I was more or less ruined by people I did not know. I was working in FM radio and I had my generous share of attention from the antecedents of the sorts of people we now call “trolls”.

I still get it a bit: critiques on the conservatism of the campaign for same-sex marriage scored me some recent death threats. Oddly, all from people who felt the need to point out they were straight. But these moments of excitement are now rare compared to when I was a young broadcaster.

Back then, I was someone whose unprofessionalism was mistaken for friendliness, and I received a constant rate of, um, appreciation. On radio on the 1990s, I swore and complained and talked about my periods so that my audience, in an era that was rapidly demanding an appearance of reality, decided I was “sympathetic”. Or, sometimes, deserving of death.

Love and hate, man. They’re two sides of the same coin used to purchase items from the culture industry, of which I was, and in diminished form remain, a part.

Back when I was modestly prominent, there were many strangers who wanted to go out with me and a fair few who threatened me. And some wanted to do both. My first experience of obsessive stalking was an out-and-out threat. A week into my job, a woman called Jane said she would kill me — by means of strangulation, if I recall — unless I played a song by the band Uriah Heep. This continued for months. She tracked down my parents and left a note at their door and threatened to kill them, too.

This was all terrifying, and of course, I went to the police. One of the officers asked me, just out of curiosity, why I hadn’t played Uriah Heep. I said without thinking that while I was frightened of dying after seeing my parents slain, I was just as frightened of people thinking I had poor taste in music.

This probably says something about my lack of depth. But I think it also conveys something of the experience of what people now call “trolling”. We don’t believe that it’s real simply because much of the time it isn’t.

It is sensible, and crucial, to take a threat seriously just in case it is a serious threat. I did when a guy sent me a jar of his urine. I did when I was threatened, often, with rape. I definitely did when my most loyal stalker scaled the wall of the psych unit and came to find me at work.

You take this stuff seriously. But one knows, by virtue of the fact that the threat has been made in anonymity or in the pseudonymity of telecommunications, that it is probably not as real as it could be. We know that even in the case they do come to your door — and mercifully, they do this very rarely — that this is an exchange that is not taking place between you and someone that hates you. This is an exchange between loathing and its arbitrary object.

Trolling, like stalking, is an effect of the culture industry, and even when you get hurt, and I certainly did, you are not a victim of a hatred that is either systematic or individual. You and your assailant are both casualties of your fucked-up era.

Trolling is very often the product of banality, often of the alienated self just absolutely bored into virtual violence. It has taken me a while, but I finally understand that these attacks, which I initially explained away as a reaction to my sass, had nothing to do with me. And very little to do with my tormentors, come to that.

The thing we now call trolling is quite a bit like celebrity stalking, albeit often a little less midday-melodrama than my own formative experiences, which led me to seek a restraining order, a psychiatrist and ways to never leave the house for a decade.

I am not saying that trolling doesn’t hurt. Its early version hurt me, I think, irreparably. I am certainly not advocating for a lack of concern for its victims. I am, however, urging for it to be seen in a context sufficiently broad that we can begin to know how it happens and what it “means” — before we race ahead to “ban” a practice that cannot be meaningfully banned, just chided, really. And used as a handy focus for organisations like beyondblue to make a powerful statement about a not-terribly widespread form of electronic abuse that has not been found to have any particular outcomes.

“I was personally acquainted with the lovely, lovely woman who died this past weekend …”

There is no evidence that trolling is directly linked to a significant proportion of suicides and mental illness diagnoses. This, to be clear, is not the same thing as saying that trolling cannot be linked to any suicides or mental illness diagnoses. But people can be pretty knee-jerk when trolls show themselves to the light.

This is not a proposal that threats are OK or should be dismissed or are even particularly forgivable. Or that they cannot have a significant effect on their object — as I have said, the matter certainly left its mark on me. I am very, very sympathetic to others who experience this kind of terror; I still get and take calls from others working through the fear. But I propose that these threats are not evidence of systematised oppression but a symptom of something else entirely. They’re evidence of powerlessness.

