You’re a Vampire, Whitney
September 2, 2011 § 3 Comments
I was initially attracted to trolling because I really fucking like to swear! As a result my early research focused on trolls’ astoundingly naughty language (even by my standards), specifically the metacommunicative signals they would deploy to indicate that trolling was indeed afoot. By learning the language I learned about the culture, and by learning about the culture I started interacting with actual trolls, who introduced me to more and ever-scarier trolls, who by the grace of god decided to humor my incessant, and initially very stupid, questions (inb4 my questions are still very stupid, it’s true). It was through this spiderweb that I discovered RIP trolling, which I’m currently revisiting. This has me thinking about my research generally and the extent to which it has turned me into an ambulance-chasing ghoul.
But let me back up. One of the occupational hazards of ethnographic research is that you enter into a symbiotic, and sometimes outright parasitic, relationship with your research subjects/informants/collaborators/whatever other PC word (in regular conversation I tend to describe them as “my trolls,” though recognize the weird possessive connotations of that sort of framing and avoid it in research papers and whatnot, instead favoring “research collaborators” or just “the trolls I’ve worked with” — despite the fact that “my trolls” feels more natural due to I use “my” the way normal people use “my” when talking about “their” friends). As a result, you’re naturally and necessarily and definitionally affected when anything happens to any of them. The event needn’t even be related to your research proper, it could be as simple as someone gets sick, or someone gets pregnant, or someone gets arrested or hit by a car or the band breaks up or X divorces Y or whatever. As a researcher you’re suddenly –though often subconsciously– tenting your fingers like some shifty-eyed cartoon villain thinking oh how FASCINATING I wonder how the community will RESPOND.
Which isn’t to say that ethnography is irredeemably cynical or solipsistic (things only matter if they impact the project, everything revolves around the project, BUT WHAT ABOUT THE PROJECT etc) — but it is the case that the project does matter (well, hopefully, at least to the researcher), and that your informants do animate whatever analysis. Meaning that, in a very basic way, what impacts them –what they do, what they don’t, who they hate, who they love, trouble they’ve either gotten themselves into or out of, what they watch on TV, anything and everything– has a direct impact on you(r research). So when you encounter these kinds of things, your ears perk right up. Well, they do if you’re any good at your job. Seeing as your job is to pay attention to the people you’re paying attention to. In itself, this setup is entirely value-neutral. The problem is that the things that happen to people often AREN’T, which can thrust an otherwise straightforward, maybe even clinical relationship into murky ethical waters. To say the very least. Ethnography can be real weird, is what I’m saying, and relationships can be complicated, and it’s very difficult not to occasionally –and/or permanently, depending on how much of an asshole you are– fall into a pit of grotesque self-involvement.
Now, if your collaborators happen to be trolls who descend upon the memorial pages of dead strangers, you find yourself taking special notice when you encounter a news story describing an “interesting” or otherwise notable death — after all tragedy = trolls = oh man this will work GREAT in the Facebook chapter! = WHAT HAVE I BECOME. I have the same reaction whenever there’s a high-profile disaster — Irene being the most recent example, but also the tsunami in Japan and the shootings in Norway. When something bad happens, I have to drop whatever I’m doing and park my ass in front of the computer because as I said here, this shit isn’t going to archive itself. It’s horrible, but it’s good for the project, and things that are good for the project are good? Maybe, but it’s still blood-soaked, which can be upsetting and surreal and also entirely prosaic, because let’s face it, this is what I do for a living, and is what I signed up for. I don’t know how I feel about that. To be perfectly honest. Sometimes. I do however know where I’ll be on September 11th, and let me fucking tell you, that is a very strange feeling.