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June 16, 2008

“The truth of a matter”
Posted by Avram Grumer at 02:55 PM *

Some advice from playwright and screenwriter Todd Alcott on writing dialog:

To every extent possible, characters should not tell each other how they feel. Any time a character tells another character how he or she feels, the audience is going to wonder “what the heck is he or she getting at?” Any time a character says “Here’s the truth of a matter:” what should follow the colon is anything other than the truth of the matter. Think of it: any time someone comes to you in your daily goings-about and says “Let me tell you something about myself” or “I have some feelings I want to share with you” or “The fact of the matter is…” you want to turn around and run in the opposite direction. Because the only reason someone would come up to you and offer you some kind of truth is because they want something from you.

Ever notice how often trolls in an online discussion forum will start a comment with “The truth is…” or “I hate to tell you this, but…”? Or any similar kind of introductory puffing-up of what they’re about to say to try and make it seem more important than it really is?

Are Internet trolls actually just characters in badly-written fiction?

Comments on "The truth of a matter":
#1 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2008, 03:14 PM:

That's a good hypothesis, as trolls often end up as the writers of badly-written fiction. I am reminded of an exercise in an acting class once, where the teacher pulled up a student and had her sit there, expressionless, while he variously described her as sad, pensive, stunned, etc. and it was obvious to those of us watching that her blank expression could be taken for all of those emotions.

In the end, it's all about context, and trolls have no sense of context.

Bad dialogue as the mark of bad socialization... hmm, I think there's some good ideas there.

#2 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2008, 03:19 PM:

Well, two things come to mind at once: First, that the most iconic trollery is "The reality is..." I believe one of the NHs wrote about how that dismisses anyone who disagrees as being out of touch with reality, while claiming the hard-headed-realist label for the troll. Usually their heads are hard because they're solid all through, but that's another point entirely.

The other thing is that there's a pretty big flaw in Alcott's reasoning, which is that any time anyone says anything to anyone, they want something from them. If you had absolutely no desire to elicit any particular response or behavior from another person, you wouldn't talk to them at all. Every act of communication has that element of manipulation in it, though it be benign in intent and outcome.

OTOH, he is right that people can't and won't say what they mean, because we have so many constructs designed to saying something in a roundabout way that a perfectly straightforward presentation will be interpreted in terms of those constructs, adding layers of meaning that the presenter did not intend and that may not be true.

Put that way, this is another viewpoint on the as-you-know-Bob problem. Characters who communicate simply with each other are unrealistic, and transparent shills for the author informing the reader. Or viewer. Whatever.

#3 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2008, 03:26 PM:

Often, trolls are writing fiction, pretending to be someone that they're not. A soldier, these days, or a qualified expert in something they're simply obsessed with. Some switch genders, ages, locations and loyalties to lend versimilitude to an unconvincing narrative.

Unfortunately, they are frequently pretending that they can write well as they do so.

-----
* Many of them find themselves possessed by the Great Spirit of Mary Sue. I am often sore tempted to address the spirit within them in a kind of synecdoche, calling them Mary or Gary as appropriate.

#4 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2008, 03:28 PM:

B.Durbin @ 1... Bad dialogue as the mark of bad socialization

You've been watching the recent Star Wars movies, haven't you? What do they say about George(*)?

(*) Lucas, not W.Bush.

#5 ::: Jon Evans ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2008, 03:31 PM:

Also known as "on-the-nose" dialogue. Perhaps the lesson is that Internet trolls require a punch on the nose. Or that if they were in a forum where such a reaction was possible, they wouldn't talk like that.

#6 ::: Ulrika ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2008, 03:33 PM:

I dunno. I know this is a trope that bounces around Making Light periodically, but I don't know that I've observed that particular verbal tic being especially more common in trolls than non-trolls. It may shut down your willingness to listen, but I don't think it's a good marker for the authenticity of the speaker.

