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.
“The War On Trolls”: Milner, Phillips, Coleman, Citron, Tillman and Dooling Talk Anonymity and Online Troublemakers in The New York Times
August 19, 2014 § Leave a comment
Well that was fast, and I told you it was about to get interesting! I give you, “The War on Trolls,” per the New York Times’ Room for Debate feature. I’ll give you two guesses as to what we’ll be debating!
August 14, 2014 § 3 Comments
Earlier today I talked to the New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo about trolling. Unsurprisingly, I was asked a bunch of smart questions and got to talk about the underlying cultural issues that actually dwarf the troll problem, or so-called troll problem because untimely it’s a culture problem. In addition to discussing how the war on trolls isn’t actually about trolls, but rather is all the other wars (sexism, racism, classism, ablism) made manifest, we talked about the media’s role in perpetuating trollish behaviors, including the Zelda Williams case (short version: some assholes decided it would be fun to taunt Robin Williams’ grieving daughter on social media; major media outlets picked up on the story; trolling shitstorm ensues) which reminds me a bit of the “Holmies” case which I discuss here. And we talked definitions, (often unfounded) moral panic over anonymity, platform moderation, and why oh why anyone would be inclined to value a troll’s speech (and in this instance I meant troll in the widest sense, i.e. just some rando online aggressor) over their targets’ speech, and why the argument that people should just get off the internet if they don’t like being abused is myopic and deeply gross and nestles into larger issues of systemic sexism/racism/all the other -isms and SMASH THE PATRIARCHY, etc.
The article is here, today was pretty fun.
July 29, 2014 § Leave a comment
Today my collaborator (we’re working on the title) Ryan Milner and I published an article for The Conversation on the history & significance of the Rickroll phenomenon, specifically the recent 5-second YouTube takedown that never was. Quoth:
Rick Astley, 80s pop singer and unlikely king of internet memes, is dead. Or at least the most persistent song in his catalogue is. Or at least its most popular unofficial YouTube upload is. Or at least it was, for a few hours, most recently in July 2014 but before that in 2012 and again in 2010. And in the exaggerated rumours of its death are lessons on intellectual property, internet culture, and what resonates in the ephemeral swirl of the socially-mediated web.
February 14, 2014 § Leave a comment
I’ve been contemplating how best to respond –if I should respond at all– to the recent University of Manitoba study conducted by Erin Buckels, Paul Trapnell, and Delroy Paulhus suggesting that trolls, or people who are said to engage in trolling behaviors (I would argue that there is a difference, or at least that how we define our terms significantly impacts whatever resulting findings), are marked by the so-called Dark Tetrad of personality traits: Machiavellianism, narcissism, and sadism. Not because I’m not invested in the conversation, obviously I am, but because my methodological approach is so far removed from those presented in the aforementioned study that it almost seems odd to compare these apples to those oranges.
Specifically, I chose not to ask psychological motives-based questions. One could, of course; it’s easy to see why this question –what exactly is WRONG with people who troll, anyway?– would be appealing to researchers and general audiences. But for the purposes of my own work, these were the wrong questions to ask. First, while I don’t doubt that many trolls/people who engage in behaviors described as trolling are indeed Machiavellian, narcissistic, and sadistic, perhaps at a higher incidence than within a random population sample (but perhaps not, depending on the population and sample therein), these conclusions are often difficult (if not impossible) to verify, particularly when you’re dealing with anonymous or pseudonymous subjects. Put simply, even when taken straight from the horse’s mouth, the fact that you are asking a troll ANYTHING immediately presents the possibility, if not high likelihood, that you are wading through a ten foot high puddle of bullshit. Because, again, troll.
So there’s that, but for me, the question of why individual trolls do what they do and what their particular damage might be is less interesting than why our culture is so amenable to trolls. That’s a completely different, and from my perspective, more dangerous line of inquiry, since it calls into question the seemingly clear-cut distinction between those who troll and those who are engaged in ostensibly “normal” behaviors — behaviors that are actually every bit as problematic (I’m looking at you, Fox News). Which happens to be the underlying thesis of my book and also everything I’ve ever written about trolls. I would make a joke about fruit salad or something, but I’m tired. Anyway it’s Friday, go home!
February 13, 2014 § 34 Comments
It is with great excitement, gratitude, and relief (all of the emotions really) that I can finally officially announce that my book on trolls (a millionth-degree revision of my PhD dissertation) will be published by The MIT Press in early 2015.
This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture chronicles the emergence and evolution of online trolling, a wildly popular behavioral practice predicated on meme creation, forum raiding, and general disruption. It focuses specifically on behaviors born of and associated with 4chan’s /b/ board, one of the Internet’s most infamous and active trolling hotspots.
Pulling from thousands of hours of participant observation, dozens of formal interviews with participating trolls, and a careful reconstruction of the history of online trolling, the book argues that the so-called troll problem is actually a culture problem. Not only do trolls fit comfortably within the contemporary American media landscape, they effortlessly replicate the most pervasive—and in many cases outright venerated—tropes in the Western tradition. Trolls may take these tropes to their furthest and most grotesque extremes, but at a very basic level, trolls’ actions are born of and fueled by culturally sanctioned impulses, immediately complicating the impulse to condemn trolls for their obscene and seemingly deviant behavior. These behaviors may well be obscene, but as this book illustrates, the most surprising thing about trolling is that it isn’t all that deviant. In fact, in ostensibly non-trolling contexts, similar behaviors are regarded as perfectly acceptable, if not desirable. Ultimately then, the book isn’t just about trolls. It’s about a culture in which trolls thrive.
This truly has been a long, weird road; for anyone interested in taking a trip down memory lane, here I am comparing my dissertation to The Human Centipede; here I am fretting about losing the ability to speak English during my dissertation defense; here I am smashing my head against the table post-deposit; here I am likening the process of writing a dissertation to The Shining; here I am dancing around the complex psycho-sexual relationship I have with my manuscript; here I am discussing my overall writing process and offering some SO YOU WANT TO WRITE A BOOK OR DISSERTATION tips. Good times!
January 22, 2014 § Leave a comment
My friend Mike Rugnetta, host of PBS’ Idea Channel, opens the above episode by stating that this episode will be a bit different than normal. “I got most of the way through writing it before realizing that I didn’t agree at all with what I was saying,” he admits, which for me anyway is the ultimate “you had me at hello” moment. Mike goes on to say that, instead of rewriting the episode, he decided to do a little good cop bad cop (well, red shirt/blue shirt), except instead of there being two cops (or two different guys in two color-coded shirts), it’s just him disagreeing with himself.