Trolling Is Internet Litter

reading time 6 min

I live in a nice quiet neighborhood. I’m proud of my neighborhood. When I walk down the street, if I see a scrap of litter, I bend down and pick it up.

Litter is trash left lying in an open or public place. When we see litter, we pick it up. For that we make the world a better place.

A person that gets rid of litter should be praised.

You know what we don’t do?

  • We don’t question whether or not someone put that candy wrapper there on purpose.
  • We don’t tell the person “hey, that soda can had a right to be there!”
  • We don’t scold the person for over-using the trash bin.
  • We don’t complain that some anonymous “other person” may have liked the way the litter looked, and now you’ve ruined it.

As a society we have, collectively, decided that litter is bad and that it should be cleaned up. Anyone that disagrees is considered a crank.

It didn’t use to be that way! In the 1950s/1960s it was considered “fun” to throw trash out your car window while blazing down the highway. Part of the McDonalds experience was to eat it in the car as your parents drove down the highway then roll up the window window and toss the paper tray, wrappers, and boxes out and watch them fly. Everyone did it. Even Neil deGrasse Tyson and (past) US EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy reminised about doing it!

However as the trash accumulated, it looked ugly. It wasn’t sustainable. It was a disgrace.

Soon people with strong civic pride worked to change American’s attitudes about litter.

First Lady Lady Bird Johnson initiated the Highway Beautification Act. Campaigns like “Keep America Beautiful” were popularized. Television ran Public Service Announcements like the famous “Crying Indian” campaign (1971) with Iron Eyes Cody that not only told us to not litter, but shamed anyone that disagreed.

Why do I say this?

Well, there’s a place I hang out and it is full of litter that needs to be cleaned up. That place is called Social Media.

Social Media is full of awesome posts where people write about things they are passionate about. Sadly, some people post replies who’s entire purpose is to derail the conversation.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is litter.

Like litter, we must clean it up.

I have a new policy on my Facebook page. If someone posts a comment that is litter, I delete it. I don’t even give it a second thought. Just as I pick up litter while walking down the street.

Shocked? Let me tell you how effective it has been. In the six months that I’ve been doing it only once did the person notice. The thing about litter is people do it so carelessly that they never return to make sure that candy wrapper is still on my curb.

And, yet, the discussions on my FB page have been much more productive, friendly, healthy and… did I mention productive?

Is that censorship? No, it is cleaning up a mess. Censorship is when the government makes it illegal to say something. I am not the government. I am not advocating for laws to shut the person up. I am simply cleaning up my Facebook. Pruning the bad stems.

Am I silencing someone? Absolutely not. If they want to live on a street full of trash, that is perfectly fine. They can post those comments to their own FB wall and have the discussion there. I won’t get in their way. Heck, FB won’t let me delete those posts, therefore I can’t posssibly be silencing them. It turns out, Facebook has an nearly infinite amount of disk space. Post all you want on your own wall. Don’t litter mine.

Let’s return to that phrase “productive”.

How does social change happen?

  • Stage 1: there is a problem
  • Stage 2: people notice the problem
  • Stage 3: a large number of people agree this is a problem and that something can and should be done
  • Stage 4: these people discuss solutions
  • Stage 5: these people get consensus on which solutions to try
  • Stage 6: the solutions are attempted
  • Stage 7: if the solutions work, the problem is reduced or eliminated

Each of those steps can take years. Many years!

It may take years to agree that police bruality against citizens is a problem. Some are unaffected and don’t see it as a problem. Others see it as a problem but there are more important problems to deal with. It can take decades just to get agreement that this is a problem, nail down what the problem is, and get consensus that this is a problem worth working on. Then it can take years to agree on the solution. Then years to execute the solution.

So, if you love police brutality and don’t want it to stop there’s really an easy way to win this battle: Keep derailing the discuss while it is at the “is this a problem?” stage and don’t let it get to the “let’s fix this problem!” stage. This is called “derailing” and it is a technique that the radical right not only encourages, it provides training and assistance.

Here’s a more specific example:

I wrote a post about the new attempt to make abortions illegal. I explain the issue and I’d like to rally my friends to write their congressperson to stop stop stop this bad bad bad bill. However, a single person comes along and starts debating whether or not abortion should be legal. This derails the entire conversation.

You see… my friends are at Stage 5 but the litterbug is trying to get us back to Stage 2 or 3. They are doing this on purpose. Either they are part of a concerted detrial trolling program (dirty tricks) or they are innocently trying to discuss the issue and I don’t fucking care because they’re at Stage 1 and I’m at Stage 4.

Sadly I can’t create a FB “group” for every single post so that us “Stage 4 people” can make progress.

To be honest, I’ve been a social activist for 30 years and my focus is working at the Stage 5-6 level. There are other organizations and forums that are more approriate for people at earlier stages. I’m not saying that to be arrogant or egotistical. I’m just very focused. Plus, I’m not good at working at those other levels. This is where my heart is.

Therefore, if you think a woman’s right to choose is immoral, or that LGBT+ rights are invalid, or think military spending is more important than education, or that black people should be discouraged from voting, or that the government should be allowed to beat or kill people, or that the prison system works just fine as it is, or think the government should be in my bedroom but not my business, or think that your programming language/text editor/operating system/ protocol is somehow worth debating, or or you think “DevOps is just a name for what people were already doing”, or whatever the fuck… just calm your self down and post that awesome opinion of yours in your own Facebook wall or start your own blog.

That’s where litter belongs.

Tom Limoncelli

Tom Limoncelli

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