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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Musing: The Art of Trolling and Evoking Rage on the Web

In my last post I had angered a Mac user when I claimed that Microsoft owned Apple and therefore disqualified them as a competitor. Admittedly this was my expression of a common misconception and was quite ignorant as I hadn't done any recent research on the topic. Being that I don't want TII to be about expressing ignorance and/or bias masquerading as "News Stories" just to attract misguided traffic, I decided to correct the issue by doing something foreign to most IT Industry Analysts: Performing Some Research, after which I conceded that my reader was in fact correct and encouraged any other readers to provide relevant details that would also be helpful in regards to that topic.

Such traffic-gathering tactics are nothing more than a glorified combination of trolls and are being used in lieu of classic "sky is falling" news stories traditionally reserved for slow news days. They are also, in some respects, an insult to the artform of trolling. Yes, I said it, artform.

Any web user has seen it before: that post which they should know better than to dignify with a response but are emotionally compelled to reply, more often than not through anger. I had recently come across one such post which I originally thought to be genuine but ended up being nothing more than a well-played straw man argument. The post I'm referring to is one made by a "JerryLeeCooper" in ZDNet's forums which was then followed-up in such an ignorant, adamant, and pure rage-inducing manner that I suspect the forums ZDNet must have increased their registered users by a large fraction that night based on angry respondents alone! It was only after doing some digging that I realized it was a ploy to drive traffic to this character's website.

What made this work so well for him, leaving only a few who caught it, was the careful expression of his ignorance so that it would be believable as a viewpoint. Much like the common "Linux would be just as prone to viruses as Windows if it was as popular" argument, commonly used to dismiss Linux security compared to Windows, it was ignorant but believable without going over the edge such as a claim that Linux is a terrorist-sponsored OS. So by taking a bit of liberty I would like to suggest that JerryLeeCooper be handed my own personal 2007 IT-Disturber of the Year Award.

Next time I will look at applying some metrics for measurement and democracy for voting on this award, but where does one begin measuring the effectiveness of a troll? Is it where they can drive traffic? The number of replies they generate? The percentage of a crowd they can agitate? What about apathetic or "calm" groups? Are they worth more?

Any others I've missed? I'll start putting together a list of "successful troll metrics" - any input is most welcome!

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