Current discussions surrounding cyber bullying or the creation of communities via the World Wide Web are similar to those that occurred around its inception and subsequent exposure to the public. Anonymity, the argument goes, allows for anyone to behave however they wish in a space that is largely unmoderated, and to do so (in most cases) without penalty or physical retribution. In a similar way, such a sphere allows users from disparate physical realities to form and produce new subjectivities through their relationships with other members of that community. Though the prevalence of these unique relations has grown alongside increasing possibilities of communication, these two notions have found a home within a relatively novel conversation regarding the act of online trolling.
The actual process of trolling is not a new form of interaction. (After all, couldn’t Socrates be considered the great forefather of future trolls?) However, the progression reaches a new paradigm in the age of digital interaction. The Oxford English Dictionary’s addition for the verb troll defines it as an act when one “post[s] a deliberately erroneous or antagonistic message on a newsgroup or similar forum with the intention of eliciting a hostile or corrective response.” This connotes an exclusively combative and negative element of the practice and aligns it more with cyber bullying—one poster is intentionally trying to upset another for the sole purpose of ridiculing the original poster through his or her own response to the troll. Yet, trolling too has changed since this OED post in 2006, and has been appropriated for acts that are inherently meant for play, not necessarily bullying. Or, even if a message is antagonistic in nature, the act is already a moment of play that revolves around the ability to manipulate the language in question. This connection between each participant allows for the easy recognition of a troll, and often the forging of a new relationship built exactly on this very act of trolling. In this way, some examples of trolling today eschew their initial definitions and assume a position of community-building by replacing the “troll” moniker through a process and involvement with the Twitch community that we hope to outline in what follows.
Twitch is an online streaming service that is mostly used to allow users to view video game players who choose to have their games broadcasted (the service has begun to broadcast material other than video games, such as the recent Ultra Music Festival). Though there are similar services to Twitch, it boasts the highest viewership in North America for massively spectated games like League of Legends, Defense of the Ancients 2, or Starcraft 2. These games are spectated by millions of concurrent viewers around the globe and can rival the viewing hours of professional sports games, like the Stanley Cup Finals. Though there are also streamers with only a handful of viewers, these larger games and popular streams are often compared to other sports because of this kind of broadcast, as well as the type of live audience that shows up—the finals for these video games often take place in sports stadiums for 100,000+ spectators. What we believe to be the main difference between the spectacle on Twitch and, say, an NFL game, is the kind of play that is intrinsic in participation with other spectators; an element that comes to the fore when discussing how Twitch chat operates.
The default experience of Twitch contains both the broadcast of the stream and a separate chat box that allows viewers to interact with one another (and directly engage with the streamer, if it is an individual and not a corporate stream).
This screengrab, for example, displays the viewing experience of the most popular stream at the time of writing—a League of Legends playoff game currently being watched by 230,000 people. The chat box shows typed messages (that are often accompanied by Twitch-specific emotes of various faces) from any viewer who wishes to participate in the chat. As one might imagine, the chat moves quickly with each new message and contains a wide array of sentiments due to such a large audience. Smaller streams may contain more serious discussion in the chat and certain games or streamer personalities may attract more ridiculous chat messages, but the chat element is essential to the Twitch experience because of the opportunities for linguistic repetition and play that produce both a unique community and an equally unique form of participation.
When comparing the Twitch chat experience to other forms of spectacle engagement, one finds that the space that is created cannot be found through another medium. Participating in the chat offers users the opportunity to establish relationships through the simple repetition and occasional slight variation of written text. Colloquially, this is referred to as copypasta, but it is employed in Twitch as a means of establishing connections to both a particular streamer and the chat within that stream. For example, this occurred when a popular streamer began referring to the League of Legends character Heimerdinger as “donger,” which was then altered by Twitch chat to the line: “ヽ༼ຈل͜ຈ༽ﾉ raise your dongers ヽ༼ຈل͜ຈ༽ﾉ.” Despite occuring two years ago, Twitch chat still employs this phrase in a number of different variations of both the text and the accompanying face. In the space of Twitch chat, then, a user is allowed the linguistic freedom to experiment with these variations and, should he or she create a new and/or comedic one, will find other users in the chat repeat their creation. The ability to repeat symbolic representations as a way of forging relationships -- even through forms a spectacle -- is nothing new; nor is the freedom to attempt these repetitions within the context of a specific community. One can think of an individual or group starting the wave or a certain chant at a sporting event, where the basis for that ephemeral community is found within the repetition of known phrases or gestures. Yet Twitch augments this experience because of the ease through which repetition happens, as well as the small temporal duration needed for experimentation. By simply copying and pasting another’s text and making slight changes, one can continuously and quickly attempt new variations of an already established copypasta.
