Tobold's Blog
Friday, November 08, 2013
 
Tobold's law

Godwin's law, in its original form, says that "As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.". These days people use a different version, because otherwise they would have to explain what Usenet was. But in other respects the law is also becoming a bit dated, comparisons involving Nazis or Hitler have actually become less common, although they are of course still around. If I would formulate Tobold's law today, it would say "As a blog discussion grows longer, the probability of arguments being dismissed as trolling or strawman approaches one.". Of course that is also quickly becoming outdated, in ten years you'll have to explain to people what a blog is. All the nasty gossip and chatter has moved to Twitter these days.

Wikipedia defines trolling as: "In Internet slang, a troll is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a forum, chat room, or blog), either accidentally or with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion." But most people tend to not consider all of that definition. A very wrong, but common definition is that "if something upsets me, it must be trolling". Thus even if an opinion posted somewhere is not at all extraneous, off-topic, or disrupting normal on-topic discussion, it will be accused of trolling. Even a blog post itself, which obviously by definition can never be "off-topic", as it defines the topic, will be called trolling.

So yesterday both my post and The Godmother's post I linked to where accused of being trolling. Neither of them were. They were two posts expressing very different opinions on the same subject. And if you had an opinion on the matter, it was likely that either one or the other would upset you. While of course the topic was controversial in itself, both posts went to great lengths to not be unnecessarily inflammatory. The Godmother expressed her opinion in the form of questions and links. And if I had wanted to be trolling and inflammatory, the post would have written itself easily, given material like somebody calling herself "Bitter Gertrude" complaining about the culture of beauty invading her beloved cosplay. A trolling post would have made the obvious remarks about her motivation and jumped to conclusion about her looks. Actually you can find those trolling comments in the comment section of the post in question.

The thing is that one thing hasn't changed from Usenet discussion to blogs to Facebook and Twitter: Most of the content written in these places is not a discussion of facts, but a discussion of opinions. That automatically leads to the famous someone is wrong on the internet reaction by others. Not because of things that are actually factually wrong, but because for every opinion out there, there is an opposing opinion. There is no true or false to questions about how female cosplayers should dress, there are only opinions.

As The Godmother appeared to be just learning, any opinion you state on the internet is going to provoke some people to disagree. Which is the completely normal process. Either what you write is being completely ignored, or somebody is going to disagree with it. It would be a pipe dream to hope that you write something and get lots of agreeing comments and replies to it. Even if many people do agree with you, they won't feel the need to write anything themselves if you already expressed their opinion reasonably well. It is those who disagree who will feel the need to respond.

A blogger could avoid that by writing completely bland posts without any opinions in them, but what would be the point of that? You blog BECAUSE you have opinions you want to express. And defending one's opinions and convictions isn't trolling. I KNOW that some of my opinions are controversial, e.g. I am against piracy, and that is a controversial opinion in Somalia and on the internet. That doesn't mean that when news on the subject come up and I want to discuss them I should fold and not say what I think, just because it might upset some people. Real trolling is about cheap one-liner comment, and has nothing to do with bloggers defending their opinions, even if those opinions aren't popular.

Comments:
So yesterday both my post and The Godmother's post I linked to where accused of being trolling. Neither of them were.

I don't understand how you can consider the definition of "trolling" to be as clear cut.
Saying that someone is a troll is an opinion just like the others: it means "I think you're writing this just for the sake of stirring up an argument and not because you're interested in providing your opinion or learning other people one". If expressing an opinion is ok, then calling someone a troll is ok as well.
To put it in another way: trolling comes from intent, so it's hard (impossible) to tell from the text if it's trolling or not, the only way to be sure about it is to ask the author, except that if he really is a troll, it's not like he'll reply "I'm trolling".....
Of course you can do some guesswork, but in the end the result is not guaranteed. BTW guesswork marked TG's post/replies as troll:
- controversial subject
- unasked-for disclaimer
- replies that we miss the point but doesn't clarify
- answers a lot
- keep dancing around the issue
 
Sorry, you can't label every discussion about a controversial subject as "trolling", otherwise that term just loses all relevance. Do you really want to read blogs in which only uncontroversial subjects are discussed? I would be hard pressed to even come up with an uncontroversial topic for a gaming blog, gamers pretty much complain about everything.

Your other criteria appear to me to be rather typical flaws of internet communication, which are either inherent to the medium or caused by lack of communication skills.

Even by your narrow definition of "I think you're writing this just for the sake of stirring up an argument and not because you're interested in providing your opinion or learning other people one", a full page blog post can never be trolling, because the author definitely went to some length provide his opinion.

Trolling on this subject would have been one-liner comments like "all men are pigs" or "feminists who complain about sexy cosplayers are just ugly and jealous". But a blog post discussing a controversial subject at some length isn't trolling.
 
I tried to look up some Hitler's quote on piracy to disgrace you but it seems that Hitler was on our side:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=myva2L_foTc
 
A helpful reminder:

Opinions can be wrong.

If someone calls The Godmother a troll, they're probably wrong. Hiding behind "it's just an opinion" does not magically make it okay and free from ridicule.
 
Opinions can be wrong.

