Clever hoaxsters were duping the media long before 4chan.
People often think that the word “troll” comes from the mythical monster under the bridge. That may be true in fairy tales, but on the internet the word “troll” comes from fisherman slang. On the water, “trolling” is the process of throwing a baited line down, dragging it behind the boat and seeing what bites.
The first documented use of the term was in 1992, but the actual origins are pretty murky. Usenet, an early internet chatroom, was a home for some of the first trolling: newsgroups like alt.tasteless would invade benign discussions solely to derail them. The mark of a successful troll was getting innocent bystanders caught up in whatever bizarre narrative they were peddling.
But long before the internet was invented, cynics, clever con-men and others were screwing with squares in ways that will seem pretty familiar.
When it comes to the OG trolls, here are some of the greats:
Where’s the line between a practical joke and bonafide trolling? It’s blurry, to be sure. Brian Hughes crossed it with aplomb.
Hughes was a businessman born in 1849. He made a fortune in the paper box industry, and chose to use it not to improve the world, but to mercilessly troll his fellow man. One of Hughes’ greatest tricks was gifting a “New York mansion” to a historical society; the “mansion” turned out to be a dilapidated shack in the Bronx occupied by hoboes.
One of the most powerful tools in the troll’s playbook is hooking a victim with the promise of unearned riches?—?the classic Nigerian email scam, as it were. Hughes pioneered that in the 19th century, scattering fake diamonds on the sidewalk in front of Tiffany’s and distributing tickets to gala charity events that didn’t exist.
There’s a maxim in the trolling world that the success of a troll can be measured in the ratio between the effort you put into it and the reaction you get out of it. A truly expert troll can whip a whole community into a fury with a single message. In the 1970s, New York conceptual artist Joey Skaggs did that by using press releases.
Skaggs was a master at capturing the zeitgeist with ideas that would inflame the public. He organized a protest to change the name of the gypsy moth because it was “defamatory.” He created a brothel for dogs and a miracle cure made from cockroaches. Perhaps most amusingly, he made significant cash by taking tour buses full of urban hippies out to the suburbs to gawk at the squares.
An interesting side effect of trolling is how one’s fake positions sometimes gain a foothold in the real world. We can see this with trolls on 4chan’s “politically incorrect” board /pol/ who adopted “ironic” racist language only to become fellow-travelers with actual racists. When Skaggs set up a prank casting agency to represent a bald, tough-looking friend, it turned into a thriving and profitable business specializing in actors with “nontraditional” appearances.
Here’s a great short film about OG troll Joey Skaggs:
While most trolls sow dissent just to watch the world burn, some have ulterior motives. They use the riled-up crowd to draw attention to something they actually care about. One of the early progenitors of this technique was English playwright Joe Orton, a caustic gay icon who penned a number of hilarious farces in the 1960s.
Orton knew that controversy equated to audiences, and to raise awareness for his work he created a fictional alter ego?—?an elderly society woman named Edna Welthorpe. Posing as Edna, Orton penned angry letters to theatre magazines, government officials and anybody else he thought he could spin into a tizzy over his own plays.
Edna wasn’t alone, though. A classic troll gambit is to inflame a conversation by creating a fake identity on either side, and after the debut of Orton’s 1964 play Entertaining Mr. Sloane, the letter columns of London’s papers were full of his pseudonyms alternately praising and deriding his work.
Check out this fascinating interview with early hoaxster Joe Orton:
Trolling has had a complicated relationship with the media for as long as we can remember. One of the biggest “wins” a troll can get is to have their fake story picked up by a TV station or a mainstream news outlet. Look at Twitter comedian Jon Hendren getting on HLN to talk about Edward Scissorhands instead of Edward Snowden. The robotic “reporter” interviewing him didn’t even notice.
Almost all of these pranksters owe a debt to a man named Alan Abel, who hoaxed the media time after time for decades on end.
In 1959, the Today Show featured a segment on the Society for Indecency To Naked Animals, an organization that claimed to be on a crusade to put clothing on every animal on the planet. The brain behind the prank was comedian Alan Abel, who appears to have done it just because he loves satire.
Abel went on to perpetrate a number of other hoaxes, from organizing a mass “faint-in” at the Phil Donahue show to organizing a school for panhandlers so they could improve their techniques. In 1979, he successfully faked his own death.
Here’s Abel, back in the day, explaining the prank:
Jim Coyle & Mal Sharpe
One of the most common moves in a troll’s playbook is to start from a reasonable position and slowly twist the conversation into something insane. Nobody has ever done that better than Jim Coyle and Mal Sharpe.
As young men, Coyle and Sharpe met in a San Francisco boardinghouse in 1958. The pair quickly saw that they were kindred spirits. Toting a concealed tape recorder, they would visit local businesses for what they called “terrorizations.” The duo would begin seemingly ordinary transactions and bring their victims along for increasingly bizarre journeys.
In one prank, the proprietor of a print shop becomes unhinged when Coyle and Sharpe try to get him to print something on the surface of a house. In another, a man looking for a job agrees to fight maniacs in a pit in the ground. In one of their most famous bits, the duo convince a Navy sailor to join them in robbing a bank.
Personally, I’d love to see trolling go back to being an art form that uses absurdity and satire to provide real insight into human nature, rather than continue to be a bunch of knuckleheads trying to shock the Internet with fake memes.
Maybe after this troll-fueled Presidential election, we can find a way to make trolling great again too.