Trolls Are Internet Bullies and Cowards.

Interesting sculpture. It's called the "Fremont Troll."

Recently, my friend over at AdLand (aka daBitch) posted a thoughtful essay about the mean-spiritedness of some of the discussions at popular advertising sites.  She wrote, “I’ve noticed an uptick of a particular style of comments recently. There are those who will jump to ‘you are bitter / you are a hater’ retort. Then there’s the ‘What work have you done?’ … retort.”

She was kind enough to ask me for my opinion. Here’s my edited version:

“Actually, the bitter/hater syndrome is not a child of the online ad industry. Everywhere, these people have a term: trolls. You know, those horrible acne-magnets that lurk under bridges in fairy tales.

I’ve done some reading about this phenomenon and if my memory serves, this anonymity is a result of how the internet was originally designed way back when they set it all up. And it is this anonymity that provides the bridge trolls now live under.

My hypothesis is that if you look at the sources of these mean-spirited remarks, 98% of them are posted anonymously. And my opinion is, they are all cowards. The anonymity allows them to spew their vitriol and poison without accountability.  

I think (as do many others) that if you have a strong opinion, you should stand behind it. Otherwise you’re not much different than the mean drunks who hide in the crowd at a football games and toss empty liquor bottles at refs for calls they don’t like.

On the other hand, anyone with personal integrity (and a wee bit of calcium in their spine) will publicly stand by and own an opinion they post, even if it’s an unpopular one.”

Because this is an internet phenomenon, the issue of trolls is in some ways new. On the other hand, it’s as old as the problem of schoolyard bullies. I would call these trolls the “bullies of the internet” were it not for the fact that even the most despicable schoolyard bully does not wear a ski mask.

On a recent page on the troll-packed site of AgencySpy, I saw this thread. We begin with a person who, posting under his real name, defended someone from a personal attack.

REAL PERSON WITH SPINE: “I hate people who write snide innuendos while hiding behind fake names. It will take more than the scurrilous accusations of a couple of mealy-mouthed twits who don’t have the wontons to post under their real names to convince me. [M]an up or shut up.”

We can talk about the unnecessary anger at another time. The point here is, at least this person posted under a real name. Then came the troll’s response.

TROLL HIDING BEHIND NAME OF “BRAZMANIAC”: “Fuck you and your fairytale platitudes.  I have news for you, it’s VERY easy to ‘man up’ and use your real name when you’re sycophantically praising a man you DON’T EVEN KNOW.  Hey, maybe he’ll see your name here, all shiny and sincere, and offer you a job!  Good luck with that.  In the meantime, people who have actually worked with [this person] have a few things to say. … I think protecting ones job and future is an excellent reason to maintain some anonymity.”

And there you have it – the classic, specious, and cowardly excuse.

In fact, this same reasoning can be used to excuse an attack on a retarded person. (“HEY ‘TARDO! Missing your brain?!?) Who would want to hire a person who makes such an attack? No one. Does that make it okay to do it anonymously?

This same reasoning can be used by the skulking drunk at a football game throwing the liquor bottle. He wants to hurt the ref but keep his job.

Bottom line is that trolls do not want to publicly stand by an opinion they have made public. And that is why they are bullies and cowards.

I conclude with three thoughts.

One: If you want to post an unpopular opinion, have at it. Sign your name and we’ll give you our attention.

Two: Opinions are one thing, ad hominem attacks are another. Attacking a person is low, and doing it anonymously is lower still; like being a hallway bully who wears a ski mask, pants the “gaywads” and then escapes in a waiting car.

Three: When we see bullying, we should fight back. This happens to be the NEA’s National Anti-Bullying Month and it’s a great time to do what a brave lady named Jennifer Livingston did. She’s a newscaster who received a vitriolic email telling her to lose some weight. And it is here I ask Mr. “Brazmaniac” and all trolls, bullies and cowards, if you want to see what having a spine looks like, watch this woman stand up to bullies like you.

If I got any of this wrong and you’d like to write to me and disagree, my email is [email protected] and my name is Luke Sullivan.





  1. Awesomeness, pure and simple. Great piece, Luke! 🙂

  2. Sorry Luke,

    I have to disagree with you.

