Trolling in the Material World – In Defence of Noel Edmonds

The etymology of the the term ‘trolling’, as applied to the internet, is interesting.  Once, it referred to ‘playing the fool’ anonymously.  Over time, the ‘fool’ became an ‘upstart’.  To my mind, it once seemed to be a label for acts of what could be called elongated reciprocal interference, ostensibly unprovoked, but arising from microscopic/imagined discomforts of perception (hence reciprocality).  Today it is something unmentionable.  Trolling might involve leaving abstract comments on forums which would steer conversational threads towards the ridiculous.  However, in the last few years, the term ‘trolling’ has now been used by the UK press to refer to anonymous hate emissions designed to cause maximum offence.  In the US however, this hate-emission is termed ‘flaming’.  ‘Flaming’ is a suitably malign word to use, whereas ‘trolling’ retains a rather benign character, quite at odds with the viciousness it often refers to.
According to today’s press reports, popular TV personality Noel Edmonds recently hired a detective agency to track down the creator of a small Facebook group entitled “Somebody please kill Noel Edmonds”.  Bizarrely, it was found that the creator of this group was a PhD student.  Rather than informing the police, Edmonds contacted the student’s campus to request a face-to-face meeting with the troll, who subsequently apologised – the troll-intent short circuited.  Elsewhere, it was reported that Edmonds also offered to fund a special PhD to investigate the phenomenon of internet trolls and the motives behind trolling.  It is certainly a fascinating research topic.  I’d kill (metaphorically) to have such an opportunity…
Today is April 1st.  The significance is pronounced.  Indeed, there is no immediate evidence that this “kill Noel Edmonds” Facebook group ever existed (although evidence of a Midlands punk zine titled Kill Noel Edmonds crops up on Google).  Time will tell whether the Noel Edmonds story is true, but at the moment, the fizz of uncertainty propels thoughtfulness.
Solar Fictions; A free inquiry into the received astronomical
doctrine and popular opinions concerning the sun
Trolling has been around since time immemorial in the form of general hoaxing, literary frauds, Interventionist Art, etc.  It is glimpsed in the imp of the perverse.  The Situationist Guy Debord published his 1959 artist book Mémoires with a sandpaper cover, to gradually destroy adjacent books or polished surfaces.  Elsewhere, in literature, one undermentioned and particularly strange pseudonymous book titled Solar Fictions by ‘A Freeman’ seems to qualify as religiously motivated trolling of sorts.  This sarcasm-laced 1871 publication sought to pooh-pooh rationalism, discredit all scientific endeavour, and ultimately disprove the existence of the sun (its cover shows the sun being extinguished with a candlesnuffer).  These two things are just random examples.  One might condemn Solar Fictions as woefully misguided anti-astronomy, or the sandpaper of Debord’s Mémoires as inconsiderate gimmickry, but both possess honest artistry in their elaborate conception… There is actual thought-content.
As technology makes it easier to produce throwaway emissions, flippancy creeps in.  And with flippancy is the inclination toward bluntness; the shedding of any remaining responsibilities; the artistry disappears.  In the audio cassette’s heyday, a hoaxer named John Humble created tapes where he claimed to be responsible for the Yorkshire ripper killings.  These were anonymously posted to the police.  Queasily, one tape featured Andrew Gold’s pop hit Thank You for Being a Friend.  It was easy for Humble just to hit record and spill out his guff.  Now, with the internet, the potential for agitational flippancy is astronomical.
My own mediadropping projects (especially the targeted varieties) had a touch of that same ‘imp of the perverse’ which informs some of the more lightweight examples of modern trolling, and also its incoherent sister, crapflooding.  Domineering local personalities were targeted with self-made soundstuff – physical media such as CDs and cassettes were deployed.  Mediadropping is specifically a sonic affair characterised by confusing, abstract and possibly enlightening elements.  The certainties of small-town prejudice and mediocrity were confronted head-on with semi-worrying anti-mediocrities (often, paradoxically, mediocre).  Artistic attempts were made to diffuse dumb malaise with some finely crafted agitation.
Things get stupidly unjust if the roles are reversed.  If bullish people try to make their own mediadropping, all abstractness with its gentle mystery is thrown out the window.  The results are uninteresting, and often plainly derogatory (murderousness unadorned), negating all artistry.
If the Noel Edmonds story is true, did the trolling PhD student reckon Edmonds to be a figurehead of mediocrity?  Did he resent the concept of mediocrity and take out his directionless angst on Edmonds?  If so, the aspiring doctorate-holder has atrocious judgement and rotten imagination (besides, Edmonds has already been ‘trolled’ in a rather more imaginative drama setup by Chris Morris).  Aside from the moral murk of inciting murder, even jokingly, there is something utterly wrong about targeting Noel Edmonds in the context of trolling.  Edmonds himself is a skilled channeller of the ‘imp of the perverse’; see, for instance, his NTV segments on Noel’s House Party – where spy cameras were fitted onto a random viewer’s television set, to be switched into the live feed on Edmonds’ command.  Shocked viewers would suddenly see themselves on national television, and Edmonds would attempt to communicate with them whilst in their shocked state.
If today’s story about the Noel Edmonds troll does turn out to be an April Fool, then may this post collapse upon itself tidily.  If not, then may these points be scrutinised with heightened seriousness.

