They're the bane of the internet, more annoying than a slow connection or an inbox full of spam. Their presence is almost inevitable, and like some energy-based creature from the original Star Trek series, your attention only makes them stronger.
They're trolls, and if you've established an online presence, chances are you've tangled with your share.
When I first started blogging (in July 2004), some American hard-right-wingers found "we move to canada". I never sought them out, but my desire to leave The Greatest Nation on the Face of the Earth™ provoked them to angry tirades.
I was called a coward, a "disgusting and vile traitor", a "fascist pig," a "Marxist minion". I was told I'd die in Canada while waiting for health care - or freeze to death, since it snows here 12 months a year. After the Canada-bashing and the U-S-A chest-thumping came the inevitable "good riddance, who needs you". But if I am so unimportant, why were they frothing at the mouth?
In those early days of blogging, I was still developing my own comment policy; when I deleted their spew, I was, of course, accused of censorship. This turned out to be useful, as it led me to articulate to myself why I wouldn't tolerate hateful comments on my blog. Trolls poison the atmosphere, derail constructive conversation, contribute nothing, and ruin everyone's fun. Free speech is a red herring. I defend your right to express yourself, but I'm not obligated to rent you a billboard on my front lawn.
Eventually the Fox-News–style trolls faded away, and a different breed took their place: disgruntled Canadians. This type of troll was best exemplified by someone calling himself GaryStJ. GaryStJ hates Canada, and my admiration for my new country got under his skin.
GaryStJ drove wmtc readers around the twist with circular illogic, trying to prove that Canada and the US are exactly the same. Since same-sex marriage is legal in Massachusetts, doesn't that mean same-sex marriage is legal in the US? Since Canada is at war in Afghanistan, isn't Canada an imperialist superpower, too?
Eventually, out-witted and out-argued, GaryStJ resorted to name-calling of the lowest kind – the kind only delivered behind the shield of anonymity. By that time, we had recognized GaryStJ for what he was: a troll with a big vocabulary.
Banned from my blog, GaryStJ didn't give up. He started appearing at other blogs on which I commented, airing his imaginary gripes about me. He embarrassed himself a few times, then disappeared from my radar screen.
Which is more than I can say for "magnolia_2000". This Canadian man (of that I'm certain) began by posting under half a dozen different names (at the time I didn't know they were all the same person). Finally, he settled on the persona of an admiring female reader. He posted under that disguise for months before flaming out in a barrage of bigotry. He then revealed himself as the keyboard behind all those earlier personas, but retained the female pseudonym. For me it was a relief to learn that wmtc hadn't been attacked by eight different trolls.
Ever since Magnolia announced his multiple personality disorder, it's been nothing but racist, sexist, homophobic filth, plus childish personal attacks, on my blog as well as Allan's. I long ago started using comment moderation, so his comments never appear. Despite that, he has kept up his attacks, off and on, for almost three years.
Think about that. Since Mags revealed himself as a disrupter, I've never posted his comments and never communicated with him in any way. And he's continued his monologue for nearly three years. The expression "get a life" doesn't even make a dent.
* * * *
When I first turned on moderation, Magnolia bragged that he had gained control of my blog. Of course, the opposite was true: I had increased my own control. But was his reaction a clue to his motivation? Is he trying to control me, like a bully, or an assailant?
After that, the frustrated troll tried to bargain with me. "I'm calling a ceasefire. If you remove comment moderation, I promise to leave you alone." This went on for weeks, his posts alternating between threatening – "If you don't take off moderation within 24 hours, I'll make you sorry you ever began this boring stupid blog!" – and plaintive: "Come on, L, I promise I'll stop, you can take it off now...".
Not content to have his erstwhile comments trashed on wmtc, every so often Mags posts about me on other people's blogs, to the bafflement of all concerned. He visits the blogs of select wmtc readers, telling the bloggers I've insulted them and suggesting they reconsider their friendship with me. Then he comes back to my blog to tell me he's done it.
Mags also has gone through phases of posting under a name that appears similar to mine, telling online friends that our friendship is over. Once I received a flurry of emails – some from people who were fooled, others to alert me to his presence. Allan checked the dates and times of all the comments: Mags had invented eight different names, and posted at nearly two dozen blogs – for eight hours.
Mags' knowledge of me betrays a close, if twisted, reading of my life, from both wmtc and Allan's Joy of Sox. Our Joy of Sox "gamethreads" routinely run to 500 comments or more. Is Mags lurking the entire time, following a rambling conversation during a game he isn't watching? Or does he scroll through the thread later, hoping to glean some nugget of information that he can later try to use against me?
For all his persistence, Mags has never crossed the line from troll to cyberstalker. He's emailed me only once: when, based on some unrelated postings, he feared someone else's harassment might be attributed to him, and he could be facing real – that is, real life – trouble. He was reduced to pleading and whimpering – but he never again contacted me again outside of his rejected comments.
Every so often, Mags swears off me and disappears for a while. But like something you can't completely scrape off your shoe, the stench returns.
* * * *
That this man has too much time on his hands is obvious. But it's more than that. It's pathological.
What drives him?
I've often tried to imagine the mentality that might be at work. Who is this person when he's not online? What drives his obsession? Why does he need to insult me?
I suspect a longing for a secret identity must come into play. Mags can never reveal his hidden hobby to a friend or co-worker; he would instantly expose himself as unbalanced, even dangerous. He can only enjoy this game in secret. Does he fancy himself an online Bruce Wayne?
Since Mags is clearly addicted to trolling, perhaps his anonymous insults serve one of the same functions as all addictions: an anesthetic. In a dull, gray, lonely life, perhaps even a painful one, Mags soothes himself by lashing out at a stranger, choosing a method that protects him from return volleys.
Is his professed loathing of me a disguised form of jealousy? While he constantly tells me how boring and meaningless my life is, I continue to live my interesting and meaningful life, while he spends his evenings writing hate mail under an assumed name.
Is there some profound self-loathing, some essential lack of confidence, that prevents the troll from engaging in normal discourse?
Will this post embarrass him? In the comments I'll reject, he'll be gleeful, declaring victory because his antics inspired this post. But privately, will he squirm to have his sickness laid bare? For that, he would need some awareness that he has a problem, and we don't know if he's reached that stage.
We'll never really know. But I do know this: as soon as I hit "publish post," comment moderation will be very busy.