The rise of the troll

Foreword (posted 29th Jan)

Yesterday I had a lot of feedback about this post. Some was from people who appeared to understand my point and they were all positive about the post. Some related to @john_doe and resulted in me apologising to him and anonymising him. (More about this at the bottom of the post.) There were a couple of “conversations” that were entirely fruitless and I wish I hadn’t bothered with them; people simply haranguing you is pretty tiresome and tiring.

However, I did have one long conversation with another tweeter who asked me not to name them in this post. We talked about the term “troll” and how it is becoming used to casually, how it should be reserved for those people who display quite extreme behaviour and who are explicitly threatening and offensive. And I agree with this. @john_doe’s behaviour wasn’t “trolling” by that definition and I have made minor edits to the post below, removing the reference to him as a troll and a description of his activity as trolling.

I have left the (anonymised) tweets in place though because the behaviour still highlights what I was actually writing about, which is the lack of respect and manners on Twitter. The post was not about @john_doe or whether he was right to take issue with @QuintinForbes’ tweet (although it was about the manner in which he did it).

What follows is the original post with the two edits referred to above.

End of foreword.

Things are changing over at Facebook. Whether publicly stated or not, the company is concerned that young people are leaving in droves. Their playground come youth club has been invaded by their parents and grandparents, and, for them, it’s not the place it once was. Which may be no bad thing for Facebook and its shareholders: older people have more disposable income and perhaps now that advertising revenue will start to arrive in the desired quantities.

But this isn’t a post about Facebook; I’ve mentioned that purely to highlight the fact that social media sites do change in demonstrable ways and so perhaps when people have commented recently that Twitter is changing, then perhaps it’s not just nostalgia talking.

The way in which they say it’s changing is that it’s becoming a more hostile place. I’m not sure that’s entirely true but, equally, I’m not saying they’re wrong. Twitter’s always been a place with rough neighbourhoods: one doesn’t have to stray far from one’s timeline to find all sorts of unpleasantness. Furthermore, while the term ‘troll’ has slipped into common usage over the last year, the noun and those it identifies have been around since before I joined Twitter.

What has changed, of course, is the number of people using Twitter. And amongst those new users are more people who don’t see the need for etiquette and manners. They may form the same proportion of users but even then there are undoubtedly more of them. And some of those new tweeters, often those hiding behind anonymity, are particularly vile. (Although what’s notable is what cowardly specimens they turn out to be when ousted: see the cases of the trolls of Mary Beard and, more recently, Caroline Criado-Perez.)

However, for me personally, not much has changed. No one’s ever been really nasty to me, apart from some accidentally riled feminists, although from time to time someone will pick me up on something I’ve said but that’s always happened. The people for whom I think it has changed, those people who perhaps not coincidentally are the ones observing this shift, are those with a large number of followers.

In my experience, those with a lot of followers tend to fall into one of three categories: they are a celebrity or well-known through the media; an expert or authority in a given field; or they are funny. And for some reason, because these people are popular on Twitter, other people – “trolls” – seem to think they needn’t be polite or considerate when dealing with them.

What prompted me to write this today was an exchange between @QuintinForbes and another Twitter user. Now, I happen to think @QuintinForbes is the funniest man on Twitter. I try not to retweet him too often as the people who follow me must have got the message by now and are either following him or don’t want to.

Today, he posted the following tweet:


I found that funny, favourited it and moved on.

Later on, I became aware of this reply to some people complimenting @QuintinForbes’s tweet:


Now, I didn’t think the joke was homophobic. It’s not a joke I’d have made myself partly because I am terrified of causing unintentional offence but mainly because I’m not that funny. The challenge to @QuintinForbes was quite brusque and, I’d say, impolite. It’s evidence of the behaviour I’m talking about. @QuintinForbes responded as follows:


And here comes the response from let’s call him @john_doe. Note that he has put a full stop in front of @QuintinForbes’s username. This is the point for me at which this becomes more unpleasant; the full stop ensures that all of @john_doe’s followers can see the conversation, not just those following him and @QuintinForbes. To me, it looks like ganging up.


It’s also worth noting that @john_doe is under the impression that he represents all gay men. Not so.