#7 ::: Robert Walker ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2008, 03:37 PM:

It seems to me to come down to that old adage "show me, don't tell me." We all know that a hallmark of amateurish writing is telling as opposed to showing. I suppose that could certainly be applied to "internet trolls."

Reminds me of that great scene in True Romance between Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper when Walken says: "What we got here is a little game of show and tell. You don't wanna show me nothin'. But you're tellin' me everything."

Classic.

#8 ::: Mike Adelstein ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2008, 03:48 PM:

Well, the truth of the matter is -- no wait -- ugh nevermind :-)

#9 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2008, 03:56 PM:

I suspect a lot of conversation is the human equivalent of the 'social grooming' we see in other primates. The content of the dialog can be trivial; it's just us acknowledging each other.

#10 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2008, 04:06 PM:

I'm with Ulrika on this. These kinds of attempts at scene-setting, at establishing the frame, are often ham-handed, but we're all ham-handed sometimes. I'm sure an exhaustive search of the online writings of any of us would reveal innumerable instances of their use. The idea that they reliably uncover bad faith doesn't jibe with my experience.

#11 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2008, 04:13 PM:

I suspect, on consideration, that there are graceful linguists who troll undetectably.

I'm thinking of the common adage that only failures commit murders that are labeled as such. A truly successful murder is one that goes unnoticed.

#12 ::: Lisa Padol ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2008, 04:31 PM:

I have to agree with Patrick and Ulrika.

Checking my wonderful Sidekick, I see that Andrew Zorowitz uses some of these phrases as we discuss a larp that Josh, me, and a few of our friends have been working on for over a decade.

Now, Andrew has been running larps for years, so many that there are months when he has no free weekend for running larps. He has been trying to act as our reality check. He has often been apologizing for this, because he says things that we really don't want to hear.

Oh, we assure him that we need to hear them and that we are glad that he says them. And, we're telling the truth. But, he knows that he is saying unpleasant things, and he is applying social grease to try to make the process less unpleasant.

Looking over a conversation we had via AIM on June 13, I see:

"to be honest" -- he is explaining that a) his group almost didn't run what is probably our best game to date due to concerns about the rules and lack of same and b) that we do not need simple rules, as I said, but simple systems and complex rules

"tbh" -- as he advises me that if we intent to run our Magnum Opus To Be at a college campus, we are going to have to drastically rethink much of the game. He is, I believe, quite correct.

"TBH" -- pointing out that a group that is doing what should be impossible and getting away with it has more of a reputation than we currently do. He is right, and if any of you are larpers, the game we are discussing, "Across the Sea of Stars", is wonderful.

"to be honest" -- saying that he thinks a lot of problems we're having come from seeing something that we think is so cool we have to put it in a larp. He gives a specific example, and accepts my refutation of that specific example. He's probably right about the general case.

"i mean i hate to be the callous one here but someone needs to be, imho" -- pointing out that we absolutely have to understand that if we run a weekend long larp at a hotel, the important concept is "room nights". He is correct here. This is a financial consideration.

#13 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2008, 04:47 PM:

I think some of the sometimes-trollishness of these phrases involves the fact that when used by a friend face-to-face, they're often worth listening to.

"Look, I hate to tell you this, but your girlfriend is sleeping with Brad."

"Let's face facts: if you keep coming to work with alcohol on your breath, you'll get fired sooner or later."

"The truth is, you really can't afford that house, and the gimmicky mortgage they're trying to sell you to get you into the house is a disaster waiting to happen."

The phrases can also be used in person as a form of attack, of course. Tone carries a lot of the meaning there. "The truth is, I can't *stand* your goddamn mother coming here and judging everything we do." "Honestly, I wouldn't be seen in public dressed that way, but that's just me."

#14 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2008, 05:15 PM:

Well, writing "Ever notice how often trolls in an online discussion forum will start a comment with..." fits this trope, so I feel terribly unmotivated. I'm perfectly willing for people to write "the reality is" as long as it is closely followed with a mutually acceptable citation.

