I get approached by trolls of all shapes and sizes, and I’ve come to learn a thing or two about them. I know that the basic one-size-fits-all admonition regarding trolls is, “Don’t feed the trolls,” but sometimes it’s fun, like feeding the ducks, and at other times it’s hard to know that you’re feeding a troll until it bites you in the ass. I have come to understand that sometimes what looks like a helpful soul is really a troll in sheep’s clothing.
One of the most wonderful and unexpected things that I’ve gained from writing on Medium is a deeper understanding of statistics. I’ve taken many undergraduate and graduate-level classes in probability and statistics, and I used advanced statistics to analyze the results of my Ph.D research, but only since I’ve been watching the behavior of large a population of semi-independent variables (people) operate live and on-the-fly have I come to fully understand the magic of statistics.
Take for example the ratio of fans (readers who clap) to reads (clickers who read all the way to the end). I’ve noticed that this ratio can range from as low as five percent up to as much as thirty percent. Even though this ratio can vary a lot between articles (and probably between authors), for any given article, it is usually very constant. Once an article is getting, on average, a clap from every tenth reader, it will continue to get a clap from every tenth reader.
This is a slightly weird thing to watch. For example, I might be looking at my Medium statistics page and focus on an article that has been read 1,000 times and has been getting a fans-to-reads ratio of 10%. Let’s say it’s had 99 fans since it had been read 990 times. I can expect that, at any moment, another reader will clap; and they do. It seems as if there is some communication happening between the readers: “Hey, can someone go and clap now; it’s time to clap guys.” Of course, what’s really happening is that there is a complex set of hidden circumstances and qualities that are distributed in some reasonably consistent manner throughout the “population” of people who are drawn to first visit, and then read, my article. This deeper, visceral understanding of statistical effects is useful for dealing with trolls, as I will explain later.
A Taxonomy of Trolls
Since I last wrote about trolls in Everything Is My Guru, I have begun to develop a clearer taxonomy. You may encounter some or all of these trolls in-the-wild. Also note that this is only a sampling and can never be fully comprehensive; the art of trollery knows no bounds.
Troll Type 1: The Disgusted Troll
This kind of troll is so disgusted by my writing that they’re not even going to read it. They might only get as far as reading the title before deciding that it’s time to write a diatribe about what a nasty person I am.
Troll Type 2: The Twin
This flavor of troll sidles up next to me and gets all buddy-buddy, telling me that we have so much in common, that we’re almost replicas of each other. Imagine their shock when they discover that I don’t have exactly matching opinions to them. At this point, they being to explain to me how I should take more responsibility for my influential position and that I should write differently, or about different things, or from a different perspective.
I sometimes fantasize, in a passive-aggressive and self-sabotagy kind of way, of forwarding all of my articles to these trolls, in advance, so that they can adjust the views in them to match their own. The wake-up call is that I cannot, and will not, write from any other perspective that my own. Guess what? I am the author here.
Troll Type 3: The Professional Patronizer
This is the psychologist, therapist, or psychiatrist who hides behind their false professional veneer, to deliver their analysis of my personal experience from on-high. Ironically, had they listened to my share in a twelve-step setting (I used to attend Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings) they would have been ethically-bound to say, “Thank you for sharing” and then shut the fuck up. But no, the revelation of my inner-experience must be met with a clinical critique of the conclusions that I have come to about my own life.
God help their clients. As change-workers, the best we can do for our clients and patients is to support them in discovering their own deep and nuanced truth, not impose our own truth upon them. What’s even more ironic is that these fools often comment using a fake name.
Troll Type 4: The Narcissist
Pretty much all trolls seem to be buzzed by a cocktail rich in narcissism, with varying concentrations of the classic sub-types of narcissistic behavior. The general sense is that I am here to serve them, and them alone, and that my actions are a personal affront to them. Often, even though they came to my writing, and not the other way around, there is a sense that I owe them something or that my behavior is personally directed at them.
A great example of this was when one troll got a notification that I had followed him, and then went to look at my profile and noticed that I didn’t follow anyone. He thought that I had actually followed him and then unfollowed him. In fact, what happened is that Medium has a “bug” (feature) that leads to people being randomly followed. I suspect it was, and maybe still is, a way that they bootstrap the social effect.
Every now and then, since I don’t follow anyone, I notice that I’m following one person. When I see this, I simply unfollow that person. I’ve filed a help request with Medium about this, and many other people have written about it as an issue. I don’t think they’re going to fix it any time soon. Anyway this particular troll was so upset by me apparently following him and then unfollowing him, that he persisted in trying to get my imaginary naughty behavior punished. He even tagged Ev Williams, the founder of Medium.
