For some people, the internet is like the wild west: a lawless play-pen where they can get away with being an arsehole to anyone they'd like. You know -- trolling.
Over the last couple of weeks, I've collected stories from people who have, at some point during their lives, been trolls. They have made it their mission to terrorize other people, though the methods and goals vary from person to person. In their own words, these reformed trolls tell us about their past exploits -- and explain why they gave up the troll life.
Many of these submissions were anonymous, and have been edited lightly for typos and clarity.
The Star Wars Hater
I used to be a Star Wars Prequel hater troll. Given any mention of them online or in real life I would always bring up everything that sucked about them. Memes, George Lucas hate, Jar-Jar jokes, Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen hate. I was terrible to people who really loved these films. Basically, I was a total a-hole to anyone who liked them and made sure they knew they were an idiot for liking something so obviously and OBJECTIVELY bad. Turns out, opinions can't be objective.
I saw Episode I and II several times before Revenge of the Sith came out. I only saw Episode III one and a half times before giving up. About a year ago, I decided to watch the movies again and recut them to be "better." In order to do this, I watched the film's three times each. After doing my cuts and watching them, I realised that the films were actually pretty good before my edits.
Upon further reflection, I realised that most of my hate for the films came from two things. The more minor one was that they just weren't what I expected them to be (how could they have been?). The major one, which I only recently realised, was that I was in a terrible, emotionally abusive relationship when Episode III premiered and that relationship had hit a horrendous middle when the movie came out on DVD (which I stopped watching halfway through). I wasn't able to enjoy them during that relationship and I carried that baggage with any mention of them for almost a decade.
I'm now reformed and love the Prequels thanks to Star Wars Ring Theory and a better understanding of the visual and cinematic influences that informed the Saga.
I used to be [a troll] when I was younger.
I had issues with my parents and I was head of my class so I thought I was rather smart for my age.
I would always leave snarky remarks and go with the old << "I'm friendly, I'm friendly!" *shoots* >> kinda deal, or just tell people that they were really bad at games and that they "should leave the computer stuff for those who know what to do".
I was an a-hole, I admit.
What caused me to change?
I grew up and I realised there are a lot of things to learn if I want to be as snarky as I was before.
Also my dad died when I was in highschool, so life went only downhill from there.
Now I'm working as a freelancer web designer and sometimes C++/java programs or apps.
I don't even have time to play games anymore…
The Fake Supervillain
Back in '09, when io9 ran an article about the RLSH [real-life superhero] movement, commenter Garrison Dean jokingly stated his intent to start a villainous organisation, ROACH (the Ruthless Organisation Against Citizen Heroes) in retaliation. I was immediately on board with the idea and signed up, creating a villainous persona and a blog.
What followed was over a year of me playing a clumsy game of cat and mouse with the RLSH community, eventually settling on three of them as my archnemeses.
My arsenal consisted of blogs, photoshop, even editing their podcasts to make them look crazy. Did it matter to me that they had doxxed me? Not in the slightest. I didn't think I really had anything they could threaten as I sought to drive them crazy.
Thing is, I think the 'they're crazy' tactic stuck on at least one of them, because he made a phone call all the way from Florida to California to tell my local police that I was a danger to myself and others. In the grand tradition of the Internet Troll, I Deleted Fucking Everything, announced that I had died suddenly in the night, and slunk into the shadows.
Well, two years, multiple blogs and at least three fake Facebook profiles later (we call it stress testing for a reason, Zuckerberg,) *I* was the one going insane. The different lives I was leading were making me start to lose my grip on my own sanity, and after making some even more spectacularly terrible decisions online, I suffered the actual breakdown. I was about a hair's breadth from being committed. I remember there were days when I couldn't physically drag myself out of bed due to the crippling depression and inability to turn the crazy thoughts off, and there are chunks of time missing altogether from my memory, chunks I probably don't want back.
Finally, I started to recover mentally. Sadly, the insane shit I did to cope with what I had been through, in my online, professional and personal lives, was all out there in the public eye, thanks to a complete breakdown of all personal boundaries and barriers during my breakdown stage and an Internet connection. I knew that the only way to come back was to just put the past behind me, to learn the hard lessons from my experiences and to not ever take up a cause through trolling ever again.
When I look back on that time, I'm glad of a few of the friendships I made. I'm ashamed at the ways I acted, but I accept that I was fucked up, that I had let myself get too sucked in to the fantasy and lost sight of where the line between reality and delusion really were.
After all; isn't that what really makes a supervillain what he is?
