Don’t feed the troll: Shutting down debate about community expectations on Reddit.com
First Monday

Dont feed the troll Shutting down debate about community expectations on Reddit.com by Kelly Bergstrom



Abstract
While many online communities have explicit codes of conduct that one must follow in order to participate, there are often many “unwritten rules” or community expectations that users are expected to abide by. In this case study of www.reddit.com, a news aggregate Web site whose affordances seem to imply a transient and fluid approach to online identity, I outline an example of a community member (known as “Grandpa Wiggly”) who ran afoul of community expectations of authentic representation of one’s “true” off–line self. I also detail how accusations of trolling were used as a justification for shutting down debates about community expectations, as well as justifying actions against Grandpa Wiggly that violated the Reddit terms of service (and his privacy).

Contents

Introduction
Introducing Reddit.com
Aims and methods
A new sub–Reddit is born
The case of Reddit v. Grandpa Wiggly
Grandpa Trolly?
Making sense of Wiggly
Where do we go from here?
Epilogue

 


 

Introduction

Based in Norse mythology, trolls were said to be supernatural creatures with less than benevolent intents. While trolls still make appearances in children’s stories and fairy tales, the term “troll” has also taken on a new meaning in our digital age. To be a troll on the Internet is to be much like the Norse trolls, but with less supernatural powers and (perhaps) more malicious intents. When using the term troll to describe behaviour online, it often brings with it certain ideological baggage. To troll is to have negative intents, to wish harm or at least discomfort upon one’s audience. To be trolled is to be made a victim, to be caught along in the undertow and be the butt of someone else’s joke. We are warned “do not feed the troll,” as by responding to their frivolous posts we risk adding fuel to the fire — a troll is merely looking for any reaction as validation to continue with their activities.

While Coleman (2010) has argued that trolls should really be viewed more akin to “tricksters”, by and large the term troll carries negative connotations within most online communities. In this paper I argue that the application of the label “troll” can also be used to as a justification for punishing those who transgress (or are accused of transgressing) an online community’s norms. Specifically, this paper describes a case study of what some community members defined as trolling on the news aggregate Web site www.reddit.com. Rather than assuming that the primary goal of “Grandpa Wiggly” (the accused troll) was to cause disruption and conflict in the Reddit community, I will reframe the events using the lens of role–play and shifting community expectations. In this paper I describe how being labeled as a troll is a way of silencing the transgressor, as well as shutting down debate and self–reflection amongst community members. Ultimately, the goal of this paper is to lay down groundwork for future identity–based studies surrounding policing of norms and expected behaviour within online communities.

 

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Introducing Reddit.com

Reddit.com is a news aggregate Web site with an estimated one billion page views in January 2011 (Reisinger, 2011). Currently owned by Condé Nast, the site was launched in 2005 by Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian (later joined by Christopher Slowe and Aaron Swartz) who were funded by a Y Combinator startup grant (Arrington, 2006). The site operates very much like rival news aggregate Digg.com and users (commonly referred to as “Redditors”) can submit links which are then voted on by other members. Submissions with the highest votes rise to the front page and are viewed by more members and provide the submitter “karma”. An upvote from another users grants +1 karma, a downvote results in -1 karma. Submissions with more downvotes will drop further and further down the ranks and will be seen by very few people (and if the number of downvotes surpass the total number of upvotes, provide their submitter negative karma). This karma number is found beside the user’s name and provides Reddit community members a signal that the submitter is an active and respected participant — the higher the karma the less likely the submitter is a spammer or scammer. The amount of time a Reddit account has been active is viewable by all visitors to the site, and relatively new accounts making grand claims are often treated with suspicion. Other than providing a cue to other Redditors that a particular user has a history of submitting popular links, this number is not essential for one’s use of (or enjoyment) of the site. In fact, many Redditors will only have the default (1) beside their user name, as they may never submit links, instead only reading, voting, and commenting on the posts made by other Redditors.

In addition to this link karma, Reddit also has a second layer of karma. Each submission also has a comment feature where users can discuss the submission and provide commentary or feedback; these comments are in turn are voted on by fellow Redditors. The up (and down) votes count toward a user’s “comment karma” which is viewable by clicking on a user name and going to their summary page. Until a user reaches a certain threshold of this comment karma, there is an imposed time limit between being able to post comments (intended to stop spammers from making new accounts and clogging the system with multiple messages). Once users have “proven” themselves as being able to contribute to the site’s discussion, this limit is removed and users no longer face a wait time between posting comments. Comment karma also acts as a filter within discussions. If enough users downvote a particular comment it is collapsed and hidden from view; users must click to view the collapsed comment (and its resulting thread). This feature is intended to hide spam, flames, or comments that do not add to the overall discussion from view. This feature is also sometimes abused by Redditors attempting to punish or censor viewpoints that do not match their own (especially in heated political or philosophical debates).

