April 12, 2013 § Leave a Comment
……because the thing is, upon closer inspection of time frame and tripcodes, the PDF on Wired looks pretty solid. Now I don’t know what to think, maybe it is real. It’s hard to say; these things aren’t easily verifiable, and there’s always a chance of, as the kids in the business say, “ultra-coordinated motherfuckery” in the form of time zone meddling or extensive photoshopping (nearly 4 hours passed between the last post on the now-infamous thread and Wired’s posting of the PDF — plenty of time for shenanigans). For me, the fact that this has happened so many times before, in exactly the same way, on exactly the same platform, every single time, for the last decade, is one hell of a reason for eyebrow raising. Maybe I’m just being paranoid, maybe I’ve spent too much time on the internet. As of press time, I can’t decide.
Anons on 4chan are discussing the story now — many seem similarly incredulous. Some are downright effervescent. Some are trolling other anons by claiming that all the other hoaxes were in fact a hoax, and that they were all true. tl;dr we’re gonna need a bigger boat.
April 12, 2013 § Leave a Comment
It’s possible that the Virginia mall shooter really did post about his plans on 4chan’s /b/ board minutes before the shootings, but there are a whole lot of reasons to approach this sort of thing with a high degree of suspicion. As I wrote in response to the 2012 Clackamas shooting, in which the shooter was also said to have posted about his crimes on /b/ beforehand, this sort of thing has happened before. In fact it happens EVERY time there is a mass shooting, a detail that certainly doesn’t preclude the possibility that one day there really will be a wolf lurking in the bushes, but, again, is a very good reason not to immediately jump to conclusions.
What I think is particularly weird about the coverage on Gawker and Wired is that none of the authors directly acknowledge the 4chan shooter note trend (and it is a trend: here’s another in response to the Sandy Hook shootings and another in response to a residential hostage situation). If the shooter really did post this note, you’d think journalists would lead with “now, we know you’ve heard this story before, over and over again, but this time it’s real,” rather than reporting the story with little qualification and even less evidence, other than an anonymous “reliable source” who apparently saved the thread as a PDF before it disappeared off the site forever. Even weirder was BuzzFeed’s John Herrman‘s decision to highlight the not very surprising detail that there were memes –MEMES!!– in the message. As Herrman notes:
“Also notable, if the post was really made by the shooter: the use of meme-derived language, which was popularized by 4chan, to talk about suicide.”
Why this would be “notable” (as opposed to 4chan business as usual) and why those italics, I can’t really say, but it does have me wondering if we aren’t going to start seeing some strange link forged between memes and violent crime, particularly after the recent Confession Bear doxxing controversy on Reddit.
April 8, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Today The New Inquiry ran my article “Dissecting the Frog,” which considers the cultural significance of humor. My primary focus is Gabriella Coleman’s analysis of humor within Free and Open Software (F/OSS) circles, but I also discuss my own work with trolls and the mainstream media tragedy-mongers who (are) troll(ed) (by) them. Here’s the overlap between both projects:
What Coleman’s and my respective research projects highlight, then, is the complicated relationship between humor, community formation, and the larger culture. Hacker humor and wit, for example, gestures both to the borders of the F/OSS community and to the much more pervasive logic of neo-liberalism, while specific trolling jokes serve as subcultural scaffolding and draw attention to the connections between trolling humor and mainstream culture, particularly sensationalist media. This culturally holistic approach to humor is particularly helpful when attempting to understand the most upsetting kinds of jokes. When framed as self-contained artifacts, hateful or otherwise corrosive jokes don’t do too much, beyond casting aspersions on the joke teller. But when placed in the context of a specific community, and even more revealing, when that community is placed in the context of the wider culture, corrosive jokes often have as much to tell us about the latter as they do about the former.
For a good time, read the full article here!
April 8, 2013 § Leave a Comment
The other day (how did I miss this?) Eric Benson at NY Mag posted a rundown of the increasingly elastic definition of the word “troll.” He interviewed me for the piece, which is always odd because these kinds of interviews are usually 30-45 minutes long but only yield one or two sentences. Media!
Quoth the me:
As with other robust Internet terms, trolling lends itself to more general meanings far removed from its origins. “To hear people talk about trolls in April 2013 is so different than people talked about it even in 2011,” says Whitney Phillips, an NYU lecturer in media studies who wrote her dissertation on Internet trolls. “You now encounter the word all day long.”
It’s a brave new world, kids!
