Sunday, May 13, 2012

Haters and Trolls

According to, one of the earliest references to the word "hater" was in a 1999 Ice T song.  This surprises me.  I would have been less surprised had the first reference been in a 1989 Ice T song.  Though in hindsight I certainly can't recall being cognizant of the term during the 1990s, my assumption would have been that I just wasn't hip enough to gangsta rap lingo to know that the term was in circulation.  But somehow, gangsta rap thrived for about ten years without the word "hater" being applied in any raps (who knew?), and then after the word appeared and quickly became integrated into pop culture, the popularity of gangsta rap receded.  Now the word exists independently of the culture that spawned it.

Of course, today, many slang terms associated with the genre of gangsta rap are now regularly sprouted by individuals who listen exclusively to shimmering autotuned dance pop songs.  Youths who have never heard a single song produced by Sean Combs may still possess a vocabulary featuring words like "crunk," "bling," and "props."  But the word "hater" has taken on a special kind of transcendence.  Search Twitter at any hour of any day for the word "hater" and you will find that sometime within the last  hour, if not the last few minutes, someone has tweeted something about "haters."

Why the proliferation of this word?  Because it serves a special function in an unusual historical period.  We are living in a time when, supposedly, a generation of self-absorbed and entitled individuals are being created.  This self-absorbed and entitled generation has been, supposedly, raised to believe they can do no wrong and that they are special just the way they are.  But we are also living in a time when online communication facilitates a discourse heavy on confrontation, negatively, and vulgarity.  What to do when your every (virtual) utterance can be seized upon and mocked, belittled, criticized, or condemned?

Fortunately, there exists a one-word dismissal for such critics.  Or perchance a three word phrase that encapsulates an entire coping philosophy: "Haters gonna hate."  We don't need to wade too deep into the ontology of this philosophy, to try to examine where haters come from, whether there are different classifications of haters, or why they must inevitably conform to a certain pattern of behavior.  We may simply dismiss them without prejudice, not allowing them to shake our foundational security.

And certainly, in the Internet age, that is not necessarily a bad approach to take in many circumstances.  Haters certainly will arise, they will do their nasty work of hating, and we would be wise not to indulge them.  But at the same time, we must be certain that we are not dismissing all critics as haters.  So how can we determine who should be heeded and who should be ignored?  Here is where I think another useful term has arisen in order to meet the particular needs of this particular time.

Not too many years ago, any use of the word "troll" conjured up images of bill goats unable to cross bridges or ugly lawn ornaments.  Now, thanks to the Internet, the word exists to describe a particular kind of person who uses inflammatory language in order to derive personal emotional pleasure, one who delights in provoking others. 

My hope is that as we continue to work out how to forge an effective discourse in a changing communicative environment, we can impart to members of the emerging generation an ability to distinguish critics from trolls-- to not necessarily be dismissive of "haters," but to be able to recognize and disregard those who truly seek to transmit toxicity.  And as regarding an individual who develops the capability and wisdom to discern the difference--we just may need to coin a term to describe them.


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