‘Don’t Feed The Trolls’

Don’t feed the trolls is a maxim that we repeat and reiterate in 2015 which has taken on a mantralike utility. I feel a bit like the people restating it don’t really know what the internet was like when that phrase started being popular.

See back in Usenet, trolls didn’t harass a person, they tended to harass a group. They tended to bother a small community, crapping on things they could. You could blockfile them, but if you did that, you wouldn’t get rid of people responding to them. What’s more, this traffic represented a meaningful download – the burden was a technical one. So, bickering with a troll could mean 20-30 posts (which some readers couldn’t properly file or hide) that didn’t make any sense and just annoyed people. You didn’t feed the trolls not for your own sake or to discourage the troll (though that often worked out if everyone did), you avoided feeding the trolls because you didn’t want to make life harder for your community.

‘Don’t Feed The Trolls’ is a perfect emblem of the way the internet has worked out. It’s a piece of 30-year-old wisdom that doesn’t bear out any more. It isn’t like downloading a lone tweet represents a major burden for anyone these days. It isn’t like our tools for muting such things is hard either – now, Don’t Feed The Trolls is a maxim loved by trolls far more than by the communities being attacked by them. Because this phrase has become a mantra, repeated without consideration until its meaning is eroded away from it, Don’t Feed The Trolls is now an article of faith that trolls use to attack people who respond to them. It’s a twisted little idea that, because we have internalised it as a group, trolls use as moral justification: You responded, so it’s your fault.

This is damn near religious.

It isn’t true, it isn’t helpful, and when we repeat a bit of wisdom without examining it, we create opportunities for people to use that idea against us, to hurt us.

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