To which @john_doe simply responds:


I assume Quintin had had enough by this point (I certainly would have) but he does go on to tweet:

Capture17 Capture19

Meanwhile, @john_doe tweets:


Thus, having been unpleasant and rude, @john_doe then blocks @QuintinForbes, as if to say to his followers that @QuintinForbes was the one who had been pestering him! He also uses the term ‘uncle tom’ – by which I assume he means to imply @QuintinForbes is a stereotyped gay man, which is unnecessary and unfounded – but which is a term in itself which I believe is far more offensive to black people. @john_doe is evidently happy to take offence but is less concerned about giving it.

I’ve provided this lengthy example to highlight what kind, decent people whose only intention is to make people laugh are having to put up with: people telling them their jokes aren’t funny or telling them what they meant by their joke. Whilst it might not be trolling as such, it strikes me that this is the thin edge of the wedge.

Last week, a chap just a nice as Quintin, @mrnickharvey, was driven off Twitter by trolling, another victim of one person’s need to address their own – apparently significant – failings by anonymously persecuting those who just want to bring a bit of happiness into other people’s lives.

I really wish I had a solution to all this but, of course, I don’t. What I will say to all those popular, funny, well-intentioned people, is please don’t let these trolls, ranging from the impolite and rude through to the vicious and threatening, drive you off Twitter. If you go, they will have won.

Post script Subsequent to publishing this post, @QuintinForbes has told me that he first tweeted his ‘Fruit toast’ joke in 2012 and none of his gay followers has ever taken offence before.

Update, 28th Jan (the next day), at 22:45

So, I learnt a few things today. Firstly, that people hear the word troll and think immediately of the extreme end of trolling. That being the case,  I shouldn’t have called @john_doe a troll. However, his exchange did illustrate what I was trying to point out: the lack of respect, politeness and consideration that I see more and more on Twitter. And, of course, I accepted that that I had not shown respect, politeness or consideration for @john_doe in using his tweets. I’ve apologised for that and changed the post to use @john_doe as the name.

Secondly, I’ve learnt that no matter how patient you are, some people will not enter a discussion but simply carry on having an argument. I wasted a lot of time on that, this afternoon. But, for the record, I was not saying that @john_doe was trolling in his initial tweet to @QuintinForbes (although I think that’s clear in the post).

And I’ve remembered that everyone has family and friends and partners, and when you upset one person, you upset a lot. (People around me have been similarly angered by the tweets to me and comments on this post.) So, be more considerate (see point 1).

There have been a few people willing to discuss this with me and I’m grateful for that. And at least I tried with those who wouldn’t talk to me, just at me.

There is one final huge irony to all this, especially since I’ve been called a hypocrite by more than one person today, and that relates to @john_doe’s reply to @QuintinForbes. Remember this:

Fen2Here are some tweets from @john_doe’s timeline two weeks earlier:


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18 Responses to The rise of the troll

  1. Trafal Madore says:

    Obviously, as you say it is arguable as to whether it is getting worse. I note several of those on my timeline have stated as much. I have equally found myself asking questions of people in the limelight that were dealt with rudely, swiftly and ultimately ended rather disappointedly with me being blocked and their followers lambasting me for my ‘ignorance’. I certainly don’t consider myself a troll, whatever that now actually means, but it is easy to get carried away in the moment arguing a viewpoint with someone whose view I disagree.

    • Thanks for commenting Trafal.

      But, yes, that’s not to say that some people on Twitter with large follower numbers aren’t highhanded themselves (although this seems more of a celebrity thing from what I’ve seen.)

      It’s an interesting point about their followers, though. It’s as if they’re attempting ingratiate themselves with the person you’ve questioned by attacking you. (I experienced this myself with a group of people, as referred to in my post).

  2. samjones85 says:

    Do you not think that writing a whole blog post, calling someone out is much much worse than someone stating their opinion?

    Do you not agree with Free Speech? In your opinion, someone cannot be offended by a comment because you do not agree with their interpretation of what has been said?

    Additionally, I would like to know how a user of 5 years, can be classed as “new”.