They’re also evidence of the mimicry and hyperbole that has become so typical in our everyday exchanges. But let’s just stay with powerlessness for now. It will take me slightly more than a minute to explain it to you, as it has taken me more than a decade to understand.

Seeing a troll as powerless might be difficult to cop, particularly if you have been subject to their strange brutality. Certainly, one feels powerless as its target. And certainly, trolls will often use the language of crude power. Sexist and racist slurs are common on more public sites like Twitter. But such language is not requisite to trolling and, in fact, is much more common when it is aimed at trolling’s more distinguished and documented victims. To wit: people like myself, whose stock in trade is liberalism.

In other words, of course a troll is likely to use homophobia, racism or sexism against a person who has openly declared their opposition, as I have many times, to these things. But the troll’s object is not to reproduce these particular evils; that transgression is just a bonus to the troll at work kicking the culture in the nads. Trolls are just as active on IMDB forums or in gaming networks as they are on Twitter; journalists just report the hell out of Twitter because they know and participate in Twitter.

It’s important to remember that no single social or political or online group cops more trolling than any other (however, I have found there is a relative dearth of trolling on gardening forums).

Being what is kindly called a “digital migrant” — i.e. an ageing media worker compelled by the market to build an “accessible” online presence — I am, perhaps, less surprised than most by the kinds of threats to which one is subject in this new era of — let’s be honest — false approachability. If you think journalists and other media providers are interacting on Twitter or Facebook because they just love to hang out with everyday people, you’re mostly wrong. They are there chiefly because they have to be.

Anyhow, strangers have been threatening me with rape and death since 1990, and I’m kind of used to it. And while I do not, by any means, “ask for it”, a culture industry that pretends to give a shit what people think certainly does.“What do you think?”, “Give us your view!”, “Vote in our poll!” These practices were emerging when I began in terrestrial media, and they were accelerated by an apparently democratic technology to the point where even our most rational authorities, such as the Prime Minister, had to be seen to be participating.

Early critiques of mass culture from clever Germans note this deception of democracy media demands and creates. “While it claims to lead the perplexed, it deludes them with false conflicts,” wrote Theodor W. Adorno of an industry that seemed to be for and of the folks but — and his is a really complex account I won’t try to hopelessly recount but will leave to you to follow up — necessarily reproduces the order it appears to defy.

The emerging social media is, as I see it, just a more complex version of the same delusion. Just as apparently folksy people on our mid-century screens had us believing that here, finally, was a chance for truly democratic enlightenment, we now see the social media that we create as, well, something that we create. And while it’s true that we do actually type the keystrokes and hit “post”, it is not true that we are ungoverned by anything but our own, fully enlightened minds.

I tweet because it’s a professional obligation for a freelance writer. Many other people tweet because they want to become freelance writers. Others do it because they want to connect and be informed of a “truth”, and politicians do it because advisers tell them there are journalists who will report on their tweets and people looking for “truth” and connection and on and on and as far as I can see it, there is no one who publishes anything there who is not, somehow, in the service of an idea that exceeds those of which they are in conscious control.

I’m not making this shit up. I know it sounds absolutely loony to say that we are not in full control of our published thoughts. But there is that thing they say about the medium being the message. And the message is: don’t disturb the delusion of freedom.

So. We have entered a time of complex delusion where everyone is a consumer and a producer of “content” and everyone feels terribly free. And if you are free, then the “trolls” are just people who want to steal your liberty, right?

Well. No

The trolls are not powerful. In the millisecond you publish, you have the power, just as I did as a young broadcaster. Of course, you only have it for an instant, and it behaves far less predictably than that “sass” that once emanated from a transmission tower. But ultimately, your trolls and my trolls are the same. They are reacting, in all their unconscious powerlessness, to the constant assault of information, that flicker of which you happened to create in that instant that touched their unconscious disgust for a world that will not shut the fuck up.