March 5, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Last December I had a conversation with Eric Detweiler from UT Austin about my research on trolls. That conversation is now available via podcast –specifically the rhetoric and technology-focused Zeugma podcast, which is housed out of UT Austin. It’s a good interview (minus my cold), but I am struck by one question in particular — Detweiler asked whether or not I’d encountered any resistance to my project on the grounds that trolling is too lowbrow/unproductive to bother studying. I explained that no, I had not encountered that specific line of criticism, since while trolling is certainly lowbrow at times, it is anything but unproductive. I then explained just how productive it was, with the memeculture and the over 9000 lolcats and the jenkem what have you.
And I still maintain that basic answer — no one has ever said (to my face) that trolling is “unproductive,” and no one has ever told me that lowbrow culture is unworthy of serious study (I have read about this breed in history books, but have never experienced any of their pop cultural pearl-clutching for myself). But several months on, and with a fairly brutal round of job applications under my belt, I have to amend my answer slightly. I still haven’t had anyone accuse my work of *precisely* what Detweiler describes, but I have experienced much more resistance to internet culture/research generally. This was surprising, since in the circles I run in, even the circles that don’t fully understand trolls, that question –”you guys does the internet even matter?”– is pretty much a non-starter. So, please accept my footnote, and let’s move on.
So! The podcast! I talk about the history of trolling, Violentacrez, changes in the use/definition of the term (and how Violentacrez fits within that conversation) and media trolls trolling trolls trolling media trolls trolling trolls trolling trolls. The following is (the following are?) my closing thoughts on the subject of trolling generally:
One of the roadblocks to doing something significant about trolling is framing trolls as aberrational. Because when you frame trolls as aberrational, you’re not making yourself responsible, you’re basically repudiating any role that you might be playing in the propagation of these kinds of behaviors. “Oh, it’s all the trolls. They’re the monsters. They’re they sociopaths. They’re the bad guys.” –by doing that, by creating that kind of distance, it means that you’re no longer in a position to be self-reflective about what am I doing? how are mainstream behaviors feeding into and amplifying these behaviors? So I think that until people –particularly people in the media– are will to just drop this us/them rhetoric, until they’re really willing to think about the ways that their behaviors are reflected in trolling behaviors and vice-versa, you’re always going to have trolling, and you’re always going to have a place for the trolls to go…trolls essentially live, and are most comfortable, where people are the least self-reflective. And that’s kind of the state we find ourselves in now.
Here is the link to the full interview!
March 5, 2013 § Leave a Comment
The following is an excerpt from my third and final Ethnography Matters guest post, which you can find here.
This past fall, I decided to order my first batch of post-PhD business cards, and could no longer waffle on the question. I tried out about 20 different combinations (Digital culture scholar? Media folklorist? Media Ethnographer? Media: Various and Sundry?) before I settled on “Digital Culture/Media Studies.” That’s the least inaccurate way to put it, but still doesn’t quite capture what I do (and, as I just realized, is not the handle on my Twitter profile. There I identify as “Digital Culture/Folklore”).
Again, I’m not that worried about what words get affixed to my work or myself. As far as I’m concerned, definitions—along with academic disciplines generally—are (or should be regarded as) fluid; how I frame my work depends on the project I’m working on. But academia is rife with traditions, territory marking being one of the most conspicuous. So “Digital Culture/Media Studies” (or “Digital Culture/Folklore,” depending on how I’m feeling, apparently) is a thing I say now, though in my mind there is, and will always be, an implied asterisk. What that asterisk indicates, who knows. Ask me again at the end of my next project.
I know I’m not alone in my resistance to traditional disciplinary bounds (the question of why we insist on public binaries when privately almost everyone vacillates between different shades of gray has always baffled me), so for the remainder of this post I will offer some advice for young scholars engaged in and/or contemplating interdisciplinary or otherwise nontraditional research–advice I would have appreciated having spelled out at the outset of my project.
And what advice do I give? Here are the tl;dr bullet points:
- Make sure you have a good support system
- Good support systems are not magically bestowed, and are not something you’re owed by anyone
- Take strange questions seriously
- Remember that you are not the center of the academic universe
- Learn to appreciate naysayers
- Imagine a diverse audience
For more, go read the thing!
February 5, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Today Ethnography Matters posted my second in a three-part guest post series. Here is the opening!
As promised in my last post, this post will discuss my role as a participant observer in the 2008-2012 troll space. It was weird, I hinted, which really is the only way to describe it. Because space is limited, I’m going to focus on three points of overlapping weirdness, namely troll blindness, real and perceived apologia, and ethnographic vampirism. There are other stories I could tell, and other points of weirdness I could discuss, but these are moments that taught me the most, for better and for worse.
The three points of weirdness include:
- It’s Just a Death Threat, Don’t Worry About It
- inb4 apologist
- You’re a Vampire, Whitney
In other words, it’s a comedy. Click here for the whole article.
