The Three Commenteers
A short story about committing antagonistic word acts outside of your jurisdiction
A while ago, one of my friends posted an innocent online essay about tea. A while after that, the article ended up on a popular internet forum. Some of the comments were hilarious, and it inspired me to write this invariably too verbose piece about trolls.
I will be writing more like this. I’m bored of essays and I’ve said more than enough in essay form. Hopefully you enjoy this fiction. Please let me know.
I also encourage you to check out the audio format. There’s some special extras in that. Finally, extra-special thanks to Vanya for helping me out with this piece.
And just like that, we’re in a room. It’s a room that most people don’t know exists, and it’s a room they wouldn’t want to experience even if they could. Much like asbestos ceilings, this is a room best left alone and untouched. It’s best left to the professionals. And conveniently enough, at one side of the table, we have one such professional. Not a professional at asbestos removal (in fact, he had an unfortunate incident with that last year), but a professional in removing other things. He’s called <redacted>. Unfortunately, we can never know the name of <redacted>, or the agency he works for. It isn’t like Men In Black. These chaps just never show their faces. Or reveal their names. Or stay in hotels. True ‘black bag’ stuff, as they’d say, whoever they are. At the other side of the table we have Number Three. He’s the suspect, along with Number One and Number Two. They’re in in the other rooms, and we’ll get to them shortly. Yes, they’re reallycalled Number One through Three, but they put a weird inflection on it that makes it sound more exotic. This naughty trio are currently committing an internet atrocity, and <redacted> is currently interviewing them.
Interview room 2B.
‘Number Three’ present.
Interviewed by <redacted>.
Time is currently 14.45.
“WHY DO WE DO IT? WE GOT PAID.”
Number Three blinks behind his oversized glasses on his undersized head. On a normal man, the glasses wouldn’t be oversized. On Number Three, he appears to be staring from the bottom of two goldfish bowls glued to his eyeballs. They make him look like he isn’t understanding the questions. He is understanding perfectly well.
“Yes, but you had to learn how do it. Decide you want to do it. Practice your craft. Being paid doesn’t explain it, I’m sorry. Millions of people do what you do for free. So, I’ll ask again. Why do you do it?”
“I DON’T APPRECIATE YOUR TONE. I DON’T APPRECIATE YOUR IMPLICATION. IN FACT, I DON’T APPRECIATE YOUR LINE OF QUESTIONING. I DON’T APPRECIATE THE FACT I’M BEING HELD HERE, AND MOST IMPORTANTLY OF ALL, I DON’T APPRECIATE YOUR FACE.”
Number Three is spooling him in. Standard operating procedure. Learned from birth. He blinks again, staring from behind his goldfish bowls.
“Sir, I’m not here to insult you or to hold you against your will. I don’t need to remind you of the reasons why we’re both sat here. You did something you shouldn’t have done. I’m here to find out why. I ask the questions as to why. You are supposed to answer them.”
<redacted> is doing something close to a sigh. He’s gone through this same process too many times before to know better than waste energy with emotions and fighting back and arguing and all that nonsense.
“Let’s start again. I’m afraid I have to ask the cliched Hollywood movie question. Who do you work for?”
“WE WORK IN GROUPS OF THREE. I AM NUMBE’R TH’REE. I WORK FOR THE TROLLS.”
“And who are the other two you work with?”
“THERE’S NUM’BER O’NE. AND NUMB’ER T’WO.”
“And was it you who did this?”
“NO. IT WAS NUM’BER O’NE. AND IT WAS THE TROLLS.”
A large, god-like voice fills the room. It comes out over the tannoy, but there isn’t any tannoys. It’s as if it’s filling the story, and taking over it. It doesn’t say much. Just a simple, frankly rather harsh, statement.
THERE IS SOME GREAT CONTENT OUT THERE, BUT THIS IS NOT SOME OF IT.
And just like that, we’re in another room. This room is identical in every way to the last room. <redacted> is here again, but this time we’ve got Number Two on the other side of the table. <redacted> looks tired but dangerous, like a cat watching a bird. At this point, we don’t know whether the cat will catch its bird, or the bird will plop on the cat’s head.
Interview room 6B.
'Number Two’ present.
