What the Trolls Teach Us

Tedra Osell’s “What the Trolls Teach Us” first appeared in our Fall/Winter 2007 issue (#69). In the essay, Osell compares the current emphasis on blog interactions with the “enabling fiction” of the Habermasian public sphere. 

“The enabling fiction of the public sphere is an illusion, but one with real ideological power. As such, we tend to credit revolutionary changes in mass communication with bringing it about, or at least bringing it closer. In the eighteenth century, it was newspapers and magazines; in the nineteenth, telephones and recording devices; in the twentieth, broadcasting. Now, of course, we’re excited about the internet.

The newest thing about internet writing, though, isn’t the authors or the audience. Yes, online publication is almost free; while owning a computer is helpful, it isn’t necessary if one has access to a public library. And yes, reading what’s published online is likewise almost free, and these facts mean that, compared to past communication revolutions, the barriers to access seem, and
probably are, lower than they’ve been in the past, when one needed a relationship with a printer or a phone company and the money to afford a newspaper or a phone. But both authors and audiences have existed for a long time.

Commenters, though, are new. Or at least, it’s new that we have the ability not only to comment, as audience member/critic, but also that our responses to and criticism of what we read instantly become a part of the text itself. In eighteenth-century coffeehouses, one could argue about what one read, but those arguments were only heard by an immediate, physically present audience. One could write a letter to the editor—and these letters were, in fact, often integrated into next week’s or next month’s paper—but that took time, and of course whether or not a letter was published depended on space and editorial whim.

Now, everyone’s a critic. That’s democracy for you. Online, you needn’t wait months to hear back about a submission, go through revisions, and then wait months again until whatever you have to say in response to that article that appeared last year finally shows up in print. Academic discourse is a dialogue, of sorts, but it’s a very slow one, and the barriers to entry are high. The seventeen or seventy people who read a given academic article won’t respond to it directly
and in print; if it generates any kind of public discussion at all, the average scholarly essay will be part of a very small discursive circle.

Blogs are different. Even a small blog will garner a few comments much of the time, and only small blogs resemble the limited discussions of subspecialists—there are occasional forays or links into other fields, and the larger discipline will occasionally notice something the smaller group is saying, but for the most part, they are speaking to and for one another. A medium-sized blog, on the other hand, will have several hundred or a few thousand readers and perhaps a core group of fifteen to thirty regular commenters.

A large blog can have hundreds of written responses to each post. Comments tend to happen rapidly. A particularly contentious or well-read piece can lead to commenters talking past one another and over one another, while the software imposes linearity and makes each overlapping voice clearly distinguishable—although of course by the time one catches up on a long comment thread, new
comments will have been posted.”

If you would like to read the rest of “What the Trolls Teach Us,” the full text of the article is available online in our Fall/Winter 2007 issue.  You do not need an institutional subscription to access the article. Tedra Osell has written for a number of publications, including Inside Higher Ed, Scholar and Feminist Online, and Eighteenth Century Studies. She currently works as a freelance editor for academics. You can find information about her current projects at tedraosell.com

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