A registered Reddit account is not required to access the majority of the site’s content. Anyone who ventures on to the site will have the same read–only access as anyone who has registered for an account. It is when one wishes to upvote (or downvote) a submission, submit a link, or make a comment that you are prompted to register. Upon attempting to do so without an account, you will be redirected to the account creation screen. The only information required for an account is a username, password, and passing a captcha test. Providing your e–mail is not required (but necessary if you lose your password at a later date). Underneath the “create account” button it reads “is it really that easy? only one way to find out”.

The ease that one can create a Reddit account has given rise to the phenomenon of what are known among Redditors as “novelty accounts”. These accounts, unlike “serious” accounts, are not necessarily used to further the discussion. Instead they often have a gimmick, such as making puns or referencing relevant (or irrelevant) memes. The lack of personally identifying information on an account (and no limit on the number of accounts one can create) also means that it can be particularly easy for one wishing to maintain multiple identities on Reddit to do so. The ease of creating an account is something that is known to all Redditors with an active account (as they would have experienced the ease of creating an account first hand when creating their own). Yet as we will soon see, there is still an expectation of truthfulness amongst some community members. Without an assumption (and expectation) of authenticity coming from the developers of Reddit themselves (they could have easily made an active e–mail address a requirement rather than an option for account creation), we must ask ourselves exactly where do these expectations come from?

 

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Aims and methods

This is primarily an exploratory paper in which I review what seem to be conflicting notions about expected behaviour within the Reddit community. Despite the affordances of the Web site seeming to encourage a more transient and fluid approach to participation in this particular online community (as a new identity is only a new username away), some users carry an expectation that their fellow Redditors are presenting their “authentic” off–line selves in this online space. The information in this paper takes the form of a thick description based on my personal observations of a particular series of events from the spring and summer of 2010. As this is a paper about a particular online community and its reactions to the events I will describe shortly, I have limited my search for information about the events solely to www.reddit.com. The data was collected by observing the situation unfold on Reddit and going back to re–read the posts (which are still publicly available). All information was collected from posts made to the Web site, no additional interviews or investigations were done outside the domain of Reddit.com (despite the aftermath of the events spilling elsewhere on the Internet). All information and posts are freely available in the public domain (i.e., on the actual Reddit Web site, no private messages), and are still available for all to see on by scrolling back far enough in the history, or using the site’s search function. Any information quoted is attributed to the poster’s Reddit.com identity — no attempts have been made (on my part) to link the Reddit account back to the off–line world. However, as we will soon see, the veil of anonymity is often more theory than practice. It only takes a small number of missteps before an online anonymous identity can become compromised and one’s perceived wrongdoings to be judged by a jury of one’s (Internet) peers.

 

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A new sub–Reddit is born

It is helpful to think of Reddit.com as being organized into a series of directories, much like on your own computer. While it is possible to save files directly to your C drive, if all of the content you wished to save to your computer was kept solely in this directory, it would become very difficult to find much of anything. Instead, files on your computer are saved in sub–folders and sub–directories. If you are particularly organized, your C drive would contain a series of sub directories and files would be saved in appropriate places — pictures go in the picture folder, preparation for courses, draft assignments, or grading documents may be found within a folder called “school”. Reddit is organized in a similar fashion: users can submit content to the general Reddit.com directory, but it is so large that it is likely that your submission will be buried under the constant influx of new content. Instead, users have the option of submitting content to a subdirectory (also known as a sub–Reddit), which are more narrowly focused. Sub–Reddits exist for almost every topic imaginable (for example gaming, cat pictures, or one’s favourite political party). As it is a Web site not intended for minors, there is also a “seedy underbelly” of Reddit, with adult themed and/or pornography related sub–Reddits such as “Gone Wild” (Redditors posting naked pictures of themselves for other Redditors to see).

In the summer of 2009 a new sub–Reddit was created, “I am a… Ask me anything” (IAmA). In the title of their post (and sometimes elaborated in the body of the post, depending on how much explanation their situation required) a Redditor offers themselves up to the community to answer any questions about the subject they are posting about. This provided a forum to share information about one’s area of expertise and answer questions from curious Redditors. While initial posts seemed to focus on career experiences, the submissions quickly took a turn for the personal with users offering up their experiences surrounding intimate (and sometimes traumatic) events such as abortion, sexual assault, and drug abuse. To protect their off–line identities, some submitters create “throw–away accounts” which are one–off accounts not linked to their usual profiles. While providing privacy, this also strips away the karma indicator and readers were left to judge the veracity of the post solely based on the submitters’ comments. As word spread, traffic to the sub–Reddit increased (as did the number of posts). Submitters were now frequently accused of faking their stories. It was finally one poster’s claim of being a gynecologist that was “exposed” as being entirely fabricated that moderators began to step in and seek verification of the poster’s identity (and in turn, verify the experiences they offered up for scrutiny by the Reddit community). This verification is now only required for posters claiming to be someone famous, but there is an expectation that all posters are being honest about their experiences.

