“Without imputing any malevolence to newspeople”

August 21, 2014 § Leave a comment


The above is a quote from Elliot Oring’s just brilliant analysis of humor in response to the Challenger space disaster. The full quote reads:

Without imputing any malevolence to newspeople, it should be recognized that public disasters are media triumphs. They are what make the news. Indeed, our awareness of national or international disasters is dependent upon the media — particularly television news broadcasting. Furthermore, the frame for communication of information about a disaster is established by the media (282).

And that’s my basic point in this interview with the Columbia Journalism Review, published earlier today, in which I talk about the relationship between trolling and the media that amplifies them. I do very much stand behind my argument, but as always there are caveats.

So, to all the journalists out there who don’t like my tone or (perceived) implications, look guys I know you all have jobs to do, and that you’re often taking orders from editors who are taking orders from better-paid editors, and those editors are taking orders from various levels of bosses, and their bosses’ bosses, bosses all the way up, so it’s not –really this isn’t what I’m saying– that you are personally, individually responsible for the existence and proliferation of trolls. Nor am I suggesting that just NOT reporting on the story of the day is even an option in our crazy mixed up click-based media environment. That said, in order to understand the full extent of the troll problem it is critical to acknowledge the economic systems that undergird & animate & indirectly validate these behaviors. Trolling exists, however uncomfortably, within that system; just talking about the trolls and not the broader media and political economic ecologies in which they exist can really only reveal so much.

In other words: in talking about trolls we are also, and ultimately, talking about capitalism, mic drop.

George Bush’s Performance Art Instillation

April 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

i dunno lol

Earlier this week I was contacted by a reporter at the Houston Chronicle PANICKING about a deadline for a story (which she never ended up publishing, possibly because of unhelpful sources) about “How Ted Cruz Got Trolled,” her primary question being “So just how trolled did Ted Cruz get.” To which I could only look around and make the above face. Because I dunno, lol.

While I was reluctant to ascribe trolling–or anything! I don’t read minds– to the Ted Cruz story, I am so very tempted to declare George Boosh’s performance art instillation “Here Are Some World Leaders LOL” one of the strangest acts of trollery in Presidential history, this week anyway. I just have so many feels about this, how could it NOT be trolling. Don’t get me wrong, it definitely isn’t. However, I feel trolled by 43, and at 6:45 in the morning, isn’t that enough?

What is a Troll, Exactly? My Daily Dot Article on Definitions

May 20, 2013 § 1 Comment

something ducks walk on

New article on trolling on definitions! The setup: These days apparently everything on the internet that is lame/upsetting is “trolling.” This framing isn’t doing us any favors! From the article:

[I concede that language shifts over time; I'm not mad, bro] But describing all problematic online behaviors as trolling and all online aggressors as trolls is a bad idea. Not because there is only one “correct” way to troll, as some trolls might insist, but because using the term as a stand-in for everything terrible online is imprecise, unhelpful, and—most importantly—tends to obscure the underlying problem of offline bigotry and aggression.

For the thrilling conclusion, go here.

Troll is the Word, is the Word, is the Word

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!

Ethnography Matters Post: Ethnography of Trolling, part 2 of 3

February 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

trolls on my message board

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.

Ethnography of Trolling: Guest Post on Ethnography Matters

January 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

make thyself scarce

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!

#cutforbieber and Why BuzzFeed is Every Bit as Gross

January 8, 2013 § 2 Comments

beiber doll

In today’s trolling news, some friendly neighborhood anons revisited the well-trod path to Bieberville. This time they did not vote to send the teen star to perform in North Korea, but instead started a hashtag threatening to cut themselves in response to the recent and entirely not shocking news that Justin Bieber smokes pot. This has upset some people, and understandably so; the images accompanying these tweets (#cutforbieber) are pretty gruesome.

What’s every bit as gruesome is the sensationalist, re-trolling efforts of listicle assembly-line BuzzFeed, which published –shock!!– a list of the most upsetting images. You know, because…these images are terrible…so let’s make a list of the worst ones…because no one should see them.  The Telegraph’s Tim Stanley sums it up nicely:

…BuzzFeed does us the courtesy of publishing some of those “disturbing photos” on the shady pretext of letting us decide for ourselves how authentic they are. Are they real, are they fake? Who cares? They’re sick and there was absolutely no journalistic value served in printing them. That’s why there’s no BuzzFeed link in my post and probably never will be again.

I had a similar reaction to Buzzfeed’s recent article (and I use the term loosely) “Here’s What James Holmes’ Online Fans Had to Say Before His Hearing Today,” which amounted to little more than classic trollbait. Ironically, and unsurprisingly, there was no mention of the fact that BuzzFeed essentially started –or at the very least, popularized– the “James Holmes Support Group” over which they are now apparently so concerned.

In short, I think it’s time that we need to start mentioning outlets like BuzzFeed –or as it shall henceforth be referred, TrollFeed– in the same breath as we do the trolls who post disturbing images images onto Twitter. Really, what’s the difference? Both groups are engaging in incendiary, deliberately provocative behaviors –which includes posting the most outrageously shocking images– in order to incite the strongest emotional response possible. The difference, of course, is that the trolls aren’t raking in the ad revenue while doing it.

Are Trolls Killing the Internet? Talking Trolls on Al Jazeera English

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.

So There’s Chatter That the Clackamas, OR Shooter Posted a Threat on 4chan

December 12, 2012 § 2 Comments

A collaborator of mine just sent me these screencaps (via imgur), said to be proof  that the Clackamas Town Center shooter posted a threat to 4chan before fatally shooting two others and killing himself. The news hit Twitter early this morning:

Screen shot 2012-12-12 at 6.48.54 AM

Screen shot 2012-12-12 at 6.46.05 AM

From a simple Twitter search of “Clackamass” and “4chan” (conducted at 6:45am EST):

Screen shot 2012-12-12 at 6.46.38 AM

It’s early, and I’m not sure how/where/if this story will travel, so I don’t entirely know what to say, other than it is most likely a hoax, so proceed with caution. For one thing, this kind of thing has happened before. For another, why would a person magically have a screencap posted two days ago on a forum whose boards 404 after a few hours? People make weird threats on 4chan’s /b/ board all the time, so while it’s possible that a concerned anon saw the post and decided to take a cap just in case, it isn’t likely. What is likely is that some anon or group of anons decided it would be fun to photoshop a screencap and see how far the story would go, which was precisely the motivation behind the Aurora 9gag prank. In addition to lining up with everything /b/ has ever done, particularly in the wake of mass shootings, the alleged screengrab includes a subtle –what appears to be a subtle– reference to the perception that /b/ has been defanged, a point that strongly suggests that trolling is in fact afoot. “this is why no one takes 4chan seriously anymore. i am going to shoot up this fucking mall tomorrow and you will all see,” the alleged poster allegedly posted. This might not be an explicit memetic reference –a basic calling card of much trolling, particularly trolling emanating from /b/– but it does gesture towards an ongoing conversation amongst /b/ regulars.

So at first blush, I call bullshit. The question is, what will the internet say?

Update: Here is one thing.

It Depends on What You Mean by “All of It”

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?

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