How To Go Online Hunting – Part I

I was having breakfast this morning and decided to watch some short YouTube videos. Harmless, right? Now by trying to avoid the television, by limiting myself to some short clips, I ended up doing essentially the same thing. This is a slippery slope with YouTube, you go to watch one video and then the all-knowing side bar recommends other videos. Before you know it, four hours have passed. Whether it be DIY style videos, music video clips, or adorable animals, this morning YouTube seduced me with Jenna Marbles’ whimsical vlog on life.

The first time I was introduced to Marbles was through a shared Facebook link a few years ago to a video called “How to trick people into thinking that you’re good looking”. But today I went past just watching a short shared video and instead I sat and watched her channel much like regular television (although with less advertisements). And whilst watching this, I broke the golden rule of the Internet, and scrolled down to the comments (see: Greg Jericho’s “Never Read the Comments”), and read some of the extensive battles between viewers.

What’s interesting in the comments above is how the first is something unnecessarily offensive against Marbles, either her appearance or her content, and then there’s a stream of “fights between commenters on who is the more incompetent person” (Jericho) which veers away from the initial comment. Marbles herself does not engage with this commentary but she doesn’t seem to moderate it either. Most of these comments are potentially defamatory, and this style of online communication has most recently been categorised as trolling.

Now, I’m going to go off into a linguistic spin-off into what exactly is a troll? If we take the morpheme ‘troll-’, then we see quite an interesting evolution. Mark Forsyth, on his blog Inky Fool, explains that:

The verb troller first appears in Medieval French. It meant going out hunting without having any specific animal in mind. 

From then on the OED provides more than 20 definitions of ‘troll-’: to walk in the streets in search of a sexual encounter as a homosexual; to move around; to turn over in one’s mind; to move the tongue incessantly (of speech); and, the list goes on. Our Scandinavian understanding of the mythical, mindless, giant only became adopted into English (from Norse) in the mid-19th century.

Ancient troll funny junk

But what about Internet trolls? Troll in modern computer language came around in the 1990s as posts that deliberately try to provoke an angry response (see Jason Wilson’s “Same as it ever was”). Our 21st century understanding has evolved into anybody that publishes abusive or offensive commentary online. And that’s very broad. To some, Jenna Marbles’ videos are offensive, as they ridicule a plethora of personalities and tastes in the name of comedy and entertainment. For example, “How To Dance Like A White Girl” can be deemed as sexist and racist and Marbles even includes a small disclaimer at the start: “I’m making fun of me as much as I’m making fun of you”, which acknowledges that some people may find this offensive. Does this make Marbles a troll or a comedian? And then there’s the barrage of comments about the video being racist, as well as offensive claims targeted at Marbles — such as Marbles is “dumbing down America” — followed with a barrage of fights between commentators.

Are the initial offensive commentators being trolls or sharing their opinion in a public forum? Are the responders to these comments trolls or active participants in a democratic discussion, simply using unpleasant jargon? Is offense in the eye of the beholder? Maybe we need to return trolls to the Scandinavians to understand a troll as someone who uses their anonymity (mythical) to be mindless? Or better yet combine it with Medieval France:

Troll: a person that anonymously offends or insults without a specific target in mind. In other words, online hunting.

And on top of this if the content that the troll publishes is problematic and potentially defamatory, who is truly responsible for it? The commentator (i.e. Full Natty Brah), the channel owner (Jenna Marbles), or the platform owner (YouTube/Google)?

Let me know where you think the responsibility lies in the poll or comments below. And I’ll come back with Part II as my next post to discuss this.