Returning to the idea of a seedy underbelly of Reddit for a moment, I would like to point out that the community expectations of Reddit.com as a whole seem to be at odds here: on one hand there is an expectation of privacy (for example posters in “Gone Wild” will blur their faces or people asking for legal advice may do so under a throw away account). On the other hand, while not requiring that they post under their primary account, the IAmA community expects posters to be revealing true information about the subject they have offered to answer questions about (and in turn, their off–line lives). These two ideas seem to have conflicting notions of how one should (or be able to) manage one’s online identity while participating on Reddit.com.

As of mid–June 2011, there are over 330,000 subscribers to the IAmA sub–Reddit and there is a spin–off sub–Reddit “I Live in” (ILiveIn). There is also a sub–Reddit specifically for posting IAmA requests, with the goal of keeping the increasingly popular IAmA sub–Reddit as clutter–free as possible. IAmA has also welcomed celebrity appearances such as Bruce Campbell, Stephen Colbert, Neil De Grasse Tyson, and Roger Ebert. As mentioned above, the subject matter of IAmA posts can vary dramatically, on any given day one may see posts offering up experiences from a particular profession, someone who has undergone a particular unique (or perhaps funny) experience, or someone offering to provide insights on something otherwise thought of as mundane or ordinary. Much like the rest of Reddit, some posts rise to the top and get a lot of traffic, while others slip into obscurity. Some are called out as being “obviously fake” (or worse yet, trolling), others may just be repeating information from a recent IAmA post, or just be too ordinary to capture the community’s attention. As we will see in the case study outlined in the next section, it really can be a guessing game to figure out what (or who) will capture the imagination of the Reddit community and be launched into the (fickle) world of being a Reddit.com celebrity.

 

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The case of Reddit v. Grandpa Wiggly

Grandpa Wiggly started posting on Reddit sometime in 2008. He described himself as a former English teacher living in the United States with his wife and their seven cats. He was an avid Redditor, often posting on a variety of topics and was particularly known for his fondness for mayonnaise. For a while he managed to stay relatively under the radar, but his popularity exploded earlier in 2010 when in a picture thread he posted a picture of himself (and one of his wife’s cats) and revealed himself to be 80 years old. After this he became known to many as “the grandpa of Reddit”. Other Redditors cited his warm personality, his quirky stories, and his uniqueness as an 80–year–old so well versed in the ways of the Internet as their reasons for looking on this particular poster so fondly. Some users called out Grandpa Wiggly as being a troll early on, while others refused to believe he was anything other than authentic up until the very end. While this is not the first example of trolling in IAmA (and certainly will not be the last), it sticks out as a particularly ripe example to unpack the conflicting expectations of authenticity within the Reddit community.

Grandpa Wiggly first appeared on IAmA with his story about being a failed mayonnaise entrepreneur [1]. In this post he describes his invention of his own mayonnaise recipe and his attempts to sell it years ago at his local Piggly Wiggly locations (a grocery chain in the southern U.S., see http://www.pigglywiggly.com/). His chances for condiment glory were ruined by the major food conglomerates and due to sub–prime shelving space his mayonnaise business quickly failed. Since then he has retired from the condiment–making business, claiming to only make mayonnaise for personal use and the occasional gift. However, his popularity only began to truly explode when he opened up about his home life. He often spoke of his cats and his (self–described) “crazy cat lady wife”. The popularity of these stories led to Grandpa Wiggly creating a second IAmA post, “I am married to a ‘Crazy Cat Lady’. Ask me anything!” [2] in June 2010. As of August 10, 2010, the post had nearly 800 comments on it, 2,214 up votes 860 down votes (verses only 402 comments, 842 up votes and 326 down votes on his mayonnaise IAmA).

A few weeks later another Redditor named Wordsauce posted “I just found out my grampa is a redditor. WTF [3] I don’t even …” [4] in the WTF sub–Reddit [5]. Looking at the comment history for both users and seeing that the interaction between the two prior to this had been minimal, it was really as if it was a grandson had discovered his elderly grandfather was a social media guru and was he was reeling from this discovery. The Grandpa Wiggly saga continued: an actively updated blog and Twitter feed began to supplement his prolific posting on Reddit. Some users called for the resurrection of Grandpa Wiggly’s mayonnaise business, while others just seemed content to hear further stories about the exploits of his wife and their cats. And still, some people insisted that Grandpa Wiggly was a troll.

Shortly after his grandson’s post, Grandpa Wiggly’s identity was called into question with two Redditors in particular posting a list of evidence disputing his identity. The story of Grandpa Wiggly quickly unraveled, and while at first the person behind the Wiggly family characters tried to cover their tracks by deleting photos and some posts, they barely touched the surface of removing everything he had posted online (both on Reddit and other media sharing sites). Grandpa Wiggly’s prolific posting style ended up being his ultimate undoing — there was just not enough time to destroy all the evidence before others could create copies and make screenshots to be archived elsewhere. Allegations of fraud were made; those who had once fawned over Grandpa Wiggly were now sure that he had been gearing up to asking for money from the Reddit community. Some Redditors were on a witch hunt: they made posts sharing identifying information about the puppet master behind the Grandpa Wiggly character. Pictures were posted, threats were made, Grandpa Wiggly’s “grandson” was revealed to be the culprit and scores of “I told you so!” could be heard rippling throughout multiple sub–Reddits, not just the IAmA community.

