What are Trolls, Zombies and Demons in The Online World?

Dave Taylor

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I'm surrounded by strange jargon and I feel like an extra in a B-grade horror movie. One mailing list I'm on has “trolls", and the latest virus can turn my computer into a “zombie", and my ISP keeps talking about “demons"! Egads! Do I need some sort of exorcist to use my computer now??

On the assumption that you aren't John Carpenter and that you aren't trolling my weblog, let me tell the scoop here! First off, don't panic, don't call in an exorcist, and for goodness sake, don't spill a bowl of pea soup on your keyboard!

Like any community, the online community has evolved its own specialized language to more accurately communicate concepts. There are some famous examples of professional languages, but my favorite is that Australian butchers created a language where they literally spoke backwards so that they could talk without customers having a clue what they were saying.

But back to our own particular form of communication!

Participate on a mailing list or discussion board long enough and you'll find that there are certain people who pop in and add messages that are either diametrically opposed to the shared values of the group or subtly insulting or demeaning. If the author is just offensive, well, there are people like that everywhere, unfortunately. They're just, well, offensive.

But there are other people who post offensive material for effect, to produce a reaction and rile up the members of the community. They're trolls. If you go to an Apple Macintosh discussion group and post “Macs are garbage and all cool people use PCs", or go to a United Nations weblog and post “The UN is the tool of Satan" or add a comment on the Holocaust Museum Web site that “the Holocaust is a fiction invented by Zionists", odds are pretty darn good you're a troll.

Most communities ignore trolls or, sometimes, one person responds with “troll: ignore" or similar to ensure that even new community members avoid wasting their time trying to engage the author in a debate. Sometimes, though, groups can spin out of control completely where the troll engages in an increasing incoherent debate with community members, who, predictably, start foaming at the mouth because of this person assailing their core, fundamental beliefs.

Referring to the original definition of trolls, I think they'd all do best to just climb back under their bridges and wait for the next person to come across, personally.

Zombie computers are, like the staggering mindless hulks that star in all those B- grade movies, doing things without you being able to control them. Typically nefarious things, like sending out thousands upon thousands of Web page or network ping requests (that's called more formally a distributed denial of service attack), helping spread a virus (which is so common that people forget that most virii actually take over a computer), or, the latest twist, serve as spam relay points, blindly sending out thousands of unwanted junk email messages.

My understanding of how this works is that a computer - typically a PC running Windows - is infected by a virus which then launches a program running secretly on the computer. Think “brain eating fungus" here. That program then communicates with a central control program that sends it a master email message and a list of thousands of email addresses. The connection is severed, and your Dell, Gateway, HP, Toshiba, or other PC suddenly starts opening up and firing off email after email. All with your return address, your return IP on the tracking data, and without any telltale “Mailer: Zombie Mail 1.35 (installed by B. xx virus on 2 Feb 05)" header to let people know you're not the bad guy.

To revive a zombie computer you need to sacrifice a chicken, pouring the blood into the . . . oh, no. Sorry, wrong article. What you need to do is run an antivirus program from its boot CDROM (which, by definition, is clean and virus-free), which should be able to at least quarantine if not kill the zombie infection.

Finally, when your ISP talks about demons, she's really talking about Unix programs that run “in background" 24x7, and they're properly spelled “daemons". If you're reading this message, you've sent a Web page query to the Web server daemon running on my own server, and if you then follow-up by sending me an email message that explains why we never have angelic or positive metaphors in the online world (which I'd love to discuss!) then your email program would connect to my email daemon, running a protocol known as the simple mail transfer protocol (SMTP).

A long answer for a simple question, but in a medium built around writing and broadcast communication, and initially designed by nerdy misfits who preferred Dungeons & Dragons to cocktail parties with the sorority across the street, it should be no surprise that the jargon is so colorful and evocative.

Dave Taylor runs AskDaveTaylor! , a popular website where he fields a wide variety of technical and business questions on subjects as far ranging as business blogging, publishing contracts, C programming, HTML page layout and Mac applications.


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