This troll finally left me alone after I explicitly called out the abuse behavior: “You’re abusing me. I want you to go away and leave me alone.”
Troll Type 5: The Ignoramus
I published a video on YouTube about the importance of regular exercise for mental and physical wellbeing. An apparent worshiper of the church of scientism decided to school me in the comments by saying that what I spoke about was disprovable bullshit. I haven’t yet had a chance to index a few dozen studies that show that regular exercise extends life, improves psychological health and wellbeing, and reduces the probability of developing many kinds of chronic and fatal physical illness, but I will.
Trolls of this stripe are so confident that they know everything that they never spend time questioning what they think they know, and learning new information. So they go around telling everyone else, in an authoritative manner, that they are wrong.
Troll Type 6: The Determined Troll
I started getting comments from one reader that didn’t seem constructive or pleasant. Each of my responses seemed to be taken as a desire to fight with the troll, even though I thought that I was simply addressing the troll’s points. I stopped interacting with him when he told me something like, “This is not just a conversation for this week, or even this month. I’m going to be sticking around and [arguing with you] like this for months.” No thank you.
I don’t mind critical feedback. In fact I welcome it. I want to grow and learn and I want to become aware of my blind-spots. Many readers give me constructive and effective critical feedback. I’m not even saying that trolls don’t have something useful to contribute. The problem is that the way they choose to go about it makes the experience so unpleasant that any useful message gets lost in the barrage of emotionally manipulative game-playing.
In my training as a therapist, I learned to spot personality disorders by the way interactions hit the gut. If the thought of interacting with someone creates a tightness or a sinking in the gut, it can be a strong indicator that that person has a severely disordered personality. By the way, we all have some personality disordering. I’m talking about a personality disorder so severe, that the person has both absolutely no awareness that there is an issue, and acts-out so pervasively and dysfunctionally that they are unable to sustain any healthy relationships.
I don’t hate people with severe personality disorders. I just don’t want to have having to deal with them outside of a clinical setting where I can be well compensated for the effort it takes to interact with, and rehabilitate, them. People suffering from these issues, or rather inflicting suffering on those around them, only make up a small percentage of the population. Likewise, of the people who comment on my work, only a tiny percentage seem to be disordered in personality.
One of the things I’ve learned from these interactions is that a person’s true primary agenda may not be the same as their stated agenda; with trolls, the true agenda is usually something completely different. The real agenda of any conversation is the effect that conversation has on those taking part in it. I have noticed that some of these conversations with trolls lead to me feeling frustrated and angry. Assuming that this is not just me, which is something I always consider, I have come to realize that this frustration-making or anger-making is the intended outcome of the trolling. Sometimes it seems that the troll’s unconscious motivation is to make me feel powerless, or stupid, or wrong, or incompetent, or unprofessional, or small, or fake.
My theory is that these trolls feel this way about themselves on an unconscious level, but since they are not willing to become consciously aware of it, they take steps to invoke those feelings in me. They do this so that I can consciously experience the feelings for them, and then try to “metabolize” the feelings and associated traumatic experiences. The problem is that I cannot do their self-awareness and integration work, I cannot untangle their knots, for them. In fact, the more I try to do that, and the more I engage with the process, the more I disable them from focusing on their own process. By engaging with trolls, I believe that I often disempower them, and prevent them from healing and integrating. I do this by allowing myself to be used as a decoy.
This is my personality disorder. I have a tendency to take responsibility for other people’s upset and try to address it and make it better. My growing edge is to understand that the trolling behavior is really more about the troll than about me. I am just a convenient and effective foil.
A reader recently took the time to tell me that, after seeing my degree and enjoying my writing style, she had decided to follow me. Then, after getting half-way-through one of my articles, she decided to unfollow me. This is where by growing visceral understanding of statistics has come to help. It enabled me to not take the response personally. I think that the way I handed it explains everything:
You’re not unusual in not following my profile, Sally. Hundreds of thousands of people read my articles per year, and only about 9k people are currently following me.
What I think might be a little unusual is how quickly you followed me, and how quickly you then unfollowed me. If I were you, I would want to pay attention to what was happening emotionally inside myself just before each of those actions.
This is actually a powerful response that captures the truth of the statistics and my best understanding of what’s going on. I could have also added a third unusual behavior: the decision to send me a message telling me about the first two unusual behaviors. My response captures what I ideally want to be able to do: I want to not take these kind of attacks personally, and instead I want to be able to perceive them as the cries for help that they clearly are. I want to be able to help these trolls.
I’m not here to be nice. I’m here to wake you up.