Trash-talkers of the internet, secede

Don't feed the trolls!" This notice, frequently seen in internet chatrooms, forums and message boards, is designed to protect regular humans from needless aggravation. Trolls feed on talk. They live to get an emotional rise out of you by steering discussions towards emotive topics like race, sexuality, conspiracy theories and fanboy issues. Deny them their soul food and they die. But now that Gawker has outed Violentacrez, one of the most reviled trolls on Reddit, the notice might be changed to: "Feed the trolls some sunlight; watch them burn!"

Under the assumed identity of Violentacrez, a Texan software engineer had been running Reddit forums featuring disturbing content that transgresses social taboos. Though utterly creepy, it's not exactly criminal. Violentacrez's motive was simply to be unpleasant to strangers. But it had to be taken seriously because Reddit is trying to be the front page of the internet. It offers members enormous power to steer the global discourse.

Give a creepy guy a mask and an audience and you could have created something unpleasant. Trolls date from the beginning of the public internet, which maladjusted nerds embraced as a refuge from real-world social norms, a place which protected anonymity and encouraged the development of alternate identities or avatars. Shielded from the vulgar gaze, people could make up their own social rules and contracts, sometimes with results that fascinated social scientists.

But in the last two decades, the internet's role as a safe haven for experimental and countercultural behaviour has shrunk. The most visible sections of the internet are now as mainstream as city centre. The divide between the real and the virtual, once celebrated and marvelled at, is now immaterial. Two decades ago, the journalist Julian Dibbell documented a case of rape in LambdaMOO, one of the oldest role-playing communities. The idea of the violation of a virtual body caused a sensation at the time and Dibbell's paper became one of the most frequently cited works on identity online. Today, when real and virtual are almost identical, it would probably be ignored.

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