Serial WSO posters keep the online conversations trollin’

Williams Students Online, or as it is colloquially known, WSO, is a great resource for students interested in buying or selling something, finding a ride or stalking a classmate.

WSO troll
Julian Hess ’13 embraces his role as a “troll” on WSO discussions.

But another popular (and perhaps more infamous) feature of the website is an online forum created to help spark discussion among the diverse student population at Williams. Within this forum is an elite group of commentators, people whom you would be hard-pressed to find abstaining from discussions entirely. Some people call them trolls – though it’s not always clear whether this is a positive or negative title. The forum has provided these people with a place to share their thoughts and ideas with the rest of the College community and hopefully garner a response.

Julian Hess ’13 uses the WSO forum as a means of entertainment. He doesn’t take it too seriously – rather, he enjoys posting humorous tidbits and scintillating graphics. Although he doesn’t consider himself a frequent poster, new posts from Hess usually crop up every week. His most recent post, titled “Recursion,” consists of a duplicate of the page containing that very post to create what could be described as “post-ception.” “I just felt that WSO was a really unique sphere of posting things, and I felt that I could add some humor to that in a way that I couldn’t really add to real life discussion,” Hess said.

Like Hess, Wade Phenicie ’14 brings a lighthearted attitude to the WSO forum. “[I post] silly things, things that are inane or things that are making fun of other people,” Phenicie said. While he only posts about once or twice a week, he checks the site daily to catch up on the “juicy new tidbits” of discussion. He repored that his interest was initially sparked when someone said something ridiculous and he felt the need to post something even more ridiculous. Phenicie uses WSO more as a source of entertainment than a means of groundbreaking, philosophical exploration.

As our interview drew to a close, Phenicie directed me to a discussion from late April of last year titled “Washington D.C.,” a post he termed a “classic.” The infamous thread (in which Phenicie did not personally participate) began when one student asked for reccomendations about post-graduate housing in Washington D.C. Another student replied, stating that the Metro is a good mode of transportation because it is  “free of rats and economically disadvantaged people.” The post initially incited a slew of  outraged replies, which turned increasingly sarcastic as the thread continued. One student posted a picture of Charlie Sheen labeled “Winning”; another posted a stick-figure comic satirizing the post and the intensity of students’ response. To Phenicie, threads such as this offer up a hilariously entertaining helping of WSO drama.

On the other end of the spectrum lies Norman Walczak ’12, another frequent poster who wishes the forum would be more widely used. Unlike Hess and Phenicie, who try to bring humor to the site, Walczak tries to make constructive contributions where they are necessary. WSO interested him as soon as he arrived on campus. “I’ve always liked the forum format, and that was the closest thing we had to that at Williams,” Walczak said. He both praised and lamented the lack of anonymity on the site. Since WSO is not anonymous, he feels this leads to a great deal of self-policing but also deters many from posting because they don’t want to be associated with what they write.

For my own research, I visited the discussion boards of WSO and tried to get a feel for the overall nature of the forum. I found many posts and comments from those I interviewed. Indeed, there are those who use this forum to start and participate in intense discussion. While only a small sampling of the student population seems to take advantage of this feature of WSO, many of the discussions help highlight the diverse student community. Interspersed among these serious debates are links to viral videos and posts purposely mocking anything that even slightly deserves to be mocked.

Then there are those comments, usually hidden within a serious discussion, which can only fall under the heading “trolling.” Hess admitted that he has occasionally been called a troll for his frequent contributions to the website. Typically, trolling consists of employing sarcasm or cynicism to elicit a response from fellow participants in a discussion. While students are rarely malicious in these attempts, some of the trolling is heavily veiled and often overlooked by those seriously invested in the conversation. While this may initially seem to be the opposite of what a troll intends, might such subtle, witty jabs actually represent the ultimate form of trolling?

The WSO discussion forum has provided a convenient place for students to share ideas and spread some humor among those they both know and relate to. When asked what WSO brings to the community, Hess talked about the niche WSO fills. “I feel that on a campus the size of Williams, an internet forum like that is really a unique means of communication,” Hess said. “Since you know such a large percentage of the student body, it’s not as if it facilitates discussion between people who are totally anonymous to each other the way fora do on the entire internet.”