*This piece originally appeared in Cranked Magazine issue 1. Illustration by Wacek “Waki” Kipszak.
Meet The Trolls:
A partially enthographic and wholly conjectural investigation into a mountain biking’s newest terrain and the real riders that virtually ride there.
Mountain biking is a multifarious activity and there appears to be no singular definition of what it is precisely. There’s a host of sub-niches within the main framework that riders can choose to experience it. There’s cross-country, downhill and freeride as the first basic layers of experience and then within these three there might be a stratum that further divides it to include trials, fat biking, shuttling, enduro, exploration riding, perhaps a fatter tire version of randonneuring, dirt jumping, and racing (of which, again, there are a plethora of distinctions). In fact, I’m probably downplaying how many different ways riders can come to enjoy or participate in mountain biking. Many may in fact choose to dip their paint brush in the plethora of the different paint pots to create a rainbow of their own making, or even a new shade or hue that requires redefinition or reformulation of existing prejudices.
Then there’s the different terrain that mountain bikes can be ridden on and within that can make one rider’s experience vastly different from another. In places like the Southern Chilcotins of British Columbia or Sun Valley, Idaho it’s possible to flow towards an indefinable horizon along sinews of alpine single track that follow the contouring routes that pack animals or foot traffic have engraved on the land for centuries. In Utah you can hurl yourself off red rock mesas for sport or swoop up and over the ‘slickrock’ following either your own nose or the white dotted line that’s been applied to provide some orientation in an otherwise indistinct landscape. It might be possible to find ‘North Shore ladders’ almost anywhere in the world but it’s the true originals that were constructed to cross troublesome pieces of the topography or intended to provide circus thrills to ballsy riders. In the Scottish Borders you can find parcels of forestry land that have been purposefully and specially planned to provide a safe and accessible mountain bike experience, characterized by trails constructed from imported aggregate that appear to have been unfurled through the uniform plantation of pine trees like a grey carpet intended to be welcoming for guests. In hilly and mountainous areas like the Peak District or the Alps the ancient footpaths have been hammered, hung or cut into the landscape many moons ago and now bear the scars of fierce weathering and the abrasion of generations of drovers crafting their livelihood from the land and now droves of recreationalists seeking some more of what they have less of in their own day-to-day.
There’s a kaleidoscope full of contrasting and divergent territories that mountain biking is quite at home within. But now there’s an entirely new terrain, nay, universe of interconnected byways that has opened up for mountain bikers to cycle through. This new macrocosmic trail network has mountain bikers all over the world flocking to it to lay their tire tracks upon it. This place is called The Internet.
The Internet has enabled entirely new forms of social interaction, activities, and organization because of its widespread usability and access. In 2014 the world’s Internet users surpassed 3 billion or 43.6 percent of world population. We use the Internet in all aspects of our daily lives: accessing or broadcasting news, weather and sports reports, shopping, for entertainment, and researching or engaging in activities that interests us. The Internet supports forms of communication, like message boards, social media platforms and email, that allow us to keep touch with friends, colleagues or likeminded people, some we never have actually met in person. Over 6 million people use blogs or message boards as a means of communication and for the sharing of ideas. For mountain bikers this is particularly useful tool to disseminating the evaluation of product, finding trails to ride or simply foster a sense of community and shared experience.
Mountain bikers have really taken to the Internet. Pinkbike.com, for example, is the largest mountain bike website (and some claim the largest in action sports) and has 700,000 registered users and generates over 80 million page views each month. Each day thousands of riders click onto the Pinkbike homepage, some scan the news and front page articles, some flick through for reviews of products they might be considering buying, some aim to buy and sell bikes and parts, others entertain themselves with the hundreds of videos and thousands of photos that are uploaded to the site each day, many others engage in conversation threads on the forum, while others comment on the articles that make the front page. Often these comments sections provoke hundreds of comments until there’s a clamorous cacophony of many voices attempting to make themselves be heard, arguing their point, offering disagreement and responding with counterarguments. Sometimes, among the maelstrom, if you look closely you’ll notice some users are more incendiary and inflammatory than others and engage in such conversations more vehemently. Some have become minor celebrities and often their contribution to such conversations is elicited by other users and greeted with a mixture of horror, disdain and, occasionally, sadistic admiration. One colloquial name that has been attached to the people who engage in such behavior, not just within Pinkbike but more generally, is Troll.