The person behind Grandpa Wiggly then made an interesting choice: rather than slipping away quietly in the shadows or taking cover under the protection of a new user name, he took to Reddit and offered up an explanation for his actions. Writing as Wordsauce (his “real” Reddit account) he explains,

Grandpa Wiggly is a character, I thought more people understood that. That was my mistake. It seems to be spilt down the middle. For every “I hope you die” message I’ve received, I’ve received encouraging messages from the people who were playing along the whole time and who knew it was a novelty. All I was trying to do was tell a story, to entertain, it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. It was interactive fiction, plain and simple, kind of like a choose–your–own–adventure. There was no sinister motive behind all of this. I had no end game. I would love nothing more than to continue the character of Grandpa Wiggly but I don’t think that’s possible on Reddit. I will still maintain Grandpa Wiggly’s blog as there is much story still to be told.

Despite no further activity on the Grandpa Wiggly Reddit account, “his” blog and Twitter accounts are still active. Fake Grandpa Wigglys have begun to appear (almost like a scene out of Spartacus), trying to give their explanations for “their” behaviour. The puppetmaster has remained active on Reddit.com as Wordsauce and while he has made an offer to do an IAmA about why he decided to create Grandpa Wiggly, he is currently banned from doing so by the sub–Reddit’s moderators.

 

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Grandpa Trolly?

Of particular interest here is the visceral reaction exhibited by some members of the Reddit.com community. While some were able to brush off the events of Grandpa Wiggly’s unmasking as amusing or perhaps just another day on the Internet, others seemed to be genuinely outraged. However, most Redditors seemed to agree that Grandpa Wiggly was a troll. But what does it really mean to call someone a troll? Donath (1999) was arguably the first to define trolling academically and describes trolling as an identity game and that “the troll attempts to pass as a legitimate participant, sharing the group’s common interests and concerns”. Dahlberg (2001) adds to this, explaining “… after developing their false identity and becoming accepted within a group, the troll sets about disrupting proceedings while trying to maintain his or her cover”. Warning that a troll can have a negative impact on an online community, Donath explains:

A troll can disrupt the discussion on a newsgroup, disseminate bad advice, and damage the feeling of trust in the newsgroup community. Furthermore, in a group that has become sensitized to trolling — where the rate of deception is high — many honestly naïve questions may be quickly rejected as trollings … Even if the accusation is unfounded, being branded a troll is quite damaging to one’s online reputation (Donath, 1999).

But does this fit the description of the behaviour exhibited by Grandpa Wiggly and his interactions with the Reddit.com community? Grandpa Wiggly’s creator seems to be adamant that he had intended the character to be entertaining, perhaps a novelty account like those who purposely use memes incorrectly or post random facts about cats. It is clear that this is a complicated situation and further investigation is required.

Looking through his posts, it is difficult to find examples of Grandpa Wiggly disrupting discussions within the various sub–Reddits he participated in. However, despite passing as a “real” member of the Reddit community it would probably be fair to say that Grandpa Wiggly fits Donath’s description of a sort of identity game. While participation on Reddit.com does not enable users to link back to their off–line identities in any ways other than the content of their posts, in the IAmA community a poster is expected to be telling the truth. To other Redditors, the content of Grandpa Wiggly’s posts led them to believe that he really was an 80–year–old former English teacher and he really did have a wife and seven cats. He posted in such a way that was internally consistent with this story, perhaps adding to the sense of betrayal expressed by some Redditors. While the person behind Grandpa Wiggly did not feel that he was playing a game, those who had believed his stories felt that Grandpa Wiggly was toying with them.

Identity games aside, Grandpa Wiggly did participate in many discussions throughout Reddit (not just within the IAmA sub–Reddit), chiming in with his thoughts, opinions, and often an amusing anecdote. Rather than disrupting discussion, I argue that Grandpa Wiggly fostered it. At the height of his popularity he had many Redditors who would reply to his comments, adding to the overall discussion. He was known as the quirky old man who loved mayonnaise, so much that it resulted in the creation of a sub–Reddit specifically for the discussion of the condiment. Also, his second IAmA post (about his wife and their cats) came directly out of repeatedly being asked questions by fellow Redditors in other (non–related) discussion threads. Rather than covertly sneaking into a community and disrupting the conversation, he was encouraged by other community members to jump in and take a leading role.

