Editor’s note: The writer of this story asked to remain anonymous.
When he was 8 years old, Aditya* unlocked our mom’s phone for the first time. He composed a message and carefully, deliberately ticked off contacts he would send it to. The entire family. Some colleagues. Many friends.
With that, a single word went out to a hundred or so individuals.
Minimum effort. Maximum return.
Minutes later, when the phone started buzzing with worried calls, Aditya cackled with laughter. His plan had worked.
A troll had been born.
Even before the internet, trolling was something most brothers did, mine included. Except, back then, we called it cheap thrills.
If you were on the phone, your brother would pick up the landline extension and breathe heavily. If that didn’t work, he’d make farting noises. If you were in a real rush, he’d lock himself in the bathroom so you couldn’t get dressed.
Aditya did all these things. He also stole my phone and read out my text exchanges to all and sundry. He told Santa Banta jokes that never actually ended to my friends who didn’t want to listen. He snooped. He expended time and energy dispossessing me of my bed.
He became an expert at provoking me into lashing out and then, when I did, of sniggering through apologies.
In the end, though, all of this seemed like just another exercise in sibling love.
And then, when I turned 18, I packed my bags and left for college. Aditya was 9.
In the years after I was gone, my parents grew increasingly involved in their own affairs. Aditya witnessed episodes of violence in the family. He developed anger issues in response and was put on a short spell of antidepressants.
They were lonely years for Aditya. As his tiny world collapsed, he began to sneak out from under the rubble and explore, looking for, among other things, a new audience to troll.
It’s been a decade since the “Help” incident. Aditya is now a proud self-declared internet troll. I’m not happy about it. I’ve recommended that he stop. But I’m also worried that if I push too hard, he’ll stop confiding in me.
So instead, I set out to try to understand it better.
What is trolling to you, I ask Aditya now. He’s 18, about to be packed off to college.
“Acting stupid in front of someone intelligent and watching them react. It’s fun because people lose their shit really quickly.”
Why is it fun?
“It just is.”
No further explanation.
He adds, “I know people get depressed and stuff because of it. But I only troll when I’m sure the other person’s an absolute chutiya.”
This, you’ll soon see, turns out to be not quite true.
I ask him for a tour of what it’s like being an internet troll. His eyes light up.
Tucked away in the internet of Nintendo nerds is a website called Pokémon Showdown. Here, Pokémon buffs can battle teams of fellow Pokémon buffs in something called Showdown Rooms – essentially chatrooms, with the facility of Pokémon duels thrown in.
The user base of the website appears to be varied. There are separate Showdown Rooms for Germans, Dutch people, Indians, and Pakistanis; others to discuss discuss art, current affairs, health and fitness.
Every time you enter a Showdown Room, you can pick a new nickname. This one time, Aditya picks Aditya98. He begins to type to the room:
“Hello! I am now the owner of this room. All of you are my slaves. I hereby give you permission to type whatever you please with no restrictions.”
No one takes the bait. No one, it would appear, is sufficiently annoyed. So he adds:
“Even for you stupid moderators.”
This time, it works. The moderator responds and a verbal match ensues.
“You Focker,” Aditya types between sniggers.
Someone writes, “His username ends with 98, he must be seventeen.”
Another joins in, “Well, that’s misleading. He sounds like he’s seven.”
As he narrates this, Aditya claps with glee.
He is removed from the group moments later, but he takes screenshots and forwards them to his friends. They think it’s hilarious. There’s enough back-patting for him to feel good for the rest of the night. Victory is his.
But next time, he’s careful not to give himself away. His new username is BlowjobPrincess69.
There are plenty of places on the internet for the troll to thrive.
Facebook isn’t anonymous enough. Using Twitter or the YouTube comments section is akin to screaming into the void (he does it anyway, it just isn’t a favourite). The perfect medium for trolling is one that is as anonymous as it is intimate – one where somebody specific can be provoked – like Pokémon Showdown.
On one occasion, Aditya went to the Pakistani Showdown Room and wrote about receiving blow jobs from hijabi women. “Pakistani boys take it like girls,” he added. He received vitriol in response and came back grinning.
I asked him if he knew that this was homophobic.
“Not to me, I’m not a homophobe. But these guys, who take it as a great offence, are. They deserve it.”
Another place where he gets to act out is Chess.com. Most of the time, chess is serious business. (Aditya plays competitive chess.) But when he’s playing online, and especially when he knows he’s not going to win, he likes to have some fun.
He narrates one such instance. “The guy’s name was Vignesh* Patel. I’d made a blunder and I knew I was going to lose.”
For the heck of it, Aditya offered him a draw. Obviously, Vignesh refused.
“So I told him, you either accept my draw or I make you wait 20 minutes for my next move.”
Vignesh Patel was outraged. “No way!”
“Shut up you dhokla!” Aditya responded, and followed it with a series of expletives in his native Gujarati, a language Chess.com would not detect.
Vignesh Patel called Aditya a loser, accepted the draw, and left. Aditya smirked. He collated another series of screenshots and sent them out to his friends.
Weeks later, he narrated the story of trolling Vignesh Patel to a bunch of Bengali uncles at a party. The drunk among them laughed. Aditya nodded with pride.
I begin to see that, while for those of us who’ve been at the receiving end, trolls often take the shape of grownups with serious, dysfunctional motivations, to Aditya they are mirrors unto himself – frustrated kids who have few real-life outlets, no real agenda, and a few minutes to kill between tuitions and classes and college applications.
On days when there’s nothing left to surf, he turns off his gadgets, closes the door to his room so that no one can disturb him, and plays classical guitar.
Sometimes, when I despair over Aditya’s seedy activities online, my husband reminds me that Aditya is self-aware enough to grow out of it eventually.
Aditya’s grades are solid, my husband argues. And he understands the rules of internet etiquette, even though on occasion he does not abide by it.
I ask Aditya what internet etiquette is.
“See, on social media, of course, the rules vary depending on which medium you’re on. But outside of social media, it’s simple. Don’t hurt anyone. Don’t make fun of gender, race, religion, nationality, sexuality, social and economic status. I know the rules, you know. And I also know when not to abide by them.”
“How do you get to pick when not to abide by them?”
“When the other person deserves it.”
“But why did you troll Vignesh Patel?”
“I wasn’t going to win. So I thought, let me at least have some fun.”
“What do you imagine Vignesh Patel was doing and feeling when you trolled him?”
“I just imagined him being taken aback. Not hurt or upset. I imagined him wondering how much of an idiot I am.”
“But how would you know if he or anyone else has been hurt?”
“I just know.”
“People don’t ‘Hey, you hurt me.’ Usually they respond with more mean stuff. So how would you know?”
At this point he fumbles. “You’re right,” he eventually concedes.
I sense that some careful rationalisation has begun to unravel.
This could be half the battle won.
Inevitably, the niggling sensation that he’s causing someone grief that’s real, or that the returns on his investment just aren’t valuable enough, will force him to stop. The question is when.
Aditya didn’t think I needed to write this story anonymously. Perhaps he wanted more people to know about his tryst with Vignesh Patel.
“You do realise,” I warned him, “even if it’s anonymous, there may be unkind comments. Someone could call you psycho or a deviant or something horrible.”
My husband and Aditya snigger.
“Oh please,” my husband says. “Aditya can handle it. He can troll them back.”
Aditya adds, “If there’s one thing I’ve learnt over the years, it is that you can’t take the internet seriously. You simply can’t.”
*Names have been changed to protect identity.
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