According to Wikipedia, in Internet slang a troll is “a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous or off-topic messages in an online community (such as forum, chat room, or blog) with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.”
In general, Internet trolls are people who fish for other people’s confidence and, once found, exploit it. To “troll” means to lure or bait other users into online conversations that are usually aimed at undermining their confidence, discrediting and humiliating them.
The internet has created an online, virtual reality of mountain biking that fabricates the ability for users to interact and create a two-way communication with the sources of the mountain bike media where riders and readers can post questions, disagreements or even derail conversation by posting off-topic subjects on threads. Whereas print magazines of the early generation were a one-way feed of information, except perhaps for Reader’s Letters sections, now there’s an immediate feedback loop with little or no control valve, judicial oversight, and instant gratification. I’ve watched from the sidelines as this synthetic experience of the tangible act of mountain biking has become not just a conventional substitute but almost more important than the real thing. More so, I’ve been intrigued about the people behind the anonymous online avatars who are so prolific online. I often wondered how they would have so much time to do what they do and what were their motivations for doing so. I wanted to see and meet and understand some of these trolls. I wanted to ask them why they behave so. So I tracked one down.
The Troll’s Lair
WAKIdesigns, as he is known on the forums and websites within which his online avatar inhabits, lives in a small bedsit in a rougher part of a rundown, postindustrial town. Outside of his house there is a disgusting array of detritus strewn around the entrance to the apartment – a nappy full of whatever nappies become full of before they are discarded, an old washing machine that looks like has been repurposed as a lavatory, and so many cigarette butts and broken bottles that cleaning them up would be a Sisyphian task. The door to his building looks like it’s been kicked in more times than it has been opened formally. Surprisingly though, the door handle is still loose and in danger of falling off. There’s old coupons for supermarket bargains piled up on the doorstep and I have to be careful to find a solid footing. I ring the bell but the buzzer doesn’t sound so I reach for the door-knocker but it comes off in my hand. I sound out three quick raps with my knuckles on the mottled glass in the middle of the door. Through the window I see a dark silhouette moving around, moving towards the window. In the window to my left I see the net curtains shift ever so slightly and I know there’s someone looking at me through them. I call out a greeting and my name and why I’m there. I know WAKIdesigns is expecting me but the figure doesn’t seem to move from the window. I feel nervous being watched like this but I am here to meet this person face-to-face at long last. We’ve had extensive communication through emails and instant messages for many months now. I felt like we’d built up a rapport, albeit a kind of reserved and somewhat cordial accord due to the form of our communication, and I had started to feel that WAKIdesigns really wanted to meet and discuss his trolling habits. But maybe he’s had second thoughts? Maybe this whole time he’s been trolling me, baiting me and playing along like it’s some sort of game. Maybe I should be more scared, what if he’s only got me here to inflict actual physical pain on me. Enacting the sort of emotional abuse that he metes out to his ‘victims’ online but now it will take on a tangible, perhaps bloody, form?
Eventually the figure moves and I hear the sound of several locks being released from the other side of the door. The door slowly swings open a few inches where it is arrested by the security latch. The other side of the door is dark and I can barely make out the eye peering out at me. An asthmatic and frail voice cracks a question towards me ‘Who is it?’ I repeat my name and reason for being here and add that we have arranged for me to visit, at this time and place, via email and IMs. We’ve been having a conversation for some time and confident and surly voice I’ve come to know seems at odds with this little frail scared figure that hides behind this door. I can smell horrible things wafting from the open door – burning dog hair, the sickly sweet rank smell of unwashed skin, and the odor of microwaved ready meals. It also smells a little of sex and urine. My eyes burn a little.
The figure behind the door is reluctant to let me in, as if I’ve interrupted something, even though we have previously arranged to meet here and this time. It’s as if this is the wrong place or wrong person. However, I know this has to be the place. This is exactly the kind of shitty hellhole that I’d expect a prolific internet troll like WAKIdesigns to live in.
Except it isn’t.
This is the life that I expected (or hoped) an internet troll would live in, but it isn’t the truth. I wanted these horrendous, vile, mean spirited, cowardly spirits of the cybersphere to live sad little lives in the real world – contradictions to the brave, bold, brash characters they act online. Although I never actually got to visit WAKIdesigns at his home over the course of several months we do share a great deal of communication which surprises me and which evaporates my prejudice that perhaps notorious internet trolls aren’t the sad little people I expected to be in real life. Well, not WAKIdesigns, at least.