    I also think you have incorrectly used the term “Troll”:-
    “In Internet slang, a troll is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a forum, chat room, or blog), either accidentally or with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion. src:

    I would also look up the meaning of “Uncle Tom” – This is not used as a Stereo Type of black people – see the WikiPedia Page

    “The phrase “Uncle Tom” has also become an epithet for a person who is slavish and excessively subservient to perceived authority figures, particularly a black person who behaves in a subservient manner to white people; or any person perceived to be a participant in the oppression of their own group.”

    I believe the point being made is that gay people using homophobic terms, doesn’t make it acceptable. It only adds to a societal acceptance of homophobia – which you appear to be doing very well at.

    • Hi Sam,

      Thanks for commenting.

      To take your points in turn:
      I didn’t write the whole blog post to call Chris out, as you put it. I used his exchange with Quintin to illustrate a point.

      I agree wholeheartedly with free speech. And some people will be offended by something that others won’t. That’s not the issue. My post is, primarily, about how we deal with people we don’t agree with.

      I’m not classing any user of five years standing as new.

      Yes, I know that is the original definition of trolling. However, that’s not how it’s used commonly now, at least amongst people I talk to.

      From your own quote “particularly a black person”.

      I’m not homophobic, far from it. And, in this case, I don’t believe that in the couple of years that Quintin’s tweet has been doing the rounds, anyone else has founded it to be homophobic. I certainly don’t.

      Thanks again,

      • samjones85 says:

        What a load of drivel, you horrible bully boy.

        You have taken the time to write a blog post, taking screenshots of Chris’s posts – which could, or couldn’t be taken totally out of context (which I am not accusing you of – but there are better ways, especially on a WordPress blog of posting Tweets).

        I personally find you a bully, picking someone at random, and bulling them through your blog – Well done you, round of applause to the bully on his blog.

        “I didn’t write the whole blog post to call Chris out, as you put it. I used his exchange with Quintin to illustrate a point.” – The point you we’re illustrating is how you don’t agree with free speech when it concerns a friend or someone you like, and that you will happily pick on a person (whom I am guessing you have not asked for their permission to blog about, nor copy their content or use their image) and will just liberally throw out the word Troll to anyone you see fit…. Perhaps a career writing for the Daily Mail would be appropriate for you and your views?

        “I agree wholeheartedly with free speech. And some people will be offended by something that others won’t. That’s not the issue. My post is, primarily, about how we deal with people we don’t agree with.” – My point is that you don’t agree with Free Speech, and would rather call someone a troll, blog about them, and make their life horrible for a day – it is people like you, who end up forcing someone to commit suicide, not a tweet sent on Social Media. I hope for your sake, that Chris doesn’t go and kill himself after being called out as the nasty troll you make him in your petty little blog. You have not addressed how people deal with people we don’t agree with – you have used bully boy tactics, and called Chris out as a nasty person. Shall I, call you out on my blogs of which I have several, or would that be bulling? Hmmm, I think it would, wouldn’t it – just like you.

        And as I’ve been on the internet for over two decades, the term troll does relate to what I posted (check WikiPedia), not what you and your friends decide it means.

        “I’m not homophobic, far from it. And, in this case, I don’t believe that in the couple of years that Quintin’s tweet has been doing the rounds, anyone else has founded it to be homophobic. I certainly don’t.” – Homophobia, as you may or may not know, is how the person perceives the hate – in this case, I find you very homophobic, bitter, a bully and nasty.

  3. Chris Billett says:

    Firstly you have completely misunderstood the term troll. Deliberately it would seem to make your dubious point. Secondly, you do not understand the term “Uncle Tom”. It does not mean what you have assumed in your blog post.
    I have just over three hundred followers. Hardly a Twitter bigwig. Especially as I have been using it for five years. I dot @ the person because it was relevant to a conversation I was having with a few of my followers. The conversation was around people who gain a few thousand followers who then seem to believe they are impervious to any criticism. The “nice” people on Twitter are far too quick to yell troll rather than engage in any discussion around the fact that what they have said could be problematic. Rather they alert their followers (always making sure they have many times more followers than the person to whom they’re responding) and resort to insults and name-calling. Up to and including ridiculing someone’s mental health. In fact if the person replying to me hadn’t put the dot before my user name, I doubt you would have ever seen my tweet. Unless of course you spend your time searching for your favourite user’s replies. In which case you have more time to spend on Twitter than I do.
    The hypocrisy of those who want Twitter to be a “nice” place and their hysterical reaction whenever confronted with a difference of opinion is breathtaking (cf Nick Harvey and his groupies).
    So who is doing the bullying or trolling here? Somebody with many more followers attempting to publicly shame somebody else via blog posts and tweets? Or me, with 300 odd followers who sent a five word tweet challenging somebody’s complacent use of homophobic language to make a lame pun?

