IN FEBRUARY OF THIS YEAR, the Twitter user @LouiseGluckPoet announced some sad news. “A great loss. Thomas Pynchon dies. He was one of my favorite authors. I have now received the news from my publisher. They want the news to remain secret for a few hours, I don’t know why. However Pynchon has left us and the mystery is useless. Bye my dearest!” The syntax was strange, and the purported impropriety even more so, but nevertheless the author’s bio was definitive: “Poet. Official account.” Her profile said she had joined in November 2020, shortly after Louise Glück had won the Nobel Prize. Perhaps as good a time as any to finally kick back and see what’s up on the World Wide Web. Besides, members of older generations are known for being a little weird online, as anyone who saw the August 2020 photo of Joyce Carol Oates’s blistered, purple foot can attest.
@LouiseGluckPoet’s tweet circulated immediately among the insular communities of people who would care about such a thing, many of whom were so eager to offer their 280-character musings on Pynchon’s top 280 characters that they didn’t seem to notice the announcement was obviously fake. Soon enough @LouiseGluckPoet was chastened by the minor calamity she had caused and followed up with, “Someone deceived me. Thomas Pynchon is alive and well. I apologize.” Many of the premature eulogizers deleted their tweets and quietly moved on. But the credulity of writers online has been measured many times before, most frequently by the Italian journalist Tommaso Debenedetti, who first came to the attention of Americans around 2010, when it became apparent that he’d fabricated interviews with luminaries—among them Philip Roth and John Grisham—in which they seem to criticize Barack Obama. (The interviews were published in Italian in conservative newspapers, so it’s conceivable that the injured parties might never have noticed.) For the past decade, he’s taken to making fake Twitter accounts, often in the names of writers and politicians as well as of entities that might have access to early information about such persons’ deaths; his projects are usually characterized by a “Welcome to my account! Twitter is good!” sort of thing followed by some big-deal breaking news, and the lies are eventually appended with an explanation I imagine spoken in a measured, slightly somber tone: “This account is hoax created by Italian journalist Tommaso Debenedetti.” (The absence of this disclaimer, both self-aggrandizing and somehow fair-minded, is the reason we don’t know whether @LouiseGluckPoet belongs to him, but it probably does.) During the pandemic, he aggravated German speakers with his announcement of the death of Hans Magnus Enzensberger, which was picked up by a Swiss newspaper that sent out a push notification to its followers.
What’s important to note about these hoaxes is that they are absolutely terrible—totally artless, not believable at all, only really a “fool me once” situation if you were born or signed up for a Twitter account yesterday. Their relative success is even more embarrassing when you consider that the targets are supposed to be readers, people who approach language actively, if not critically. We live in a world in which people are constantly lying and cheating for no reward beyond fleeting attention, and in which Louise Glück does not write in ESL. You know this, but it doesn’t seem to matter. The literary world—full of gullible romantics, blinkered narcissists, and people who understand their preferences as inseparable from their souls and therefore never to be insulted—is easy to troll.
UNLIKE INTERNET TERMS that function as metaphors for the physical realm—“link,” “post”—“trolling” defines something that had previously not really had a name but has long been a feature of culture. (“Subtweet,” which refers to the passive-aggressive disparagement of someone without using their name, might also make a useful transition to broader application, so that in two hundred years someone can look up from their phone and say, “Did you know the word ‘subtweet’ originally came from a website? Yeah, it was called ‘Twitter’ . . . ”) A troll is not quite a schemer, or a scammer, or a prankster, or a performance artist; he is a creator of chaos and dissension. If we ignore the trolls who just scream at private citizens for tenuous reasons—and we should just ignore them, because the others are actually interesting—we can say a good troll often performs a critique; his work can be a satire, or merely an “intervention.” The closest preexisting term we had might be “provocateur”—what you become when you age out of “enfant terrible”—but that doesn’t necessarily convey the mischievousness of a troll; provocation is too distant and pretentious for what the troll is after, and indeed the troll seeks to collapse distance and puncture pretentiousness in particular. You might be wondering, “Collapse distance? But trolls are ironic, and irony is distancing. . . . That’s why it’s a scourge in our culture!” This is totally wrong, but I don’t have the space to explain why.
For a troll to work, a portion of the audience must not be in on the joke; trolling is almost always a form of mockery. This can happen directly—most commonly, an anonymous person says you suck in some creative way—or indirectly, by encouraging the trolled to engage in stupid behavior. Stupid behavior may take the form of public outrage or any strong feeling, eventually followed by private embarrassment masked by sputtering justifications. (Death is serious, and shouldn’t be faked!) The cycle repeats. A troll deplores nitpickers, point-missers, hand-raisers, pearl-clutchers, hypocrites, and denialists. He’s also completely willing to engage recklessly in precisely those tactics to get across his message: people are stupid, and they deserve to be mocked. A gross generalization, possibly even despicable—but there is some truth in it. If you don’t agree, you haven’t gotten out enough, and that deserves to be mocked, too.
Link to the rest at BookForum