February 7, 2010

Hacker and Troller as Trickster

Category: Academic,Hackers,Humor,Troller — Biella @ 11:40 am


If you read the literature on tricksters, you will confront a string of words that capture the moral quality and sensibilities of these figures, figures scattered across time and place and largely enshrined in myths and stories:

Cunning, deceit, lying, provocateur, mischief, audacious, thief, play, shrewdness, audacity, grotesque, over the top, appetite, shocking, fun, delight, wit, trap, subversive, ability, wanderer.

These figures, which include Coyote, Loki, Hermes, and Eshu, among many more, push the envelope of what is morally acceptable and in so doing, argues Lewis Hyde (in his tome on the subject), renew and revitalize culture, especially the moral stuff of culture. They are not only boundary crossers, they are boundary makers. As the title of his book so succinctly and masterfully broadcasts “Trickster Makes this World.” Or as he suggests with a bit more elaboration:

“I want to argue a paradox that the myth asserts: that the origins, liveliness, and durability of cultures require that there be a space for figures whose function is to uncover and disrupt the very things that cultures are based on” p. 9

At the opening of the book, Hyde asks whether there are tricksters in modern industrial societies. His answer is a plain ‘no.’ The con man who might share some similarities does not qualify. For in fact what is needed is either a polytheistic system “or lacking that, he needs at least a relationship to other powers, to people, to instructions, and traditions that can manage the odd double attitude of both insisting that boundaries be respected and recognizing that in the long run their liveliness depends on having those boundaries regularly distributed” p.13 He does locate the spirit of the trickster in spirited individuals: in Picasso, in Frederick Douglass, in laudable figures who push certain boundaries and renew our world for the better but nonetheless fall short of the archetypal trickster.

I bet it is pretty obvious where I am going with all of this given my object of study: phreakers, hackers, and trollers. The trickster does exist across America, across Europe, really across the world and it is not in myth but in embodied in group and living practice: in that of the prankster, hacker, the phreaker, the troller (all of whom, have their own unique elements of course, but so does each trickster). Their relationship to other powers are many and can be located in terms of information, intellectual property, the government, language itself, institutions of power like the FBI and AT&T. The list is not short.

For a few years now I have been thinking about the linkages between the trickster and hackers as well as the troller but it was only in the fall when I found myself trapped in a hospital for a week that I finally cracked open the book by Hyde and devoured it. Within a the first few pages, it was undeniable: there are many links to be made between the trickster and hacking. Many of these figures, push boundaries of all sorts: they upset ideas of propriety and property; they use their sharpened wits sometimes for play, sometimes for political ends; they get trapped by their cunning (which happens ALL the time with tricksters! That is how they learn); and they remake the world, technically, socially, and legally and includes software, licensing and even forms of literature (think textfile, the Jargon File or most dramatically, ED).

But if the trickster generally resides in myth, and the trickster of the information age resides in practice, myth matters everywhere because there is a mythos created around these figures. Sometimes the mythos is propagated these groups (take a look of ED for example or Phrack in the past) and of course the media has played an undeniable role. And yet, unlike what is represented in the pages of Hyde, there are living, actual bodies in motion, in conversation, in transformation, a group that goes far beyond the other more controlled and bounded tricksters we might be able to locate in society, such as artistic/political groups like the Yes Men.

But the most shocking (or hard to think through) element lies less in the many associations one can make, but in the following curious fact. For the most part the trickster is enshrined in myth and stories but the tricksters I am referring to are in fact full-bodied, full-blooded groups of people who are actually engaging in all sorts of acts of trickery. This is culture not in the sense of art and myth but people and practice and this of course makes an (ethical) difference. What happens when you are the recipient not of a story offered an elder, but the recipient of trickery, an act of pranking or trolling, for example? What happens when you can trace all sorts of instances of boundary re-shifting and remaking, as with the GPL? I think this, even more than the linkages, is what makes this connection so remarkable and I trying to think through what it means to have a figure that we can find and talk to, as opposed to one embodied in myth and story.

For now I am going to leave this post short and in the next installment, will start raising some of the connections between trickery and variants of hacking and trolling.


  1. I would assert that the myth aspect of the modern trickster is formed of the public perception of the pranks, tricks, and hacks he/she/they may pull off. In turn the trickster may incorporate aspects of this perception into itself, forming an apocryphal meta-being both distinct from and representative of the real people who plan and execute pranks.

    Comment by Anonymous — February 7, 2010 @ 1:18 pm

  2. “an apocryphal meta-being both distinct from and representative of the real people who plan and execute pranks.” —> great way of phrasing it. Indeed, it is also the case, (and this visit this in a future entry) that the myth creates a very handy cultural smokescreen as well, making it very hard to parse what is true and false, what is good or evil, which is also why it works so well in terms of the trickster myth. These binaries are not really useful in getting at what is important about these acts.

    Comment by Biella — February 7, 2010 @ 1:38 pm

  3. Hey Biella,

    I like the idea – linking mythical trickster myth with the modern, virtual hacker/disrupter culture.