    • Hi Chris,

      I don’t think have completely misunderstood the term troll, although I agree I’m not using it as defined in Wikipedia. My point – the point of this post – was about how we talk to people on Twitter, how I think it is becoming less polite, civil and considerate. Sam (above) says I shouldn’t have used your tweets without permission. If you’d like me to take them out, I will: the post will still make sense if I take the example out.

      I do, however, understand the term “Uncle Tom”. You may not have meant it in the way I interpreted it (or, indeed, as it’s defined in Wikipedia) but other people may interpret it differently. It occurs to me that that is similar to some people taking offence at “fruit” and others not.

      I agree that people will a large number of followers don’t automatically behave nicely and that, yes, some of them behave arrogantly.

      It wasn’t my intention to publicly shame you, Chris, and I’m sorry that I have done so. As I say, I’m happy to remove the tweets or anonymise them. Please let me know.

      Finally, I do want Twitter to be a nice place, naive as that might be. I spent a lot of this afternoon tweeting with @markzuid trying to have some reasonable discourse around this.

      Apologies for using you as an example. That was unfair. I was more focussed on the post itself and used your tweets with Quintin as an example.


      • Chris Billett says:

        Thanks for allowing me to reply to your blog and responding to me. I appreciate you engaging on the subject.
        My Twitter is public. Those tweets remain available for anyone to find should they choose to and they can look at them in context and as part of my whole Twitter “personality” for want of a better expression. I wouldn’t naïvely expect anyone who reads it to believe that it represents a full picture of my entire psyche. Having said that, because of the way the word “troll” has been hijacked to mean “someone less popular who disagrees with me”, I feel in this instance that the use of my details alongside the word could become problematic. A search of my name (and it’s quite unusual) would bring up this blog. Somebody reading it might perhaps associate “troll” with the more traditional internet meaning and assume I am therefore in the habit of sending death threats or mocking recently deceased teenagers. I’m sure you can see why this would concern me. For that reason I would prefer it if my name and picture weren’t used.
        Regarding the other points, I still stand by all I’ve said, as do you, and as I genuinely am not a troll I don’t want to waste either of our evenings arguing. Others have made points similar to mine, more eloquently and with much more depth of research and a wider vocabulary. I could spend all night theorising but others do it better. I’m sure you could find some discourse which would interest you.
        Good evening.

      • Hi Chris,

        Thanks for what you’ve said here – tone and content – and I understand your concerns. I’ve removed you from the post and I can delete your comments, too, if you wish, although I’ll leave the others. Of course, I’ll delete and re-write the post entirely, if you’d like me to.

        I will go back anyway and add an addendum regarding the use of the word troll. As I said, it covers a wide range of behaviour and I can see that you don;t want to be (and shouldn’t be) associated with the traditional meaning.

        Discourse around this is something I’m interested in (and am having elsewhere). But, yes, I stand by my wider point about behaviour.


  4. lildeg says:

    I think you may be confused as to what trolling is. The man you have labelled a troll in your blog is simply giving his opinion, in a polite non offensive manner. This is not a good example of a troll. I find the fact you use this in an article talking about trolls who threatened rape and murder is slightly abhorrent. Even if you did consider someone having a differing opinion to yourself a troll, it’s hardly comparable.
    I guess the lesson we can take from your blog is don’t have any form of opinion or express a dislike of another’s as someone will take it totally out of context.

    • Hi,

      I didn’t mean to label Chris as a troll and I will go back and re-edit if necessary. My position was about the behaviour, which I did consider to be trolling, rightly or wrongly.

      And I don’t think that behaviour has to be extreme to be considered trolling, in the same way that the term abuse can cover a huge range of behaviour.

