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.
May 9, 2012 § Leave a Comment
For the last few days I’ve been toiling away in the dissertation mines and buzzing with visions of sugar plum ROFLfairies. Those two things are not mutually-exclusive. I have however kept relatively quiet on the latter, as these few final steps are crunching my brainbones & essentially amount to a dissertation reenactment of The Human Centipede. Perhaps it’s a testament to what happens when your brain is on trolls for four years (the new bathsalts?), but after my advisor told me I needed to create more links between chapters, my first thought was OH! YOU MEAN LIKE ASS TO MOUTH! I CAN DO THAT. I wish I were kidding. No I don’t.
More actual writing soon, I have much to say — Andy Baio wrote a cool thing over at Wired and want to add my seventy cents. But. THE CENTIPEDE calls, for now.
April 10, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Today the Fembot Collective published a collection of perspectives on trolling/online aggression. I was one of the contributors, and wrote a thing about some trollthings. Here’s a snippet from my entry (for some reason my name isn’t on the article just yet, though I’ve been told that will be fixed soon):
About a year ago, I wrote an essay about Dickwolves. Well, tried to write an essay about Dickwolves—about halfway into the project, I realized I was out of my league, or at least was working outside my jurisdiction. Because as trollish as some of the engagement might have been, a large percentage of the responses were clearly more than “simple” trolling. Scare quotes very much intended, as there’s nothing simple about trolling behaviors. But Dickwolves, especially the subsequent attacks against feminist bloggers, was something else, a hybrid mess of trolling and harassment. Despite this, I applied my analysis of the former to what I should have recognized as the latter, which was a mistake.
Even though the resulting essay was a failure, and a spectacular failure at that (hey, go big or go home), my misadventures with Dickwolves forced me to consider the difference(s) between trolling and other forms of online aggression, a distinction with major methodological—not to mention legal—implications.
For more, go to here.
February 22, 2012 § 2 Comments
For the last few days I’ve been struggling to implement a few prospectus revisions suggested by my dissertation committee. Luckily they are good suggestions (my committee kicks ass), and will make for very good revisions, in large part because these are the kinds of criticisms I’m likely to encounter when my work goes public. Specifically, that I’m an apologist for all forms of trolling; that I have Stockholm syndrome (an actual accusation in the wake of the RIP article and subsequent media coverage); generally that I am “too close” to my object of study.
My approach is not to avoid these kinds of criticisms, but to preemptively respond. I’m calling the section “Putting the I in Troll,” and will directly address my often complicated relationship with trolling and the trolls I study. My argument is not that I DON’T have a complicated relationship with trolling subculture; I absolutely do. My argument is that, in order to forward an analysis that says anything worth saying, I NEED to have a complicated relationship with trolling, an idea reflected in this article (particularly #4), which I just saw this morning but spells out my position pretty succinctly.
For the record I don’t think –and this is a point I raise in the prospectus– that all forms of trolling are necessarily bad, or that all trolls should be wiped from the internet (as if that would even be possible). I do however think that people should figure out what the hell they’re talking about before they start talking. Condemnation without understanding does little to address whatever existing problem, and in fact might just make the problem worse. This was precisely the problem with SOPA (“people are file sharing? I know, let’s censor the whole internet!”), and is the problem with many knee-jerk reactions to transgressive online behaviors. Like, figure out what the thing actually is and what the thing actually does before you try to propose a solution.
December 15, 2011 § 2 Comments
As I mentioned in a previous post, First Monday just published my RIP trolling article. This was exciting, but also weird (I’m always shocked to see my name on things that aren’t mail or parking tickets — this here blog is pretty much the only place I live online, and come to think of it I’m not even sure my full name is posted). The next day I was contacted by Scott McLemee from Inside Higher Ed, who profiled my article on his blog Intellectual Affairs. This was also exciting, and also weird. Then today Adrian Chen at Gawker published his own take on my piece, which was doubly exciting and doubly weird.
I doubt I need to clarify the “exciting” part. But “weird” probably warrants further explanation. In a nutshell, I have always occupied a very fraught relationship to my object of study (not just talking RIP trolls, here, but trolling and internet culture generally). At times this has been an asset, since understanding the thing makes it easier to talk about the thing. At other times, understanding the thing makes it more difficult to speak objectively about the thing. It might seem counter-intuitive, but cultural literacy (to use a somewhat annoying term) is my Achilles heel. I take certain behaviors for granted. I forget to unpack all kinds of assumptions. And although I try very hard not to justify trolling behaviors as much as provide an explanation (to gesture towards and maybe push back against Chen’s final argument), I am painfully aware of the fact that my approach often scans quite sympathetic, perhaps more sympathetic than would be expected of (or appropriate for?) an academic. This is especially true of RIP stuff, which is so beyond the cultural pale that even just writing about it opens me up to attack. I accept this risk when the only person reading my work is my advisor. Make the audience a little bigger, though, and suddenly I’m chewing off my fingers.
