“So Bad It’s Funny: Ambiguous Fan Engagement as an Expression of Cultural Literacy” — Presentation for 2014’s International Communications Association Meeting in Seattle, WA

May 23, 2014 § 2 Comments

Actual first slide

Actual first slide

 From the panel “How Memes Matter: Probing New Modes of Popular Participation and Exclusion,” May 24, 2014.

Today I’m going to be talking about online content that is so bad, or so weird, or so broken, or so dated, that it’s great.

Although English lacks a quick and easy way of describing such content, the Japanese and Chinese-speaking webs have it covered: kuso (“e gao” in Mandarin), literally translated from Japanese as “shitty.”

In Japan, “kuso” is a basic and highly versatile adjective—not unlike shitty in English. In the context of bad video games (Kuso-ge) and other amusingly sub-par content, however, the term takes on more nuanced meaning, something to the effect of “this is so bad and stupid and terribly designed, I LOVE IT!!!”

That’s the basic overview of what this talk will cover. Here are two things I will not be addressing:

Another actual slide -- notice a theme?

Another actual slide — notice a theme?

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References Done!

April 27, 2014 § Leave a comment

I don’t have much of a temper, as a human, and in fact could stand to cultivate maybe 10% more of one. There are however a few things that make me just RAGE: booking flights and hotel rooms (really, filling out any sort of online form), mouth sounds, sexist men, board games, and formatting references for academic papers. This last thing in particular is the one area in my life where sometimes I am tempted to procrastinate (excuse me, “engage in tactical delays“), and occasionally even do (only for like an hour though). So, it is with great delight and happy-of-myself-ishness that I can announce that I am done-done-DONE with my highly weird 50-page reference list. It’s been ages since I looked the list over carefully, and was struck by the following:

  • Good god I have a lot of sources that have “since been deleted.”
  • A handful of my sources were written/edited/compiled by Chris, though at the time I first encountered whatever thing I hadn’t yet met him so his name was just another name.
  • I had to think carefully about how I handled Encyclopedia Dramatica references, since in the 5 years since beginning this project, the site has undergone 3 respawns and the majority of the content I originally found there has been lost in the anals (not a typo) of time. The Chicago Manual of Style isn’t equipped for that shit.
  • Related to my second point, it’s funny to format sources created by friends.
  • It’s funny to remember where I was geographically and in my life as I picked through each reference. Like I can clearly remember where I was sitting not just when I first found whatever source, but when I initially formatted whatever source. Feels time-capsuley man.

In conclusion, I am done with formatting, and from here on out will be concerned with final revisions & line editing! PROGRESS.

Mary Beard on the Literary and Philosophical History of Women Being Told to Shut Up

February 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

Mary Beard opens her recent London Review of Books essay on the public voice of women –or lack thereof– by beginning at the beginning, or very close to the beginning, specifically the Odyssey. She describes an incident in which Telemachus, Odysseus and Penelope’s son, tells his mother to shut up and go upstairs to make crafts or sing or something because “speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.” As Beard explains:

There is something faintly ridiculous about this wet-behind-the-ears lad shutting up the savvy, middle-aged Penelope. But it’s a nice demonstration that right where written evidence for Western culture starts, women’s voices are not being heard in the public sphere; more than that, as Homer has it, an integral part of growing up, as a man, is learning to take control of public utterance and to silence the female of the species. The actual words Telemachus uses are significant too. When he says ‘speech’ is ‘men’s business’, the word is muthos – not in the sense that it has come down to us of ‘myth’. In Homeric Greek it signals authoritative public speech (not the kind of chatting, prattling or gossip that anyone – women included, or especially women – could do).

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Gone Archivin’

October 15, 2013 § 1 Comment

compudance cool guy

Way back in the forever ago (last year), I used to write some things for Chris’ blog Modern Primate, may it rest in peace. It occurred to me that someday the site will likely be recycled for scrap metal, or whatever ends up happening to decommissioned websites, so I’d best start archiving.