#15 ::: will shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2008, 05:18 PM:

Ulrika and everyone wise enough to agree with her: yep. I just googled "avram grumer" and "truth is". This post came up first. I was amused to see something Patrick said come up second, and Avedon had a hit pretty quickly after that.

The truth is--

Oops.

#16 ::: Leah Miller ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2008, 05:34 PM:

If this is true, I’m an unconvincing character in real life. I talk and communicate a lot, but when hinting and implying break down, I tend to ‘preface and blurt’ serious emotions or qualms or what have you.

Quite often I preface fairly major revelations with “I have to tell you this” or “Ok, here’s the thing,” which are, to me, just slightly blunted versions of “the truth is.” I also quite often use “I have to tell you something/I’ve been wanting to tell you something/I’ve been trying to tell you something” followed by an explanation of my exact current feelings about the topic at hand.

At the same time… I am often aware of the “emotional parabola” that is necessary before such things come out in the open. I’ve dismissed stories as amateurish that have characters “preface and blurt” too early in their emotional arc, but I also find stories where the arc is too long sublimely frustrating. I think my “at this point someone should just blurt their feelings out” threshold is a lot lower than most people’s, causing me to be more frustrated by particular styles of writing than many of my friends. Many popular anime series are great examples of this, where two main characters will refrain from confessing their true feelings for YEARS, sometimes for hundreds of episodes.

At that point I’d sell my spleen to make someone say “The fact of the matter is, I love you.”

#17 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2008, 05:35 PM:

I don't have any credentials as either a writer of fiction or a plumber of others' psychic depths, but I will say that every single time a patient has said to me, "I'm not a whiner," that patient is a whiner.

(also--Xopher: any time anyone says anything to anyone, they want something from them should be broad enough to include utterances like "Look out! The bridge has washed away!" and "I found your lost dog.")

#18 ::: will shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2008, 05:46 PM:

Just tweaked my search and came up with Avram's, "Basically, the truth is that if the recoverable overvotes are included and any ballot standard that allows counting dimpled chads is used, Gore wins."

Which I entirely agree with.

A troll is a persistent person you disagree with. I suspect commie, liberal, conservative, right-libertarian, pro-PRC, pro-CIA, pro-choice, pro-life, pro-1st Amendment, and pro-2nd Amendment trolls have distinctive group markings, but if you're saying that they're people who believe what they say, I don't think you're narrowing the field usefully.

#19 ::: Neil Willcox ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2008, 05:47 PM:

ObSF: "I'm Jake Featherston and I'm here to tell you the truth."

Here's a question; if these verbal* tics do show up more often with trolls, where are they learning it from bad fiction or bad non-fiction?

Xopher @2 ...any time anyone says anything to anyone, they want something from them.

I'd have phrased that as "any time anyone says anything to anyone they want something". Sometimes it's all about the person speaking.

And, seeing Lila @17 after previewing, I think it might fit better (If you're giving good advice to someone because you you want to help can be considered wanting something from them, but it's a bit of a stretch)

* Or literary

#20 ::: will shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2008, 05:51 PM:

Lila @17, based on the two points you make in that post, if you're tempted to write fiction, don't hesitate. You understand far more about people than many fiction-writers do.

#21 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2008, 06:07 PM:

The characters in fiction are a distillation of reality. Few of them "um" and "er". They say things in particularly memorable ways.

The reasons Todd Alcott gives for why real people don't use those phrases does give me some idea of why I've never heard of him as a writer--does he really know people?--but I think he's right that they're of little use in the world of story.

#22 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2008, 06:17 PM:

Let me put my statement in its classic form: Communication is the art of eliciting responses.

Any time anyone says anything to anyone, they want a response of some kind from that person, usually a particular response. They may not get one, and they certainly may not get the exact response they want, but they're always trying to get one.

Put yet another way, when you communicate with someone, you're trying to influence their behavior: you want them to do or refrain from doing something they would not have done or refrained from doing had you not spoken.

