Keyboard warriors: Why Millennials are more likely to engage in trolling

Emma McGowan 22 Aug 2022

The internet can feel like the whole world sometimes, but it’s actually just a small portion of it. So before you start to sound off online, take a breath.

Let’s face it: People can be jerks online. There’s something about the separation provided by a high-res screen and an internet connection that taps into that primal part of the human brain and says attack! You could open almost any viral Twitter thread (or just read your least favorite cousin’s Facebook page) and see just how willing people are to say mean, rude, or even straight up racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic stuff on the internet. 

But not all age groups are equally jerk-ish online. According to a 2021 survey conducted by the Avast Foundation, Millennials are more likely than any other generation to be jerks online. The survey found that two-thirds of American 25 to 34-year-olds (64%) have engaged in trolling online, which the Foundation defined as leaving intentionally offensive messages or insulting someone on purpose online. Additionally, one in two (57%) acknowledge that others have been upset by their actions and over a third (40%) believe themselves to be considered confrontational.

As a Millennial myself, I wanted to understand why my generation has been so much more likely to be behind online trolling. While there’s yet to be conclusive research into why Millennials are more likely than other generations to sound off online, there are a few factors that probably contribute. Millennials grew up with the internet — we were in elementary school or younger when those AOL CDs were sent to every household in America. We remember a pre-Google world, but it’s hazy.

Additionally, Facebook was invented by a Millennial (and Millennials in college at the time were its first users), as were Snapchat, Instagram, and TikTok. So, as a generation, we not only grew up online, but we literally invented contemporary social media.

Perhaps our status as the first digital natives means Millennials grew up in a sort of digital Lord of the Flies. Where were the grown-ups? Who was teaching us about online etiquette? Who was reminding us that there were actual people on the other side of the screen?

Or maybe Millennials just love to blame Boomers for everything — who knows. 

Regardless, there are three main types of internet rascals that have arisen from the morass of Millennials online. We’re not the only ones acting poorly, of course, but I think it’s fair for my generation to take the blame for the creation of the following archetypes.

What is an internet troll?

“Trolling” is a term that has evolved over the years on the internet. In the beginning (and I mean very beginning — we’re talking UseNet days), trolling for new users was asking a question that long time members of a message board would know was already overplayed, specifically to bring the newbies out of the woodwork.

But, over time, trolling transformed into something much more insidious. (As did the rest of the internet, if we’re being honest.) The contemporary troll is someone who is trying to stir things up online for the simple sake of wreaking havoc. A troll will say something inflammatory, rude, or upsetting — often but not always off topic in a conversation — just to make people angry. 

Trolling culture as it stands today grew out of message boards like reddit, as well as its more toxic cousins, 4chan and 8kun, where many communities encouraged people to be more shocking than the last poster. The shock value often came from posting things that were explicitly racist, anti-semitic, sexist, or otherwise hateful toward a particular group. The evolution of Pepe the Frog from a goofy cartoon to a recognized hate symbol is a perfect example of how message board communities grew up around “ironic” hate speech.

That behavior didn’t stay on the chans and other message boards, however. Today, trolls can be found on pretty much any site where people are having conversations. You can recognize a troll by the extremely inflammatory statement they’ll drop into a thread. Then, if you take the bait and engage, they’ll either continue to escalate or they’ll just laugh at you. 

Remember: Their goal is to wreak havoc, which is why the refrain “don’t feed the trolls” is so common online. When you “feed” the trolls by engaging with them, the reasoning goes, you’re doing exactly what they want you to do, which almost makes you complicit in the mess they make.

What is a keyboard warrior?

If a troll is just trying to stir things up for the sake of stirring things up, a keyboard warrior is here to fight for the cause. What cause, you ask? Depends on the war!

Keyboard warriors believe strongly in whatever their pet cause is and they’ll go down fighting for it online, although oftentimes, they’ll purposefully stay anonymous. The term is pejorative because it pokes fun at the assumption that these “warriors” would never actually fight in person. 

Here’s how Urban Dictionary defines it:

“A Person who, being unable to express his anger through physical violence (owing to their physical weakness, lack of bravery and/or conviction in real life), instead manifests said emotions through the text-based medium of the internet, usually in the form of aggressive writing that the Keyboard warrior would not (for reasons previously mentioned) be able to give form to in real life.”

Yikes. And while this definition is trolling keyboard warriors (a willingness to commit violence isn’t really the point here – it’s really about going hard for your cause) it does give a view into how some people online view keyboard warriors.

What is a social justice warrior?

Social justice warrior (or SJW), a subset of the keyboard warrior, is another term that has evolved over the years. Pre-internet, a social justice warrior was just someone who fought for the rights of other people. But on early 2010s social media — and Twitter in particular — the term became an insult, calling people out for “performative wokeness.” 

Another aspect of the SJW of that time was the disregard for others’ feelings. An SJW believed that they were right, and didn’t care about the impact their arguments and words might have on the people on the other side of the screen.

The irony of this, of course, is that this perspective often ends up dehumanizing people — which is what social justice warriors are supposedly fighting against. And when SJW culture is taken to its extreme, we see cancellation campaigns and online bullying that would rival any troll worth his Pepe meme. 

Bad behavior is just a fact of humanity. But the prevalence of Millennials behaving badly online, as illustrated by these three archetypes, speaks to the fact that there’s something unique about internet jerkery. We grew up on the internet — and maybe it’s time we all grew up for real. 

And a big part of growing up is learning how to self-regulate, even if no one taught us how to do that online when we were kids. So next time you’re about to sound off, follow these four steps to help you get back to your non-troll self.

1. Take a deep breath.

Sounds cheesy, but it works: Breathe in. Breathe out. Count to four. Sometimes we get so caught up in internet drama that just pausing to breathe can help bring us back to reality.

2. Assess your motivations.

What’s your goal here? Are you trying to change someone’s mind? Make a point? Feel self righteous or better about yourself? Or are you just seeking that high that a confrontation can bring?

Then, ask yourself whether or not what you’re about to post is going to achieve that goal. If you’re being honest with yourself, the answer is most likely, “No.” Most of the time when we get into fights online, it’s less about making the world a better place and more about a self-serving need that’s not too flattering if you look at it closely.

3. Remember that there’s a person on the other side of the screen.

When you’re interacting through a screen, it can be really hard to remember that you’re actually interacting with a person who has feelings, thoughts, and their own unique experiences – just like you. So it can be really helpful to just remind yourself of that fact and ask: How would I feel if someone sent this message to me?

4. Step away!

The internet can feel like the whole world sometimes, but it’s actually just a small portion of it. So before you start to sound off online, take a breath. Step away from the keyboard. And ask yourself: Is this really who I want to be?

--> -->