This realization coincided with an earlier realization that I have done a horrible job indexing this blog, due largely to the fact that the whole thing started out as a haphazard repository for snarky PhD exam commentary. I had been tagging certain things as “Digital Culture,” for example, but only in relation to my digital culture exam list. All the actual “digital culture” posts, you know, the ones in which I talk about things on and around the internet, got filed under “Spotlight On” or “Lightning Round,” tags I eventually deleted because they were annoying (which didn’t delete the posts, but rather how they’re indexed onsite). This has made searching for stuff very difficult, which is silly if the whole point of a blog is to write things that other humans can find.

Anyway, in order to kill two birds with one post, I’ve transferred the full text of all my Modern Primate writings to their corresponding posts here. And then because I was already doing that, I figured I might as well collate them all in a separate, more easily navigable MEGApost. No one cares! So without further ado:

On Television:

Of and Related to Dogs:

Internet Culture:

Santorum Slashfic, which got increasingly weird as the months wore on:


October 9, 2013 § Leave a comment

deal with it dog

A few days after Popular Science announced their decision to disable their comments section (nutshell version: too many trolls, not enough science), The Daily Dot asked me to share my thoughts on the thorny issue of comment moderation. YES WONDERFUL I said, and wrote this article, which just went live. In particular, I focus on the “free speech” question, which makes me want to eat my own face.

The kind of speech most likely to be defended by ["free speech" in the colloquial sense] is speech that is bigoted and antagonistic, largely toward women and other historically underrepresented groups (note the infrequency with which women and people of color use the “…but but FREE SPEECH” defense in a debate, whether online or off-). Free speech in the colloquial Internet sense, particularly as it’s used in the context of comment moderation, almost always justifies or outright apologizes for a typically male, typically white aggressor. It is a concept that frames freedom in terms of being free to harass others, not freedom from being harassed, or simply from being exposed to harassment (which often amounts to the same thing).

Unlike discussions of the ideal relationship between author and commenter, or the extent to which platforms are responsible for protecting their readers from harassment,  concerns over “free speech” are unlikely to precipitate thoughtful conversations about best moderation practices. In fact, by actively latching onto “free speech” as a behavioral ideal, platforms inadvertently privilege the aggressor and pathologize readers—readers who, for some strange reason, don’t like wading through a tsunami of antagonistic bullshit every time they scroll through a comments section.

For the conclusion, head on over to The Daily Dot. I even make a joke about poo-flinging, so it’s totally worth it.

“When Internet Trolls Attack” – Karyne Levy on Internet Trolls and Refusing to Refuse to Feed Similar

September 26, 2013 § 5 Comments

A while back I wrote an article on the Daily Dot critiquing the phrase “don’t feed the trolls” due to its implicit victim-blaming (the idea being that if you hadn’t fed the trolls they wouldn’t have attacked you, making their actions ultimately your fault — bullshit I say). This morning Karyne Levy published a nice piece on CNET discussing trolls, platform moderation, and the value of online comment sections. After addressing Popular Science’s decision to shut off its comments section due to too many assholes, Levy discusses her own experiences with online antagonists. As she writes:

And I’m over the online bullying. Mostly. But some of the comments break my heart. They make me want to pack up my things, get off the stage, and go back to being a behind-the-scenes editor. I want to quit the entire thing, stop producing the show that I love, and give up.

She then mentions that my Daily Dot article changed how she looked at trolls, particularly the imperative not to feed them, which is really — I mean just nice, what a nice thing to read.

I’ve since then changed my tactics. Now, whenever the comments on my YouTube page are accidentally left on, I pop in there, comment back, and sometimes tweet the responses. It makes me feel better. Kind of.