The funniest part of this whole sordid, tragic embarrassment was how good I got at it. I made missteps and mistakes aplenty over the first year, but by the end, I had learned how to flawlessly create an untraceable identity wholecloth. I could, if I wished, pluck a personality from thin air, spin it into fully realised existence, complete with a past, unique way of speaking, skillset, and even different sex or race. I could. I *did.*
It's a scary skill to develop, simply because of how easy it is to become lost inside your own labyrinth.
The Yahoo Answers Man
2006: I was 16 and Yahoo! Answers was at the height of its popularity. I was a top contributor of the rock & Pop section by answering questions with "my chemical romance sux" or "black metal is the only real genre" which is trolly enough, but I got way worse.
I began venturing out into less suspecting sections of the site like: Fashion > Accessories or Health > skincare and would answer questions honestly and provide a link, but the link would redirect to meatspin.com. If you've never heard of the site, please don't go there. I can't imagine how many people I tricked into going there that were looking for sunburn relief. Eventually Yahoo! banned and deleted my account. And then I grew up. But hey, at least I'm not one of those kids that calls swat teams to other kids's houses.
The Reputation Points Hoarder
A forum I used to visit a lot (<cough Sega forums cough>) had a 'reputation points' system for a while. Being the Deadpan Snarker that I am, I recognised this as a perfect opportunity to throw shade on a colossal scale, like Mr. Burns blocking out the sun. For about a year, I made so many "does he mean offence or is he just being funny" comments that hurt people. Sure, I raked in the rep points, but it was a bitter harvest. After six months I felt like an utter goon, and that's really when I felt like I had to turn things around.
As for why I went down that path for so many years? My home life wasn't that great. My parents just weren't supportive. Out mother was mentally ill and would aggressively verbally attack us and ground us constantly. Our father let it happen because he was too busy to care, and when he did care it was to tell us to shut up and listen to her. Our grades sucked. My sister dropped out, but I refused to give up, even if I didn't develop the motivation to properly succeed. I know it's cliche, but I feel like the shitty life I lived at home was a huge reason for me deciding to snap at people. I never meant to seriously hurt anyone, but my grief just felt like such a convenient little flag to fly. My humour wasn't just a shield -- it became a sword, too. That's the worst.
The GameFAQs Commenter
Used to be a troll on GameFAQs back when I was between 17-19 (I'm 25 now), and basically spent half of my time being a jackass. I did it because it amused me, but also because at the time, I wasn't doing much else with my life. I wish I could say I stopped because I grew as a person, but instead I stopped because, mostly, I got bored of it. I mean, I eventually grew; now I look back and think about how idiotic I was back then. Considering the other things going negatively in my life (money, job and weight issues), it doesn't surprise me that, as someone so enamoured with the interwebs, that I trolled people for kicks.
The Troll Hunter
I used to visit a website that was very lax about the security of the users, and that also somehow had a number of trolls who were pretty vicious. Three of them, out of about eight I knew were mentally ill and on medication. A few others, like myself just got caught up in it. It became a game and a contest.
The goal was to find out the personal information of the other trolls, and one by one they were all exposed. Someone behind the scenes was able to somehow track people down and they would expose them or give the clues to expose them, and then they would just sit back and watch what was done with the information. I organised myself and two others into a little alliance and people were literally begging to be part of it. Now I know it was really stupid but at the time I enjoyed this "power."
There was a person there who had lied about me for years, not only there but on other websites. When I found out his name I was very mean to him and I tried to scare him. I was really caught up in it. You probably think I'm one of the ones that should have been medicated, but to me it was payback for years of lies.
There was another guy there who I had never liked and he would troll people for no reason other than he was mean. There was this girl there for example who was very unattractive and would often say that about herself. He somehow got a picture of her, and put her personal information on it, name, address, phone, and he would share it in the chatroom for everyone to see. She never did anything to anyone. He would brag a lot about having money, and he posted a picture of his face. He was a typical bro, be he thought he was really hot. I just didn't like him, and so I focused on him.
For months, with the help of one of his ex-girlfriends, I gathered info on him. The new goal became to make people we didn't like leave the site, but he wouldn't leave. Then we got pictures of his new girlfriend and her family and started posting pictures of them in the chatroom. OK, this is after my name was known and pictures of my house were posted in chat, so, at the time, because I was caught up in it, I thought it was ok.
Finally what made me stop was that he and his girlfriend had a baby, and his former girlfriend didn't want to let up. She would not let go of it and she was really a basket case because of the baby. Something about that made me not want to talk to her anymore, and he quit the site, anyway. Although I had his info I never called him or anything. Everything I did was on that one website.
