What is the Difference?

Geoff_One   Sun Nov 20, 2005 12:25 pm GMT
What is the difference between a troll and a very skilled debater who uses long drawn out interesting techniques to subtlety invite a challenge from his or her readership? The very skilled debater typically has an encyclopaedic knowledge and a vast storehouse of useful experience. His or her approach to a debate is structured and many possible moves are thought of well in advance a la a chess grandmaster. This person debates very close to the boundaries and pushes and pushes and pushes his/her challenger bit by bit. Does this type of very skilled debater seem like a troll to you? Can you provide reasons for your answers?

In addition, why aren't the words flame-baiter or baiter used here instead of troll?
Felix the Cassowary   Sun Nov 20, 2005 2:16 pm GMT
The word "troll" is often badly used. Flamebaiting is different from trolling. Still, the resultant posts are very similar, so that it's not surprising that enough people have been confused by the two words that "troll" is often no-longer used in its original meaning. If "troll" is used here, even to mean "flamebait", that's just because the word "troll" has spread both in meaning and by the people it's used by faster than "flamebait". I've even seen "troll" to mean neither "troll" nor "flamebaiting", but "spamming, annoyingly posting a link to another website" or the like.

Flamebaiting is when you are saying things you know are not likely to be well recevied and provoke heated and emotional response. The result of flamefest will be people go home unhappy. You can never talk of "good flamebait". It's just not possible. Flamebaiting is completely anti-social. Flamebaiters need to be avoided because they have a sadistic enjoyment of others' anger. Flamebait, and its response, is appreciated only by the flamebaiter. I hate flamebaiters.

Trolling is completely different. Well, not really. Semantically the post a troll makes might be exactly the same as the post a flamebaiter makes, but it will be presented quite differently. It's very difficult to describe a good troll, but they exist, and they're the objective (else you have flamebaiter). The aim is to get people experienced in the area to see the joke and laugh (or see the troll and not be amused, if they are of such personality), but for newbies to try and explain why the troll is wrong, or respond as if they've been flamed or something. Another difference is that a flamebaiter will try and continue the flamefest, but a troll will usually make only a limited number of posts---usually none after the troll itself. I like trolls---except when I take the bait! (The term comes not from ogres who live under bridges, but is short for the expression "trolling for newbies". I believe in this sense, "troll" comes from a word in the context of fishing, so "trolling for newbies" initially meant "fishing for newbies".)

The other day, I saw a good troll here. (Well, it mightn't've been intended as a troll, but it still was a good troll except for that.) Someone said something along the lines of "The B in 'debt' is completely useless", and the troll responded "No it's not." When prompted for why, he trolled: "If 'debt' didn't have a B, it'd be spelt wrong". I think it was even in a "spelling reform" thread, and so someone might try and explain to that the point is we're trying to change the spelling, so that "debt" with no B is *not* spelt wrong!

It's important to emphasise that trolls are typically reasonably obvious to the regulars. They frequently have an account from which they mostly post trolls. Obviously this won't be obvious to newbies, and that's the very point.

A bad troll, it should be noted, *does* post flamebait. This is one reason why trolls and trolling should be avoided. It's way easier to post flamebait than to troll.

It should be noted, of course, that trolls are diverse. It is entirely possible to troll without obeying most of the points here. Some trolls can and do effectively post after the main troll, as you say, "debat[ing] very close to the boundaries and push[ing] and push[ing] and push[ing their] challenger bit by bit". It's likewise possible to have a troll in environments where they're aren't a clear grouping of "insider regulars" vs outsiders and irregulars.

I suppose this means that yes—I would think your "skilled debater" could be troll. I say "could be", because it's not entirely clear without a much better context than you say. I'd be reluctant to describe anything as a troll without an actual concrete instance.

(Actually, strikes me that trolls are a bit like pornography. I can't define it, but I know it when I see it. Also, some people would like to see the eradication of trolls and porn alike.)
Uriel   Mon Nov 21, 2005 12:23 am GMT
I have no idea what the difference is, since I haven't bothered to learn a lot of internet jargon. I just call an asshole an asshole and leave it at that. Like Felix said, you can just smell them.
Gjones2   Mon Nov 21, 2005 6:51 am GMT
Yes, Geoff_One, I agree that there's a big difference between a 'troll' and a 'debater', even one who pushes his challengers to their limits. Both are liable to evoke hostility, but their aims and methods are different.

Trolls play with people's emotions, apparently enhancing their own self-respect by exhibiting their power to control others. Also they may derive some malicious pleasure from the discomfort of the persons who react to them. By tricking others and sowing confusion, trolls can amuse themselves (and others who like this sort of thing) and make themselves feel superior. A few prankish posts from time to time by what Felix calls a 'good troll' may not be a problem. They add variety to a forum and help keep it from becoming too stuffy. Malicious and obstructive trolling, though, can be very harmful.

Debaters are less malicious and less interested in playing power games (though as imperfect human beings they wouldn't be entirely free of these characteristics). As distinguished from sophists, earnest debaters care about the truth. They explore the truth or falsehood of the propositions that they consider. Still, by digging beneath the surface of the claims advanced by others, they may dig up some things that embarrass their opponents. Most persons -- all persons to some degree -- are biased by their emotions, and prevented by their intellectual prejudices from contemplating important topics in an objective way. Yet they typically resent those who reveal how fallible they are. The more successful debaters are at exposing the inaccuracies and fallacies in the discourse of others the more hostility they're liable to arouse.
Gjones2   Mon Nov 21, 2005 7:00 am GMT
Even Socrates, who assumed a pose of humility and cloaked his debates in the form of innocent questioning, gradually created more and more enemies among the persons whose misconceptions he exposed. Many supposed luminaries of Athenian society were unable to justify their convictions about matters that were very important to them. Their pride suffered, and as a consequence animosity began to build up towards him. Some persons lacked the courage to confront him with rational arguments. Instead they created a crude and inaccurate fictional portrait (e.g., the one in The Clouds, the play by Aristophanes). Having numbers and the establishment's power on their side, they prevailed in the physical struggle. Charges were brought against Socrates. He was convicted and forced to drink hemlock.

His elimination, I don't doubt, enhanced the peace of mind of those Athenians, but it didn't redound to their credit. Truth was not served, and history has judged them harshly for it. The "gadfly" was removed from their midst, but suppressing his ideas temporarily and in that particular arena did not protect either their ideas or their reputations in the long run.

Of course, a Socrates doesn't come along very often, and we wouldn't expect to encounter one in an internet discussion. I believe, though, that we should make an effort to distinguish between trolls (who are merely playing malicious games) and earnest debaters (who actually pursue the truth). Debaters too may evoke hostility and lead to some unpleasantness, but they serve a useful purpose. By not aiming at mere popularity, and by being willing and capable of dissenting in an effective way, they help a forum go beyond being merely a chatroom and enable it to discuss issues in greater depth.
Guest   Mon Nov 21, 2005 7:12 am GMT
Trolls have one purpose, to annoy. I don't see how there can be such a thing as a "good" troll.
Felix the Cassowary   Mon Nov 21, 2005 1:17 pm GMT
Presumably, Guest, because you are using "troll" to mean "flamebaiter". They are two different concepts and need to be unravelled if you want to truely understand and enjoy the motives of a troll. I wholeheartedly recommend it---a good troll is a delightful thing! Initially, the simplest way to do that is to say "flamebait" whenever you're about to think "troll".
Guest   Sun Sep 23, 2007 3:24 am GMT
So Socrates was a troll, in a way. Astounding! I never thought of it in such a way!