      I’m all for differences of opinion. I’m also all for reasonable discourse. I am at fault here for not discussing it with Chris. As I’ve said (to him) above, at the time I was more focussed on the blog post, which was *not* about him.


  5. Hi folks. I’m Chris’ father, and hope to be father-in-law to Paul one day soon, when gay marriage becomes finally legal.
    I understand the term ‘fruit’ and would never use it in a joke. Very poor taste, and if I followed someone who thought it a funny thing to say, then I would tell them so.
    I understand the term ‘Uncle Tom’ because I’ve read the book, and probably read it to Chris when he was a boy. (Lots of people refer to Topsy without the slightest understanding of the original slave girl without parents.) I am confident that he understands the term.
    I’ve been blogging, tweeting, and generally communicating in this public space of the internet since shortly after it became available, certainly long before it became really popular. I likewise understand the term ‘troll’.
    So I find all of the above very interesting, and rather disturbing. Writing a blog about bad form, and using as the example a gay person objecting to being called a fruit, if indirectly, is awfully bad form.
    I suggest you stop trying to defend your behaviour, and take note of some of your detractors above. Then you might delete this blog. How’s that for a suggestion?
    Kind regards, Colin

    • Hi Colin,

      Thanks for taking the time to reply and in measured terms.

      I have learnt today that some gay people do object to the term ‘fruit’ even when used in jest. It’s not a term that I would use but as I say in the post, I hate to cause offence (ironically as it turns out). However, it was used in a joke made by a gay man, who has never received any objection to it, including from his gay friends. I thought it was a good play on words and funny. Funny for the wordplay, not because it was derogatory (which I didn’t believe it was).

      The blog was, as you say, about behaviour on the Internet and I did pick a bad example. However, it was the behaviour and not what invoked it that I was writing about.

      I think it’s reasonable for me to want a discourse, especially if I need to learn something. Deleting the blog and walking away won’t achieve much. As you can see, I have apologised to Chris and offered to take the post down if he asks me to. I have also anonymised it, as I said I would.

      I realise, however, how much this must have angered you, so I am grateful for your response.


  6. You’re right about the specific definition of trolling, but this tale still describes the behaviour of a humourless thin-skinned idiot. One of my pet peeves is people holding what are obviously jokes to a standard applicable to courtroom proclomations.

    I particularly love his use of the incredibly offensive ‘Uncle Tom’ as well. Presumably a petty black version of him is now entitled to attack him for his racist outburst.

    What social media definitely has created is a sense of narcissistic self importance. This new sport of gleefully taking offence where none was meant or given is an unattractive and unwelcome one.

  7. I just read Sam Jones’ comments here and burst out laughing. Him. That’s who I’m talking about. Using that tired hoary old chestnut Freedom Of Speech to defend an abusive idiot from your polite use of free speech to comment on the intolerance exhibited.

    And of course, resorting to petulant name calling when the large obvious holes in his point were explained to him.

    You Sam. You’re That Guy. You’re the problem.

  8. Just took a look at Chris’ timeline and saw his comment “Harry Potter poofs is a hilarious insult. I DONT CARE!!”

    So, the word Poof is unacceptable to many gay people. Shall we attack him? Shall we lambast him for is hypocrisy? No. Because he’s just having fun and not intending any offence.

    Grow up everybody.

  9. Stephen Birkett says:

    Quintin has been a good friend of mine for almost thirty years. He is one of the most astute and intelligent people I know.
    Quintin knows homophobia from bitter first hand experience. We live in a small rural town in Northern Ireland and we have both been repeatedly the victims of verbal and physical homophobic abuse in the bad old days. If you know his sense of slightly self-deprecating humour you’ll know he’s the last person who could be branded a homophobe.
    I don’t really understand Twitter and I could never match Q’s brilliance for one-liners. I am sure that if Chris was in conversation with him he would soon change his mind. I can only say that it is his misfortune not to have met Quint in person.
    It really seems that the abbreviated nature of Twitter, and to a lesser degree, facebook, breeds curt, ill-mannered interchanges and misunderstanding. It’s very sad.

    • Thanks for commenting, Stephen.

      You’ve hit the nail on the head. This post was really intended to be about how people conduct themselves on social media and my issue with those people who aren’t troubled by being curt and ill-mannered towards other people whom they’ve never met.


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