Sea lion woman, black dress on
For a thousand dollars, she wail and she moan
Sea lion woman — “See-Line Woman”, traditional
The common name for disrupting or attacking someone under the guise of a legitimate concern or lack of knowledge is “concern trolling”, but I also like the neologism Sealioning. It’s a tactic that is currently enjoying a sort of Golden Age on the Internet because it’s hugely passive-aggressive and because it is generally supposed to be immune to a libel suit. You can’t go on a stock-trading website and post “WMT (or the stock of your choice) is headed for a big fall because they’re engaging in massive Social Security fraud,” because you will be the target of a civil suit before you get home that evenings. Seriously. Don’t do that, no matter how anonymous you are or think you are. People have lost everything they own, and more, doing that. You can, however, probably get away with posting, “I’m just really, really worried about all these rumors about Social Security fraud regarding WMT. What does that mean anyway? I’m just trying to understand these rumors I’ve heard.”
Yesterday, a commenter on something I wrote posted “What is a MILF? I don’t understand.” You’d have to be an utter fool, or suffering from recent head trauma, not to understand that the sole purpose of making that post is to “sealion”; after all, it’s literally three times as difficult as getting the definitive answer yourself. The easiest thing for me to do would have been simply not to respond, but instead I made fun of the troll character who posted. Now we’re in the middle of yet another civility discourse over at TTAC.
My purpose here, however, is not to comment on the rightness or wrongness of the original comment, my response, the responses that followed, or the subsequent site-wide convulsion. I’m no longer the E-I-C over there and I don’t set policy; I don’t even really want to comment on TTAC policy in public. It’s tough enough to run that site without having your predecessors second-guess your decisions. Instead, my purpose is to discuss why I treat some commenters with absolute respect, even when I disagree with them or they are personally offensive to me, and why I treat some commenters like they are utterly beneath contempt and completely deserving of the worst ridicule that can be heaped upon their heads. How do I determine who is “real” and who is not? The answer: fingerprinting.
In the Morse Code era, the phrase “fist” referred to the unique style that every telegraph operator brought to their communications. The phrase “recognized the fist” comes up again and again in various wartime and spy literature; it refers to hearing someone tapping out Morse Code and being able to distinguish the operator by their style. This was far from a trivial detail of the telegraph era; in more than one case lives were saved (or lost) because someone was able to differentiate between who an operator was supposed to be and who they actually were.
Fast-forward a hundred years, and it’s now possible to spy on what someone is typing by leaving a phone on their desk and having it pick up the vibrations from the physical activity of typing. (A laser mike pointed at your window works equally well, unfortunately.) Your typing style is like a fingerprint. It doesn’t even take a high-power microprocessor to determine what you’re doing on a computer. My first wife claimed to be able to tell, from a distance of across our house, whether I was programming, writing for a website, engaging in an Instant Messenger chat, or arguing with someone online on my old IBM Model M mechanical keyboard. Well, I shouldn’t say “claimed”. More like she just plain knew. Her accuracy rate was effectively 100%. Never once did she accuse me of not working when I was working, or vice versa.
Incidentally, this idea of being able to identify patterns in communications behavior is also how most cryptography is undone. There’s a brilliant scene in the novel Cryptonomicon where a highly complex cipher is broken because a cipher clerk doesn’t always close her eyes when she reaches into a bowl full of wooden balls — and although that scene is written right at the edge of the reader’s credulity, it has mathematical basis in fact. The whole difference between “128-bit” and “2048-bit” encryption is how effective the method is in reducing the “fist” or “fingerprint” of a conversation.
I could go on, and I’d really like to, because this sort of thing absolutely turns my crank, but before I make it all the way to Merkle-Hellman backpacking let’s return to the topic at hand. How do I “know” the difference between legitimate commenters with an axe to grind and people who are simply trolling for the proverbial lulz? It’s simple. I just read all of their comments. Every single one of them. And then I ask myself: “What is the ‘fist’ here?”
Let’s compare two commenters. We will call them “Commenter A” and “Commenter B”. We will look at the last 100 comments they’ve made on “Website T”. This information is all publicly available via Google Search.
Commenter A breakdown. Totals may not add because some posts have multiple topics:
- Seven comments on automotive topics
- Two of which are about specific cars
- Thirty-six comments where Donald Trump is the primary topic
- Fifty-four comments about homophobia, sexism, transphobia, or racism, usually identifying an instance of said behavior in another commenter or contributor.
- Two comments that are a demand for a personal apology from a contributor for behavior that upset them.
Commenter B breakdown, same caveats apply:
- Seventy-three comments on automotive topics
- Forty-one of which reference Chrysler SRT products in general or the HELLCAT in particular
- Nineteen political comments, about half of which refer to Donald Trump
- Eleven posts about their financial success on YouTube
- Five posts criticizing site management
Now, which commenter is legitimate, if annoying to some, and which one is the troll? Obviously, it is context-dependent. If “Website T” is a transgender activism forum, then “Commenter A” is on-message, straying towards the irrelvant topic of automobiles in just one of every nineteen posts. “Commenter B”, on the other hand, can’t seem to shut up about HELLCATS, which is absolutely inappropriate for a transgender discussion group.
