We've all dealt with them online: People who seem to exist purely to start arguments and upset others by posting inflammatory, provocative, and often ridiculous things.
But the invention of the internet didn't create this impulse. Nope, there have always been trolls throughout history, stirring up s--t in their own special ways. However, as opposed to malicious online bullies, pre-internet trolls often had amazingly grand reasons for doing their thing...
Irish satirist Jonathan Swift was a troll par excellence, and his masterpiece was clearly the 1729 essay "A Modest Proposal." In fact, the full title almost makes it sound like the world's first clickbait: "A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick."
This was satire at the slyest level, sarcastically encouraging poor Irish people of the 1700s to sell their children to the rich as a food source. Very few readers picked up on the scathing social criticism about inequality, and were absolutely outraged at Swift's supposed belief that a baby is "a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout."
Saying "God is Dead" would hardly count as trolling nowadays, but in 1882, it was as inflammatory as you could get. Still, the great German philosopher Nietzsche declared this in his work "The Gay Science."
While he didn't literally mean God is dead -- he was talking about people becoming nihilists -- that simple statement shook up the establishment, as Nietzsche intended it to. In fact, nearly 80 years later, Time magazine was able to re-troll with the same sentiments by releasing a 1966 cover story, "Is God Dead?" People were up in arms all over again.
Early-1900s French artist Marcel Duchamp is often taught in really boring college classes on Dadaism and conceptual art. Instead, he should be taught in classes on master trolling.
Perhaps his most famous work, "Fountain," was entered in an independent artists exhibit in 1917. The thing was, all he had entered was a urinal. Seriously. Duchamp had purchased a standard urinal, turned it sideways, signed a name on its porcelain, and entered it as his work of art.
This was, no surprise, highly controversial; the exhibition's board of directors simply refused to display it. Duchamp had the last laugh, though, as "Fountain" was the first major work to spur debates of what is and is not "art," and many have even named "Fountain" the most influential work of art (yes, art) of the 20th century.
Orson Welles was a legendary jack of all trades skilled at everything from writing to directing, acting and even magic. While "Citizen Kane" is his best-known work, he also pulled off one of the most infamous trollings of American audiences.
With his unexpected radio broadcast of "War of the Worlds" in 1938, Welles managed to convince many Americans that aliens were actually attacking planet earth, and he was giving a live report of that onslaught. Once people found out the truth, there was great outrage and anger toward Welles. Sure, people were more gullible back then, but we have a feeling Welles could still prank us today. Call him Kimmel before Kimmel.
You'd think sports would be one place free from trolling, but the sport of boxing actually gives us an all-time great troll. Muhammad Ali was famous for his bombast and braggadocio, insulting all of his opponents and often noting, "I am the greatest!"
This riled everyone up from the press, to the public, to his fellow opponents. So what happened? The press wrote about Ali, the public paid to see him, and his fellow opponents were so angered and/or distracted by his trolling remarks that they usually lost to him. A heavyweight champion troll for sure.
Comedian Andy Kaufman at times seemed completely inept, at times like a person from another planet. What he really was...was perhaps the greatest troll of all time.
As a comedian, sometimes Kaufman would go on stage acting completely antisocial and simply read a passage from "The Great Gatsby" or play a record. Other times he would go on talk shows and insult the "stupid" people watching at home.
But his greatest troll move ever was adopting the character of Tony Clifton, a brash lounge singer who intentionally fired up Vegas audiences with incendiary and insulting comments. Boos would reign down upon Kaufman, but all of these stunts were just part of the act...the act of epically trolling audiences. And even more epically, he's still trolling us from the grave.