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.
October 22, 2012 § Leave a Comment
For the last few days I’ve been revisiting –reworking, reorganizing, reframing– my dissertation for possible publication. I haven’t looked at the thing since I deposited the manuscript in mid August, and since “finishing” (finishing is a relative term) so much has happened in the world-o-trolling I hardly even know where to start. The discourse surrounding trolls and trolling behaviors has gotten away from everyone, including trolls, who seem just as confused about what the term means and whom the term subsumes as the media. As I discussed in this May 2012 post, my argument can handle these sorts of seismic shifts, since I had no choice but to back up and retrofit my argument to BE about change. Still, yikes, and back to the coal mines I guess.
The above art film pretty much captures it. And a quick programming note: I will be drunk blogging Smiley aka 4chan the Movie with my friend Kate Miltner this Sunday; check your local listings.
September 9, 2012 § 2 Comments
The other day my partner Chris Menning argued that search interest in the term “meme” had plateaued, and speculated that this had something to do with lulz Anonymous’s post-OWS inactivity, or maybe not inactivity but lack of media attention (which essentially amounts to the same thing). The idea being that Anonymous–and by “Anonymous” he meant little-a, i.e. the anon most closely associated with 4chan’s /b/-board–was no longer generating new memetic content, and therefore no longer fueling the once ubiquitous meme-train (and subsequently, Google search interest in similar).
Today Chris clarified his position, specifically by defining his terms a bit more carefully and also by positioning his argument in relation to existing arguments, including one of my own blog posts wherein I wring my hands over ad-hoc methodological reframings. And wring my hands I did, oh boy. Because these aren’t easy conversations to have, in fact can be the source of great existential turmoil. But they are important conversations to have, and not just important but inevitable. Things change, especially when underground content or behavior begins to go mainstream, and particularly when said mainstreaming begins making certain people money (see above). I devote the last two chapters of my dissertation to precisely these issues, and precisely these shifts, and postulate a number of interconnected reasons explaining not just the how but also the why.
The fact is, though, this dust is still settling. We don’t know how or when the story will end, or if it even makes sense to use that sort of framing. We’re certainly in a period of transition, and it certainly is the case that the meme/troll space of 2012 is very different from the meme/troll space of 2008. The question of whether or not that’s a good thing is irrelevant — we are where we are, deal with it. I’ll keep wringing my hands, and the world will keep turning, and otherwise who knows.
July 29, 2012 § 9 Comments
Ethnographic in approach, this dissertation examines trolling, an online subculture devoted to meme creation and social disruption. Rather than framing trolling behaviors as fundamentally aberrant, I argue that trolls are agents of cultural digestion; they scour the landscape, repurpose the most exploitable material, then shove the resulting monstrosities into the faces of an unsuspecting populace.
Within the political and social context of the United States, the region to which I have restricted my focus, I argue that trolls on 4chan/b/ and Facebook digest and often perform a grotesque pantomime of a number of pervasive cultural logics, including masculine domination (Bourdieu 2001) and white privilege (Dyer 1997). Additionally, I argue that the rhetorical and behavioral tactics embraced by trolls, including sensationalism, spectacle, and emotional exploitation, are homologous to tactics routinely deployed by American corporate media outlets. In short, trolling operates within existing systems, not in contrast to, immediately complicating, and often ironizing, knee-jerk condemnations of trolling behaviors.
UPDATE: My dissertation is not available for download, and won’t be until sometime in 2013. I am currently revising the book manuscript for publication, and that timeline is out of my hands. Hopefully soon everything will be public, but these things take time!
July 27, 2012 § 4 Comments
Yesterday, Fruzsina Eördögh posted a piece to Read Write Web defending one of several James Holmes Facebook (and obviously troll-made) tribute pages. I’m quoted in the piece, and for once was framed as LESS permissive than the interviewer (typically when I give interviews the dynamic is reversed — I’m the one attempting to contextualize or offer a more measured account of whatever behavior). As Eördögh writes:
It doesn’t matter where the dozen or so Facebook users behind the joking spend most of their time – 4chan’s notorious /b/ board, an Encyclopedia Dramatica IRC channel or a Something Awful forum. After the Colorado shooting, they came to this digital place, hung out, told jokes and laughed. Phillips advised against framing the page as “an emotional or coping mechanism” because “trolls motives may vary,” but, when you imagine the amount of time the Facebook creators spent making their pages, it’s hard not to think the trolls were grieving in their own way.
Of course, that doesn’t make the jokes polite or tasteful. “It’s important to place these sorts of transgressive behaviors in context, but it’s also important not to sugarcoat the behaviors,” Phillips wrote in an email. “They troll because it upsets people, and because they derive amusement from their targets’ distress. National tragedies are a perfect opportunity to capitalize on heightened sensitivities, and so that’s precisely what they do.”
But free speech covers impolite and distasteful statements. And on Facebook – if the site will allow – we can all grieve together.
