A note on “brinking” — how trolling is done in moderated forums

The internet jargon term “brinking” is one that seems to be falling out of use.  Never commonly used online, and often used with slightly different meanings, it is now scarcely heard.  

But the activity denoted by the word has not diminished, and indeed, if anything, has increased, especially on Wikipedia.  The loss of the word, indeed, is not a good sign.  Most people find it hard to identify things for which  they have no specific word. 

Brinking is a nastier form of trolling, and, like trolling, is intended to inflict pain on the victim.  It relies on the existence of moderation in a forum, and plays games with it in order to hurt others. 

A brinker is trying to bait his victim into a rage, while staying just within the rules himself, and then report his victim to the moderator and so get the victim reprimanded by the moderator.   

The usual technique is to posting material which on the face of it is bland or falls within the moderation policy but is actually very insulting to the person being brinked.  A successful brink, to the brinker, is when his enemy gets banned.  A very successful brink is when the brinker can get his victim to apologise for what the brinker made him do. 

I have always thought of the brinker as the most evil of posters.  A troll may be relatively harmless.  But a brinker means harm.  You can’t accidentally brink.  You have to be cold-blooded to do this.  It is, in online terms, the equivalent of murder, I think. 

I have said that this can only occur in a moderated forum.  In fact, this is not quite true.  Because most people — especially ordinary people, and especially Christians — have a moral code, a brinker can use this to get people to feel guilty for what he made them do.  He will post in such a manner as to give incredible offence while superficially being polite.  The victim responds in honest anger; and the brinker then coldly reads them a sermon on politeness.  The aim is the same.  

The latter tactic I have seen employed a number of times online by homosexuals (and only them).  In each case, in a discussion about Christianity, an anti-Christian poster declared suddenly and irrelevantly that he was homosexual.  In this case the mention of homosexuality is bait.  Homosexuality is not under discussion in the thread.

Most of us find such a vice rather disgusting, and the parading of it discourteous as well.  Most of us, faced with it, will be polite but express our dislike.  Caught unawares by the switch of topic, most of us will say something.  But the brinker knows what he is doing.  While he is waiting for the response which he has set up to occur — it doesn’t matter if the response is actually mild and reasonable –, the brinker prepares the most vicious personal attack he can manage on his victim as “rude” and “bigoted”.  It seems to be a stock response, almost indifferent to what precisely the reply was, with a declaration “I’m not talking to scum like you”, in fact, which has led me to wonder once or twice whether there is some group working from a script here!  Once the reply is received, the attack is launched, and the discussion terminated.  An ordinary person, shocked at the violence, will wonder if he in fact said something wrong.  

This is, in fact, a form of  brinking.  As with all brinking, the intention is to inflict pain and shut out the victim, in this case as part of a campaigning agenda.  I have only once seen this form of brinking used by anyone outside of the gay rights bunch.

Because the term “brinking” is going out of use, I’ve spent a little while this evening attempting to track down whatever remains online about this.  One 2005 post suggests (the term is already going out of use): 

Brinking is when one establishes the boundaries of the target forum and then posts always on the verge of crossing those boundaries. 

In this case, the victim of the “brink” is the moderator.  Another describes part of the process: 

Neo-flaming: Another form of flaming where upon the user flames or insults the other member, but usually disguises it to make it not look like a flame, insult or baiting. 

A longer definition, again where the moderator is the intended victim, in a collection of various unpleasing tricks, is here:

Some users find sport in seeing how close they can get to being thrown off a message board. The system administrator will often have a set of rules (typically known as the “Terms of Service”) which specify how people should conduct themselves. One type of poster, which I call a “brinker”, attempts to get as near to the edge as he or she possibly can without actually going over.

Unlike the troll, who directs his or her efforts at the users of a system, the brinker is actually toying with the system administrator. He or she can be a thorn in the side of the administrator, holding the good name and popularity of the system at stake. Most administrators hesitate to throw people off the system unless they have broken an explicit rule. The brinker enjoys using words (or, occasionally, computer hacking) to exploit “grey areas” and thus wreak havoc.

Brinkers, like trolls, elevate their hobby to an art form (albeit an unpleasant one). They can be so subtle that the administrator may not be sure that he or she is being brinked. For example, on a message board I once ran I explained to the users about “flamebait”. Within a week, one of them had started up a flamebait topic. I was tempted to close it down before it devolved into the usual bickering, but that may have made me look dictatorial. So was the creation of the topic a dig at me, or was I being paranoid? Assessing that user’s past actions, I concluded that I’d been brinked.

If an administrator runs an informal board, it may be counterproductive to explicitly list all the rules. I have sometimes been “taken to court” (so to speak) by users when I kicked somebody off a message board, and had my own rules used to “prove” that my action was not justified. Most message board administrators, if they do have a list of rules, include a statement that they may block any user “at our discretion”. In other words, they can banish somebody without stating a specific reason. This still irritates people, but at least the administrator is covered by his or her own rules. 

Another old definition: 

“BRINKING – Testing rules by getting as close as possible to breaking them without stepping over the line. A technique frequently used by trolls to stir up trouble in a discussion.” 

When challenged, of course, the brinker shouts “I’m within the rules!” 

Typically, however, brinkers are never caught.  It is well, therefore, to be aware of the practice.

While searching for information, I found these wise words about trolling:

“An Internet “troll” is a person who delights in sowing discord on the Internet. He (and it is usually he) tries to start arguments and upset people.

Trolls see Internet communications services as convenient venues for their bizarre game. For some reason, they don’t “get” that they are hurting real people. To them, other Internet users are not quite human but are a kind of digital abstraction. As a result, they feel no sorrow whatsoever for the pain they inflict. Indeed, the greater the suffering they cause, the greater their ‘achievement’ (as they see it). At the moment, the relative anonymity of the net allows trolls to flourish.”

This too was from 2005; but these days, few people in wikipedia or online forums post other than anonymously.


3 thoughts on “A note on “brinking” — how trolling is done in moderated forums

  1. Other than the more offensive nature, the somewhat more subtle tactics, and the valid threat of getting personally banned, this isn’t really any advance over the tactics commonly used by younger siblings to get older siblings in trouble.

    My parents were not particularly amused by anyone acting as “instigator”, and were not shy about punishing him. Apparently some people’s parents never got wise to this, or they’d never have tried it again in their lives.


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