It absolutely doesn't have to completely selfish, or to their cost. It can be to their good, "for their own good," something that neither helps or harms them, something that costs them and benefits you, or (if you're really evil) something that harms them with no benefit to anyone. (These are examples; there are many other cases, I'm sure.)

In the sentence 'Look out, the bridge has washed away!' the speaker is most likely trying to elicit the behavior of not attempting to cross the bridge. Note that this is true whether the sentence itself is actually true; the speaker is trying to elicit the same behavior, whether or not s/he's lying about the condition of the bridge. It's also possible, of course, that the speaker (depending on hir relationship to the listener) may be trying to elicit the opposite behavior—that is, s/he knows the listener assumes s/he's lying, and is trying to get the listener to attempt to cross the bridge. Again, the truth of the matter is irrelevant to the intent of the communication.

The responses intended to 'I found your lost dog' are more complex. In most cases I expect the speaker is trying to elicit a happy response of some kind from the listener. This may be all, or s/he may have an ulterior motive. But the one thing this speaker does NOT want is for the listener to sit impassively and say nothing.

We humans are social animals. We manipulate each other constantly except when we're alone. It just doesn't get that name usually, unless it's sneaky or otherwise detrimental, but tiny manipulations like the ones above are an important part of what it means to be human.

#23 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2008, 07:01 PM:

Avram: Are Internet trolls actually just characters in badly-written fiction? Gnostics say Yes!

#24 ::: Carl ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2008, 07:42 PM:

"...full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Not a new idea.

#25 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2008, 07:49 PM:

Xopher #22:

Dawkins says more or less the same thing in The Extended Phenotype at some point. Though he's interested in this in terms of genes and evolution--when I carry genes that lead me to send some signal, they're effectively genes whose job is to cause some effect on the recipient.

Anyway, this makes me think of art. I suppose you can see art as two kinds of communication: sending something to yourself, and sending something to others. But you might not ever see or hear of the people who receive the message. I suppose the extreme example of this is a message to the stars--the goal is to affect distant things in the future, but without any hope that any of the people involved, or even their descendants, will be affected by the result.

#26 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2008, 08:52 PM:

I certainly didn't say, or mean to imply, that each and every person who has one of these tics in their verbal or writing habits is a troll. (Alcott may have, but it was clear to me that he was exaggerating for comedic effect.)

In fact (←LOOK!), in spoken conversation, there are several functional uses for this kind of up-front verbal filler. And a lot of people carry verbal habits over into their writing. (I used to do it a lot myself, until I became conscious of it and started editing my writing.)

(And before posting this, I did quickly skim through my comment history.)

But I'm certainly not the first person to have noticed the propensity of trolls to puff out their chests and announce themselves as brave truth-tellers who are going to shatter your sad little politically-correct worldview.

I think one big difference is contextual. Someone you already have a relationship with might have some notion of what sort of unpleasant truths you might actually need to face. If your doctor is telling you the tumor is malignant, he really does have to tell you, and he probably really is sorry about it.

And sometimes these phrases are a bridge between useful introductory matter and the meat of a comment. "Blah-de-blah is a common misconception; the actual truth is gleeble-de-glee." Depending on what blah-de-blah consists of, it may be actual engagement with an ongoing conversation.

On the other hand, if some guy you've never interacted with before pops in to your blog comment space and starts off his first post with "I'm sorry to tell you this, but..." odds are good that the rest of that sentence if going to be something written without much thought.

#27 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2008, 09:15 PM:

Oh, and while I'm talking about context, could we all maybe please pay a bit more attention to it? For example, if you scroll up to the post there at the top of the page, you'll see that I wrote "Ever notice how often trolls in an online discussion forum will start a comment with [...]". In ct #18, Will tries (and I recognize that this was done out of a good-natured attempt at a sort of meta-humorous affectionate nose-tweaking) to show me as having myself done this very thing, by digging up a seven-year-old blog post which does not start with a tic of the sort I'm talking about.