    Retaliation for any negative comment – online or offline – is a very real thing. And there is literally no other way or forum for people to voice an opinion of a higher-up without fear of that retaliation.

    Do you really expect a mid-level art director to stand up, use his real name, and say he thinks his CD’s work sucks? Even if he can voice clear, justifiable reasons and constructive criticism – how many CDs out there would take kindly to being made to look foolish by a subordinate? Does that mean the CD shouldn’t be called out? Of course not. Does that mean the person doing the calling out should risk his job to do it? Of course not.

    There’s a reason the government has anonymous tip lines and laws protecting whistleblowers – because those who speak up without anonymity usually get stomped on.

    Do people abuse anonymity more often than not? Sure. But no more than people create anonymous water cooler rumors offline. The problem is not with the trolls. the problem is with people who take unsubstantiated internet smack talk seriously or believe everything that’s written in a comment section.

    • WOW. I knew the internet was full of trolls, but had no idea the strain had become this vicious. Thanks for the education. What I take from this is that why bother posting about stuff you don’t like and discuss only stuff you do like. Yes, I agree, this takes away much of the helpful things we could say. But as your reply has shown me, perhaps the ad sites are populated mostly by angry people whose own personal demons and inadequacies drive them to behavior such as what you described.

    • Hey Anno: No problem disagreeing, dude. Your post was important. AgencySpy is in fact a mean-spirited little back alley of the internet. Perhaps you should limit your critiques to sites that don’t attract as many sad, angry, and lonely people?

  3. Oh and one more anecdote:

    I once posted to AgencySpy using my real name to give what I thought was a thoughtful critique of someone’s work.

    And I was brutalized for it.

    Other commenters dug up decades-old work I can’t claim to be proud of and mocked me for it. They posted my resume and laughed because I had never worked for a “major” agency. They took the opportunity to spam my blog with personal attacks and used my email address to try and sign me up for various porn sites. For a while, the top Google search result for my name was that comment page – which was devastating to my job searches and freelance possibilities.

    I will NEVER post a comment on a blog under my real name again. But according to you, I’m the coward and bully if I ever want to say anything negative online.

  4. This is what really bothers me about Anno #2’s story here.

    Anno speaks about THE WORK on Agencyspy, and he’s personally attacked. The topic is the ad, not Anno’s previous career.

    That’s where it’s going wrong. People can’t seem to have a discussion these days without abusive ad hominem (or ad feminen) attacks.

    Thanks for reminding us all that’s it’s NEA’s National Anti-Bullying Month , Luke.

    • Thanks for the thought. Also, if I found that it was impossible to criticize work without being attacked by trolls, I probably would stop visiting that website, or at least stop trying to criticize work. Ain’t worth the hassle.

  5. trolls are not bullies. they are people who play pranks. i hate these people who change the truth!

    • You lie like a dog. All trolls do is pick on victims like the bullies they are. Hell, I’ve seen them spam like the no-life lsoers they are.

      • I mean “lsoers” and not “losers.”

  6. This is suddenly a hot topic–is there more trash-talking than usual going on? Copyblogger covered a similar idea from a different angle a few days ago:

    And I offer up my solution to irritate your non-compromising friends by being comprimising here:

    Thanks for the long and interesting piece.

  7. The truth can never be changed. Many types of person there who want to stop bully activity but because of just one bullying activity take place in the society. To know more about preventing these bully activity so become member through our website Omega man schools.

  8. This is a topic that’s close to my heart… Many thanks! Exactly where are your contact details though?

  9. Dr Brian Neil Talarico, North Bay Psychiatrist often brutally abuses his power, he brutally beat my girlfriend up. it was a retaliation. my bestie reported talarico for woman beating, child molestation, harassment and, predatory stalking. he does nothing but physically abuse, threaten and stalk her, and police do nothing.


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Luke Sullivan

Author, speaker, and ad veteran available to recharge, reinvigorate, and refocus marketing, advertising, and branding firms.

I give a hugely energetic series of presentations on innovation, creativity, branding, and marketing. I spent 32 years in the trenches of advertising (at agencies like Martin, GSD&M, and Fallon) and I’ve put everything I learned into my book, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. But for me nothing beats taking the message out and speaking to living breathing audiences at clients, agencies, and conferences. You can book me on the button below.