Monday, June 28, 2004

Trolling Your Way to Fame and Fortune

Matthew Yglesias writes about how the market for opinion seems to reward flagrantly biased and sloppy writing far better than it does moderate and well-researched material.

Thinking a bit more about Michael Moore, the tragedy is that we have a systemic bias in our media culture that rewards people who make over-the-top and/or inaccurate attacks on their political opponents. To take myself as an example, early on during my Prospect career I came across a Rich Lowry article on NRO unfairly castigating Bill Clinton's anti-terror policies. I responded with a Tapped post that, among other things, noted that if anyone was ignoring terrorism in the 1990s, it was The National Review. Normally, things would have just ended there. Fortunately for me, however, the post contained a factual error that, while not crucial to the argument, was a really clear case of error.

As a result, Lowry had a good hook to write a column in response to my post, noting the error and suggesting that the argument as a whole was every bit as slipshod as the one assertion. I then wrote a counter-response column, apologizing for the error, noting some problems with Lowry's argument, and making the (entirely correct) case that my point stood on the merits despite my mistake. The result was many readers for things I'd done and, in general, a raising of my profile.

Similarly, my "stab in the back" column employed some deliberately provocative rhetoric that was not, strictly speaking, essential to the point I was trying to make. As a result, at least one of the targets of my column, along with several fellow-travelers of the targets, took umbrage and wrote outraged blog posts in reply. Not only did I then get to reply, but several of my fellow travelers wrote posts (with links) backing me up. Traffic and notoriety, again, went up in a way that was to my benefit.

By contrast, I've written many, many, measured and (in my humble opinion) totally unimpeachable attacks on various folks out there that have simply died on the vine. The trouble is that when you write something really good, in the sense of being sober, on-point, factual, and tightly argued, your targets would do well to simply ignore you. And so they do. Maybe a person or two will recommend the story to their friends, but basically it vanished into the HTML ether. Something sloppy, offensive, over-the-top, or in some minor way inaccurate, by contrast, will provoke a flood of responses. If you're lucky, those responses will, themselves, be someone sloppy, and folks start defending you. Then you find yourself in the midst of a minor contretemps, and everyone gets more readers.
In the manner of a Mungo Park "discovering" the source of the River Niger, Matthew has alighted upon a phenomenon recognized many moons ago by the denizens of USENET - the less-than-subtle art of trolling.

In the world of opinionating, at least, trolling definitely works, and what's even better is that one can get famous for trolling while also making a decent living out of it. Considered objectively, what else should the likes of Michael Moore, Michael Savage and Ann Coulter be labelled other than trolls? What better description can there be for writing posts about nuking "Koranimals", how "Bush is WORSE than Hitler!!!" or "At least Saddam was elected!", other than to call such behavior trolling?

Let's face it, with a few upstanding exceptions, most of the highest-profile bloggers are trolls of one political stripe or another, and not very subtle trolls at that. There are few things easier in the world than to quickly dash off some nonsense about how all liberals are treacherous perverts, or conservatives are baby-eating fascists, but that sort of writing is almost always guaranteed to get you more hits and a higher profile than dispassionate examinations of ideas on their merits. Controversy sells, especially cheap controversy.