(I could have included more context from the Alcott piece, I suppose. The bit I quoted comes from the end, and when I read the whole thing it was obvious that he was exaggerating.)

The particular behavior I see a lot from trolls (in the case of "The truth is...") is coming into a conversation started by someone else, and opening a comment with a phrase that dismisses all that has gone before, as if the troll is the only person who has anything worthwhile to say.

#28 ::: Chris ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2008, 10:05 PM:
The responses intended to 'I found your lost dog' are more complex.
I would expect a common intent to be for the listener to take this yapping pest off the speaker's hands before it makes any more messes. Whether there's any gratitude along with that is completely optional.

But since we're primates, we have this idea embedded deep in our brains:

Someday, and that day may never come, I'll call upon you to do a service for me. But, until that day, accept this justice as a gift on my daughter's wedding day.

Even the collapsing bridge warning works on this level, too, at least subconsciously.

#29 ::: will shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2008, 10:13 PM:

Avram, I love "meta-humorous"!

And, for the record, I just grabbed the first quote from you that fit the search. I've never noticed you behaving in any way that I would describe as troll-like.

#30 ::: will shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2008, 10:24 PM:

Chris @ 28, the ideologies of selfishness have answers for every question. This does not mean they're correct. It only means their believers believe their principles are everyone's.

Do people throw themselves on grenades to save others in the hope that someone will do the same for them someday?

#31 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2008, 11:42 PM:

abi @ 11: "I suspect, on consideration, that there are graceful linguists who troll undetectably."

Perhaps undetected, but undetectably? I think that trolling is always detectable in some way or another. If it wasn't detectable, if it was exactly the same as honest communication, then how is it trolling?

Avram @ 26: "I think one big difference is contextual. Someone you already have a relationship with might have some notion of what sort of unpleasant truths you might actually need to face. If your doctor is telling you the tumor is malignant, he really does have to tell you, and he probably really is sorry about it."

I agree. Trolls use this sort of language in every circumstance, regardless of appropriateness. Everyone uses language like a club sometimes, but trolls do it all the time, without earning the right. They want to benefit from the emotional heft of phrases like "the truth is" or "reality is" without doing the hard work of establishing why you should care what they think, or how their opinion reflects reality more clearly. Saying something along the lines of "At this point, refusal to accept the truth of the matter is beyond ridiculous" feels a lot different when it comes after 40 pages of proof than it does at the top of a blog comment.

#32 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2008, 07:26 AM:

But Avram does have a point. There's a style of trollish language that uses phrases like the fact is and in reality as a sort of loose verbal matrix that holds their payload sentences: The fact is, Bush never lied about Iraq, or In reality, you're censoring me because you're biased. Not every use of those phrases denotes a troll, but there's definitely a trollish habit of using them.

#33 ::: JimR ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2008, 08:15 AM:

Heresiarch #31, re abi's comment.
I think it all really depends on your definition of "trolling." If you take to mean "someone being an asshat on the internet", then it is always detectable--in that the terms are so wide, most anythying can fall into it. If, on the other hand, you take it to mean "someone who distorts the truth, either about themselves or the topic of discussion, in order to shape the discussion to their whim" then I think it can be very, very subtle and extremely effective, not to mention fricking hilarious.
I think this is the realm of The Yes Men, to be a bit extreme about it, though of course it happens on the internet, as well. Victims might call it trolling but I think it all depends on viewpoint.
(By the way, this is what I think the Mall Ninja is--brilliant trollery. Some people thought it was simple trolling, but I think it was metatrolling.)

#34 ::: Steve Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2008, 10:53 AM:

Teresa Nielsen Hayden at #32 writes:

> There's a style of trollish language that uses phrases like the fact is and in reality as a sort of loose verbal matrix that holds their payload sentences: The fact is, Bush never lied about Iraq, or In reality, you're censoring me because you're biased. Not every use of those phrases denotes a troll, but there's definitely a trollish habit of using them.