Because I want to get it right. I want to make sense of trolling, and to the extent that I have access, want to make sense of individual trolls. I can’t do this as an outsider. But I also can’t do this as an insider. I’m stuck somewhere in the middle, and the middle is often very confusing. Someday I will write more about this. For now, it’ll have to be enough to say —— it’s complicated, I don’t know.
December 13, 2011 § 3 Comments
Over the last few months, I’ve had the very cool and sometimes incredibly weird opportunity to talk to all kinds of media people and academics about my research, particularly the stuff I’ve done with Facebook memorial page trolling. Although I’m grateful for (if a little confused by, since what the hell do I know) the platform, I often end up feeling like some kind of ambassador to trolldom. This is a very odd position to occupy, especially when talking about the most emotionally damaging forms of trolling behavior.
Especially weird, and especially difficult to articulate, is my position on Facebook’s position on trolling. Essentially, and as I’ve explained before, I’m deeply suspicious of Facebook’s motives, and find myself at odds with almost every single one of their policies — including their pushback against trolls. But not because I think RIP trolling (it’s important to note that not all FB trolling is RIP trolling; many FB trolls steer clear of memorial pages, but that’s a different conversation) is awesome and above rebuke. Quite the contrary. What I take issue with is the profound cynicism of Facebook’s response, compellingly discussed here.
It might seem surprising for me to use Grant’s argument –which gestures towards and in no uncertain condemns a number of problematic trolling/trollish behaviors– to support the claim that Facebook’s response to trolling is disingenuous and gross. Despite the strange bedfellowsedness of it all, I think Grant’s argument is apt, especially the following:
If it was not clear before, we must understand now that Facebook wasn’t built for us — it was built for the profit of the very few. That Facebook is of value to the public as a communications platform is only important to Facebook insofar as it allows them to sell targeted advertising against our own speech. Its governing document, the Terms of Service, has been repeatedly applied unfairly and without accountability to its users, as its purpose is to legally protect Facebook from our conduct, not provide us with a free space, or even a safe space.
In other words, it’s not the trolling Facebook cares about. It’s the economic disruption that trolling causes. Currently it’s in their interest to make trolling impossible, but this isn’t so much a victory for the targets of trolling as much as evidence that trolling is bad for business. For one thing, you can’t advertise to trolling sockpuppets. They have no purchasing power, and consequently have no place on the site. When Zuckerberg waxes poetic about “authentic user identity,” this is what he’s describing. Real people are worth money. Fake people are not.
Again, I’m not suggesting that Facebook’s response to trolling is somehow unfair to trolls. Instead, it illustrates the ways in which economic incentives trump whatever lip-service Facebook might be paying to the groups they think are most relevant to their interests. Trolls just so happen to be the canary in this coal mine.
September 2, 2011 § 3 Comments
I was initially attracted to trolling because I really fucking like to swear! As a result my early research focused on trolls’ astoundingly naughty language (even by my standards), specifically the metacommunicative signals they would deploy to indicate that trolling was indeed afoot. By learning the language I learned about the culture, and by learning about the culture I started interacting with actual trolls, who introduced me to more and ever-scarier trolls, who by the grace of god decided to humor my incessant, and initially very stupid, questions (inb4 my questions are still very stupid, it’s true). It was through this spiderweb that I discovered RIP trolling, which I’m currently revisiting. This has me thinking about my research generally and the extent to which it has turned me into an ambulance-chasing ghoul.
But let me back up. One of the occupational hazards of ethnographic research is that you enter into a symbiotic, and sometimes outright parasitic, relationship with your research subjects/informants/collaborators/whatever other PC word (in regular conversation I tend to describe them as “my trolls,” though recognize the weird possessive connotations of that sort of framing and avoid it in research papers and whatnot, instead favoring “research collaborators” or just “the trolls I’ve worked with” — despite the fact that “my trolls” feels more natural due to I use “my” the way normal people use “my” when talking about “their” friends). As a result, you’re naturally and necessarily and definitionally affected when anything happens to any of them. The event needn’t even be related to your research proper, it could be as simple as someone gets sick, or someone gets pregnant, or someone gets arrested or hit by a car or the band breaks up or X divorces Y or whatever. As a researcher you’re suddenly –though often subconsciously– tenting your fingers like some shifty-eyed cartoon villain thinking oh how FASCINATING I wonder how the community will RESPOND.