If Grandpa Wiggly did not disrupt discussion, did he meet Donath’s other two descriptors of trolling behaviour (disseminating bad advice and damaging trust)? In terms of disseminating bad advice, it is difficult to determine if the advice given by Grandpa Wiggly was better or worse than the advice usually distributed within this online community (and the Internet in general). When reading through the posts made under the Grandpa Wiggly name I did not see any suggestions of illegal behaviour. The “worst” advice would probably be the suggestion that mayonnaise can be used as a sexual lubricant. The same cannot be said elsewhere on Reddit — bad advice runs rampant. For example, around the same time that Grandpa Wiggly was in the process of being “unmasked”, a young man had discovered that his girlfriend had been cheating on him, and while there was a lot of good advice (such as cutting off all contact with his ex, start going to the gym, etc.) the most popular (and most upvoted) comments giving advice were juvenile and vindictive. The young man ended up acting on some of the more vindictive suggestions and while it made for an entertaining story (and lots of karma when posting updates about the situation) [6] his actions likely caused more drama and heartbreak than needed in this situation. While some may find the veil of anonymity in an online forum liberating, others (as shown in the example above) may be inclined towards mischief — or worse.

The revelation of Grandpa Wiggly being “fake” did lead to some community members making comments about feeling less inclined to trust their fellow Redditors. But can Grandpa Wiggly’s actions be blamed for some members of the Reddit.com community to be less trusting of their fellow Redditors (and in turn, warrant Grandpa Wiggly being labeled a troll)? If Grandpa Wiggly was a character created for financial gain or the dissemination for overtly bad advice, the case would be open and shut. However, if Grandpa Wiggly’s creator did not intend for the character to be taken seriously, should he be held responsible for the reactions of some Reddit.com community members? While Donath’s warning is useful for explaining some of the more negative — perhaps kneejerk — reactions to Grandpa Wiggly being outed as a fake, it doesn’t leave room for the explanations put forth by Grandpa Wiggly’s creator. If we take his creator’s word for it, Grandpa Wiggly was a character meant to entertain the Reddit.com community and no harm was ever intended. While I am still unsure that Grandpa Wiggly can truly be called a troll, these events certainly took on a life of their own and their aftermath has left more questions than answers.

 

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Making sense of Wiggly

Throughout the entire aftermath of the Grandpa Wiggly’s unmasking, his creator continued to maintain that he viewed the character as a creative writing exercise, rather than a source of potential financial gain or a means to disrupt the Reddit community. Stepping back from the specific subject matter of this paper for a moment, I feel it is important to pause and outline the theoretical framework that I feel may shed (at least a dim) light on the Grandpa Wiggly debate. While the events explained above seem specific to Reddit.com, they provide an interesting case study for identity play and policing in a digital forum.

To view the creator of Grandpa Wiggly’s behaviour as simple trolling seems dismissive and ignores the potential to explore certain behaviours in an online setting. Rather than viewing the IAmA forum as a venue for information transfer, perhaps it is naïve to view the sub–Reddit as anything more than a stage for performances of varying degrees of authenticity. All posters in the IAmA forum are undertaking some sort of performance — the very act of offering themselves up as an object of scrutiny is a performative act. Goffman (1959) explained about how each day we negotiate and re–negotiate our off–line selves depending on what situation we find ourselves in. Perhaps in a job interview we perform being a hard working, reliable, and knowledgeable employee, but at the pub meeting potential romantic interests we perform fun–loving and spontaneous (and perhaps even slightly flakey). But on the Internet, who are we “supposed” to be? Goffman’s ideas have been applied elsewhere on the Internet, such as to online dating profiles (Whitty, 2008) or academic profiles (Miller and Arnold, 2001) but these examples still have direct ties back to one’s off–line identity. Within the Reddit community, there is nothing in particular that compels a user to be truthful and open about their off–line identity, yet many users seem willing disclose details about their lives away from the Internet. Reddit.com provides a veil of anonymity, yet within the IAmA community, there is an expectation of truthfulness. But has this expectation of truthfulness always been so prevalent in the online world?

Sherry Turkle’s (1995) early work discusses role–play and experimentation in the worlds of MUDs and provides an interesting lens to view the occurrences in the IAmA sub–Reddit. While role–play is something that is expected (and often encouraged) in a game setting, it may not be so welcomed elsewhere on the Internet. Turkle argues that the Internet provides a space in which users can construct a new identity that is different than their off–line personas, and that these personas can be either constructive or destructive/addictive. Using case studies she highlights the positive benefits of role–playing and counters the prevalent view that people choose to leave behind the problems of the real world and simply “lose” themselves within the imaginary worlds created by role–playing. Not all role–playing is positive, just as not all role–playing is escapist. While in some cases role–playing can be a means of working through issues and insecurities experienced off–line, sometimes role–play can merely be acting out the same problems in an endless feedback loop (Turkle, 1995). If we look at the bigger picture and the motivations for such behaviour, it can provide the much–needed context for explaining the reasons why this identity play is taking place. While Turkle was talking about the potential of MUDs and maybe not all trolling is appropriate to be re–framed as role–play, I am still reluctant to paint Grandpa Wiggly as being “merely” a troll. He was fully committed to playing this character and despite his unmasking, wishes to continue this character beyond Reddit.com. I suspect that the act of becoming Grandpa Wiggly held something beyond the identity game and deception of this particular online community.