As is probably obvious just by reading the above quotes, I’m quite wary of this explanation. Which isn’t to say that I think Eördögh is wrong to challenge the accepted narrative regarding RIP trolling (i.e. “it’s bad”). Rather, I take issue with the idea that RIP trolling is equivalent to or indicative of “legitimate” forms of mourning. To reiterate an earlier statement, trolls are, above all else, trolls — whether or not the act of trolling allows them to work through their own grief (which by the way isn’t how any of the trolls I’ve worked with have framed their behaviors, in fact I can imagine most of them lolling mightily at such a suggestion), their aggressions are primarily, and definitionally, externally focused. Trolling first, in other words, and feelings –however complicated they might be– later.
My basic argument is that, while there’s much more to say about RIP trolling than simply “it’s bad,” it’s also important to call it what it is, and furthermore to acknowledge the behavioral and emotional variation even within this relatively niche troll space. In other words, making the blanket statement that RIP trolling is good/healthy flattens the individual behaviors into one monolithic category just as quickly as making the blanket statement that RIP trolling is bad/sociopathic. As always, the truth falls somewhere in the middle, where the waters are deeper, muddier, and are as overrun by sharks as they are with plastic floaty toys.
July 22, 2012 § 2 Comments
In addition to your standard legal threats, death wishes and accusations of “faggotry,” one of the recurring points of trollish contention regarding Friday’s 9gag/4chan article had to do with my (assumed) title, “Internet Troll Researcher.” The trolls didn’t like this, and in its stead offered a number of constructive suggestions. Just kidding, they told me to kill myself. The internet!
But “Internet Troll Researcher” — presumably they took this from Adrian Chen’s Gawker article, where my specialty was framed somewhat incredulously. Because internet troll researcher? How is that even a thing.
For the record I’ve never called myself an Internet Troll Researcher, in fact have avoided calling myself anything, primarily because I’m not sure where at the table I sit, or even which table it is. My PhD is in English, but I have a structured emphasis in Folklore, but my area of specialty is Digital Culture, but most of the research I do centers on media analysis and I guess sociology (without any counting), but I would probably fit best in an American/Cultural/Media Studies department. On a purely practical level, I’ve not wanted to Danny Bonaduce myself as FOREVERATROLL, since trolling is the thing I’ve written a dissertation about, but isn’t the thing that I DO. In other words, trolling is a project, not exactly an overarching focus. Still, “Internet Troll Researcher” (or even more grimace-inducing, “Dr. Troll”) is the thing people choose to call me, I think because they don’t know what else to say. Frankly I can’t blame them.
But the days of not having a perfunctory awkwardly-standing-in-an-elevator-with-some-people-I-vaguely-recognize-from-the-conference-session-we-all-just-attended “here’s what I do in six words or less” speech is quickly coming to a close. Tomorrow will be my last day of line-editing before I submit the dissertation for final approval, meaning that shit’s about to get….well, official. This is weird — although I defended in June, and at least conditionally have been a Doctor this whole time, I’ve managed to forget the defense ever happened. As far as my brain is concerned, I’m still a first year PhD student. And consequently haven’t given much thought to what I should put on my business card.
So to all my new troll friends who would like to see me fuck myself with a cactus — thanks for the reminder, I’ll be sure to weigh all my options!
Update: I think for now I’ll go with “Internet researcher specializing in transgressive online humor.” My next project may not be as web-based as this one, and if that is indeed the case, I’ll tweak my title accordingly. Fantastisch!
July 11, 2012 § 2 Comments
I defended my dissertation in June and was blessed with the curse of excellent committee feedback. Since then, I’ve been scrambling to make all requested changes before depositing the manuscript (hopefully) by the end of the month. One of the trickiest revision suggestions came from my advisor Carol Stabile, who said that my RIP troll chapter, which considers the behavioral and rhetorical overlap between Facebook memorial page trolling and sensationalist mainstream disaster coverage, needed more specific examples of the media’s decidedly ghoulish (if not outright trollish) coverage of 2010’s rash of teenage suicides.
So I reread all the articles and rewatched all the news segments about so-called “bullycide,” which according to the media was the reason our teenagers kept dying. Subsumed by this framing was the sinister figure of the memorial page troll. In more extreme cases, these trolls (or as they were still called in the U.S., “cyberbullies”) were further condemned as time-traveling demons somehow capable of attacking a teenager’s Facebook memorial page AND convincing the (already dead) teenager to kill themselves.
Particularly disturbing (though there is much to say about the RIP trolls themselves, I am for the moment tabling the question of the trolls’ culpability and instead am focusing on the media’s role in propagating the moral panic surrounding cyberbullying and teen suicide) was the frequency with which the media would show a screencap of some outrageous statement or image and then decry the awful trolls who posted it. This was some pretty gristly X-rated shit, including one image of a dead teenager with her head photoshopped through a noose, and yet there it was on my MSNBC.
