The Way We Freak Now: Trolls

The New York Times has posted a preview of a story by Mattathias Schwartz from this week’s Magazine about trolls, people (mostly young men, it seems), who enjoy wreaking havoc on the Internet by mocking the dead, hacking into MySpace accounts, harassing message boards, and in one case, allegedly trying to induce seizures in epileptics via flashing images.

Why do they do it? As Mr. Schwartz (who we hope has good security on his personal Web site), writes:

‘Lulz’ is how trolls keep score. A corruption of ‘LOL’ or ‘laugh out loud,’ ‘lulz’ means the joy of disrupting another’s emotional equilibrium. ‘Lulz is watching someone lose their mind at their computer 2,000 miles away while you chat with friends and laugh,’ said one ex-troll who, like many people I contacted, refused to disclose his legal identity.

Tracking down anonymous pranksters and provocateurs appears to have posed a unique journalistic challenge to Mr. Schwartz, who writes, "While reporting this article, I did everything I could to verify the trolls’ stories and identities, but I could never be certain. After all, I was examining a subculture that is built on deception and delights in playing with the media."

 

The Magazine‘s ‘Medium’ columnist, Virginia Heffernan, also took a look at these internet creepy crawlies, seeing in their search for ‘lulz’ an update of an earlier generation’s anarchic thrills:

Kicks, I guess, are why they do it. I remember in ’70s kids’ fiction, ‘kicks’ was the most depraved of all reasons for doing something bad: ‘I steal hubcaps just for kicks.’… Martha Stewart lied for money, Eliot Spitzer cheated for sex, Saddam killed for glory and power, but riling up some mentally ill shut-in by mocking his ideology online? Come on, trolls, just why?

One commenter named ‘Janie’ responded to Ms. Heffernan’s post with a possible answer: "Everyone in this entire country needs therapy."

A Times commenter named ‘Michael’ also drew a connection to another recent, highly controversial Times Magazine article about life online: "There’s no story here. This is even more embarrassing for The Times Magazine than ‘Blog Post Confidential.’"