I gave a talk a few years ago at Defcon XIX on the art of trolling. Since, I’ve done a great many things with my life. In fact, while I am reasonably accomplished in a number of areas, that one talk continues to be a source of recognition in many communities I find myself intersecting with. This has not always been a source of pride or happiness for me. The reality I have come to accept, is that there are a great many people on this planet that are closed minded and all too willing to demonize and damn people at the drop of a hat. And sometimes they simply don’t get why trolls are out there being themselves.
Yesterday, a guy named ‘weev’ aka Andrew Auernheimer was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison. Not because he broke any laws. He broke none. He was convicted because of his personality. Your fellow Americans, and the united states government sent a man to prison because he was a jerk. And to do that, they had to pervert a bad law, and lie in court. As a result, now still more money and resources has to be spent by groups like the EFF to undo their terrible work. Not because Auernheimer is a good person, but because it’s the right thing to do.
Also yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled against Jammie Thomas-Rasset. This is not the first time the Supreme Court has voided entire sections of the Constitution. It is however the first time they have done it outside of the guise of national security concerns. It is an act of betrayal by those men and women who swore an oath to uphold the constitution, and it was done without any real reason other than simple stupidity. In short, a person’s rights have been trampled and their life destroyed by a callous uncaring group of undereducated fools. And yet, there is as much outcry to burn this poor woman at the stake as there is to save her from this abomination of justice.
I again find myself uttering the phrase, “I don’t want to live on this planet anymore.”
An acquaintance has been banned from pycon for the next 2 years for lighting up a bowl of weed in South Bay ( Santa Clara ) California. He does not claim injustice. And was gracious in accepting the ban. But, a person has been cast out of a professional and foss organization for reasons that are to be blunt, unacceptable in this area of the world.
Several weeks ago at B-Sides SF, Violet Blue had a talk pulled by a woman whose personal bias drove her to threats of harassment towards the volunteer event staff and the non profitting organization behind it. There are deeply troubled people on this planet. People who have been scarred and will never truly heal. But that is no excuse for threats. That is no excuse for silencing voices that pursue knowledge and world with less barriers to thought.
Again, I find myself uttering the phrase “I don’t want to live on this planet anymore.”
Attorney General Eric Holder, now more blatant a failure first as a human being and second as an attorney general than even Ashcroft sat before congress and had the unmitigated gall to call the charges brought against Aaron Schwartz “a good use of prosecutorial discretion”. A claim that was as ridiculous to the members of congress questioning him as it is to me. A claim that has been the subject of a failed campaign of deception by the Attorney General of Massachusetts. A claim that today is so much more galling as complaints have been officially filed against the Assistant Attorney General in Mass, for violating the rights of Aaron Schwartz by withholding evidence.
A boy is dead. Because he dared to challenge the status quo. Because in burning just a little brighter than the rest of us, a fool saw an opportunity to place their names in a news paper. A politician saw an opportunity to demonize a defenseless kid and climb still further up their own ladder at the cost of an innocent life. And still, there are no repercussions. No accountability. No justice. Because after all Aaron was a criminal.
Today, executives of Lehman Brothers are wealthy, free, and living their lives as if their past transgressions were nothing more than a few bad days to be brought up in remembered annoyance. While countless Americans continue to reel in financial debt so steep it can seem inescapable. These executives defrauded their investors, their customers, and the United States people. They LIED. Their fraud collapsed the global economy costing people their jobs, their homes, and in some cases for those on the very ragged edge, their lives. And no charges were ever filed. Criminals pure and simple walk free. And the people who scream for justice are silenced, degraded, and ultimately mocked.
In short, there is a lot of hurt in the world. There is a lot of injustice. And there are a lot of victims.
And it can be hard to keep a clear head, when there is so much to draw our attention and drive us into a funk.
So, I understand, why it is that people act like people. Why we make mistakes. Why people sometimes get so fed up with the world they live in that they try to break free. Why sometimes, you need to knock a barrier down just to see what lies beyond. Just to know that SOMETHING lies beyond.
Why someone like Aaron Schwartz would walk onto the MIT campus, walk into a routing closet, and setup a laptop to download publicly funded research by the millions of papers.
Why weev would contact news reporters and dump into their hands the results of his own investigations of how the ipad operates and the betrayal of AT&T against their own customers.
Why a woman stood before the supreme court to decry the criminal nature of legislature that targeted her with damages far beyond any real or imagined justification.
Why termie would light up a bowl, while among friends and peers. Why a person would open themselves to the world and look for acceptance only to be cast out of their own community for simply being themselves.
Why Violet Blue would publicly call out an organization claiming to fight for equality, when in truth they sacrificed knowledge and freedom in that pursuit.