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Rather than wildly speculating about Grandpa Wiggly’s internal psychological motivation, I am relying on the posts he made under his own account providing a retroactive explanation of his behaviour. It is entirely possible that his reactions are merely damage control and he is saying what he thinks the rest of the community wants to hear. However since these are the reasons he has offered up to the community as his explanations for his behaviour (and these reasons have remained consistent) I am inclined to take them at face value. “Grandpa Wiggly” did not view himself as a troll and neither did his creator. This in turn requires asking the question, does a troll need to know it is a troll in order for it to truly be a troll? In this case I argue yes — just like Sol Lewitt (1967) explained that the core of conceptual art is in the motivation of its creator, a troll should have the willful intent to cause harm to the online community they are trolling. Grandpa Wiggly’s creator seems adamant that he was creating a character, not a disturbance.

While I argue that Grandpa Wiggly may not be a troll in the usually understood sense, his misguided attempt to entertain is viewed as going too far in the minds of many other Redditors. This echoes the story of the cross dressing psychiatrist described by Stone (1995) where “Julie”, a paraplegic neuropsychologist and popular member of a CompuServe discussion group was created by a biologically male, able–bodied psychiatrist. Julie was intended to help fellow chat room users who may feel more comfortable opening up to a female counseling figure rather than a male, but the character quickly took on a life of “her” own. Other members were upset to discover that Julie was actually a fictional character and felt she had taken advantage of the community that had welcomed her with open arms. While Grandpa Wiggly did not seem to take the same role as Julie did, others may have still viewed him as a key community member and were upset to discover that he was not who he originally claimed to be. Julie and Grandpa Wiggly’s stories ended in a somewhat similar way: the psychiatrist behind Julie stayed around posting under his real name, just as Grandpa Wiggly’s creator has stayed active on Reddit as Wordsauce. Some users have learned to accept the new incarnation of both Julie and Grandpa Wiggly, while others feel it was too big of a transgression to ever overcome. The particulars of the two case studies may be different, yet the community reactions are very much the same.

While Grandpa Wiggly may not have been an overt attempt at role–playing through a situation, the idea of role–play can still possibly shed a light on the situation as a whole. The act of “catching” him in the act provides certain members of the community to role–play as the white knight. Perhaps trolls (or accused trolls) and Internet detectives have a sort of symbiotic relationship and need each other in order to exist. A troll is not a troll until they are caught; a white knight is only someone with a savior complex until they find someone who needs to be saved. So now that Grandpa Wiggly has been “caught”, what does that mean for the Reddit community as a whole?

In the wake of Grandpa Wiggly’s unmasking there were those who were able to laugh at the situation and continue on with their day. Some even claimed that they knew all along and were surprised that others were not in on the joke. Yet many were personally offended and were upset to discover that the Internet–savvy eighty–year–old man with seven cats was actually a work of fiction. Unfortunately it seems that in their zeal to right the perceived wrongs done to the Reddit.com community, some Redditors have become more of a troll than the troll they were attempting to battle. Wordsauce’s personal information became the subject of multiple Reddit posts and his contact information was made available for all to see. Links to his personal online photo albums were also made available and there was much speculation about his sexuality and other unflattering rumors were started about his personal life. Going to the extent of finding out the personal details of the person behind Grandpa Wiggly and posting them online for all to see is going far beyond the worst transgressions that Grandpa Wiggly himself has been accused of, yet to some Redditors this was a “fair” punishment for his crimes. In other situations the behaviour exhibited by those punishing Grandpa Wiggly would be considered trolling (and is definitely against the Reddit.com Terms of Service agreement). It seems that trolling is in the eye of the beholder (or really, the person who feels like they are the one being trolled). In the case of Grandpa Wiggly in particular, labeling him as a troll became a way to discredit him and shut down any further debate about what this identity performance could represent. Rather than using it as an entry point to start a larger discussion about the conflicting notions of authenticity being enacted on Reddit, the label was affixed to Grandpa Wiggly, and conversation ended as not to further “feed the troll”.

While conversations may have been curtailed on Reddit itself, I propose that perhaps two other Web sites can shed light on the behaviour of some Redditors after Grandpa Wiggly’s unmasking. The first is http://www.4chan.org, a message board that has been in and out of the news, probably most notable as the online home to Anonymous (recognized by many as “the anti–Scientology group”). Unlike Reddit, there are no user names or logging in required in order to post on 4chan. Submitters can include a name to be attached to an individual post, but the majority are made using the default anonymous setting. Dibbell’s recent article on 4chan for the MIT’s Technology Review describes the posting and archiving process,

Roughly 90 percent of all messages on 4chan are posted under the site’s default identity, “Anonymous.” And those messages are not only anonymous but ephemeral, because 4chan has no long–term archives: old message threads are automatically deleted when new ones need the room (Dibbell, 2010).