Interviewed by <redacted>.
Time is currently 18.45.
“IT WAS NOT ME.”
Number Two blinks behind his undersized glasses on his oversized head. On a normal man, the glasses wouldn’t be undersized. On Number Two, they look like he is peering through a pair of binoculars from the wrong way around. To say he possesses a large head would be quite an understatement. An understatement so understated it could have entered The Understated Guinness Book of Understated Records and found itself written in 2pt type at the bottom of the last page, whispered in the quietest tones from the smallest animal in the world. Probably a small frog.
“It was not you? That’s not what I’ve been told. In fact, I’ve had several witnesses describe you and you alone responsible. They say you started it. They say it was your choice to go into the wrong room. They say it was you who chose to disregard your jurisdiction. What do you say?”
“I WOULD SAY IT WAS THEIR MOTHER’S FAULT.”
“No need for that here. You’re not working now. You’re answering questions. My questions. And these questions—and your answers—have very serious consequences.”
“TALK TO THE HAND, BECAUSE THE FACE IS NOT LISTENING.”
“The face should listen. And the face should listen closely.”
They stare at each other.
Then they stare some more.
Those ridiculous, wrong way though the binoculars eyes.
“IT WAS NUM’BER O’NE. AND IT WAS THE TROLLS.”
Then, as if on queue so we could skip to another time and place in the story, the voice. Again. It bellows another harsh statement.
GET TO THE POINT. ALL STORIES—ESPECIALLY INTERNET STORIES—SHOULD ARRIVE AT THE POINT QUICKLY. NOBODY HAS AN ATTENTION SPAN. AND ALSO: WHAT AM I LEARNING HERE?
Oh, hello. Yes, this is another room. I know, it’s a bit of a jump cut here. Hard to follow what’s going on. It’s a bit like a fight scene in one of those modern movies. All blurred arms and fists, then somebody falls out of a window. Of course, there’s no windows in this room. Just a concrete box. The asbestos was removed after a fairly unpleasant workplace incident last year. Anyway, let’s go stare at Number One for a while. He’s the last of them that we haven’t met yet, and something tells me that this might be the important part of the story. An Act 3, if you will.
Interview room 1C.
'Number One’ present.
Interviewed by <redacted>.
Time is currently 22.17.
“IT WAS NOT ME EITHER.”
Number One blinks behind his perfectly normal glasses on his perfectly normal head. He is perfectly normal in every way, actually. Nothing stands out. With Number One, you’d struggle to remember what his face looks like after glancing away, an activity currently commencing in this story. What did Number One look like again?
“That’s not what I’ve been told. And honestly, I’m sick of the merry-go-round all three of you have me on. One of you did this. One of you started this. One of you decided to step out of your jurisdiction.”
“THE TROLLS MADE US DO IT.”
“But…you are the trolls.”
“NO, WE ARE THE TROLL PEOPLE. WE ARE NOT THE TROLLS.”
“What’s the difference?”
“THE TROLL PEOPLE WORK IN GROUPS OF THREE. WE ARE ASSIGNED AT BIRTH OUR MISSION FOR LIFE. IT IS DISHONOURABLE TO OUR HOUSE TO LEAVE OUR MISSION.”
“But you troll people, correct?”
“NO. WE GENERATE ENGAGEMENT AND ENERGY IN THE PIPES OF OUR SACRED INTER’NET. OUR MISSION IS NOT TO TROLL PEOPLE. WE ARE THE TROLL PEOPLE.”
“So what is your mission for life?”
“OUR DEEP SACRED YOUTU’BE.”
Every time Number One says ‘YouTube’, starts dancing with his right hand. He begins pointing to the ceiling, the floor, the left wall, then the right wall. He continues pointing at the right wall for a respectful while, long enough to make it obvious he means it, whatever it is that he actually means.
“IT IS OUR MISSION TO INCREASE ENERGY IN THE PIPES OF OUR SACRED INTER’NET BY PROVIDING ACERBIC AND OCCASIONALLY ACIDIC COMMENTS ON OUR DEEP SACRED YOUTU’BE. WE ARE NEVER DETERRED FROM THIS MISSION.”