I've found that people proudly telling you that they're a bit of a contrarian can be a warning sign that they're writing themselves a free pass to say some nasty stuff.

#35 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2008, 12:14 PM:

Since I still have that musical (mentioned on another thread) echoing in memory, one of the great expressions of "show, not tell" is Eliza Doolittle's song "Show Me!"

#36 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2008, 02:15 PM:

JimR @33:
If, on the other hand, you take it to mean "someone who distorts the truth, either about themselves or the topic of discussion, in order to shape the discussion to their whim" then I think it can be very, very subtle and extremely effective, not to mention fricking hilarious.

I was thinking in particular of the Essjay controversy*, though I don't know that Essjay distorted things to a particular agenda.

-----
* Why yes, that is a Wikipedia link. Irony aboundeth.

#37 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2008, 02:53 PM:

I've found that people proudly telling you that they're a bit of a contrarian can be a warning sign that they're writing themselves a free pass to say some nasty stuff.

See also "But then I'm just politically incorrect that way." Usually seen chaperoning a payload of flagrant asshattery.

Another observation: When someone jumps into a conversation unasked, or gives unneeded advice/information (usually unpleasant facts the mention of which serve no useful purpose), and they start with "I hate to tell you this," odds are they're lying. I mean, it's amazing how gleeful they can sound while telling you the thing they say they hate to tell you.

--

If, on the other hand, you take it to mean "someone who distorts the truth, either about themselves or the topic of discussion, in order to shape the discussion to their whim" then I think it can be very, very subtle and extremely effective, not to mention fricking hilarious.

You're reminding me of what I call the "make it all about me" troll, and specifically accidental "all about me" trolls. Which isn't exactly a fair way to put it - if it's not on purpose, is it right to call it trolling? Probably not, but what if the effect on the conversation is the same?

There's someone I know who, as far as I can tell, is only ever arguing/discussing in good faith; however, his participation in the conversation often amounts to questioning exhaustively every personal-experience statement others make until the conversation has totally veered from its initial grounds and into the kingdom of Explaining Humanity To [Name]. When people start getting fed up with it (especially when his questions begin to show signs of not having paid much attention to responses to his previous questions) he begins excusing himself in terms of his personal psychological glitches.

I'm convinced he doesn't mean to troll, but his effect is almost indistinguishable from that of less benign, deliberately trollish entities, in that he causes the conversation to warp around himself like light around a gravity well.

#38 ::: Jenna Moran ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2008, 05:42 PM:

One thing I see is that trolling is focused more on speech acts than on speech for communication. The purpose of the troll as I categorize it is closer to the purpose of someone telling you that they have found your dog than someone explaining quantum theory; that is, the principal purpose is not to teach or to share information but to interact with you to a specific social/practical result. There is a formal use of the word "dialogue" that I've seen in organizational theory-type books which relates to inquiry through conversation and openness; this is not the sort of dialogue common to trolls. I don't think they're even doing that sort of dialogue *badly*, or aiming for it and missing. Instead, they seem to be making an attempt at socially legitimating their perspective, possibly at the detriment of your own.

What this suggests to me is that trolls may not be aping bad writing so much as bad writing apes trolls; that is, what if bad writing is too much of a speech act and too little communication? What if the heart of "telling" instead of showing is trying to declaratively provide the experience of being told a story of a certain type---to model the transaction of storytelling and assure the reader that they are participating in the same---rather than to tell an actual story?

I'm not sure. I spend a lot of time when I write playing with the forms---I'm fascinated by the communicative content in cliches, speech acts, and standardized tropes, and my typical story idea is generally little more than a creative overlay of 2-3 pieces of bad writing (ideally, found rather than created for the task.) So I'm in kind of a delicate position when making this observation. But it is something that occurred to me.

Postscript: I am using the terms "speech act," "legitimate," and "dialogue" inexpertly.