I think most people would have no trouble banning “Commenter B” because he is shitposting, to use the current vernacular. He’s destroying a legitimate discussion about transgender rights by filling it full of shit about HELLCATS. Way back in the day, my brother and I were on a local music discussion forum where all sorts of trolling and drama took place. One day, five new commenters appeared. They were all pretending to be famous WWF wrestlers, like “Classy Fred Blassie” and that one guy from the Slim Jim ads. Ninety-five percent of their posts were about wrestling, but every once in a while somebody would forget to log out of their account before responding to a legitimate discussion (on a board that did not permit editing after the fact) and you’d get something like:
SpringsteenFan: I need a new solid-state performance amp that I can drag to small gigs like the one we having coming up at Oldfield’s. Anybody have any experience with the Fender Super Sonic?
Hulk Hogan: I’M GONNA PILE-DRIVE THAT AMP UP YOUR ASS UNTIL IT GOES SUPER SONIC!
Ric Flair: GONNA THROW THAT AMP INTO THE RAFTERS! HOW YOU LIKE THAT, PUSSY BOY?
Classy Fred Blassie: I think that Sam Ash on Morse has two of those in stock, I was in there recently and they were on sale for $499. You might want to see if it’s enough amp for your venue, though — that place is notorious for sucking up high frequencies in the curtains on both sides of the stage.
Five minutes later:
Classy Fred Blassie: I MEAN, I’M THE GREATEST AND I EXPECT EVERYBODY TO LICK MY MUSCLES! WOO-HAH!
You get the idea. That stuff would have been interesting and/or funny on a message board that was wrestling-related but on a music message board it was literally background noise. After a couple of months, people pretended that the “wrestlers” didn’t exist and shortly after that they disappeared.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that “Website T” is neither a transgender activism board nor a pro-wrestling board nor a music-discussion board, but rather an automotive-topics website? What is the “fingerprint” of a poster who can only bring himself to mention cars one out of every nineteen posts? What purpose does that person have to be there?
There are really only three potential answers to that question:
Answer A: This person really likes reading about cars but they are also hugely sensitive to gender issues. So much so that eighteen out of every nineteen comments they make is on gender issues.
Answer B: This person is someone who thrives on conflict and the vicarious thrill that some folks get from being offended. He reads the site hoping that he will have a chance to be offended and to lash out.
Answer C: This person is just starting arguments for fun, or because they have a problem with the site, or because some men just want to watch the world burn.
What’s the real answer? I’ll give you a little hint: it ain’t Answer A, and I’ll tell you why. Despite the earnest sealion protests of various “character” commenters on TTAC and elsewhere, very few people will continue good-faith participation on a board where they don’t like the content or one where they are frequently offended. To use Mark Stevenson’s “dinner party” analogy — would you go back every night to a dinner party where the vast majority of the guests didn’t like you and didn’t want to converse on topics that interested you? Of course you wouldn’t — unless you were spoiling for a fight.
When I ran TTAC, we had plenty of trolls and fake posters and “character” posters on the site. I let them be. After all, a click from some mook pretending to be an oppressed transgender woman pays just as much as a click from a legitimate reader. I believed wholeheartedly in milking those people for cash. Oddly enough, we didn’t have nearly as much grievance trolling back then, but make no mistake: I welcomed every customer of the website (and its advertising) with open arms.
If “April” tried to post on this website, I’d treat “her” with every ounce of contempt at my disposal. I don’t make money here. The purpose of this site is to foster discussion between legitimate, authentic commenters and our contributors. That’s why BigTrucks, Alex Dykes, and Cameron Aubernon are all here and April is not, instead of the other way ’round.
Not every commenter here at Riverside Green agrees with me or even likes me. Here’s an example: “JimZ”. Over the past year or so, Jim has decided that he really dislikes me. To the point where he suggested on TTAC that I should “suck off a shotgun”. But he’s welcome to post and comment here, because I believe that he is operating from a heartfelt and authentic place. He’s a real person, with a real name, and genuine opinions. He’s not here to troll. He doesn’t have to agree with me, or even be all that courteous to me, in order to have a place here. I’ll always treat him with respect and as much courtesy as I can muster.
But a fake account from someone who pretends to be an oppressed transgender woman? Not only is that contemptible on the face of things, it is also genuinely offensive to real transgender people who are trying to make their way in the world. When I hired Cameron Aubernon as the industry’s first (and, four years later, only) transgender contributor, I did so based on the quality of Cameron’s work, not some politically-correct attempt to kiss the feet of people with an imaginary grievance. And when I saw what Cameron has gone through to live life as a woman, it touched my heart and my honest sympathies. I’m proud to support the rights of real people who are facing real problems in the real world. But a 95% troll account? A basement-dwelling jerkoff who thinks he’s being funny? A sealion? No way. Concern trolling isn’t welcome here. Particularly not when it makes light of genuine struggles by using those struggles as a way to “score points” on a website. I believe in a “big tent” approach at Riverside Green. But there’s no room under the tent for sea lions.