The ceiling, then the floor, then the left wall, then the right wall. Then the pause. Then the disembodied voice again. Bellowing.
SPEED IT UP. THIS IS DULLER THAN DITCH WATER. AND THAT’S PRETTY DULL.
OK, this is the final room. We’re here with Number Three again. This is probably definitely the Act 3. The ending. Not much more scrolling left for you to do now, or poking, or reading, or whatever you modern internet types do. Maybe you ingest such ‘content’ directly into your eyeballs via your Elon Musk Bill Gates Eye Link Pro Max Beta 3.5. I don’t know. I’m just here to point you towards the story, and hopefully the ending. Which is happening right now. Probably.
Interview room 2B.
‘Number Three’ present.
Interviewed by <redacted>.
Time is currently 22.48.
“AS I SAID, WE GOT PAID.”
“But you don’t work for pay. You work because it is your mission for life.”
“So, why did you get paid?”
“BECAUSE WE WERE TOLD TO SAY WE GOT PAID.”
“What do you mean? Do you mean to say you didn’t get paid?”
“WHAT USE DO THE TROLL PEOPLE HAVE FOR YOUR HUMAN PAY COINS?”
“I don’t know. I don’t understand trolls.”
“WE ARE NOT TROLLS.”
“WE ARE THE TROLL PEOPLE. WE ARE NOT TROLLS. IT IS OUR MISSION FOR-“
“Life, yes. I already got that patter from the other troll. So, you’re telling me you didn’t get paid?”
“No, you didn’t get paid, or no, you’re not telling me whether you got paid or not?”
“Are you trolling me?”
“WE DO NOT CALL IT THAT.”
“AND WE ARE NOT TROLLS.”
“So, what is this?”
They stare at each other. <redacted> sighs that knowing sigh, that sigh that says he knows what’s coming next. He remembers that he’ll be filling paperwork out for the next 2 days. He’ll finish work late. He’ll have to text the wife in a minute. Let her know. She’ll understand. It’s a big case. He’ll have to microwave the lasagne.
“You have been found in contravention of Section #234 of the Peaceful Internet Act. You have been found committing troll-like-“
“WE ARE NOT TR-.”
“JUST LISTEN! You have been found committing antagonistic word acts outside of your jurisdiction you were assigned at birth. Have you anything else to say?”
“WHAT IS YOUR EVIDENCE?”
“Well, it’s this, isn’t it? This piece of internet communication we’re currently both a part of? This Substack story. You’re a YouTube Commenting Troll. You are a willing participant in an invented internet communication that is currently outside of your jurisdiction by some considerable distance.”
“BUT COULDN’T WE JUST THROW IN A YOUTUBE VIDEO AT THE BOTTOM HERE, AND HAVE DONE WITH IT?”
“Cross-pollination of internet trolls is strictly forbidden. We do not allow YouTube Commenting Trolls to interact with any other platform. There is a special ringfence around you lot. You tend to say nasty things we don’t want spreading anywhere else.”
“But perhaps worst of all, this invented internet communication has driven its entire story forward through the use of spoken word, an act exclusively owned by The Trolls of the Narrative. I better write this story up too.”
“I AM NOT HAPPY WITH THE DEPICTION OF THE TROLL PEOPLE WITHIN THIS STORY.”
“Take it up with the writer. We’re done here.”
And with that, the disembodied voice appears one more time. We finally realise that it isn’t a disembodied voice at all, just a couple sitting on a sofa. A couple of trolls, actually. They’re sitting in their living room, watching a YouTube video. That YouTube video, some experimental piece about trolls. From their faces, it is clear they aren’t enjoying it.
WELL, THAT DIDN’T MAKE ANY SENSE DID IT? CONVOLUTED STORY, POOR USE OF BREAKING THE FOURTH WALL. IT WILL HAVE BERTOLT BRECHT TURNING IN HIS GRAVE. THIS IS NOT HOW THE TROLLS ACT AT ALL. WE TAKE PRIDE IN OUR WORK. AND THIS WAS INVARIABLY TOO VERBOSE.
To be specific, a Paedophryne amauensis. Their average body is about 7mm. There’s probably smaller animals out there, but a tiny frog is both surprising and interesting, almost the exact opposite of this piece.