What I discovered wasn’t that much because most of the “trolls” I tried to interview were reluctant, in fact downright opposed to me asking them anything. Instead the one that did respond painted a very vivid and brutally honest picture of his motivation. And what he said surprised me and forced me to reconsider my position.
Wacek “Waki” Kipszak
It turns out WAKIdesigns, or Wacek, is an educated man, approaching his middle age, has a wife and two kids, lives in Sweden and works as an architect. He works a full-time job, loves to mountain bike and has been engaging in online forums for a number of years and the amount of time he spends reading, talking, arguing or “trolling” about bikes is more than he spends riding them.
“I am mostly on Pinkbike.com, sometimes on the Swedish forums. It is hard to tell how much time I spend writing. I usually do it when I am waiting for rendering in 3D Studio Max to be made. But let’s say two hours total [per day]. It started around 2008, I’ve been through suspension system debate, carbon debate, air vs coil, 29ers, slack and low, 27.5.”
“Why do I do it? I don’t know really, but some part of me feels that it makes world a better place by doing it, by providing elaborated opinions, hoping some people will pick them up. I wish that people would see the world as a bigger picture, get perspective. And I think from psychological point of view it is mental masturbation, in Jungian psychology it can be called being possessed by archetype of the Wise old man/woman.”
The old wise man is an archetypal character and classic literary figure that Carl Jung described as being known for his wisdom, knowledge and experience of the world, predilection for contemplative pursuits and ability to act as a mentor to others.
But it’s not all high brow thinking, Wacek admits that he does like to deliberately play the mischief maker, expressing contentious opinions just to provoke a reaction.
“People just love to express their own opinions and argue. Some like to be assholes, I do it sometimes, I become Eric Cartman, poking people, pissing them off, trying to outsmart them.”
A study by the University of Manitoba in 2014 said that the people who post nasty comments online – trolls – are likely to have pathological personalities. The researchers found that people who like to post inflammatory comments, incite arguments, and send insulting tweets are more likely to exhibit Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy, and sadist traits. Collectively known as the “Dark Tetrad,” these personality traits were shown to be prevalent through surveys designed to understand what makes trolls tick. Respondents were more likely, for example, to agree with the statement “The more beautiful and pure a thing is, the more satisfying it is to corrupt.” Study author Erin Buckels speculates that the Internet’s anonymity has freed pathological people to act out. “The allure of trolling may be too strong for sadists,” she says, “as they presumably have limited opportunities to express their sadistic interests in a socially desirable manner.”
This paints a pretty disturbing picture of such people but the application of the term troll is subjective. Some readers may characterize a post as trolling, while others may regard the same post as a legitimate contribution to the discussion, even if controversial. Like any prerogative term, suggesting a negative motivation. Wacek appears to be a balanced individual, quite reflexive about his motivations and the result of his actions. From observing his online habits it’s clear that he doesn’t seem to be directly trolling (in the negative sense) other users, or attacking them, but rather just adding to debate. This is contrary to much of our idea of what a troll is and who the person is behind the troll.
I’ve been straight with Wacek about the source and reason for my inquiry and he honors me with brutally candid answers. When I ask him what he thinks about trolling I’m surprised at how critical he is about himself, or the act of trolling.
“Trolls… People whose online personas are everything they are ashamed of not being in real life, like standing up for themselves. Hence we like to argue so much. Their opinions are experiences they wish they could have had in reality. I, for instance, substitute experience with imagination, to the point where assumptions and deduction become a very satisfying game, and when my guess gets confirmed in one way or another by some authority, I feel so fucking smart, while I haven’t really done anything. So all in all it is a mental masturbation, projecting my own frustrations on other people.”
What is the source of the frustration?
“To be deeply honest and open myself for you or everyone who asks why I feel such a dramatic pain, I am heart broken. When I see the possibilities of going somewhere riding and I can’t due to family and sometimes work. I just can’t blow my head through the wall. Last year I went to Lake Garda to see the magnificent alpine mountain ranges that I know so well from pictures, and I was with my two kids and I knew that I couldn’t ride there. It was at reach of a hand and…so writing on the internet is like bypassing this, my online persona makes me feel better about myself.”