January 8, 2013 § Leave a Comment
This morning Ethnography Matters published my first of three guest posts about trolling and the ethnography of similar. This is very exciting; I’ve not been very public about my research methods. Here’s a quick rundown of the article:
As I will discuss in this and several subsequent guest posts, my research experiences have been something of a mixed bag. Writing about trolls (to say nothing about working with trolls) has certainly been engaging, but has also proven to be the most consistently frustrating, challenging, and at times downright infuriating endeavor I have ever attempted. Which is one of the main reasons it has been so engaging, go figure.
Because in the end, it was the complications—the incomplete data sets, the trolls’ endless prevarications, the incessant march of subcultural change—that gave rise to my basic argument, the nutshell version of which can be found in my response to the Violentacrez controversy. As I argue, trolls are agents of cultural digestion; they scavenge and repurpose mainstream content, allowing one to extrapolate what’s going on in the dominant culture by examining what’s going on in the troll space. I could not have written my way into this argument if things had gone according to plan. I needed those roadblocks, even if at the time they made me want to rip out my hair.
Click here for the full article!
January 1, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Yesterday I appeared on Al Jazeera’s The Stream program alongside Aaron James of UC Irvine. The subject of the show –overview here– was TROLLS, and the degree to which they are killing the internet. As always, the term “troll” was contested, to the point of near-empty signification; throughout the broadcast it referred in turn to subcultural trolling, name-calling, racist online abuse, harassment, and identity theft. In almost every case, these behaviors were decried as antagonistic, destructive, and wholly deserving of immediate government or corporate intervention (so, the difference between passing laws and implementing on-site policies like upvoting systems, as more than one Google hangout guest suggested). Anonymity was cited by many as the ultimate root of the problem, because people are never hateful towards each other under their real names, and no one is ever violent or racist in real life.
One thing that was not discussed –and something I wish I had the chance to talk about; the conversation was primarily focused on the DARK SIDE of trolling, or perhaps more accurately, what many racists and assholes have taken to calling trolling (in other words, OH! My real life identity was linked to the hateful shit I’ve been spewing on Twitter under a pseudonym??? Just kidding everyone, I was only trolling!!!)– is the complicating fact that trolling is, or at least can be, an extremely effective tool against precisely the assbaggery to which this program was devoted. I know several trolls –and one troll in particular– whose greatest joy is to out or otherwise torment racists, homophobes and sexists who deserve to have their dumb asses handed to them, placing them directly in line (well, perhaps a bit uncomfortably in line) with the anti-troll crusaders who claim that the best response to trolling is to punish trolls. The funny thing is that many trolls wholeheartedly agree (though they might take issue with the definition of the term “troll,” as many reject the idea that being a bigot on the internet qualifies as trolling), and are more than happy to take up what many would regard as a righteous, anti-douchebag cause. This is where conversations of trolling (and more specifically, conversations about what to do about trolling) brush up against conversations about vigilante justice, immediately thickening the plot.
November 6, 2012 § 1 Comment
Earlier today, Jonathan Zittrain and I were guests on On Point with Tom Ashbrook. One of the earliest questions –and one to which we kept returning, however indirectly– dealt with the term “troll” itself. Namely, “what is a.” I’ve found this to be an increasingly tricky question to field, especially given the recent onslaught of mainstream media stories that conflate the term “trolling” with “basically everything.” In my most recent revision of my dissertation –now book manuscript– I had to address that question head-on, and reinforce my existing historicization of the term (born on Usenet, the term has in the last 20 years wormed its way into vast swaths of the internet — my research focuses specifically on subcultural trolling, for which 4chan has served as both incubator and amplifier). The short version of that discussion is that it’s complicated, and that conversations about trolling that don’t take definitions (both etic and emic) into account are almost guaranteed to chase their own tail. Even when people do define their terms and do establish the scope of the conversation, it’s extremely easy to catch oneself equivocating, say between subcultural trolls of the 4chan ilk and people like Violentacrez or ComfortablySmug or whoever else that may seem to meet certain behavioral (or even subcultural) criteria but maybe not others.
I am certainly not of the opinion that there is and should only be ONE definition of the term. It should go without saying that language is flexible, and behavior even more so. But I will say that it is critical –if we hope our conversations to go anywhere– to acknowledge a basic difference between the definitions of trolling offered by those who self-identify as such and those who take it upon themselves to bestow the category onto others. Currently, that’s one aspect of the conversation that tends to be overlooked, I think because everyone assumes everyone else’s words mean the same things as their own words, and then proceed to rail against any number of straw men. Or straw trolls, as the case may be.