Extrapolating out, she continues:

If comments can’t be moderated, should there be comments at all? If the whole purpose of reader comments is to engage the readers, and all I get is personal attacks, am I the one doing something wrong? The Internet can be a place that fosters free speech. And while yes, everyone is entitled to their opinion about my looks, does that mean they should let those opinions be known when it’s irrelevant to the work I’ve produced? I don’t think so. Maybe there shouldn’t be comments at all. Maybe this is why we can’t have nice things.

Years ago, when I first started my trolling research, I aligned myself with the “don’t feed the trolls” logic. But as I continued researching, and more importantly, grew the fuck up and started seeing more examples of the offline impact of online shit-stirring, I began to question how we should deal with online antagonism (note that I’m not using the word “troll” here and instead am focusing on the full range of bad behavior online, a category which includes subcultural trolling but also includes straight-up unambiguous bigotry).

My position these days veers somewhere between “SHUT IT DOWN,” putting me in the comment section-closing camp, and “LET ME AT ‘EM,” putting me in the “if you can’t beat them, then shame them straight to hell” camp. Context matters, of course, so I have a slightly different perspective depending on the specific forum and topic and community. But overall, I’m tired of how much airtime the assholes are getting, and support efforts to push back against those who feel entitled to do what they want, when they want, with little fear of impunity. And don’t even get me started on discussions of “free speech.”

HA HA AWESOME THIS IS TERRIBLE: My Essay on the Kuso Aesthetic, Plus Exciting Bonus Material

September 16, 2013 § 2 Comments

A few months ago, I wrote an article about fan engagement with so-bad-it’s-good media content. I focused specifically on Troll 2, which is the greatest terrible movie ever made (and is the inspiration for countless tribute videos). Open-access media studies journal Transformative Works and Cultures just published the piece, the full text of which is available here. Here’s a portion of my conclusion:

[4.2] Although proponents of the “so bad it’s good” aesthetic may appear to subvert the hegemonic meaning of a particular text by imposing some new or wholly unintended meaning (Hall [1973] 1980)—for example, by laughing at a statement or scene not intended to be comical—they adhere to larger and more pervasive cultural conventions that must remain intact for the subversion to function. In the case of Troll 2, these conventions have to do with the “correct” way to write, produce, cast, edit, and perform in a film. Troll 2‘s scathing critical reviews echo this point, particularly James Kendrick’s (2010) insistence that the film commits “infinite and varied sins against the traits of good cinema.” A person who does not accept these conventions—which ultimately are arbitrary; they could be otherwise, but they are taken to be natural and necessary—would have no reason to laugh at the glorious failure that is Troll 2. There would be nothing to laugh at.

[4.3] Of course, only those who have fully internalized the rules (about filmmaking, about television production, about video game design, about anything else to which these sorts of conventions may be affixed) will be invested in the degree to which they are followed. Not everyone has the access to the requisite materials, education, or time to pursue these types of leisure interests, nor the inclination to care one way or another. In this way, giddy engagement with “so bad it’s good” content is as much an indication of privilege, my own privilege as a white middle-class American academic very much included, as it is an expression of a particular comedic aesthetic. In fact, I would argue that in this case, privilege and kuso are one and the same. You can’t have the latter without a certain degree of the former—a point that brings into sudden political focus the overwhelming whiteness of the fan audiences profiled in Best Worst Movie.

In a later iteration of the project, I ended up connecting kuso stuff to discussions of the New Aesthetic. That exclusive bonus section is after the jump!

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“Are Internet Trolls the Modern Incarnation of Witch Hunters?” -My Interview with the Atlantic Wire

August 8, 2013 § 3 Comments


One of the things that’s a little strange and at times pretty frustrating about doing media interviews is that, more often than not, an entire 45 minute conversation or 8,000 paragraph email exchange is distilled to one money-quote sentence. Sometimes this is the best sentence you said, and sometimes it is the one sentence that appears to undermine your entire argument and makes absolutely no sense and why did you ever say that, you idiot. Either way, the context is often lost, which makes reading the articles you appear in somewhat surreal.  Plus, that is a lot of (unpaid) labor for a one-sentence payoff.

