act, (by a Troll — noun or adjective), of making random unsolicited and/or controversial comments on various internet forums with the intent to provoke an emotional knee-jerk reaction from unsuspecting readers to engage in a fight or argument…actually analogous to the fishing technique of trolling, where colorful baits and lures are pulled behind a slow moving boat…enticing these foolish fish to take the bait…reeled in for the catch before they realize they have been duped by the Troll/Fisherman….”

In my actual trolling days, in a real boat with real fishing tackle, I have been known to catch and then release problematic fish. “Shakers” in the vernacular of Northwest salmon trollers. I suppose, to twist a metaphor, in this case the shaker, feeling himself caught, shook off the hook himself with the delete function.

But he certainly provided abundant entertainment by inspiring my “troll” for information both obscure and esoteric. After which, of course, I crafted my own mind-numbing report on what I found.

Absolute last word: the young man read and applauded the reply I posted to the (deleted) post. Kid’s got some class.

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Bill Burkett

Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.