Can learning be trolling?

I used to think that there was a clear-cut boundary for what constituted the internet troll. But as I started to join forums out of a need for technical help, and as I used this knowledge to build and then moderate forums myself, I found it much more complicated. I am still trying to work this problem out, and wonder if it is a problem of open vs. closed languaging systems 1.

Also, the increasingly digital nature of life in 2020 means that digital literacy is, more than ever, required even by those studying other systems who seek to gain better awareness of how digital symbols are encoding or attempting to encode the experience of the lived. This means it is possible that those inexperienced in digital systems may be coming to forums. Are the forums ready or should new spaces emerge to cultivate the open ‘languaging’ characteristic of productive, inter-systemic thinking? I’d like to experiment as I explore this here by including my vantage point as troll moderator, potential troll as forum member, and the voices of others to explore the boundaries of trolling where there is an overlap with context literacy, which is learned.

First, how can the definition of trollery allow for grey areas?

In Internet slang, a troll is a person who starts flame wars or intentionally upsets people on the Internet by posting inflammatory and digressive, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the intent of provoking readers into displaying emotional responses and normalizing tangential discussion, either for the troll’s amusement or a specific gain. – Wikipedia, Internet troll (references removed; emphasis added)

I appreciate what I see as the intent behind this definition: an attempt to weed out the kind of “specific” gain characteristic of the selfishness of the social dilemma, where narrow self-interest is privileged over the interests of the community at large.

But this definition is problematic where education is concerned. While not selfish, learning is and in fact must be (cf. Dewey, Freire, Postman, Rogers, etc.) self-interested. Learners engage in an attempt to make the learning theirs.

Therefore, the definition of trolling within the context of learning becomes problematic, especially if to this is added the process involved in learning, where it is assumed that whatever present state a person is in can transform through constructive interaction.

To be clear, I am not talking about instances where people come to a forum and have done absolutely no background research of their own or are pathological. However, even in such cases, it is often only time that tells whether either is actually the case, or just seems to be. One of the more salient features of what has been learned in the recent decades of networked learning is precisely the significance of understanding the role of time – which is needed to build relationships 2.

How can relationships be built in spaces where people are stopping by? What value can visitors bring as they come to take – and may not even know what they are looking for? There may need to be accommodations for a person has made an effort but was not able to reach an understanding, and comes to a forum confused. Here, I talk from my vantage point as a learner. I do not yet know the established mode of speaking on forums. I also, through déformation professionnelle, am likely to ask too many questions or “tangentially” ruminate on the meaning of knowledge and how it is made. This happens when I am in research mode, not ‘teacher’ mode: when I ask questions, I am also trying to analyze whether I am asking effective ones, characteristic of conscious incompetence. This stage of learning can unintentionally be frustrating for all involved:

I think when in tech communities newcomers (newbies) get the brush off, it can be discouraging. Sometimes it’s not a Why? question but a How? question. It can be frustrating for the author of a very good manual to be asked for answers the author spent years writing up, when the questioner won’t even glance at the manual. But even in that circumstance I’ve known some pretty remarkable people [who are helpful and answer questions anyway]. – Geoffrey Knauth, President, Free Software Foundation

On the receiving end, I have had ‘users’ of the platforms I put in place not only not read the summary information on the homepage but then post angry rants – and in the wrong place. I have seen this threaten to demoralize the ‘leap of faith’ 3 that is necessary whenever we embark on a shared venture; when we lack faith in each other, the point of it all, ourselves.

Fear can be involved in the face of new stages of literacy, especially among non-children learners. This fear can be forgotten by those who have lost sight of how chaotic things seemed in early days. It can be so uncomfortable, especially if learning is not viewed as a source of fun – but that requires relaxing into its essence and the privilege of a safe space. Such spaces are hard to design for; even as such design is my goal, I still encounter students whose approach defies anticipation.

The beginner may even act out. How meaningful it is to have a steady hand – and even better when that hand guides. This is called scaffolding in pedagogy 4.

Not needing scaffolding is a privilege. It does not seem like a privilege because it takes a lot of work to reach unconscious competence. But the reason it becomes relevant is that not everyone has the privilege to reach this privilege. Who is looking to help this category of person? Paolo Freire and Henry Giroux have written about it; one of Freire’s observations is how “predetermined and preestablished discourse” is a form of power that ultimately works to reject participation by people with different literacies:

Literacy programs generally give people access to a predetermined and preestablished discourse while silencing their own voices, which should be amplified in the reinvention of the new society I am dreaming of. The reinvention of power that passes through the reinvention of production would entail the reinvention of culture within which environments would be created to incorporate, in a participatory way, all of those discourses that are presently suffocated by the dominant discourse. The legitimation of these different discourses would authenticate the plurality of voices in the reconstruction of a truly democratic society. – Paolo, F. and Macedo, D. Literacy: reading the word and the world (2005: 37).

More recently, Maha Bali has considered how no-size-fits-all in networked learning. Front-end developer Ana Rodrigues writes about this problem beautifully, concluding: “If we raise our hands and say ‘look, there has to be a compromise as we can’t make things easy for everyone’ then, in that case, the web isn’t for everyone.”