Which is why I’ve decided to start posting my full responses to the questions I’m asked, along with the articles my quotes appear in. Few of the arguments I’m making can be summarized in one sentence, so this way I can say my full peace.

Most recently I was interviewed by Rebecca Greenfield at The Atlantic Wire, who was interested in writing about troll attacks against feminist activists. She wanted to know what the precedent was for these sorts of behaviors, the specific question being “where did this kind of stuff take place before the Internet?” and to which I replied:

This is a very interesting question, though maybe not for the obvious reasons. Specifically, the phrase “this kind of stuff” suggests that there exists some basic coherence to the attacks against Caroline Criado-Perez and others — in turn suggesting that someone could make an overarching claim about the attacks. And I’m not sure that’s possible, or even all that helpful. Because what KIND of stuff is this, really? Some of the misogynist, violent responses were likely sent by people who meant every word they said. Some were likely sent by people who self-identify as trolls and would claim to care less (if at all) about the issue itself, but rather the outraged reactions their behaviors might elicit, or by people who don’t necessarily identify as trolls, but who enjoy a good internet fight, or perhaps by people, whether self-identifying troll or not, who wanted to see if they could be quoted by a news outlet, for laughs. And those are just a few possibilities — there are an untold number of reasons why someone might engage in these sorts of behaviors.

And, ultimately, none of those reasons matter. What matters is that the rape threats and harassment did occur, regardless of the why or the who. In fact, focusing exclusively on why and who tends to divert focus away from institutionalized outposts of sexism and towards those who are condemned as aberrational, but who in fact merely represent the grotesque extreme of more commonly held prejudices against women (something as simple as “men are better writers than women”).

This of course makes it extremely difficult to establish behavioral or technological precedent for the behaviors described in this NYT article. It really depends on what you mean by the phrase “this stuff.” If by stuff you mean violent misogyny generally understood, the answer is yes, there is ample precedent, more precedent than can even be enumerated, precedent beyond any attempt at hyperbole. If you mean people being horrible online, sure, there’s plenty of precedent for that as well — for decades now the internet has been a breeding ground for antagonism, mischief and so-called acts of fuckery. If you mean trolling, particularly if it you’re using the term as a synonym for being horrible online, well pull up a chair, because that’s an entirely separate rabbit hole to fall down, as I explain in this post.

So, again, the answer becomes muddied by the question itself. One thing this conversation does precipitate is an examination of the ways in which these behaviors –whatever their precedent(s)– are are built into, and in some cases are directly impacted by, the technological systems out of which they emerge. Just as significant as “Where did this kind of stuff take place before the Internet, if at all?” is the question “What do our current cultural and technological circumstances have to do with this kind of stuff?” The answer to which would go something like, while the sort of violently sexist bile directed at Criado-Perez definitely has precedent (and not just precedent but precedents), it also has context. It may not be new, in other words, but it is unique to this specific media landscape. Not only does Twitter allow for anonymous or pseudonymous communication, not only does it provide a forum for users to directly interface with public figures, its social functionality encourages the breakneck spread of information. Compounding this point is the fact that the majority of journalists and I would venture to say all mainstream media outlets have a Twitter presence, and with a simple retweeet are able to amplify –and lend legitimacy to– stories that might have otherwise remained local or limited in scope. More users can then engage with a story — and not just engage, but engage in ways that never would have been possible 20 years ago.*

In short, the fact that the Jane Austen Twitter troll controversy unfolded the way that it did has as much to do with where were are NOW as whatever might have come before–for better and for worse, in this case mostly worse.

