A brief, irritating history of trolls

Still stirring up trouble after all these years.

The Hunderfossen Troll

Trolls live for one purpose: to irritate and enrage as many people as possible, usually through some form of deception. And though they achieved their greatest infamy on the Net, trolls have existed in real and mythical form for thousands of years, plaguing everyone from Plato to the Pope. Here's a brief pictographic history of trolls from cave dwellers to the current day.

Related: How trolling and 6 other tech terms got their names

Quest for fire

Quest for ire (10,000,000 years BCE)

Though we have no direct proof, it's safe to assume trollish behavior predates recorded history. The first flame wars probably occurred moments after the discovery of fire, cave paintings spawned the first art critics, and the inventors of the wheel no doubt took a beating from the tribe that patented log-rolling. Why did Cain slay Abel? We're betting he'd finally had enough taunting about how the Lord accepted Abel's offering of mutton but rejected Cain's veggie plate

Diogenes brings a plucked chicken to Plato

A Plato of chicken (400 BCE)

Even Greek philosophers had trolls. According to classical scholars, after Plato defined man as a “featherless biped,” rival Diogenes brought him a plucked chicken and allegedly cried “behold, Plato's man.” Plato tweaked his definition to include fingernails. Diogenes then went off with his lantern in search of an honest man, or possibly an honest chicken.

The Giantess

The source is Norse – of course of course (9th century)

The word troll stems from Old Norse sagas, which describe demonic beings with the ability to guard graves, suck the wealth from giants, and swallow the sun – a pretty bad-ass resume for these mostly annoying little bastards. They've played a recurring role in western mythology ever since. Belief in trolls (the non-Internet kind) continues in parts of Scandinavia to this day – though mostly, it seems, as a way to sucker tourists.

Galileo Galilei demonstrating the telescope to the cardinals

Galileo's Pope-a-dope (1633)

In the early 1630s Galileo Galilei was asked by Pope Urban VII to write a “dialogue” explaining both the heliocentric and geocentric views of the solar system. On the earth-revolves-around-the-sun side sat a scientist named Salviati; arguing for an earth-centric universe was Simplicio, who both echoed the church's official position on the matter and came off like a moron. For trolling the Pope, Galileo was placed under house arrest until his death in 1642. The Catholic Church did finally apologize to the great astronomer – 359 years later.

fake fossils

Beringer's fossil foolery (1725)

Prof. Johann Beringer, dean of medicine at the University of Wurzburg, thought he'd uncovered irrefutable evidence fossils were created by the almighty as a kind of faith-testing scavenger hunt. He even found the Hebrew name for God carved into one. Of course, they were the work of trolls. Colleagues J. Ignatz Roderick and Georg von Eckhart carved the stones and buried them where they knew Beringer would find them. It wasn't until Beringer unearthed a fossil with his own name on it did he accept that it was a ruse. By then he'd already published his masterpiece detailing the sacred discoveries.

Fremont Troll

Gruff and ready (1840)

The goal of a troll is to get your goat. In “Three Billy Goats Gruff,” the opposite happens. A troll living under a bridge is determined to eat the first goat that crosses it. But goat #1 convinces him to eat the much larger goat #2, who in turn persuades him to wait until plus-sized goat #3 shows up. The last goat then pitches the troll into the river. This classic 19th century Norwegian folk tale has been retold many times in music, novels, films, and video games. The moral: Even trolls shouldn't mess with goats.

Troll 2

Troll camera (1986)

After a millennium of bit parts in sagas and folk tales, trolls finally snagged the lead role in the cult “classic” Troll, which featured two characters named Harry Potter (no, not that Harry Potter). Inexplicably, the film spawned a sequel, Troll 2, which has been named “the best worst movie of all time” – arguably the best worst insult you're ever likely to hear.

I'm a noob

Usenet noobs (1990)

Like spam and flame wars, trolling made the leap into technology via Usenet, most likely on the alt.folkore.urban group. In the early 1990s, longtime denizens of the board would “troll for newbies” by posting deliberately naïve questions as bait for gullible people new to the board. One practitioner of this art, David Mikkelson, went on to found the urban-legends-busting site Snopes.com – now used as a weapon to thwart many would-be trolls.

Trolling for dollars (1994)

This YouTube video marks the first public appearance of the dreaded patent troll. Officially known as “non-practicing entities” because they don't make products, these demons collect generic patents and then sue deep-pocketed companies for allegedly violating them. In 2011, some 2000 companies spent $29 billion to make patent trolls go away.

Westboro Baptist Church

God hates trolls (1998)

Though Westboro Baptist Church has been spewing its special brand of hatred since the 1950s, it came to national attention when its members picked the 1998 funeral of Matthew Shepard, murdered because he was gay. Like the worst Internet trolls, WBC tries to provoke anger by picking sensitive targets such as dead soldiers, terrorism victims, gay people, and celebrities, including Steve Jobs (whose funeral protest was announced by the WBC via iPhone). The only person they don't hate? Actress Jennifer Lawrence. Who could hate JeLa?


Trollcats on the prowl (2003)

When the 4chan message-board arrived in the early aughts, trolling went thermonuclear. 4chan's /b/ or “random” channel is responsible for most of the trollish memes that have defined the Internet's obnoxious adolescent phase, including Rickrolling, lolcats, and goatse (trust us, you don't want to Google that). More harmful IRL (in real life) trolls, including the Anonymous movement, took their first, inter-personally challenged baby steps here.

craigslist ad

Reversal of Fortuny (2006)

Pretending to be a submissive woman, Jason Fortuny placed an ad on the Seattle Craigslist board seeking males willing to dominate her. Then he published all 178 responses, including email addresses and photos, on Internet troll central, Enyclopedia Dramatica (NSFW). Two victims of the “Craigslist Experiment” lost their jobs. Fortuny was sued by another and ordered to pay $75,000 in damages, the modern equivalent of being pitched into a river by a goat.

Anonymous protestors

Anonymous lashes out (2008)

Though it sometimes seems it's always been with us, hacker/prankster group Anonymous was largely unheard of until January 2008, when it launched a series of attacks against the Church of Scientology.  Seemingly overnight, Anonymous was everywhere – launching dozens of “ops” against targets ranging from the Australian government to Sony Networks. But its most trollish moment came in 2009, when Anonymous gamed a Time magazine survey to elect 4chan founder Christopher “moot” Poole as the World's Most Influential Person.

Prairie dog Jedi

The Internet strikes back (2013)

With trolls now living under virtually every Internet bridge, something had to give. Most commenting systems now let users moderate trolls by down-voting them out of existence. Another tool moderators can use is “disemvoweling,” removing all the vowels from a trollish post so it's still readable but loses much of its bile. In 2012 the Arizona state legislature tried to outlaw trolling before running headfirst into the First Amendment. And some took matters into their own hands, like UK boxer Curtis Woodhouse, who showed up on the doorstep of a Twitter tormentor in March. (No punches were exchanged.)

Bottom line: The golden age of trolls may finally be behind us. And not a moment too soon.