May 20, 2013 § Leave a Comment
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.
April 8, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Today The New Inquiry ran my article “Dissecting the Frog,” which considers the cultural significance of humor. My primary focus is Gabriella Coleman’s analysis of humor within Free and Open Software (F/OSS) circles, but I also discuss my own work with trolls and the mainstream media tragedy-mongers who (are) troll(ed) (by) them. Here’s the overlap between both projects:
What Coleman’s and my respective research projects highlight, then, is the complicated relationship between humor, community formation, and the larger culture. Hacker humor and wit, for example, gestures both to the borders of the F/OSS community and to the much more pervasive logic of neo-liberalism, while specific trolling jokes serve as subcultural scaffolding and draw attention to the connections between trolling humor and mainstream culture, particularly sensationalist media. This culturally holistic approach to humor is particularly helpful when attempting to understand the most upsetting kinds of jokes. When framed as self-contained artifacts, hateful or otherwise corrosive jokes don’t do too much, beyond casting aspersions on the joke teller. But when placed in the context of a specific community, and even more revealing, when that community is placed in the context of the wider culture, corrosive jokes often have as much to tell us about the latter as they do about the former.
For a good time, read the full article here!
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!
March 5, 2013 § Leave a Comment
The following is an excerpt from my third and final Ethnography Matters guest post, which you can find here.
This past fall, I decided to order my first batch of post-PhD business cards, and could no longer waffle on the question. I tried out about 20 different combinations (Digital culture scholar? Media folklorist? Media Ethnographer? Media: Various and Sundry?) before I settled on “Digital Culture/Media Studies.” That’s the least inaccurate way to put it, but still doesn’t quite capture what I do (and, as I just realized, is not the handle on my Twitter profile. There I identify as “Digital Culture/Folklore”).
Again, I’m not that worried about what words get affixed to my work or myself. As far as I’m concerned, definitions—along with academic disciplines generally—are (or should be regarded as) fluid; how I frame my work depends on the project I’m working on. But academia is rife with traditions, territory marking being one of the most conspicuous. So “Digital Culture/Media Studies” (or “Digital Culture/Folklore,” depending on how I’m feeling, apparently) is a thing I say now, though in my mind there is, and will always be, an implied asterisk. What that asterisk indicates, who knows. Ask me again at the end of my next project.
I know I’m not alone in my resistance to traditional disciplinary bounds (the question of why we insist on public binaries when privately almost everyone vacillates between different shades of gray has always baffled me), so for the remainder of this post I will offer some advice for young scholars engaged in and/or contemplating interdisciplinary or otherwise nontraditional research–advice I would have appreciated having spelled out at the outset of my project.
And what advice do I give? Here are the tl;dr bullet points:
- Make sure you have a good support system
- Good support systems are not magically bestowed, and are not something you’re owed by anyone
- Take strange questions seriously
- Remember that you are not the center of the academic universe
- Learn to appreciate naysayers
- Imagine a diverse audience
For more, go read the thing!
March 4, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Today –among other things? my focus is hovering at about 25 minutes per task– I am revising an essay on humor, and why it is difficult to talk about similar. In it, I discuss Gabriella Coleman’s analysis of humor within Free and Open Software circles as well as my own work on trolls. Specifically I consider the staggering variety of ICP/Miracles memes, which I discuss and have already linked to here, and which are stone cold not funny to anyone who doesn’t already think they are funny. This is the thing my essay is about, explaining humor to outsiders!
But something was missing from my original Miracles account, so I dug around my Documents folder looking for this one presentation I gave once for a political economy class. That way I wouldn’t have to write something new.
And what I found was well worth the effort. Or maybe it wasn’t, from your persecutive. Like I’m worried about that, though! So with no further ado:
How DO they work????
A Political Economic Analysis of ICP’s “Miracles” Video and Subsequent Meme-cluster
- Insane Clown Posse is a “horrorcore” rap/metal act from Detroit. The group releases albums through Psychopath Records, an independent label which also markets ICP-related merchandise, videos, and professional wrestling events. ICP consists of rappers Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope and has sold 6.5 million albums (per Nielson SoundScan) in their nearly 30-year history together. Their fans are known as “Juggalos” and wear beautiful makeup.
- Fun fact: they are secret evangelical Christians.
- The “Miracles” video off their 2009 release “Bang! Pow! Boom!” received over 6 million views on YouTube. The album itself sold over 100,000 copies and debuted at no. 4 on the Billboard 200 album chart.
- Juggalos are the natural enemy of trolls.
First question: What exactly is being commoditized, here?
