Creating Technology for Social Change

Internet trolls are even uglier in person

A lot has been written, for over a decade now, about trolls on the internet, and the role that anonymity might have in emboldening people to say terrible things. ROFLcon even featured a panel, Aca-meme-ia, with the University of Oregon’s Whitney Phillips, who researchs trolling. The MemeFactory group put on an incredible performance where they directly addressed the rape culture found all too easily on Reddit and the other hubs of web culture celebrated at ROFLcon. I hope it gets posted online soon so I can share it.

But what happens when real people, emboldened by their online identities, do actually show up to say terrible things in person? A small group of people with an axe to grind against I Can Haz Cheezburger came to protest what they see as the company’s appropriation of meme content they created. “Protest,” here, means shouting over the MemeFactory show, yelling repeatedly at Ben Huh during his session, and playing high-pitched frequencies on a boombox outside of the event. I don’t know nearly enough about the particulars to judge the validity of their argument. I do know, however, that seeing that awful commenter from the internet show up in person and yell asinine things about rape in public for two days is much less bearable than skimming past it online. A troll’s mission is to offend, and they feed off of hurt feelings. Ben Huh exhibited a Zen-like ability to ignore their provocations. But seeing the ugly underbelly of internet culture represented IRL was an unpleasant shock to many attendees.

Update: I like how Brian Raftery retold this over at Wired (although the heckler did not wait until the Q&A session):

“The future of job creation,” Huh said, “is only going to come from our ability to create content.” During the Q&A that followed, Huh was heckled by one crowd member, who repeatedly asked, “Why are you raping the internet, sir?” — a reference to Cheezburger’s commercial success with such web-derived properties as LOLcats. The antagonizer was soon ejected, and the whole kerfuffle felt like a missed opportunity, on everyone’s part: ROFLcon is a rare chance for some meatspace back-and-forth on the kind of controversies usually relegated to comment threads and angry IRC chats. But it’s hard to have a sensible public debate when stuck in caps-lock mode.