Now, trolls and trolling have a long history on the net. (And in the context of accelerated "Internet time", that's saying something.) Originally the terms "troll" and "trolling" described a kind of deliberate and conscious game. More recently, however, a number of folks have noticed -- and by noticed, I mean, cursed about -- the appearance of people who behave like trolls but who seem to have no insight into their behavior. It's that aspect of the current phenomenon that I think of as "Troll Spectrum Behavior". It seems there's a remarkable number of folks whose uninhibited online behavior is functionally indistinguishable from the old games of trolling for newbies and trolling for suckers. Many of these folks seem to be flying on autopilot, operating "open loop", not learning and thus not communicating.
Since the Legos are already scattered all over the floor, I might as toss these pieces onto the pile. These pieces are from comments at ScienceBlogs.com. First a question posed by another participant:
Here's a question -- is it real trolling if the person actually holds that attitude, or is it real trolling if the person doesn't hold that attitude in reality, but pretends to just in order to get people wound up? Or, are both of those "real trolling", just different flavors?
I put "real trolling" in quotes to parallel your earlier use of quotes and to suggest a pun on the commenter's nickname.
But raising a question about the psychology of trolls does strike me as relevant to the original topic. As I recall from back in the days of Internet yore, early on the terms "troll" and "trolling" supposedly signified game-playing behavior, a kind of sport, or sometimes performance art. But it seems to me that was a flimsy cover story from the start. The behavior was unhealthy then and it still is now.
As you suggest, these days I don't really try to distinguish trolling as a supposed game from functionally equivalent harmful behaviors. When Troll Spectrum Behavior occurs, I do think it's important that someone demonstrate a healthier counterexample. Accidental quasi-trolls might learn if offered an opportunity, and some healthy social reinforcement helps to maintain a sense of community. Beyond that, of course, no feeding. :)
It seems to me Troll Spectrum Behavior might be related to a problem that I see underlying the topic of Zuska's post, and that I see underlying a number of social problems: a widespread inability to perceive harm.
Filtering out perceptions of harm, injustice, exploitation, pain, and suffering; lacking empathy or actively suppressing empathy; ignoring the consequences of our behavior; these things seem like enablers in mechanisms that create further harm. I find that disturbing.
About the same time, the topic came up at another blog within the ScienceBlogs umbrella. There I wrote:
I find no value in trying to distinguish the varieties of Troll Spectrum Behavior (as mentioned recently at Zuska's blog). It doesn't matter to me whether attention-seeking and game-playing behaviors stem from conscious or un/subconscious motivation. The consequences are pretty much the same, so my (lack of) response is pretty much the same.
I do think it's important to demonstrate mature interactions instead. That fosters situations in which social learning can occur. But that doesn't require feeding attention appetites.
(This is a rough draft. Proper links forthcoming...)