And of course, why a group of people would march down to the Stock Exchange in NYC and setup camp for well over a year braving cold, and beatings, and heckling just to ask for some small measure of justice.
We encounter walls all the time. Day in and day out, we edge around the walls of personal responsibility, legal accountability, and the judgement of our neighbors and peers. We find ourselves all too often taking round about paths to where we want to be, or giving up on dreams entirely. But occasionally there are just too many walls. Too many constraints. We can’t move forward anymore and we’re trapped. And that’s when inside of us, the voice of a troll rises up and says… that wall is weak, and you are mighty.
Many people think the word troll is synonymous with people who comment on the internet in a belligerent or hate filled manner. This is a load of crap. A bastardization of the word brought about by people who didn’t know what the word meant and started using it inappropriately. While from time to time a troll will take up the mask of the malcontent, they just as often will take up the mask of the activist, the artist, or even the peacemaker. You see a troll doesn’t have a method. There isn’t some rule book for trolling. It’s not the path, it’s not the transport, it’s the destination. Trolls breach barriers. Trolls tear down everything they can. They go where others dare not tread. And in each of us, there is a little bit of troll that every now and again climbs up out of that deep dark place inside and smashes down a wall.
Maybe this is why the incredible hulk resonates with all of us. In many ways, the hulk reflects the trollish nature of mankind. We keep that little monster locked away deep inside, but every now and again a wall appears that needs to be knocked down and he will rear his ugly head and do just that. He’s hard to control. And he’s a part of ourselves that we don’t like. But no matter what he’s always there, under the surface, waiting for his chance to climb out and change his fate.
Of course, trolling is more than just channeling rage. As I said before, it’s the destination that matters. When George Herbert Leigh Mallory once was asked why he wanted to climb Everest, he replied “Because it’s there.” He saw a barrier, and he meant to go through it. He died trying, but his words inspired countless others to break down barriers for decades to come. Trolls see barriers and they break them… because they are there.
Groups like 4chan sprung up from the cess pool of IRC. And in the process distilled several aspects of that culture. However, the self proclaimed b-tards of /b/ kept with them the idea that no barrier was sacred. They freely wandered into the realms of the tasteless, the offensive, and the utterly deplorable. And in so doing they came back with the stuff of legend. 4chan will be remembered because people roamed through barriers that at no other time in history had been so openly and wantonly breached. They created art, and story, and inspired an entire generation with varying aspects of their debauchery. Always the goal was to go one barrier beyond the last person. Sometimes this ended in tragedy. Sometimes it ended in greatness.
And so, while I utter “I don’t want to live on this planet anymore.” I remember that trolls don’t have to. They can live wherever they damned well please. YOU can go wherever you damned well please.
I am not saying there will not be consequences. In fact, odds are you are going to fail. You are going to fail a lot. When you get knocked down, you get back up. And you WILL be knocked down no matter how high you climb. And eventually, you won’t be able to get back up. We are all fighting a losing battle with our own mortality. But sometimes when you’ve been knocked down hard too many times, when there’s not enough room between the punches to recover, you need to just reach deep inside yourself, and let out one ugly trollish smile and walk right on through the barriers before you like you absolutely cannot be bothered to give a shit. And if you owe a pound of flesh for doing that, so be it. It’s the price of your freedom.
Trolls are the John Hancock of our constitution. They are the people who stood in the face of certain failure, and said to hell with it. And, history is littered with the bodies of those that died in failure, alone and tormented. But, there has always been a true respect for those who are given to climbing Everests because they are there. Not because we understand it. Sometimes we do. But a lot of times we don’t. When we look at a person like Weev, it’s easy to simply say “I don’t understand why he would do that? He brought this upon himself.” But, it’s utterly important to think about what it means to tell a person that they cannot do what you do not understand. To not do the things you might think are rude, offensive, or wrong.
I won’t advocate that one should accept harassment. But when we put up barriers, we lose more than the things we know about. We lose all the things that the weevs and aarons of the world might find beyond that barrier. We lose good and bad but what’s worse is we are blind to so much of our world. They say science is the pursuit of truth. Truth is lost when we build barriers that deny us the reality we dislike, or fear, or simply disregard. A reasonable person cannot simply set aside truth for the lie of a world in which a barrier is the only truth we know. A troll knows this implicitly. And that is why a troll is a hero.
We look at the world for what it is. Every gutter, ditch, and pit. Every mountain, tower, or sunrise. It’s all one big beautiful canvas and we want to see the whole damned amazing thing. And sometimes nothing else in the world will matter more than just seeing it all for what it is. And because of that, you might very well hate us. And that’ll knock us down. But we’ll keep smiling that ugly and beautiful smile, because it reflects back to you the very same beauty we see in the world beyond your barriers. And you might cringe, you might never understand it, but we will carry you kicking and screaming into a better future.