Friday, August 19, 2016

Trolls, Trawling and Usenet

On Facebook we were talking about trolls, and trolling. As far as I can tell, the definition of "troll" today is "person I disagree with on the internet". As an example, if someone says, "I can't vote for Hillary because she'll get us into WWIII," it's likely to attract the simple dismissal, "Go away, troll." 

But it wasn't always thus.

Before the Netscape browser was released in December 1994 - call it 1995 - the World Wide Web (the www that often appears at the beginning of website's URLs, like this one above your screen right now: www.blogger. com) didn't actually exist in any meaningful fashion. I know, it's unthinkable, but it's true. So what did people do without Facebook?

We actually had something that was at least as good, though it was without graphics (pictures) except in certain cordoned-off areas. (Just as well, since we were all on Dial-Up and downloading pictures (binaries) could take all night.)

This was a text-based network called Usenet.

I'm not going to write a scholarly appraisal of Usenet, mostly because if I do, thousands of oldbies will pour out of the woodwork to say why I'm wrong. So this is a personal memoir. In a nutshell, Usenet was a hierarchy of messageboards that you read and posted to with a type of proto-browser called a newsreader. If you were lucky, you had a "threaded" newsreader. Academics had their own superior (in their eyes) newsreaders and other people normally obtained a "news client" to be their newsreader. With your newsreader, you would "subscribe" to a "newsgroup" and it would show you the messages that were there already in a "threaded" fashion. This meant that they didn't come out in chronological order, but in a hierarchy.


If you're wondering how, prior to the WWW existing, and without using email, the newsgroup messages got from where they were written all the way to your computer and back, all I can say is it's clever and complicated but can be done, just as the ancients obviously did build pyramids, even if they didn't have JCBs.

The overall organization of the newsgroups was hierarchical, and you specified what you wanted to "subscribe" to by calling out to its sort-of-Linnean full name. There were, according to Wikipedia, 20,000 active newsgroups and over 100,000 created groups. One of my favorites was alt.folklore.urban, which was "alt" (i.e. alternative, not centrally organized), concerned with folklore; and the sort of folklore it was concerned with was urban, as in the Jan Harold Brunvand books. was another, a talk group (i.e. heated discussion) about evolution, which spent many a long hour talking with those who held other views.

I joined well after Usenet had escaped the confines of Academe and become popular (after an upheaval called The Great Renaming) in 1987, and just before the world-shaking judder called The September That Never Ended in 1993. I was a happy poster in those days, using my real name and real email address in messages and never really seeing any trouble or even any animosity, not even in the group about evolution. (Ah, the good old days.) But one day someone on alt.folklore.urban told me I'd been "trolled". I'd never heard the word. He (I assume it was a he) replied that the word meant someone had been trolling to see if he could catch someone, like a fish, and I'd been caught. I'd never heard of that either. "You mean, trawling?" No, he said, trolling, and he explained how fishermen troll for fish. After that the scales (sorry) fell from my eyes, and I could see the trolling going on in front of me. The full phrase was "trolling for newbies" as the Old Hats were too experienced to rise to the bait, but new people were more eager to teach people the ropes and took a lot longer to realize they were on a hook. A troll who could signal to the Old Hats that he (usually a he) was trolling by some subtle wording in the inquiry (or in the headers), and yet still catch a newbie, was a hero. People then told the newbie, "YHBT" which the latter would have to tediously work out (no Googling then) meant You Have Been Trolled. They'd often add, "HTH" - Hope This Helps and "HAND" - Have a Nice Day. There is literally no limit to the number of times it raises a laugh when someone introduces themselves and says they're from Austria and a troll asks them whether the koalas are cuddly there. The first person then tries to tell the clueless American (who already knows full well) that Austria and Australia are two different countries. The clueless American appears to be confused and asks follow up questions. Hilarity ensues.

AFU developed and perfected the art of trolling. Snopes, a valued Old Hat of the group, certainly did his fair share, which may seem odd as Snopes' website now is a fortress of fact in a battlefield of lies. It all seemed like such a good idea at the time.

Maybe I wasn't the only person who'd never fished, because often the trollers were often referred to as trolls, and people talked about them as trolls, not fishermen; that they lived under bridges, ate goats and so forth. Since the one thing a troll craved was a reaction, "Don't feed the trolls" was a mantra; it was quite in your power to simply ignore them. A troll might (and often did) post a message to alt.folklore.urban saying that glass in old windows was thicker at the bottom because "glass is a liquid and flows" and the afu folk would have to bite their collective lips not to respond, because they felt they'd proved this was not true to everyone's satisfaction and rising to the bait would just waste everybody's time as they went through the whole rigmarole of trying to convince someone who was probably just an alumni with a fake name trying to rile people up anyway. The oldbies might find themselves rising to the bait rather than let others assume they did not have a satisfactory come-back. The newbies would obviously rise to the bait because they were in the happy fog of the newly-converted. "Glass Flows" threads could go on for months.

And that's where things could turn ugly. Clever trolls who know what the facts are but feign obtuseness are irritating after a while, and a preponderance of them can easily tilt the conversation into dark waters. But worse than that, mean and abusive trolls soon appeared, and were far more destructive, as they didn't just feed on innocents rising to the bait; they enjoyed driving people away from otherwise happy groups. Some of the techniques that arose around the beginning of the World Wide Web in 95 necessitated pretty much every public space to have moderators, and by the time Twitter rolled around, people being driven off the internet, doxxed, or even driven to attempt suicide, became a commonplace. Asking fake-clueless follow-up questions became the marginally-hostile sealioning.

Troll these days has a very nasty connotation. Wikipedia says,

"Two studies published in 2013 and 2014 have found that people who are identified as trolls tend to have dark personality traits and show signs of sadism, antisocial behavior,psychopathy, and machiavellianism. The 2013 study suggested that there are a number of similarities between anti-social and flame trolling activities and the 2014 study suggested that the noxious personality characteristics known as the "dark triad of personality" should be investigated in the analysis of trolling, and concluded that trolling appears "to be an Internet manifestation of everyday sadism."

Among a lot of other stuff.

But it started when people on newsgroups like alt.folklore.urban would post something like, "According to Gene Roddenberry, Captain James T. Kirk's middle name is Timothy," crosspost it to the entire rec.arts.startrek newsgroup hierarchy, then sit back and watch the feathers fly. 

They were better days.

[1] That's not Usenet, it's But I don't have a threaded newsreader to display the former. It's a good illustration of what threading looks like.
[2] Usenet still exists. I refer to it in the past tense, but it's still there and doing its thing.


Carroll McNeill said...

Chuckling quietly to myself at the memory of someone (I believe it was either you and/or N.T.) very kindly answering my puzzled question along the lines of "Sorry if this sounds really stupid, but what does "LOL" mean?"

Better days (in many ways) indeed.


Cookie said...

I haven't checked in for a while since you've been quiet, great to see 4 posts waiting for me when I checked in this morning! Enjoyed this one especially.

- Cookie (the SnrJnr)

Lyle Hopwood said...

Nice to hear from the Cookie.


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