A more concrete example of this textual evolution was created in a famous streamer’s channel while playing the card game Hearthstone. Accustomed to making excuses about the streamer’s flaws in his play, this block text -- presumably marking off all of his most frequently cited reasons for losses during games -- began appearing in his Twitch chat:
☑ “This guy's deck is CRAZY!” ☑ “My deck can't win against a deck like that” ☑ "He NEEDED precisely those two cards to win" ☑ “He topdecked the only card that could beat me” ☑ "He had the perfect cards" ☑ “There was nothing I could do” ☑ “I played that perfectly”
Here we might see the more initial understanding of trolling -- a user is deliberately trying to produce a negative reaction from the streamer by mocking his mannerisms. But as this copypasta found its way to other streamers, it was then modified to address another Hearthstone player who exhibited a large amount of disdain and anger for his current game; he was acting “salty:"
“This guy's salt is CRAZY!” ☑ “My potassium nitrate can't win against a sodium chloride like that” ☑ "He NEEDED precisely those two elements to win" ☑ “He SPRINKLED the only salt that could beat me” ☑ "He had the PERFECT shaker" ☑ “There was nothing I could do” ☑ “I mined that perfectly"
A relationship is forged here between two posters that draws attention to the use of this specific and recognizable copypasta. And yet, the text was augmented once again to refer onto itself as a copypasta by replacing certain words with playful pasta-themed vocabulary:
☑ This guy’s pasta is CRAZY!” ☑ “My rigatoni can’t win against a linguini like that” ☑ “He NEEDED that alfredo to win” ☑ “He meatballed the only marinara that could beat me” ☑ “He had the perfect fettucini ☑ “There was nothing I could cook” ☑ “I cooked that al dente” pls no coperino pasterino macaroni alfredo.
The added ending here actually borrows from a common phrase found in many Twitch chat block texts; the plea, “please don’t copy paste” is woefully ironic considering copying and pasting is exactly what the initial poster wanted to happen. The progression of this meta copypasta, along with its ironic ending, suggests a mature approach to the understanding of memetic transmission, despite being masked in the linguistic shadow of absurdity and silliness. Here again the community forged in Twitch chat is unique because, though this kind of variation may occur on online forums or message boards, the repetition in Twitch chat is not kept for any amount of time and cannot be revisited like posted messages on a board. Like a sporting event or other spectacle, the interaction happens only during that specific chat before vanishing.
Thought of as a game in and of itself, Twitch chat’s calls and responses create an understanding between its users outside of socially accepted communication norms. When everyone is in on the joke (instead of a singular troll acting against an unsuspecting individual), then the objective of the game becomes comedic attempts at varying Twitch-specific text blocks that offer the greatest sense of ingenuity. In this way, the content of the actual quotes lose significance (one can think of the pasta-themed text above) as the goal of expression becomes eliciting responses in other Twitch chat users. As a result, participation in the chat offers a large degree of play for the participant and reader, and might be thought of as trolls trolling other trolls. The affect produced by trolling is no longer negative or disruptive here, but instead strives to be as playful as possible. So because Twitch’s user base is mostly males in their mid to late twenties, Twitch chat could be seen as a sphere of interaction where the anonymity of this kind of communication allows these users to participate in a mature community while linguistically expressing themselves like children.
On one hand, this process could be seen as a site of immaterial production similar to the type discussed in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire series -- a space that is mass producing new subjectivities. On the other hand, this view could be seen as being too optimistic, and perhaps too broadly appropriates the act of trolling for this specific political agenda. These are potentially too difficult to untangle precisely because it is impossible to delineate when an act of trolling has a sense of genuine outreach and connection versus when trolling constitutes an act that more closely resembles its earlier association with cyber bullying. Either way, while these conversations continue to take place, Twitch chat might serve as a way of complicating these discussions for the better.