Everyone's names came out. I knew the personal info of these people that had been making people miserable for years. It wasn't fun anymore. It was too real and serious. At that point, there was nothing else left to discover. I saw that people that couldn't quit were just sick. One guy found my mum's phone number and called her. My mum had been in trouble years before for fraud and he told her that I was doing the things she had done. He didn't say that he had found her record. They must have done background checks. She and I don't speak so she didn't know where I was and she believed what she was told even though it was exactly what she had done 20 years before. To her that was this "Oh wow!" coincidence instead of realising that they had looked her up and were trolling her.
I never did anything to anyone offline and I never contacted anyone. I just tried to make people feel stupid and tried to control who could come to the site. I realised it was dumb and that I was probably breaking laws here and there. That and also as I said it was like a game but all of the objectives had been met. Every "mission" was completed. I found the name of the person who had made my personal info available, found out he was on parole, called his parole officer, and he quit coming to the site. There was nothing left to do and I realised how stupid I was being.
The One With A Thick Skin
For a reformed troll, the internet is a bit like the 19th century or the French Foreign Legion. If you've got a bad reputation in one place, then just change your name, run away (i.e. go to another site or a new IP number) and start over. As long as people can't connect your past to your present, it's possible to get a clean slate and leave your mistakes behind. (Yes, I know it's not quite that easy with the FFR.)
There are many different types of trolls. Some are destructive, some verbally abusive or threatening (e.g. doxxers), some mentally abusive (e.g. "kill yourself"), and probably several others could be described (e.g. always loud louts). A rare few trolls are actually funny (e.g. Mr. Kreepy Koala who plays GTA) though not many.
I was more the obnoxious type, inflaming arguments, using profanity, insulting people. I didn't do it "for the lulz", I did it because I didn't GAF about how the words and actions affected others. I always had and still have a VERY thick skin and didn't care if other people had thin skins and were more easily bothered. My motto could have been described as "If you can't take the *hate*, stay out of the kitchen."
Why did I change? It was a combination of many reasons. Yes, some of them are selfish.
1) I had two different personalities and demeanours, one online and one offline. I even ended up being obnoxious online to somebody I knew personally and he pointed it out to me. It was a wake up call.
2) I wasn't making any friends or allies. Even when I was right about something or other people held the same opinions (*), I was getting fewer and fewer responses or agreements. I didn't care about the numbers, but I realised I was making myself irrelevant and unwelcome in discussions and forums. And sometimes I was banned.
(* Or not...I often talked out of my arse. Now I keep quiet unlike I have something insightful, instead of saying things that incite full rage.)
3) I saw the effects of trolls. The increasing number of news stories (online and IRL) about suicides, harassment, death threats, racism and other revolting behaviour got to be too much. I may not have been guilty of any of those types of assaults, but I recognised that I was part of the problem.
4) I was starting to become the target of trolls and abuse. No, I didn't experience any, but that I might have as I was finally dealing with being gay. I saw a news item about a man who left a white supremacist group and changed his tune when he realised the group's list of "undesirables to be euthanised" included his own mentally disabled sone. It wasn't until the hate affected him personally that he realised he was on the wrong side. Same here.
The Anime Hater
Back when I was sixteen, wayyy back in 2001, I got my first computer with insurance money after my dad passed away. I love attention so I got involved with acting websites, mostly amateur voice acting stuff. They were boards populated by similar young teens - often younger - who just wanted to voice their favourite anime character. I used the attention I got by being quick-witted to also be mean, belittling kids I didn't know from around the world for their "shitty anime avatars" or what have you. If it all sounds petty and small, then rest assured that I agree!
I was involved with every bit of message board drama in the community from 2001-2007ish. I was a major member, given moderator status through sheer force of will and then I would abuse my power to pick on people I thought were idiots. I would fight with the administrators just because I knew it made them mad. After about a decade of being known as an "intelligent jerk" or a "funny arsehole," I think there came a confluence of things that made me want to reform - is that even the word? It sounds so silly, but I mean I probably really hurt some peoples' feelings somewhere along the line and that sucks. The things that made me change were:
1. I was growing older. I was in my early twenties. I wanted to go to college, which my family couldn't afford. I had made lots of true friends via those circles who I'm still friends with today fifteen years later - they knew the real me, an incredibly polite nice guy who liked to use what was essentially a character online to cut loose and get attention. But I had friends, I was losing interest in voice acting and was there mostly for the people I liked and to troll those I didn't know. I was, frankly, too old for that shit - but then, so I was at sixteen.
2. I knew what I wanted next. I wanted to go to school and become a teacher. I never did a good job of hiding my identity, so I figured if some enterprising student did their due diligence and found my old history I'd rather them see a good example rather than what I was. I've been a teacher for two years now and no one has found that old stuff, but hopefully I can use it as a teachable moment when it does happen.
