Many years ago, the Internet was a wild, decentralized place. While September 1993 ushered in a new era of vocal idiocy, the blogosphere engaged in self-absorbed navel-gazing, while pretending to be the Brave New Replacement for what we used to call "journalism". Self-promotion was the rule of the day (as it continues to be in the cesspit of internet "influencer" culture that has inherited the mantle and behaviors of "Internet Fame" culture), as nerd subcultures found themselves invaded by poseurs with weblogs, co-opting "nerd chic" as their path to internet fame and lucrative ad dollars.
The worst of these faux-nerds could be found in the usual places; k5, slashdot, and, increasingly, at sites like "boingboing". Boingboing was run by what seemed to be "information wants to be free" online ideologues, claiming their lofty goal to be the perpetuation and defense of freedom of speech. Yet, their actions betrayed this reality; when faced with criticism in the comment section of their own blog, they'd eliminate anyone who didn't blow sunshine up their collective posteriors. And when that wasn't enough, they had the audacity to eliminate comments, altogether. It was under these circumstances that xenisucks.com was created, at first as a quick, disposable joke to mock what we saw as egregious fake nerd posturing. This throwaway troll was hosted on an iMac, sitting on a cable modem. It cost, if memory serves correctly, about 18 bucks for the domain name, and about an hour of initial setup time, followed by about 5 minutes a week to create the "content."
Then metafilter linked to us. Traffic took off. Not wanting to be "scooped", Boingboing then linked to us. Traffic spiked. Our paltry cable modem choked under the load. But one of the benefits of being a "real nerd", by which we mean being someone who does "nerd stuff" for an actual living, is that one tends to know other nerds. Nerds with resources. So when Boingboing sent enough traffic to keep us off the net for a few minutes, it was only a few minutes later until we had moved the hosting to a server sitting in an L3 colocation cage, with ridiculous bandwidth for which we paid nothing. And then the readers came, followed by the commenters. And then came the mention in the NYT, followed by unhinged reactions from other self-absorbed bloggers like Violet Blue. All of this attention fed the troll, and the troll was "minimum effort, maximum impact".
Trolling remains the same; if one can invoke an uncontrolled reaction in an audience, simply with the use of some words, then the motivation to do so will continue to be self-evident; watching uncontrolled reactions is funny, at the end of the day. Much has changed since 2006, but if anything, trolling has become an even more powerful dark art, and yet it is one with a glaring, fatal conceit; if you stop paying attention to the troll, it loses its power. Real talk, though; most of y'all can't control your own emotions, so you are doomed to be enslaved by your reactions to other people's words. To this, we say the following: you get what you deserve.
If anything, people have become more susceptible to trolling. In the United States, we essentially just had a President whose inarguable skill in "manipulative communications" was a prime example of "major league trolling." Not only did a substantial portion of the country relinquish control over their own emotions every time this President crafted 240 characters of trollbait on twitter, the entirety of mass media managed to lose the same. You can hate the man, call into question his ethics, knowledge, competence,or even his basic humanity, but he owns your emotions, and this is because you have decided not to control them, yourselves. That's on you, collectively, as a people.
There is much concern today over whether "big tech" has too much power. Arguments are made that visible efforts to quash free speech on these platforms is 'censorship', and arguments are made that, because it is not government censorship, then it cannot be censorship, definitionally. All of this misses an underlying point; Big Tech has only the control over us that we allow them to have. Their power has been centralized by marketing, but it will just as easily dissolve, as these corporations are not "institutions" in the societal sense, and the market will eventually determine their fate. When people stop willingly providing these companies with the marketing data they sell in order to survive, the companies will wither. In their place will rise countless replacements, and it is reasonable to expect that such federation will eventually push people to decentralized internet use, in yet another wave of back and forth over the future of the Internet, as a whole.
- The Management