Greenfield responded by asking me to clarify whether or not trolling can be considered “new” behavior. I replied:

I’ve written a bunch about the ways in which trolling behaviors echo more established cultural tropes and behaviors, which I discuss here and again here. That said, the internet is its own space with its own contours — the underlying ethos/politics of many of these behaviors may have ample cultural precedent, but the specific expressions of these behaviors are impacted by the technological affordancees not just of whatever specific platform but the internet as a whole. Put most pithily, trolling (and when I say trolling I mean subcultural trolling) is old behavior expressed in a new medium.

To see how these quotes got used, check out Greenfield’s article here. It’s a fun new game, this!

*I should have added something about how the media then reports on the resulting audience engagement (particularly when the audience engagement is antagonistic and/or abusive), locking the audience and members of the media into a frenzied feedback loop.

Twitter Under Fire

July 31, 2013 § Leave a comment

Over the last few days I’ve received several press requests regarding the recent attacks against Caroline Craido-Perez, a journalist and activist who successfully campaigned for Jane Austen’s portrait to be featured on British banknotes. Unhappy that a woman would be featured on official tender (THE HORROR!!!), a bunch of dumbasses on Twitter threw a temper tantrum and started hurling rape threats at Craido-Perez as well as MPs Stella Creasy and Claire Perry, who supported Craido-Perez’ efforts. The British government demanded that Twitter intervene, and called for Twitter representatives to appear before a Commons committee focused on online abuse. Twitter has since agreed to include a “report abuse” button on/for individual tweets, which in theory will streamline the reporting process and allow will Twitter to respond more effectively to abusive on-site behavior.

A few quick points: first, as usual, the number one question I’m getting is “what motivates these trolls??” –to which I can only say slow down buddy, what do you mean by troll? As I’ve written before, how you define the term directly impacts how the question can and should be answered. Given how little we can know about the people responsible –maybe they’re trolling for lulz, maybe they’re just misogynist assholes, maybe they’re hoping to make the front page of the Daily Mail, maybe some combination of all three, maybe something else entirely– it’s better not to focus on motivations. The question is moot, for one thing, and more importantly diverts attention away from the underlying issue of pervasive cultural sexism — which is only reinforced by the subsequent and similarly poorly-defined imperative “don’t feed the trolls.”

For me, then, the issue has less to do with trolls per se and more to do with best moderation practices. In fact I would argue that the troll question follows and is directly contingent upon the moderation question. Kate Miltner and I considered this point in our last Awl post, which although focused specifically on Reddit, could also be applied to Twitter’s current situation. And no, “free speech” has nothing to do with it, dear god.

My Interview with CNN on Trolling

July 11, 2013 § Leave a comment

stop trolling jesus

Today Nick Thompson of CNN published a long article on trolling, including quite a few quotes from yours truly. Here’s some from that article:

While Whitney Phillips agrees that anonymity plays a role in someone’s propensity to spew bile down Facebook walls, Twitter pages and news website comment boards, she says the bile was there first, just waiting to be hurled out at unsuspecting passers-by in cyberspace.

“The problem with blaming anonymity is that it assumes people are only horrible anonymously. Search a racial slur plus Obama on the internet and you’ll see more people than is reasonable who are perfectly happy being disgusting bigots under their own name.”

Is it possible to separate your online behavior from who you really are? Many trolls reject any relation between their profiles on the Web and their real life personas, according to Phillips, and say they are merely performing in order torment their targets “for the lulz,” or to teach people a lesson.

“Some trolls think that spending your time posting condolence messages on Facebook to someone you’ve never met is weird, and grounds for being trolled. They think they’re teaching people a lesson, teaching people how to behave online.”

Ultimately, Phillips says, it’s impossible to definitively say what makes trolls tick when you don’t have any demographic details about them. “We can’t very easily or in any kind of verifiable fashion sit a troll down and ask him what is in his heart, and if you could he would lie. They would tell you some bulls**t about what’s in their heart.”

I like the part about how CNN quotes me as saying “bullshit.” The full article is worth a read, and can be found here!

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