3. I didn't like what I was. "Intelligent jerk" and "funny arsehole" were sentiments from friends. Who the hell wants to be known as a jerk and an arsehole? It's not that I no longer enjoyed attention, but with age came the knowledge that I can be intelligent and funny without being an assjerk.
Today I am still a moderator, in name only, at one of those communities. I'm still friends with so many from that place, many of which are professional VAs now. Now, though, I'm turning 30 and people know me for how I truly am and no little kids have to cry. I feel better about myself. If I were to die today and someone were to check my internet history (because, come on, that's totally what you do to a friend who has just died) then I'd be more than ok with what they saw there today rather than if it had been fifteen years earlier. I'm not proud of how I was, but slowly, over time, I think anyone who is a "troll" eventually figures out that life under the bridge kinda sucks.
The Omegle Lover
I used to be an online troll.
It all started back in the summer of 2009. My friends told me about this great new site called Omegle, where you and an anonymous partner could chat about anything you wanted. No rules, no moderators, just two anons, shooting the shit. "Wow," I said. "That sounds awesome!"
It started out innocently enough. Most of my conversations started with the universal online greeting at the time: "a/s/l."
Now, at this point in my online career, I usually just gave out the first two pieces of information, and left off the last bit. But on Omegle, I was whoever I said I was. I was a fifty-three year old woman from Anchorage, with seventeen dogs and two cats (I am not).
I was a thirty-three year old male sheep farmed from the Netherlands (I am not). Eventually, after about five minutes of conversation, people would realise I was just yanking their chain and send me the almighty "screw off" and disconnect from the conversation. I'd just laugh about it and head straight into another conversation, with an entirely new persona at the ready. It was a powerful feeling, knowing that I had affected these peoples' days in such a way that they felt irritated by just a few lies.
Still, like I said, things were relatively innocent at this point. I'd usually screenshot the conversations and email them to my friends, and we'd all have a pretty good laugh about them, and move on. After a while, though, my friends stopped thinking the conversations were so great, and would only send back a measly "lol." To me, this was a pretty great insult. So, that's when I moved my trolling business to Facebook.
While it was easy to hide my identity on Omegle, it was a lot more fun to do so on Facebook. I quickly made a slew of fake accounts. They came complete with stock photos of people having fun in groups and completely normal names. There were three things all of the accounts had in common: they all had listed that they went to my high school, they all were me, and the third thing, and this is the most important thing, they all had my personal account as a mutual friend. I added my friends to some of the accounts, and my family to other accounts. They mostly all accepted the accounts as just either being friends of mine, or, in the case of my friends, someone we went to school with.
I started out simple. I would like a status here, like a photo there. Nothing suspicious.
But then the comments started. "Nice arse, man." "Wow, maybe you should take this photo down. It's hurting my eyes." "Did you even bother paying attention in English class? Idiot."
"I'd tap that."
I definitely made sure I covered the entire spectrum of things that could either creep someone out, or infuriate them.
My friends started complaining to each other, and then eventually to me, about these people being jerks. My family did the same. I acted sympathetic, and even created an account to harass myself with in order to deflect suspicion. Then it happened. All at once, my facade came crashing down around me. One of my friends pointed out that, after looking up the accounts bothering everyone else, he noticed that they only had one friend in common with everyone: Me. He also noted that they were all relatively new accounts, and that they all used the same email provider. Basically, I was busted. I didn't even try to hide it. I even admitted to it with some weird form of bravado. My friends were furious. They refused to talk to me after that. And the same friend that found me out messaged my family on Facebook to let them know that I was the one behind the troll accounts. My siblings began giving me the gold shoulder, and my parents told me how disappointed they were in me that I could say such awful things the my friends and family, and all for no reason.
I realised then that that power I was feeling from having these accounts was literally ruining my life.
I started my reformation by deleting the accounts, and then I deleted my personal account. I started to do more things off the web, and got out and made a couple of new friends. Eventually, my old friend group welcomed me back, and nowadays we mostly laugh about how much of an idiot I was back then. My family was a little harder to convince to let me back into their lives, but now at lease Thanksgiving and Christmas aren't nearly as awkward as they used to be. It's been over five years now since the last time I tried to make someone mad on the internet just to get that rush, but it's still a temptation sometime. It's getting to be election time, and the internet is rife with people who have strong opinions and thin skin when it comes to politics.
But, I let them be. I'm no longer that person, and I refuse to lose everyone again just for that rush. It's a part of my history that I deleted, along with any cookies attaching me to it.
And man, it feels so good to be a reformed troll.
Illustration: Jim Cooke