#39 ::: Neil Willcox ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2008, 06:06 PM:

Xopher @22 - I was a bit dozy last night, so needed it spelling out. Thanks!

Off Topic - Abi @36 - I note that at the bottom of that page is a link to the Wikipedia Reliability of Wikipedia page. I can't help thinking there ought to be some sort of logic puzzle involved with it.
("Epimenides - can you sort out this whole all Cretans are liars thing for us?"
"Why yes. Yes I can")

#40 ::: Carl ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2008, 07:13 PM:

#38 - This sounds at least somewhat like the discussions we had in Psych 101 about filters. Trolls tend to be very tightly tied to the way they filter the information that comes to them, and can't/won't deal with you as an equal until you understand and agree with their POV and filters.

Then again, that might just be my filters speaking. :)

#41 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2008, 07:22 PM:

Steve & Nicole: Sounds to me as if you're both discussing the "Brave Stance" bingo square.

#42 ::: sherrold ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2008, 08:13 PM:

Nicole @ 37
There's someone I know who, as far as I can tell, is only ever arguing/discussing in good faith; however, his participation in the conversation often amounts to questioning exhaustively every personal-experience statement others make until the conversation has totally veered from its initial grounds and into the kingdom of Explaining Humanity To [Name]. When people start getting fed up with it (especially when his questions begin to show signs of not having paid much attention to responses to his previous questions) he begins excusing himself in terms of his personal psychological glitches.

Wow, does that strike a chord. We have a friend, very bright, very well spoken, but a black hole of attention seeking, using this exact technique. It doesn't speak well of us that it took us so long to notice the pattern, either -- but the questions start out being fun to answer, until before you know it, the conversation has veered to their issues...again.

albatross @ 13
"Look, I hate to tell you this, but your girlfriend is sleeping with Brad."

I smiled when I read that, and then realized in almost 50 years, I'd never felt that I needed to make that call. Sometimes I've suspected the friend knew-without-knowing, sometimes I didn't feel close enough to be the one to tell...maybe I'm just more chicken than I think I am.

#43 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2008, 02:26 AM:

Rob Rusick @ 9, Xopher @ 22

A lot of human communication is the primate equivalent of a stream of <ACK> packets in both directions; just letting each other know we're there and listening. I'll bet at least 84.6% of all conversations are about the current weather, or the previous or next day's weather, and there's really not much reason to talk about it unless it's a long distance conversation; even then it rarely matters to the conversants. Just another way of saying, "I'm here, and I recognize that you're there."

#44 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2008, 05:25 AM:

JimR @ 33: "I think it all really depends on your definition of "trolling." If you take to mean "someone being an asshat on the internet", then it is always detectable--in that the terms are so wide, most anythying can fall into it. If, on the other hand, you take it to mean "someone who distorts the truth, either about themselves or the topic of discussion, in order to shape the discussion to their whim" then I think it can be very, very subtle and extremely effective, not to mention fricking hilarious."

Certainly trolls think so. But I fail to understand how being subtle, effective, or hilarious relates to being detectable or not. One can be all of those, and still be perfectly apparent.

My point isn't about the definition of trolling, though it is an interesting topic (I'd lean towards your latter definition). I'm aiming at something a bit more ontological--if there's no detectable difference between trolling and human conversation, then how do you draw a distinction between the two? If trolling is not conversation, then it must be different in some detectable way. It's a sort of Turing test for trolls--if the troll is indistinguishable from a normal human being, then it is a human being. Being different from normal is what makes a troll a troll.

Of course there is a difference between being detectable and being detected. The longer a troll goes undiscovered, the more effective it is, so there's a lot of evolutionary pressure to become very subtle. But it's still trolling, and therefore not conversation. Maybe really good trolls get so good at faking useful contributions they start making them, and stop being trolls. It's a cheering thought, anyhow.

#45 ::: Matt McIrvin ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2008, 08:24 AM:

Face it: The only reason you believe this is that you're in denial.