I could probably write a long and controversial blog post on that topic. :)

The thing is, I'm not sure that opinions can be "wrong" in a scientific sense of the word. It is more along the lines of "the majority of our peers think otherwise".

For example this post is about me writing my opinion that by the definition given in Wikipedia, and what I would consider a consensus of the majority of my peers, a long and elaborate blog post is not trolling, because it doesn't have several important characteristics of "trolling", like being short, cheap, disruptive and off-topic. But I wouldn't say that somebody who thinks otherwise is "wrong", because the science of languages is full of cases where different groups of people use the same word to describe different things. A term like "troll", which even Wikipedia calls "Internet slang", tends to be not as well defined as older, more established words.
 
Trolling on this subject would have been one-liner comments like "all men are pigs" or "feminists who complain about sexy cosplayers are just ugly and jealous". But a blog post discussing a controversial subject at some length isn't trolling.

Actually, if you're an old-time Usenet user like me, you should know that yours is the definition of flamebait, i.e. something which is blatant.
Trolling is the opposite, i.e. it is explicitly designed as NOT to look like flamewar-material. I think the alt.syntax.tactical FAQ, which must still be archived somewhere, gave some indications on how to troll effectively. In short: if you can tell at first glance it's a troll, you failed.

BTW my list was inclusive, i.e. consider it an "if" with "and" separating the clauses. Talking about a controversial topic by itself is not trolling, it's when you add the rest that it becomes suspect.
 
Oddly, I have rarely ever had anybody accuse me of trolling. Heck, I rarely see anybody accuse SynCaine of trolling, even when he is blatantly and unashamedly doing so.

In fact, outside of your comment threads, I cannot recall the last time I saw a blog comment accusing the author of trolling.

I am sure it is just coincidence that it shows up in your thread. Maybe it is the blogger theme you chose?

Anyway, given the evidence at hand, let me fix that "law" for you.

"As a discussion on Tobold's blog grows longer, the probability of arguments being dismissed as trolling or strawman approaches one."
 
You, Wilhelm, are obviously trolling here.
 
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
 
I didn't read your post yesterday, so what I'm about to say is not a comment about that, just my thoughts on "trolling".

It might be interesting to forget about the word "trolling" or any other internet jargon, and think about what words or phrases we could use to describe what we don't like about any particular post or comment more precisely.

We might think about words like:

- provocative
- argumentative
- insensitive
- ungenerous
- overwrought
- angry

Without having read your post, it sounds like whatever you said was written in a "fighty" mood. Quite possibly because you felt like you or your views were under attack, and you were reacting to that feeling.

"Trolling" isn't particularly a good word to describe that kind of phenomenon. But neither is that kind of writing likely to lead to thoughtful discussion, mutual respect etc.

 
Firstly, my comment was based upon reading Tobold's comment about someone calling him a troll on twitter(or someone else?), and then guessing that this was referring to The Godmother; and then thinking it was funny that TG said that about Tobold, because she was definitely out-trolling Tobold in that comments thread. Tobold was clearly making an effort to be understanding and compassionate; more so than usual; and TG was, well, not. If that twitter comment wasn't actually by TG, then that irony is removed, but her comments in the thread were still a good troll.

Second, there is some confusion here about the distinction between calling someone a troll, and saying that a post is a troll post. The two are not the same. 'Nouning' the adjective to make the term an epithet connotes much more intentionality on the part of the person, whereas a post can be a 'troll post' by accident. Because a truly effective troll, as distinguished from flamebait in the way defined by Helistar, must not appear to be a troll at first glance (and even after careful study, some doubt should remain), some of the most effective trolls in history were indeed unintentional, achieving by accident the unstudied air that only a truly skilled individual can pull off on purpose.

"Hiding behind "it's just an opinion" does not magically make it okay and free from ridicule."

It's not just an opinion, but since you go around threatening people with riducule I'll accuse you of trolling too...happy?

In summation, if anyone is still not clear how to avoid starting arguments on the internet, try not pointing out to random strangers that they're wrong. Let them be wrong, let them revel and glory in it, it's the one freedom we all share. There really is no way to tell a perfect stranger that they're wrong which guarantees a positive response. If you go ahead and do it, get ready for them to call you a troll, someone else to call them a troll for calling you a troll, and then for everyone to dress up like trolls and dance the troll fandango through the streets of the Internet.

 
You have never been more right Tobold. I agree 100% with you on this proposed adage. Of course that forces me to also agree with Wilhelm.
 
Completely off topic, I would love to read the post you said you could make disproving 'Opinions can be wrong'. I can see that in regards to controversial issues where both sides have points. On the other hand though, there are people who believe/are of the opinion the holocaust didn't happen (to give a rather extreme example), which seems to me an opinion being wrong.
 
@Caldazar: Okay. Done!
 
Note that in your definition of trolling, "extraneous" and "off-topic" are part of an 'or' list. As in, an inflammatory post which is not off-topic can still be trolling if it was deliberately posted with the intent of sowing discord.

I actually take issue with the idea that trolling can be accidental though. If you routinely post unrelated material by accident, you're just an idiot, not a troll.

On that note, a blog post can be trolling! If you post something inflammatory on purpose to upset people, that is trolling your audience. You're right that the off-topic thing is kind of impossible though.
 
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