The terminology arrived first as a verb, adapted from fishing. Trolling is baiting a line and letting it trail behind a boat, to see what might bite. The expression “Don’t feed the trolls” should really be, “Don’t let the trolls feed you.” Because, don’t take the bait.
In the old web days of newsgroups, bulletin boards, cathode ray tube monitors, and torturously slow downloads, trolling was harder because there was a certain level of difficulty in doing anything at all with a computer. Some very earnest people were anxious to find answers to questions that had haunted them, and the world’s smartest minds could communicate with each other like never before.
Sure, even in the internet’s infancy, OG trolls were honing their skilz. For instance, a document called The Troller’s FAQ, which seems to date back the the Usenet days, instructed:
Outwardly you need to appear sincere, but at the same time you have to tell your real audience that this is blatant flamebait.
Every now and then, a member of an online community might try to derail a conversation by dropping off-topic bullshit into it. But it was discouraged. By and large, internet pioneers had better things to do than deliberately spread misinformation or try to rile each other up with provocative, offensive, antagonistic comments. Their work ethic could be diverted by the rudimentary porn of the time; certainly, but the opportunity for gratuitous malice? Not so much.
Eventually, and erroneously, the T-word became identified with the folkloric ugly creature who lurks under a bridge. I suppose it’s as good a word as any for someone who adopts trolling as a full-time lifestyle. This archetypal troll image is said to have been created by Carlos Ramirez (a.k.a. whynne) of Oakland and DeviantArt.