Rather than having a digital paper trail keeping track of every comment (and possibly misstep) made in your online adventures, 4chan keeps no record of you being there in the first place. Unlike Reddit, your posts on 4chan are not tied back to your user name and users are free to be who ever they want every time you post a new message, as no one can tell who you “really” are in the first place.

While 4chan’s posting system allows for complete anonymity, the activities of some community members have given the site the reputation of being an “Internet hate machine” for the form of vigilante justice associated with some users of this Web site. Occasionally an individual or group will catch the attention of certain members of 4chan, which will result in a “raid” on said target. Of particular interest is the tactic of posting a target’s personal information online — often resulting in e–mail accounts being hacked, harassing phone calls, or worse. To 4chan, having one’s personal information posted online is a punishment. Perhaps those who sought out the “real” Grandpa Wiggly’s information posting it online was a way of both mimicking 4chan and publicly shaming him for the behaviour that they had deemed so offensive. It is this tension between retaining one’s own privacy but feeling it is acceptable to reveal another’s personal details that I find interesting, and is ripe for future explorations.

The second Web site is http://www.facebook.com, the social networking site that is causing many mainstream media sources (and academics) to ponder the nature of privacy in the age of Web 2.0 (and beyond). Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg is often being cited as saying that privacy is no longer a social norm (see for example Johnson, 2010). The constant changes to Facebook’s privacy policy seems to indicate that we should be sharing more about ourselves online, not less. Perhaps it is this trend towards de–anonymizing our activities on the Internet that has lead to this expectation of truthfulness in IAmA. Could it be that our embracing of Facebook has lead to a shift in thinking about the way we “should” and “ought” to share information online? Perhaps we are moving away from the fluid playground of identity described by Turkle and Stone (and still present on 4chan), and moving to a more fixed link between our online and off–line selves championed by Zuckerberg. Redditors don’t limit all their online interaction to Reddit.com — 4chan and Facebook are both frequent topics of conversation and debate within many sub–Reddits. While neither Web site were overtly cited as motivations for responses to Grandpa Wiggly’s unmasking, it does not require much of a stretch of the imagination to read the Reddit community’s reactions to Grandpa Wiggly as being an indicator of a larger the tug of war between these two opposing philosophies of online identity management and expectations surrounding authenticity.

While Reddit.com does not have anything inherent in the Web site that insists that a user must present a true and accurate picture of one’s off–line life, the community expectations seem to dictate otherwise. While some segments of the Web site are exempt from this requirement (such as the pornography related sub–Reddits I described earlier) the IAmA sub–Reddit seems to insist on authenticity. It is probably fair to say that Reddit itself is struggling with its own community’s expectations. Somewhere between anonymous and accountable, Reddit wrestles with itself. While for many the Grandpa Wiggly incident was a heartbreaking betrayal, it provided a moment where the community could re–examine itself (even for a brief moment) and discuss what sort of expectations Redditors have of each other. As an outsider (and academic) looking in, it feels like I have observed the community in a moment of flux. Community norms were breached, expectations of behaviour were discussed, and then life moved on.

 

++++++++++

Where do we go from here?

Based on the events described in this paper, is Grandpa Wiggly a troll? Despite claims from other Redditors of his being so, I have a difficult time painting Grandpa Wiggly/Wordsauce’s behaviour as being “trolling”. While his underlying motivations may never be known, his creator has maintained the consistent explanation that Grandpa Wiggly was intended to be a character or a novelty account, rather than the “real deal”. In his creator’s mind, he had done no wrong. To some members of the larger Reddit community, his creator had crossed the line and taken advantage of those who believed (or wanted to believe) that Grandpa Wiggly was really who he said he was. Grandpa Wiggly does not fit the profile of a troll, yet when his discretions were uncovered, that was what he was immediately labeled as — perhaps for simply lack of a better word.

 

++++++++++

Epilogue

I presented an earlier incarnation of this paper at the eleventh annual conference for the Association of Internet Researchers (21–23 October 2010). Shortly after my presentation, I was contacted by Grandpa Wiggly/Wordsauce. He had heard about my paper through an audience member’s liveblogging of the conference, and was curious to read what I had written. I sent off the paper, and waited for his response.

Wordsauce let me know that Grandpa Wiggly had been around long before Reddit.com, having first started at http://grandpawiggly.livejournal.com/ and also made appearances on MySpace and the Something Awful forums. Everything except the domain www.grandpawiggly.com (including his Twitter account) existed before being propelled to the status of a Reddit celebrity. He was surprised that the character of Grandpa Wiggly had become so popular. He was also pleasantly surprised that my paper seemed to capture the essence of Grandpa Wiggly as a form of interactive fiction or play, rather than having malicious intents.