UPDATE 18/01/12:  It appears the Noel Edmonds troll story is true after all, and not an April Fool’s fabrication.  If Edmonds or any of his retinue are reading this, vis-a-vis the hint in the above text, I’d be unbelievably keen to embark on a PhD in the origins of trolling, its cultural ramifications, etc., but I have no money…  My own theory is that trolling instances rise in tandem with the decline of alleged ‘poltergeist’ activity – as the same motivation underpins both, and the internet offers the path of least resistance.  I’ve been begging for PhD funding (in a wide range of fields) since 2007.

The Philosophy of Mediadropping podcasted, and the history of "planking"

‘The Philosophy of Mediadropping’ show mentioned in the previous posting is now available online as a podcast here.

Mediadropping is the random public dropping of home-made media which is peculiar in some way, with the intention of eliciting a reaction from whoever finds and plays the media.

I have often wondered if an old mediadropping was responsible for the phenomenon of “planking”: where photos are taken of people lying down in unusual places and circumstances.  In March 2005 I had compiled a CD-R mediadropping extravaganza, bearing various mp3s, images and random text files of quantum physics and variations on the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.  Its intention was to flummox.  One directory, titled “The Fallen” contained a dozen photos of persons lying unexplainably prone.

One of these images, for example, taken around February 2005, featured Resonance FM’s Richard Thomas on the floor of 9 Denmark Street (the old station offices) clutching a drumstick, seemingly staking his claim as a pioneer of this art.  A rare and remarkable thing, this was seen as a radical nugget to be experimentalised as mediadropping fodder.  It should be noted this was before the UK “planking” craze of 2009 – after which time it was picked up by the tabloids and divested of its mystique, and, as such, would from there onwards be seen as being perhaps a bit infra dig (as least, to those already acquainted with the practice before it ‘sold out’).  Today’s “planking” bandwagon-chasers mostly appear to be people mucking about, often dangerously.  But these pre-craze 2005 mediadropping photos exude a profound honesty, a “professional strangeness” – an artistic integrity, if I may be so pretentious – which modern day attempts entirely fail to capture.

I can provide evidence of perhaps the earliest instance of “planking” (or, “the lying down game” as it’s also known).  I am certain that “planking” can be linked to a general mediadropping tradition… In 1995 I made several photographs showing the “lying down” phenomena – some school friends I persuaded to down their clipboards during a school trip.  Duplicates of these were made to accompany mediadropped cassettes from 1995-96.  This was before Radiohead’s video for ‘Just’ (showcasing epic “profound lying down”), and also predates the alleged invention of the “game” in 1997.  Of course, it completely precedes Robert J. Sawyer’s 1999 novel ‘Flashforward’ (curiously, also encompassing quantum physics in relation to “profound lying down”), the US TV adaption of the same name, and ‘This Morning’ hosts Phillip Schofield and Jenni Falconer popularising the “lying down” and trashing it up still further earlier this July.