In the summer of 2012 I had just completed my second year of law school, and I had landed a coveted internship at the local public defenders’ office. However, within a few weeks of working there, it became painfully obvious that there was not a whole lot for me to do. So out of a sense of frustration (or more specifically boredom) I reverted back to something that had brought me comfort since college: trolling.
In 2012, when I resumed my trolling hobby in earnest, the landscape of the internet had changed dramatically. The connoisseurs of barely legal hentai at 4Chan had already risen in prominence and then more or less morphed into the white supremacist haven of Reddit. Meanwhile, on Twitter the amorphous “weird twitter” folks represented (at least to me) some sort of interesting hybrid of writers who could feel comfortable doing standup or defending a thesis. On the whole, this subculture seemed to be comprised mostly of incredibly smart, yet thoroughly cynical pranksters who were masters of both esoteric Internet jokes and high-level policy knowledge. In other words, I had found my people.
I resumed writing for my old blog, and surprisingly (but probably 100% due to the impending presidential election) I started to get a consistent following of liberal bloggers and their fans. Before too long, even my public defender colleagues were reading my posts. One senior attorney in particular made sure to ask me “why are you still doing this lawyering thing…politics is obviously your calling.”
As I progressed in political writing, however, it became harder and harder for me to avoid the dependable muse of confrontation. Soon, my writing devolved from “abrasive” to “resembling coked out Joe Pesci,” all while talking about the welfare state. But thanks to the modern tastes of the Internet community, my behavior and tone received accolades and praise rather than wholesale rejection and concerned calls from my parents.
What had begun as a way to pass the time in an office where I was being underutilized became a goal in itself. Perversely, and as a direct result of my online hobby, I had a job directly out of law school working for an elected official. However, as I became disenchanted with both the candidate’s platform and the wholesale lack of actual work, trolling again became my main outlet for a building rage. By then, I had developed a few rhetorical and tactical strategies for provoking and arguing with high profile people, and I could feel relatively confident that I could ruin someone’s day with a well-placed barb.
As trolling itself became a euphemism for a whole range of behavior, both on and offline, the term essentially lost its meaning. Perhaps due to the sophistication and success of certain trolls in provoking attention from elite targets, or the long delayed recognition of “bullying” as a national epidemic, any criticism whatsoever can be dismissed as “trolling” and ignored (at least apparently) by the object of derision. The backlash against snark and trolling had become such a prolific issue in itself that it warranted the now infamous “On Smarm” essay from Gawker (the troll paper of record) in 2013. Writing for an Internet audience could now be seen as some sort of Manichaean enterprise: either you were attacking the establishment through almost nihilistic levels of angry sarcasm, or you were the smug asshole making Ted Cruz look humane via Michael Scott gifs.
On a personal level my trolling had, in the words of an innumerable number of lunatics on the web, become problematic. No, I wasn’t engaged in any incredibly abhorrent or illegal activity. I wasn’t doxxing 12-year-olds or goatse-ing heads of state. Rather, I was becoming an unhinged grump. The targets of my rage (who have mostly been politicians of any ideological stripe to the right of Barbara Lee) might indeed have deserved to receive my brand of harsh criticism. However, on the whole, it had become painfully obvious that my writing was essentially moving from the “biting social critic” category into the “raving manifesto” territory.
When I joined other leftists using the Internet as a weapon in the political arena, I had envisioned myself as being on the vanguard of a new era in direct action protesting. Indeed, I still believe that the conscientious use of damaging personal information intertwined with policy-based analysis is a legitimate form of leftist praxis. But my legacy of trolling produced only a smug satisfaction of extreme self-righteousness that barely disguised my metastasizing self-hatred.
The Internet, and more specifically social media, largely exists as the main equalizer in our society. There is the large class of people for whom Facebook, Twitter, etc. represents the only respite from shitty work environments, and then there are members of the aristocracy who can’t afford to appear too out of touch with their key constituents. Trolling can therefore be seen as the natural result of a growing disconnect between these groups and acts as a check (or at least a spoiler) against the horrible popular consensus that Chris Hayes identified in the Twilight of the Elites. However, in my own personal experience, this drive to put everyone and anyone in their place for disagreeing with me became less and less about fighting the power, and is frankly resembling the sort of contrarian asshole who arrogantly challenged professors as a 1L.
What is perhaps most frightening for me isn’t the realization that I’m engaged in a toxic spiral of anger and hate, but rather the horrifying idea that this is all I am good at. Every job I have had since 2012 has come as a direct result of the trolling that I began that year. I have blogged for critically celebrated publications, worked for a variety of elected officials, and have built a social network that includes incredibly talented journalists and other people of influence. But all of this “success” has come at a high cost not only to my future career, but mainly to my own psyche. Existing in an environment that encourages me to always see the worst in people is simply not sustainable.
Last year I lost the most prominent job I’ve ever had, not because of a troll, but rather because a year of being the loudest and most self-righteous person in the city had left me with few allies in the midst of my legitimate grievance. In the aftermath of that incident, the only job I could get was canvassing for Prop 47, a landmark criminal justice reform ballot measure here in California. For three months I went door-to-door, convincing people to vote for what 10 years ago would have seemed like an impossibly idealistic proposal: providing retroactive legal forgiveness to felons. This position forced me to be humble, self-effacing, and courteous in the face of opposition that ranged from impolite to outright apoplectic stupidity. In other words, I voluntarily subjected myself to in-person trolling in order to advance something I cared deeply about.
When the measure passed, I found myself at a pizza place surrounded by friends and activists. Like my troll acquaintances, these activists were well aware of how badly the world is fucked. But unlike the trolls, these direct-action experts also had some semblance of a plan for how to address these problems. We were ecstatic about the success of Prop 47 and hungry for what to do next—the exact opposite of the misery and nihilism I had grown to recognize so profoundly in my own worldview.
For me, trolling has probably run its course as a hobby. At this point, all I am doing is disguising my own frustration about my stunted professional development with perennial, tactless attacks against an amorphous group of people I don’t like. That’s not the behavior of a concerned citizen, and it’s especially not a way to advocate for a worthwhile cause. Instead I’ve become what I hate: a self-aggrandizing jerk who can’t tell that he’s alienating more people than he’s converting. As Clifford Vickrey put it:
This mode of political commentary is motivated by one’s own sense of superiority and not by any commitment to a social mission. Worse, it predictably backfires easily, since it only increases these bigots’ cachet and inflates their self-image as martyrs. Rape victim slanderer Chuck Johnson now has a cradle-to-grave job in the conservative pundit farm system because of the sheer number of people who tweeted “.@ChuckCJohnson lol delete ur account pubeface.” Congratulations on getting Geraldo Rivera to say “Updog;” he still has a job and is worth $12 million. Or how about that Tumblr, popular among online moralists, that got people fired for racist posts to social media that an abusive boyfriend used to destroy his ex’s life? Hope it was worth it to keep you entertained online.