My basic argument was that, by sandwiching troll-made content between excessively sentimental coverage of the suicides themselves, these outlets were no better than the trolls they condemned. Just like trolls, the media harnessed audience distress for their own personal gain. In the trolls’ case, that gain came in the form of lulz. In the media’s case, gain was measured in terms of advertising revenue. Either way, both groups benefited from personal tragedy. That these particular tragedies were teen suicides only complicated matters, as there is a direct and directly observable relationship between sensationalized suicide coverage and increased suicide rates, particularly within younger demographics. In short, media engagement with memorial page trolling wasn’t just cynical and hypocritical, it was deeply irresponsible—challenging the assumption that trolls were the only villains in this story.
This put me in a strange ethical position. On one hand, I wanted—and in fact needed, given the seriousness of my claims—to provide concrete evidence of the media’s homologous relationship to memorial page trolling. On the other hand, by (re)republishing those images on the same grounds that the media first republished the trolls’ images, and with a similar ethical objective, no less, I risked replicating the same sensationalist logic that characterized the media’s response to RIP trolling (and the RIP trolls’ response to the media’s response, and the media’s response to the trolls’ response to the media’s response, ad
infinitum nauseum). Initially, I justified my inclusion of the more sensationalist screencaps on the grounds that at least I wasn’t making any money off my research—until I realized that I was, at least indirectly. But even if I never saw a penny for my efforts, I would accrue a certain amount of social capital for having written about the subject. I would, in other words, benefit. This concern went beyond the facile –and fallacious– assumption that because what the media posted and what I posted looked alike, the behaviors really were alike. My concern was that the desired outcome –essentially to rustle my audience’s jimmies, in the name of shaming the object of my critique– was in fact identical. I’d like to think that I was publishing the images for “good” reasons, but I suspect they did as well.
That’s all, I don’t have a conclusion. And I will be using one or two of the images in my dissertation. My actions may be problematic (it’s hard to avoid engaging in problematic behavior; the waters are muddy on all sides), but unlike sensationalist media, at least I’m taking responsibility for what I’m choosing to do.
June 20, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Yesterday Charlie Jane Anders published an article on io9 “reality checking” the relationship between trolls and the people behind them. First she challenges the assumption that online anonymity magically transforms perfectly nice, perfectly normal humans into snarling “jerkfaces.” She then asserts –well, she guesses– that the trolls one encounters online are probably just as insufferable in real life. As she writes,
The fact is [ed. note: hold on, "fact?" didn't she just say she "guessed" that this was "probably" true?], you can meet internet trolls in real life, and they will be just as trollish in person as they are on the internet. It’s just that, when someone starts screaming at you on the street about their crazy conspiracy theories, you can walk away.
Wait, crazy people screaming on the street? Apparently, yes:
[M]ost of us have had the experience of being trolled in real life. Many of us have had it on a regular basis, especially if you walk around a city late at night. Or visit your weird relatives. It’s easy enough to be accosted by drunk people or wild-eyed ranters with no boundaries, if you’re out in a public place and not adequately telegraphing that you do not wish to embrace the tyranny of the commons.
I don’t disagree with the basic assumption that assholes are assholes regardless of where they happen to be standing, but find myself scratching my head at Anders’ use of the term “troll.” Because what she describes in the paragraph above isn’t trolling. It’s certainly shitty, but as I’ve said over and over again, trolling is a subset of aggressive online behavior, not the umbrella under which all other forms of aggression fall.
Nor do I disagree that this is a fruitful conversation to have. It’s critical to think about the relationship between trolls and their rl selves, and is even more critical to think about the role anonymity (or lack thereof) plays in both realms. In my dissertation I spend what feels like years trying to unpack the weird cultural and behavioral crossover between a person’s trolling persona(s) and his or her actual self (whatever that even means). But those are specific questions about a specific population, not something to vaguely equate with schizophrenic homeless people (as is the implicit assertion in the above quote) or our insufferable neoconservative relatives.
Consequently Anders’ conclusion, that
[A] large proportion of the worst, most horrendous internet trolls are probably people who lack a certain amount of social graces in their “meatspace” interactions as well. Including some people you probably would flee, long before they got as far as opening their mouths.
ends up missing the point, in fact doesn’t make much of a point, because it doesn’t define its terms or scope or platform or anything necessary to the conversation. In other words: …..wait, what were we talking about again?
June 16, 2012 § Leave a Comment
I defended my dissertation on Friday, which according to my phone was yesterday. Hard to keep track, as I’m also packing for the Big Move. Brain all swimmy, too many to-do lists, etc. The defense itself went well, well as well as these things go. It’s nervewracking as all hell, to sit there fielding questions for what feels like fifteen hours. But I walked out of the room a proper-ass DOKTOR, and with a fistful of truly excellent revision suggestions. Really seriously, I could not have asked for a better, smarter committee, which consisted of Lisa Gilman (Folklore), Doug Blandy (Arts and Administration), David Li (English) and my advisor, the incomparable, unsinkable, honeybadger of the century Carol Stabile (Jcomm, CSWS, English). I certainly have had my struggles at UO, but my committee was NOT one of them. In conclusion: smell ya later, Eugene. On to who knows what.
June 14, 2012 § 4 Comments
My defense fears in a nutshell.