So Wacek has a life, and his reality, his waking day-to-day existence, might not match with his thoughts, wishes and desires. It’s obvious that he’d love to be free to travel the world and ride his bicycle but he is a family man, with a wife and two kids, and a career that he can’t abandon. He is a virtuous man it seems, but this frustration leads him to act out online, inciting the reaction of others as a means of catharsis, a way of venting and releasing emotions that are pent up inside himself about a situation he can not change now.
In some ways, perhaps the internet and the forums and comments boards that host acidic and caustic conversation that otherwise wouldn’t go on in face-to-face communication, acts as a gall bladder for soceity. A functioning organ that allows the bile that is innate and within humans to be purged, stored and burned off in order to save human’s from acting in unvirtuous ways in real life.
Researchers that have studied the source and symptom of this describe this behavior as the online disinhibition effect, which is the tendency of many individuals to behave more stridently or offensively online than they would in person.
The online disinhibition effect is a loosening (or complete abandonment) of social restrictions and inhibitions that would otherwise be present in normal face-to-face interaction during interactions with others on the Internet. Psychologist John Suler surmises that “This effect is caused by many factors, including dissociative anonymity, invisibility, asynchronicity, solipsistic introjection, dissociative imagination, and minimization of authority.”
With respect to bad behavior, users on the Internet can frequently do or say as they wish without fear of any kind of meaningful reprisal. In most Internet forums, the worst kind of punishment one can receive for bad behavior is usually being banned from a particular site. Suler calls this toxic disinhibition. In real-life, face-to-face interactions it would take a real sociopath to act in the same ways as people can do online because humans have crafted very sociable and complex means of interaction over the course of millennia, and failure to adhere to codes of normal conduct can result in retributive justice, i.e. getting your teeth knocked out.
Another aspect of this is that immersion in such online communities allows an immersion into a virtual reality where the perception of being physically present in a non-physical world allows someone who can’t ride their bike as much as they wish, the metaphorical or perceived experience of doing so. In this way, is the participation in online mountain bike websites a means of still being engaged in the activity of mountain biking while it’s physically impossible to do so?
Are we experiencing a change from mountain biking being an entirely corporeal experience to becoming an intellectual, transcendental, incorporeal, disembodied and abstract version of it as well? Perhaps this is why often the most fiercely contested discussions online are about products and the science behind them; these are subjects that can become cerebral and conceptual exercises because the argument can be abstracted from the reality of actually riding.
People engaging so throughly online become discarnate and in doing so can experience escapism or a mental diversion from perceived unpleasant or banal aspects of daily life. It becomes as much a means of entertainment or recreation as many riders, perhaps the same riders, will describe the act of mountain biking. Many riders describe the act of mountain biking to be a way of escaping their ordinary lives, both physically but more importantly, mentally. Speeding down a piece of single track requires focus and riders look to achieve a perfect state of flow by being completely absorbed in the activity. Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi describes ‘flow’ as completely focused motivation, or being in the zone, a single-minded immersion or deep focus on nothing but performing an activity which can “produce intense feelings of enjoyment”. The question is whether there is such positive emotional or mental outcomes for riders experiencing mountain biking in a theoretical and disembodied plain of existence even if it does provide an escape or form of entertainment?
“What do I get out? Err, not much, sadly, it is a form of entertainment to me. I hate watching sports, I hate TV, I don’t play computer games, that’s my only drug I think.”
There has been a great deal of research and thought put towards mankind’s present or future immersion into virtual realities, that is the perception of being physically present in a non-physical world and the immersants awareness of physical self is transformed by being surrounded in an artificial environment – more like computer-based simulated environments and games such as Second Life – but it seems that less work has been done on the experience of people existing is a world that is neither real-life nor virtual life but instead an experiential plane that acts as a proxy reality that allows mountain bikers, for example, to recreate in a hypothetical terrain.
Already, in our generation we have seen a significant lessening in the distinction between an individual’s online and real-life worlds, and some types of online activity have made the full transition to complete legitimacy and “reality” (some sociologists use sex and relationship forming as an example). And what of mountain biking? Are online “realities” a new territory or terrain upon which we can feel engaged in the activity of biking, even if it is actually far from the physical reality of actually riding a bike? I would argue that it is a legitimate – meaning actually existing – form of experiencing a closeness with one’s passion even when not able to do so. Nonetheless, it is just a sort of substitute, a band-aid or smoker’s patch that gives the user something to fill the void in-between real hits. Metaphysical methadone, one could say.