    I have no idea how Hyde actually defines this, but having the internet as a mediator and “witness” to the results of the tricks is, in a way, a substitute for polytheism.. There’s really no one authority/judge of when a trick is truly successful; you’ve only got a build-up of artifacts (RL media and comments in all kinds of forums) and feeling between those who are taking action, and those who observe and comment (or are part of both groups). At some point, the communities I’ve been part of tend to take on a life of their own, and a direction driven by a group feeling, rather than any one person’s direct command or influence. It’s collaborative and cooperative action. Often with a trickster or two who gain energy and strength from the feedback of the community/collaborators.

    Anyway, interesting stuff, and looking forward to more :)

    Comment by Selena Deckelmann — February 7, 2010 @ 1:46 pm

  4. I love the connections you’re drawing here, and there is definitely a common thread of trickster alive today in technological fields.

    Please, though, stop slandering hackers. Everything you attribute to them in this article is properly attributed to *crackers*. Hackers are not pranksters; hackers playfully learn and build, with no intention of trickery or pranking.

    Heck, you even link to the Jargon File that explains this distinction.

    Comment by Ben Finney — February 7, 2010 @ 3:56 pm

  5. Ben,

    I appreciate your comments and will respond to the hacker/cracker debate in a future post but I have tons to prepare for class so let me put aside crackers/hacker underground and get to pranksters: the MIT hackers were pranksters in all sorts of ways. This is documented all over Levy’s canonical account, Hackers, and is still very much part of the MIT tech culture. Steve Wonziak an admired hacker (who straddles your cracker/hacker distinction, he phreaked after all) was notorious for his pranking. Pranking does not simply belong to the underground even if they went much further with it.

    More on the hacker/cracker distinction or I should just post a forthcoming article that addresses it in some depth. I know the Jargon File well ;-) as well as the debate but I just can’t draw the line as starkly as some (most academics have not with a few exceptions) even if there is indeed many hackers who never ever partake of the forbidden fruit. But more on that after my Monday classes!

    Comment by Biella — February 7, 2010 @ 4:19 pm

  6. Hacker. Griefer. Trickster. Prankster. Troller, though? Isn’t a troll just a troll?

    Comment by Don Marti — February 7, 2010 @ 5:59 pm

  7. I’ll very happily re-read Hyde now. I don’t remember any of Hyde’s true tricksters being as violent or nihilistic or un-reparative as some trollers; although maybe some of the more extreme trollers only seem nihilistic or un-redeemable because it’s not yet clear what the effects of their work will be. Another difference between real life and myth is, with myth you know the ending in advance.

    I wonder if Hyde privileges the way trickers “make” the world at the expense of describing times when trickers’ actions effected the regressive re-assertion of boundaries (laws, etc.). Although, that’s a form of world-making too, just not redemptive in Hyde’s sense. Again, the temporality of myth seems to matter; thinking, e.g., about how tricky protest has become as an effect of, e.g., tute bianche trickers or puppeteers, is too short-term a view. But maybe the reason Hyde can’t find any trickers in industrial capitalism is that the reactions have been so powerful as to effect an erasure. Graeber confirms something like this in his essay on puppets, where he discusses police-media tactics as pre-emptive.

    For an example from another discourse, here is one conference’s semi-organized response to trollers–well, as far as I could tell, they were talking about trolls, although they were never named as such:


    I write about this conf. in my troll chapter. There wasn’t general agreement about what was to be done, but there was unanimous, presumptive agreement that the law was a, if not the remedy for trolls, whose more extreme, targeted actions they classified, legally, as “harm.” Most of the lawyers in attendance meant to catch only the most violent, misogynist trollers, but the law is a blunt instrument.


    Comment by Kris Cohen — February 7, 2010 @ 7:30 pm

  8. Great post biella, looking forward to the next installment.

    I’m reminded of CrimethInc’s Maximum Ultraism essay.

    Comment by pabs — February 7, 2010 @ 10:03 pm

  9. A copy of the article for those who have not seen it.


    The Satanism angle is only because that was the only copy I could find in the first page of search results. Perhaps it fits though ;)

    Comment by pabs — February 7, 2010 @ 10:10 pm

  10. Another trickster in the making:


    Comment by pabs — February 7, 2010 @ 10:12 pm

  11. It seems quite funny -but no wonder, a one named Hyde supporting the value of trickers in society.

    Comment by test — February 9, 2010 @ 1:17 am

  12. Thanks everyone for these comments. They are so good and I hope to incorporate them in future versions or my talks (I will likely talk about this at HOPE if they accept my paper) so keep ‘em coming. I might respond in more depth as I go along but here are a few first thoughts:

    Selena: I really like how you characterize the space of the Internet as polytheistic because of the ways in which power can be fought over, constituted and reconstituted. Fits in very nicely with the fact that the Internet is home to a cat and mouse, tug of war politics, as I like to say.