The original draft of this paper was completed in August 2010. At that time, the Grandpa Wiggly account had been on hiatus from Reddit.com. Since then, he has returned to regularly posting and making comments on Reddit, without accusations of trolling. Perhaps other Redditors have made their peace with last summer’s “drama”, or perhaps there has been enough overturn in the user base that this is no longer part of the Reddit community’s collective memory. While no longer accused of being a troll, Grandpa Wiggly has still taken on an iconic status and is part of the Reddit folklore. Newer Redditors are quickly introduced to “Paw Paw”, a Reddit–based meme that is shorthand referring to something that reminds a Redditor of Grandpa Wiggly. History may not have been re–written (as all of these original posts are still available to be read online), but revisions of last summer’s events have been made to the larger community’s understanding of the events of summer 2010. I feel that my original assessments of this “incident” have since proven correct: Community norms were breached, expectations of behaviour were marginally discussed, and then life moved on. End of article

 

About the author

Kelly Bergstrom is a Ph.D. student at York University in the Faculty of Education. Her research explores sociality and gender in online spaces, frequently focusing on the shared collaborative environments of massively multiplayer online games.
E–mail: Kelly_Bergstrom [at] edu [dot] yorku [dot] ca

 

Acknowledgements

An earlier version of this paper was presented at eleventh annual conference for the Association of Internet Researchers (21–23 October 2010 in Gothenburg, Sweden).

 

Notes

1. Entire thread is available online at http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/c9iq1/i_am_a _failed_entrepreneur_a_little_guy_who_lost/.

2. Entire thread is available online at http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/cjbtb/i_am_married_to_a_crazy_cat_lady_ask_me_anything/.

3. WTF, standing for What The (expletive) used in this case to signal surprise or shock at the events at hand, rather than an expression of anger or throwing caution to the wind.

4. Entire thread is available online at http://www.reddit.com/r/WTF/related/cpcv5/i_just_found_out_my_grampa_is_a_redditor_wtf_i/.

5. A sub–Reddit devoted to life’s WTF moments, such as the shock of discovering one’s 80–year–old grandfather is more popular than yourself on your social media Web site of choice.

6. Of course it is entirely possible that this young man was also making up his story. However, he was not subjected to the same “identity check” as Grandpa Wiggly was.

 

References

Michael Arrington, 2006. “Breaking news: Condé Nast/Wired acquires Reddit,” Techcrunch (31 October), at http://techcrunch.com/2006/10/31/breaking-news-conde-nastwired-acquires-reddit/, accessed 4 August 2010.

Gabriella Coleman, 2010. “Hacker and troller as trickster,,” Interprete (7 February), at http://gabriellacoleman.org/blog/?p=1902, accessed 20 June 2011.

Lincoln Dahlberg, 2001. “Computer–mediated communication and the public sphere: A critical analysis,” Journal of Computer Mediated–Communication, volume 7, number 1, at http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol7/issue1/dahlberg.html, accessed 7 August 2010.

Julian Dibbell, 2010. “Radical opacity,” Technology Review, volume 113, number 5, pp. 82–86, and at http://www.technologyreview.com/web/25997/, accessed 20 June 2011.

Judith S. Donath, 1999. “Identity and deception in the virtual community,” In: Marc A. Smith and Peter Kollock (editors). Communities in cyberspace. London: Routledge, pp. 27–58.

Erving Goffman, 1959. The presentation of self in everyday life. New York: Doubleday.

Bobbie Johnson, 2010. “Privacy no longer a social norm, says Facebook founder,” Guardian.co.uk (11 January), at http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2010/jan/11/facebook-privacy, accessed 20 June, 2011.

Sol Lewitt, 1967. “Paragraphs on conceptual art,” Artforum, volume 5, number 10, pp. 79–83.

Hugh Miller and Jill Arnold, 2001. “Breaking away from grounded identity? Women academics on the Web,” CyberPsychology & Behavior, volume 4, number 1, pp. 95–108.http://dx.doi.org/10.1089/10949310151088451

Don Resinger, 2011. “Reddit surges to 1 billion monthly page views,” CNET News (3 February), at http://news.cnet.com/8301-13506_3-20030489-17.html, accessed 22 March 2011.

Allucquère Rosanne Stone, 1995. The war of desire and technology at the close of the mechanical age. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Sherry Turkle, 1995. Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Monica T. Whitty, 2008. “Revealing the ‘real’ me, searching for the ‘actual’ you: Presentations of self on an Internet dating site,” Computers in Human Behavior, volume 24, number 4, pp. 1,707–1,723.

 


Editorial history

Received 24 March 2011; revised 12 July 2011; accepted 18 July 2011.


Creative Commons License
“‘Don't feed the troll’: Shutting down debate about community expectations on Reddit.com” by Kelly Bergstrom is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial–NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

“Don’t feed the troll”: Shutting down debate about community expectations on Reddit.com
by Kelly Bergstrom.
First Monday, Volume 16, Number 8 - 1 August 2011
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3498/3029





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