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.
October 19, 2012 § 1 Comment
I was just on HuffPost Live and boy are my undefined terms tired. The segment title was “Is Anonymity Good For Free Speech,” and the segment description is as follows:
With the recent unmasking of Reddit troll “ViolentAcrez” and Amanda Todd’s harasser, exposing anonymous trolls seems beneficial. But does anonymity protect free speech?
The problem is, this doesn’t make any sense. First of all, it isn’t clear that Amanda Todd’s real harasser was exposed — at the very least, there are enough red flags for me to slap on a big flashing “unconfirmed” sign. Secondly, and more annoyingly, “anonymity” and “free speech” are, on their own, empty abstract nouns. Do you mean anonymity like you’re posting to Twitter under an alt account not publicly attached to your name, but which is linked to your real account on tweetdeck? Do you mean anonymity like posting anonymously to a blog that requires an email to register but then allows you to post under whatever name you want? Do you mean anonymity like whatever site mods can’t see your IP address, but maybe the paid staff can? Do you mean anonymity like not in any way traceable to your own name or IP address or anything that could possibly in anyone’s hands be connected back to you, ever? Do you mean anonymity like some sort of self-evident invisibility cloak you assume gives you the right to say whatever they want on the internet, because you’re white and you feel like it? Because the first couple things are all things, in that they exist, but the last thing is not a thing; no one has the legal right to be anonymous on a privately-owned website on the internet. Not to say that anonymity online can’t be important and good, it’s just that there’s no law in the constitution that says we all get to BE that, on Reddit. Unless you’re a federal whistleblower, in which case those protections already exist before you even go online (and anyway, that doesn’t even guarantee you anonymity, but rather legal immunity).
And don’t even get me started on “free speech,” since…………that’s not a thing people have either, at least not in the way they might think. Free speech in the legal sense is about keeping the government in check (you know, that whole thing about the American Revolution, and tyranny and all), and ensures that Congress shall pass no laws restricting speech — except in the cases of fighting words, copyright infringement, child pornography, libel, incitement to violence, and threats. Those things are all illegal; Congress can pass all the laws they want restricting unprotected speech. So, it makes sense to talk about free speech if the government arrests you for engaging in speech that THEY say is restricted and YOU say is not (or shouldn’t be). It does not make sense to talk about free speech when a journalist exposes the identity of a pedophile on a privately-owned website that thinks pedophiles are pretty cool guys. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t ethical issues involved in the Violentacrez clusterwhoops; of course there are, jesus. But these aren’t free speech issues, and shouldn’t be described as such until the feds press charges against Brutsch (fingers crossed), and he contests the arrest on first amendment grounds.
So, any conversation that is predicated on the assumption that “anonymity” can “protect” “free speech” (because that’s what anonymity does best, action verbs) is doomed to end up chasing its own tail. In this particular case, I had no idea what was being discussed, and even less of an idea of how to connect these ideas to trolling. Other than anonymity, and free speech. WHICH ARE NOT ANSWERS THEY ARE ABSTRACT NOUNS.
October 15, 2012 § 6 Comments
Today I published an article about trolling generally and Violentacrez specifically on The Atlantic. Here’s a snippet, which follows a longish discussion of the homologous and, ultimately, symbiotic relationship between trolls and sensationalist corporate media:
I am not arguing that members of the media are trolls, at least not in the subcultural sense. I am however suggesting that trolls and sensationalist corporate media have more in common than the latter would care to admit, and that by engaging in a grotesque pantomime of these best corporate practices, trolls call attention to how the sensationalist sausage is made. This certainly doesn’t give trolls a free pass, but it does serve as a reminder that ultimately, trolls are symptomatic of much larger problems. Decrying trolls without at least considering the ways in which they are embedded within and directly replicate existing systems is therefore tantamount to taking a swing at an object’s reflection and hanging a velvet rope around the object itself.
Full article here; shitstorm, I suspect, is imminent.
Update: Several people have mentioned that I didn’t acknowledge pre-4chan trolling/trollish behaviors. I agree; I didn’t talk much about that (although I do mention Usenet briefly in this linked post), because…well because that’s not what I was talking about. When I made the statement “Within the ranks of self-identifying trolls, a class of troublemaker whose roots can be traced back to 4chan’s infamous /b/ board” I was literally talking about the brand of self-identifying trolls whose roots can be traced back to 4chan. In other words, “modern” trolling subculture. There’s lots more to say about those earlier behaviors (which I discuss in greater detail in my dissertation), but that wasn’t the focus of the Atlantic piece. Someone else, please write that article!
October 13, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Yeah, about that whole “running for President of the internet” thing…
My partner Chris Menning just posted a response piece to the Violentacrez creepshot controversy, which everyone should read. As Chris explains:
Yesterday was one hell of an interesting day in regards to Reddit’s public image. In the morning, BuzzFeed ran a glowing profile piece on founder Alexis Ohanian, “Why is this man running for President of the Internet“ lauding him for his efforts in helping squash SOPA. Ohanian stood infront of a podium adorned with the motto “Making the World Suck Less.”
It’s not clear how Ohanian was making the world suck less when encouraging, benefiting from, and ultimately protecting the actions of a man who posted photos of underage girls for perverts to leer at. And that’s a fact that Gawker’s Adrian Chen raised loudly and clearly when he published what is, in my opinion, the best depiction of Reddit’s success to date: Unmasking Violentacrez, the Biggest Troll on the Web. If you read nothing else on Gawker, let it be this.
Now, in case you haven’t been following along prior to today, many Reddit subforums had already begun banning Gawker links days in advance, in preparation for Chen’s article. In fact, their was an outpouring of support for Violentacrez, real name Michael Brutsch, despite his habit of posting 14 year-old girls their bikinis. Apparently creating and moderating boards like /r/creepshots, /r/jailbait, and /r/picsofdeadjailbait were just fine but when a journalist chose to reveal VA’s identity, this was somehow a gross violation of his privacy.
With how much work Reddit staff goes to portraying themselves in a humanitarian light, calling themselves “the front page of the internet” and “a force for good in a bad world,” it’s important that we all remember that they knew of Violentacrez’s habits of posting exploitative photos and simply looked the other way as long as they could benefit from the traffic he brought to the site.
The full article is here; seriously, read it.
September 26, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Crosspost from Modern Primate! Nathan Scott Phillips-Menning! Obedience training! Don’t troll me, dog!
Perhaps unsurprisingly, our first week with Nathan was a mixed bag. When he was good, he was a cuddlebug darling. But when he was bad, he was a gnawing, destruct-o-tron hell-beast. Initially, this Jekyll and Hyde routine was baffling. Chris and I would be on the couch chatting or at our respective computers minding our own damn business when suddenly Nathan would go nuts. He’d knock over his water bowl, pee on the floor even though we just got back from a walk (dude, seriously??), or bounce off the walls for 10 minutes before trying to eat whatever it was that Chris and I were doing. Sitting on the couch? I’ll chomp the shit out of the armrest, thanks. Sending a text message? Lemmie just kick that in the face for you, sir. Eating dinner? Not anymore friend! –And so on. Whenever Nathan would do something naughty, we’d jump up, tell him that and why we were displeased, then direct him away from whatever forbidden thing. Nonono! Here play with Ducky, the squeaking toy you like! No Nathan! Water bowls are not a Frisbee! Nathan come here, we’re going outside, again! And then we’d go for a walk, the length of which would be commensurate to the severity of whatever offense. The worse he was, the further we’d go—which was the only way he’d learn, we thought.
Boy were we wrong! For the thrilling conclusion, click through to the MP!
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 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!