There, I said it.

#46 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2008, 09:51 AM:

It occurs to me that what folks here are calling "trolling" actually includes several different behaviors, which can appear singly or in combination:

1) "Classic" trolling: essentially pranking the forum, not necessarily hostile as such

2) "Griefing": specifically trying to foul the waters with hostile behavior

3) "Compulsive prosletyzing": Notable for inappropriateness, obtuseness, and irrationality. Denialists fit in here.

4) "Attention-seeking": Whatever gets people to reply, anyhow. This includes Mall Ninjas and the like.

5) "Astroturfing" -- pushing a predetermined agenda into any discussion, sometimes including irrelevant ones. Often for undisclosed pay or perks....

#47 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2008, 01:19 PM:

Lee @ 41 - Oh yes. "Brave Stance" comes in several flavors. "I'm not PC" is to bravely refuse to conform to the tyranny of etiquette; "I hate to tell you" is to bravely be the bearer of worthless news.


Sherrold @ 42 - Exactly. What is the best response to such a person? I mean, it would be cruel and puppy-kicking-like to treat them as though they were deliberate trolls, but, deliberate or not, you can't very well allow their glitches monopolize every conversation. Online, one can "killfile" such individuals; what about in real life? Only thing I can think of is the "We will not interact until you cease trying to use me as a therapist" speech, which is pretty harsh.


David @ 46 - I think perhaps the common threads in all of the trolling motivations/behaviors you mention is this:

The troll is not there to converse. Instead, the troll is there to manipulate.

The reason the troll can be said not to converse is the necessity in conversation of both speaking and listening. The troll does not listen, except insofar as to identify the next likely avenue for their attack. The troll isn't taking in and considering others' ideas; the troll is only looking for the next opportunity.

If this holds true, a "Turing test for non-trolls" might function by positively identifying a sufficiently sized bouquet of linguistic symptoms which indicate that the person gives a damn about other participants in the conversation and the ideas their bring to the table. Most linguistic markers for manipulation can appear in honest conversation, but linguistic markers for receiving, considering, and responding to others in the conversation are rare in trolls.

I would posit further that it would be the "concern troll" that would be hardest to distinguish on the basis of linguistic markers.

...I'm mainly just thinking out loud here; does this sound likely to anyone else?

#48 ::: moioci ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2008, 08:13 AM:

Well, I hate to be the one to say it, but I am aware of all internet traditions, if you know what I mean...

#49 ::: will shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2008, 11:32 AM:

Nicole @37, I'm not so sure about the "I hate to tell you..." phrase. I first googled myself, and was pleased that it's not a phrase I use, but I could imagine using it sincerely when people's religions lead them to contradict, well, to use use a word that trolls are accused of loving too much, the facts. But being silent when people are saying ludicrous things about Buddhism and China, or Christianity and abortion, or Islam and women, or Judaism and Zionism, or Hinduism and creationism, or wicca and prehistoric feminist empires, or--

Okay. I am a contrarian.

But I love religion, so I am very sorry when people's beliefs take a turn that, if unchallenged, will make the world a grimmer place.

#50 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2008, 04:10 PM:

re 47: Ummm, not exactly. "I'm not PC" means more specifically "I'm going to deliberately offend people who try to control discourse through etiquette." One can make a reasonable meta-etiquette that one should not be offensive as a form of argument, but I think the same meta-etiquette has to include the principle that that one does not have the right to unilaterally declare something to be offensive. When this kind of thing shows up, the shouting tends to turn into "Crude!" versus "Prude!" and I tend to turn off. Perhaps there is a qualitative difference in immorality between picking fights for entertainment, and sitting back in one's in-group and making blanket statements about the other faction. They are both immoral, so other than taxonomy I'm not interested in distinguishing them; it's the moral difference between insulting someone to their face and talking about them behind their back.

re 43: A lot of the communication between extroverts involves a lot of ACKing.

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