Sure, the video functions as an advertisement for ICP (in theory generating capital for ICP/the record label) and for YouTube (advertising $)
The audience(s) of the video?
Sure, because capital is being generated, though it matters who watches and why
- Juggalos who watch the Youtube video
-Commoditized by ICP/Psychopathic Records, if they go on to buy the album/merchandise
-Commoditized by YouTube as eyeballs for ads
- Users who watch the YouTube video for the lulz
-Not really commoditized by ICP/Psychopathic Records, because they’re not buying anything
-Commoditized by YouTube as eyeballs for ads
The meme-cluster? In themselves, the images are not commoditized, certainly not by ICP. They may be commoditized if eventually posted/reposted on a website with ads, though in that case content is severed from source (the producers of content no longer benefit from the labor of the producer/consumer—shifting economic beneficiary to host of content, not creator or appropriator)
The audience for the meme/cluster?
- Anons who encounter macros of/references to the video
-Not commoditized by ICP/Psychopathic Records
-Not necessarily commoditized by YouTube, if memes encountered off-site
-Not necessarily commoditized by off-site host, depending on whether or not there are advertisements
- Anons who share macros of/reference to the video
-Walking a fine line between producer and consumer; not exactly commoditized (necessarily), not exactly commoditizing (necessarily)
-Walking a fine line in terms of labor—is this “leisure” activity, or are the anons working for someone (indirectly or otherwise)?
Second question: Where does the value go, i.e. who benefits from all this? (“benefits” used in the loosest sense possible)
Hint: The answer depends on which commodity you mean, and which market model you’re working under.
The video itself:
*If you’re talking about the market economy—the record label, the musicians, associated handlers, and YouTube benefits.
-Discussions of labor are relatively straightforward (people are employed by other people to make stuff that’s sold/marketed)
*If you’re talking about the gift economy (i.e. hybrid market economy, in which commodities are freely and reciprocally traded among users)—individual users benefit, since association with and subsequently sharing of the video/images generates social capital for the sender. Depending on the intent of the individual user (pro-Magnets or lol-Magnets), the producers and/or host of content stand to benefit, since interest might generate page views which might translate to advertising dollars which might result in an uptick of legal/illegal downloads which might carry over into merchandising, maybe.
-Labor, here, is a little trickier to pin down, since it’s not always the case that “consumer” behavior really does benefit the producer or even the host of whatever content (depends on what is hosted where and when). The question then becomes, who’s working for whom?
The emergent memes:
*The market economy doesn’t have much to say about memes themselves, unless these memes are snatched up & commoditized by outside parties (Hello Anonymous! Old Spice ad; Hot Topic FUUUUUUUU- rage t-shirt). In other words, unless someone figures out how to make money off a given meme, only the host site(s) can be said to benefit (and even then, the money trail can be nearly impossible to track, since content is cross-linked on so many sites and often appears/disappears without warning).
*Likewise, the gift economy can only say so much about individual meme(s), since the very concept of “gift” is predicated upon interpersonal, reciprocal relationships, which simply do not exist throughout vast stretches of the internet (trolldom)—although images/links are often shared from person to person, thus buttressing a system of accrued/accruing social value, these images are just as frequently passed around between anonymous strangers. And anonymous strangers cannot have relationships with each other; they merely dump and/or take images and run. This is not to say that a healthy, vibrant (sub)culture can’t emerge—it can, and often does. But this is a mutually-sustained, anonymous and weirdly incentive-free endeavor (except insofar as participant contribution inheres within said mutually-sustained, anonymous and weirdly incentive-free community). There is very little in the way of interpersonal give and take, here, which doesn’t entirely fit within traditional gift exchange models.
Moral of the story:
We need a new market model! One which isn’t designed to supplant the market or gift economies (neither of which should be ignored or downplayed in this sort of analysis), but rather which seeks to augment the discussion, specifically by using theory that directly engages the challenges and possibilities of anonymous memetic transmission. I vote for something along the lines of an ecological market model, which would look at circulatory flows of information and could assess “value” from a holistic subcultural perspective, since so much of these behaviors accrue social (but very rarely economic) capital for a diffuse collective and not specific individuals…
Now remember, I wrote this in early 2011; the world is a very different place these days (Karen I just tipped my hat at you). But whateva I still stand behind some of this, and anyway will be talking about THIS VERY ISSUE later this week at the 2013 SCMS meeting in Chicago. So how does anything work, and god I have some weird shit in my folders.
February 5, 2013 § Leave a Comment
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.
January 8, 2013 § Leave a Comment
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!
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.