Which isn’t to say that ethnography is irredeemably cynical or solipsistic (things only matter if they impact the project, everything revolves around the project, BUT WHAT ABOUT THE PROJECT etc) — but it is the case that the project does matter (well, hopefully, at least to the researcher), and that your informants do animate whatever analysis. Meaning that, in a very basic way, what impacts them –what they do, what they don’t, who they hate, who they love, trouble they’ve either gotten themselves into or out of, what they watch on TV, anything and everything– has a direct impact on you(r research). So when you encounter these kinds of things, your ears perk right up. Well, they do if you’re any good at your job. Seeing as your job is to pay attention to the people you’re paying attention to. In itself, this setup is entirely value-neutral. The problem is that the things that happen to people often AREN’T, which can thrust an otherwise straightforward, maybe even clinical relationship into murky ethical waters. To say the very least. Ethnography can be real weird, is what I’m saying, and relationships can be complicated, and it’s very difficult not to occasionally –and/or permanently, depending on how much of an asshole you are– fall into a pit of grotesque self-involvement.
Now, if your collaborators happen to be trolls who descend upon the memorial pages of dead strangers, you find yourself taking special notice when you encounter a news story describing an “interesting” or otherwise notable death — after all tragedy = trolls = oh man this will work GREAT in the Facebook chapter! = WHAT HAVE I BECOME. I have the same reaction whenever there’s a high-profile disaster — Irene being the most recent example, but also the tsunami in Japan and the shootings in Norway. When something bad happens, I have to drop whatever I’m doing and park my ass in front of the computer because as I said here, this shit isn’t going to archive itself. It’s horrible, but it’s good for the project, and things that are good for the project are good? Maybe, but it’s still blood-soaked, which can be upsetting and surreal and also entirely prosaic, because let’s face it, this is what I do for a living, and is what I signed up for. I don’t know how I feel about that. To be perfectly honest. Sometimes. I do however know where I’ll be on September 11th, and let me fucking tell you, that is a very strange feeling.
May 22, 2011 § Leave a Comment
(Originally posted on March 6 2011)
A few days ago I got an email from the Folklore department secretary — apparently someone at the BBC had seen my interview with the Daily Mail and decided to follow-up with a radio thing.
Because of the time difference, I had to wake up at 2:45am — the producer wanted to check in one more time to make sure I was still on board. I was, and he said they’d call again and pipe me into the conversation at 3:05. “The conversation?” I asked. “Oh you’ll be on with the father of one of the dead teens whose memorial page was attacked.” And I was like oh. Um. But it was 2:45 and my brain was still a little fuzzy, plus it was the BBC, so I said ok and during the 10-minute wait tried to strategize. I had a feeling that this was some sort of set-up — it’s not that I defend RIP trolling (many of the FB trolls I work with have little interest in trolling RIP pages, and some express outright contempt for trolls who go after mourning family members and friends — mostly their interest is in combating grief tourism, what they describe as inauthentic expressions of grief by random strangers), but I do have an answer, or at least a partial answer, to the question oh my god WHY?? -but that’s probably not what they were looking for here. What they probably were looking for here was confirmation of what they already knew (or thought they knew) to be the case.
And I was right, the opening question was something like, “how evil are the evil people responsible for this evil new internet trend called trolling” — immediately I knew I was in for a bumpy ride. Because what do you say? What could I say? This poor father was in mourning — no matter what I’d said, no matter how carefully or thoroughly I tried to place trolling, and RIP trolling in particular, into the appropriate historical/techno-social context, his kid would still be dead, and he’d still want to kick the asses of every person who’d posted something off-color onto his son’s page. It was a surreal moment for me as a researcher — my focus is on trolling behaviors themselves, and the people engaging in trolling behaviors, and the possible reasons that people, both individually and collectively, are drawn to trolling. Not grieving parents.
Don’t get me wrong — it’s not like talking to Rodger changed my mind about my research, or revealed something I didn’t already know about trolls/trolling (namely, that their behaviors affect people in the “real world,” especially when the trolling-in-question involves dead teenagers). But it was a reminder that the people I study are regarded by many as monsters –hence the choice to include this post under “bestiary.” At one point in the interview, I was asked point-blank what was wrong with trolls. They had to be bad guys, right? In some way DSM4-worthy? I said what I believe to be true, that most trolls are as “normal” as anyone, though of corse there are outliers (as there are whenever you’re talking about a large group of people). The host and Rodger balked, as in literally let out a gasp, when I said that — these people can’t be normal, the host insisted, and I found myself in the very odd position of being, or at least feeling like, some sort of trolling ambassador. That’s not my job, exactly, but neither is the alternative. So I don’t know. In conclusion, bestiary!