    Pabs: thanks for these references and glad to see you so excited about it. If I had known I would have talked to you about it in NZ.

    Kris: thanks for your engaging comments (not surprising given your dissertation topic which addresses this material). So in terms of whether the tricksters in Hyde are reclusive, nihilistic mother frikers.. When I first started reading the material, I was so struck at how out over the top these figures were: they murder, lie, steal, are driven, sometimes insatiably by appetite and then there there are all those phalli, like really long ones. So yea, the trickster figure is not exactly the type of guy (and yea, they are mostly guys… though I have met some pretty interesting female trollers lately who are ladies) that you want to bring home to your mom/dad.

    But your point about myth reveals its ending while this world is contingent and open-ended is well put and challenges this connection. Further I am of course super concerned about being an apologist for this world and I am partly uncomfortable with this world but I would lie if I did not admit that I enjoy this stuff (and Butler here is instructive but more on that later).

    And it is this ambivalence that so also captures the world of the trickster. You need a sense, as well, that what tricksters do is not all that good, that they transgress. In the myth, there are other gods and figures who provide the contrast (Apollo for Hermes) and perhaps it is us/we that are the Apollo force– that which designates this world as problematic (thinking out loud here)

    Don: troller can be just a troller but I think the phenomenon is full bodied and blooded enough now that it went from linguistic propensity, asshole behavior to something that folks can aspire to and learn about due to things like Encyclopedia Dramatica. What I find interesting about the mailing list troller who brings up something controversial is how s/he can indeed be disruptive often for the sake of being disruptive but there is also the scenarios where s/he is bringing up a valid (but controversial)_ point that can be made irrelevant by being called a troll.

    Comment by Biella — February 9, 2010 @ 5:27 am

  13. Seems like an appropriate time to be broaching this subject – the tricksters are among us!


    Also, I have some wonderful full color plates that can help close the circuit, bolstering the connection between alchemists (in the hermetic tradition) and coders…

    Comment by Jonah — February 9, 2010 @ 3:24 pm

  14. I think the the modern hacker fits very nicely with the trickster mythos. However I can offer a counter-point to the realisation that these are real people, walking in our midst.

    Look at how hackers are portrayed on film and television. They’re often shown as having extraordinary technical abilities, and often amazing resourcefulness; just think of Trinity from The Matrix, or the Conners from Terminator. Even geeks on TV are shown as cool rebels, with Abby from NCIS being a perfect example. In these forms, they also seek to change or alter society, and not always (or even often) with malicious intent. And yet, these are fictional characters, with fictional abilities.

    Our trickster mythos is quite alive and well, and is actively being told and developed through the form of popular culture.

    Comment by Paul Fenwick — February 9, 2010 @ 6:19 pm

  15. [...] just read an interesting post on Gabriella Coleman’s blog: The Hacker as Troller and Trickster, in which she points out the interesting fact that the “trickster” character of myth is [...]

    Pingback by rants.org » Blog Archive » The Trickster Next Door — February 9, 2010 @ 9:57 pm

  16. [...] then, I have continued to follow her work eagerly. Her current research into the parallels between trolling culture and trickster mythology has been very influential in my own study of Internet communities. In my experience with digitally [...]

    Pingback by Ada Lovelace Day Tribute « Hero Worship — March 24, 2010 @ 6:33 am

  17. Took me ’til spring break to catch up with this.

    I’m guessing that, biographically, it’s the longstanding interest in Bakhtin (and particularly the late-80s carnivalesque Bakhtin-as-theorist-of-the-transgressive) that is behind a lot of this. I think it really shows a coherent but dynamic intellectual project — so gratz on that.

    That said as you move forward beware that you are treading on sacred ground to Americanists! And… I mean how can I say this? Hyde is not that far away from Joseph Campbell. So I’d also encourage you to think a little more about the cultural contexts of these figures — keep it anthropological sister!

    Comment by Rex — March 24, 2010 @ 11:51 am

  18. [...] Originally Posted by 3rdMan It was fantastic. I did two on Anonymous vs. Scientology for class projects, but urs is definitely superior :) . There needs to be done more research on internet culture, and yours was pretty good. Question: Can you post your references you used for the presentation please? Ok here are all of them, I think: References 1. Jodi Deanm Publicity’s Secret 2. Wendy Brown, Regulating Aversion 3. Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes the World 4. Stephen Duncombe Dream: Reimagining Progressive Politics in the Age of Fantasy 5. Bryan Pfaffenberger

    Pingback by The Politics of Chanology - Page 5 - Why We Protest | Activism Forum — April 30, 2010 @ 4:35 am

  19. [...] “sans-nom d’Internet” ont beau être issus de la “culture du trolling” – cette taxie du Net qui génère à la chaîne des hordes de commentateurs dont le but ultime est [...]

    Pingback by Les Anonymous sont-ils des terroristes? (LOL) » OWNI, News, Augmented — May 9, 2011 @ 2:02 pm

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