From band molls to net trolls

Trolls are really just the new cyber-groupies. In the media over the last couple of days we have been subjected to a barrage of social commentary about bullying and in particular cyber-bullying. I have only just become aware that the term 'troll' now refers to a person who targets and abuses others via social networks and those targeted are often celebrities. It’s an apt moniker to give this mob of verbal abusers.

In targeting a celebrity the perpetrators suddenly enjoy a tiny, grubby slice of fame as well. Anyone who has had any kind of public profile knows that this sort of thing has been around for a long time - only now it has become viral and it’s a virtual epidemic.

Fame has less currency than it did in the good ole days. In this age of information technology it is becoming increasingly easy to grab that fifteen minutes of fame that Andy Warhol described and frankly the easiest way to do so is by causing a fuss on social media. The concept of an overnight sensation has never been more possible. But if you ain’t got talent, the easiest way to turn the spotlight your way is to hunt down someone who’s already in it and stand real close!

Access to a celebrity now is so much easier than writing fan letters, standing at backstage doors or dressing up as a hotel maid and hiding in a laundry cupboard outside a rock-star’s room ( I never went that far but almost).

When I was a teenage groupie in the eighties, the very thing that made the hunt and the thrill of connecting with a celebrity so exciting was that they were so unapproachable, so lofty. We were Earthlings - they were Stars....bright beacons so very, very far away. To touch one, to catch one, was like being given a celebrity audience with a celestial being. (Of course, the reality once you found yourself in the arms of a rock-star was often more like an impact with a lesser meteor but that's another story....)

Celebrities are only a tweet away these days and a tweet is like a permanent graffiti comment to the entire world. Sign in and see my etchings! You can, quite literally, have a global audience within seconds....You might have a miserable twenty followers in the morning but if you make death threats on twitter to a'll be better read than J.K Rowling by supper time.

It’s not so very different from other anti-fans who have crossed the line with dire consequences. Think of Mark David Chapman who killed John Lennon. He claimed to have been bullied at school and wanted to share some of Lennon’s celebrity.  Or John Hinckley Jr. (also bullied at school) who wanted to assassinate Ronald Reagan to impress/get noticed by his celebrity crush, Jodie Foster? Fatal attraction fans. They’re nothing new. For every hundred admiring fans you’ll find one that is unhinged and obsessed in a dangerous way. For every ten groupie girls there was one bunny-boiler who’d set out to ruin a celebrity’s life because he didn’t love her back.

‘Don’t feed the trolls’ has become the cement response to celebrities who find themselves the target of online abuse. But is that a fair thing to tell a celebrity? Is that a fair thing to tell the kid in the playground having his lunch ground into the playground bitumen in front of him? Famous people are still just people.

This is bullying outside of the square and not bullying for its own sake but for the promise, the heady thrill of a little short-lived notoriety and power. Bullying has always been about power but if you can topple someone you perceive as more powerful than yourself, you can absorb some of their power. Groupies/obsessed fans and trolls all suffer from low self-esteem. In many ways celebrity is fuelled by the low self-esteem of those who worship obsessively. We created TomKat, Brangelina etc. Fans blow the hot air into these massive balloons of fame and fans can pop them just as fast. They are far from powerless.

A groupie can bed a rock-star/football player/actor for one night and leave it there or she can post photos on social media, call the press, lay a false paternity suit. Groupies can be dangerous. Trolls are just groupies who keep their knickers on but their claws bared.

Sticks and stones might break bones but names do hurt and deeply. We’ve all called Tom Cruise a ferret face, Tony Abbot a budgie smuggler and much worse. Mere mortals play the game of tearing down celebrities all the time. It’s cafe latte bullying with friends. But the social media provides a weapon and words can be bullets. It’s not fair to simply say ‘put up a shield’, ‘dodge the shrapnel’. We’ve lost sight of the vulnerability of celebrities. Fans think they know them, own them. I’ve been guilty of being the groupie who listens to the radio and thinks every song is about me. The whole concept of fame is a bit surreal. 

I feel sorry for Charlotte Dawson and the many others who have been so cruelly targeted.  I believe in free speech but I believe in being kind to people as well. There is no easy answer because shining a light on the problem is exactly what the trolls crave. I had one mad troll abuse me in a twitter raid when my book was published and my immediate response was to retweet it but that fired her up into more of a frenzy. The last tweet said, ‘I’ve had my fun with you and will now move on…’ And I realised sadly, for some, it’s a sport. Anti-groupies. The sort that bring pain instead of pleasure. It is sad but perhaps it is the unavoidable double edged sword of celebrity and that’s probably why mere mortals can only handle fifteen minutes of it.

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