Compare that spirit to this (ironic?) definition of trolling: “And since trolling is in each case a matter of choice, no one is ever a troll involuntarily or by accident, but only an idiot who has posted in the wrong thread.” And: “But [trolling] is not really an art, being without any function; and it belongs not to the serious person to be a troll but to the one who lacks education.” 5 I cite this article in particular because it brings the question of trolling into the context of education. Furthermore, such definitions of trolling have their political implications – as seen in the Freire quote above, but which Dewey, before him, brought critical attention to. The quotation below is one I try to live up to in my classes (I didn’t write in my ‘teaching’ because I also learn in my classes).

the importance of freed intelligence … is necessary to direct and to warrant freedom of action. Unless freedom of individual action has intelligence and informed conviction back of it, its manifestation is almost sure to result in confusion and disorder. The democratic idea of freedom is not the right of each individual to do as he pleases, even if it be qualified by adding “provided he does not interfere with the same freedom on the part of others.” While the idea is not always, not often enough, expressed in words, the basic freedom is that of freedom of mind and of whatever degree of freedom of action and experience is necessary to produce freedom of intelligence. The modes of freedom guaranteed in the Bill of Rights are all of this nature: Freedom of belief and conscience, of expression of opinion, of assembly for discussion and conference, of the press as an organ of communication. They are guaranteed because without them individuals are not free to develop and society is deprived of what they might contribute. – Dewey, J. The philosophy of education (1956, 61).

If we concede that each person has a unique contribution to make to society, then our concern is to try to design environments to facilitate the discovery and actionability of these talents. But we remain cognizant that this design needs to be sustainable, so as not to bombard benevolent programmers, for example. We also know that ‘time’ will need to be factored in to the environment: again, learning can take time, and the chrysalis of transformation is not necessarily shed during the course of a given interaction.

The problem of trolling in the context of learning is particularly complex. As suggested in passing above, it can further necessitate a need for case-by-case treatment. As an occasionally chaotic and unpredictable learner myself, I am particularly wary of the one-size-fits-all approach. At least one forum is known for taking a more personalized approach (cf.) 6. But it may be that it helps if forums are supported by paid labor – and in this respect can be compared to teacher-led forums: it is our job (if we understand jobs as vocations).

The EFF has suggested that companies – which are again different from free software work, which often relies on volunteers – abide by the Santa Clara Principles on Transparency and Accountability in Content Moderation. These principles seek “more in-depth dialogue” and, while specifically addressing cases where content is removed or accounts suspended, suggest “a meaningful opportunity for timely appeal”. This is to say that even in the most extreme case, they suggest dialogic engagement. This raises the question of whether it is desirable or even possible to cultivate forum cultures with a strong learning ethos.

The problem of trolling in a creative, constructivist environment can therefore be seen as a relational one – and by extension, ecological. As Neil Postman wrote, “Ecology has to do with the relation of all the elements of an environment and how these relations lead to balance and survival”. In this context, we can ask with Postman: In what ways does the structure or process of the medium environment manipulate our senses and attitude? How do we cultivate a sustainable ecosystem for all involved? (No single forum, no matter how good, can do everything.) What should members of this ecosystem be able to do when they leave? 7 How do we cultivate an ecosystem that inspires creative coordination and is decentralized enough to not overtax savants?

Within the tech community, people ask each other Why all the time. Just as in any learning environment … it’s important to keep asking why until there is an answer or the understanding that there may not be an answer. Parents are exasperated at their young children’s never-ending Why? questions, but usually understand it is a beautiful thing, the quest to seek the answer to Why? It’s fundamental to civilization.- Geoffrey Knauth, President, Free Software Foundation

1.Postman, N. (1969) Learning as a subversive activity New York: Delacorte. Postman defines closed systems as “those in which the knowables are fixed”; systems in which most answers are yes/no; right/wrong and considers most mathematical problems, some legal and moral systems to be examples. Open systems allow for the possibility of more than two answers assumed to be in opposition. “Open systems may be thought of as situations in which then an degrees of ‘rightness’, and in which a right answer today may well be a wrong answer tomorrow.”
2.Hodgson, V., & McConnell, D. (2019). Networked learning and postdigital education. Postdigital Science and Education, 1(1), 43–64.
3.The subject of a book chapter in this publication.
4.Wood, D., Bruner, J. S., and Ross, G. 1976. The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychiatry and Psychology, 17: 89-100.
5.Barney, R. (2016). Aristotle on trolling, Journal of the American Philosophical Association, 193–195, doi:10.1017/apa.2016.9. Note: this paper seems highly ironic to me, and I wonder if the point was to troll Aristotle, who more than anyone belaboured the point of how hard it is to know what is good or appropriate in a given situation. Cf. the interrelation of phronesis, arete, eudamonia, sophia, episteme, ethos, eunoia… (Nic. Eth.)
6.I have immense respect for Daniel Gackle.
^ 7.There is much to be said for the question and language-centered approach to learning in Postman (1969) in reference [1] above – as well as insights from a book it cites heavily, Rogers, C. (1961) On becoming a person. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

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