At the turn of the century, I, then pretty much incarcerated at home from the fear a stalker had produced, began blogging. Web 1.0 offered me my first sniff of death within a week. I googled — or possibly “hot-botted” — myself and found that another blogger had greeted my arrival online by adding me to her “death wish list”.

I emailed her and pretended I’d just “stumbled” on this “troubling threat”; having been in psychiatric care for a couple of years after a young man had ruined my career and my relationship through relentless pursuit, I had become both overly sensitive and stupid. She, a true “netizen”, as we called them back then, was fluent in the language of diminishing hyperbole where “die” and “hatred” meant “hush” and “indifference”. She was also perfectly able to read her analytics and knew that I had searched for my name through several pages of results like a total noob.

“Saying ‘mental illness’ or ‘modern times’ or ‘haters’ are to blame for troll-type attacks are not good accounts.”

Of course, she published my correspondence and evidence of my ego-surf and reminded me that she wanted me to “die”. Long story short, she’s a really nice lady I’ve met in real life. She sells naturally coloured yarn on Etsy and likes Shoegaze and feminism. I think she is a vegan.

Eventually, I had to get this stuff if I was to eke out a living as a producer of substantial content. I had to get that hyperbole and mimicry of hyperbole was the lingua franca if I was to remain both more or less sane in the face of it and speak it for profit.

Some days, of course I am shocked to be told to “die in a fire” or “get raped’. And then I remember I am working and living in a world where all language is super-sized and everybody is “outraged” or making fun of outrage by telling the outraged to “die in a fire” all of the time.

I am not, by any means, “over” my early experience of trolling. I have been unsuccessful in all attempts to hold down a full-time job since the last really persistent stalker. But thanks to both this protracted period of underemployment, which gave me lots of thinking time, and the rather unusual perspective of one familiar with both the proto-troll and its current iteration, I believe I have said some half-new things on the matter of trolling, its origins and effects.

It is, perhaps, also right to disclose that I am moved to write this account of trolling by emotions even more tender than those evoked by my memory of its harm. I was personally acquainted with the lovely, lovely woman who died this past weekend and whose life is now the site for speculation on the connection between trolling and mental illness.

I do not claim to know why Charlotte Dawson (pictured) died; we were warm acquaintances and not, as has been erroneously reported, “close friends”. I just know that Dawson’s death is immensely sad and I suspect, as any even-minded person would, that it was the product of forces so potent and complex they were able to claim this potent and complex lady.

I’ve already lost my shit elsewhere about the dangerous inanity of reducing a beautiful life to dreary morality tale. So I won’t urge again for people to mourn the dead with respect. Their outrage is more important than that and, of course, they have to prepare to be told to “die in a fire” soon. And every one of these new media producers and consumers is far too busy to be reminded that even if they do not care about conventions for grief, they might care to acquaint themselves with guidelines for reporting on suicide with restraint.

Look. This stuff is hard. I would like a word with the dirty little troll shits who “raided” Charlotte, but it would achieve nothing. It would not bring her back. It would not change that communication in all realms is hyperbolic mimicry or that consumers, and producers, of media are so under siege that they are barely conscious of it.

Some people are not very nice or stable. Some people have been not very nice or stable since before the internet. It is difficult to pinpoint why, which is not to say there are not some good accounts of alienated violence. But, come on. Most of them are shit. Saying “mental illness” or “modern times” or “haters” are to blame for troll-type attacks are not good accounts. You might as well be saying “demonic possession” for all the light these throw on such a dark matter.

There is no longer a rational central authority. All that remains is a lot of people telling each other they are “outraged” and becoming more outraged when someone tells them to “die in a fire”. And slightly to one side of this hellish din is what remains of humanity.

We lost a bit more of that last Saturday. That glorious bitch Charlotte had a big, chaotic heart. And I wish I could tell you just why it stopped beating so we never lose another one that size too soon again. But I don’t know, and you don’t know, and in this moment of mutual uncertainty, let’s not tell the other of our outrage and let’s not “die in a fire”.

Let’s instead take a step to the side. That place where what remains of us abides.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.