“When Internet Trolls Attack” – Karyne Levy on Internet Trolls and Refusing to Refuse to Feed Similar
September 26, 2013 § 5 Comments
A while back I wrote an article on the Daily Dot critiquing the phrase “don’t feed the trolls” due to its implicit victim-blaming (the idea being that if you hadn’t fed the trolls they wouldn’t have attacked you, making their actions ultimately your fault — bullshit I say). This morning Karyne Levy published a nice piece on CNET discussing trolls, platform moderation, and the value of online comment sections. After addressing Popular Science’s decision to shut off its comments section due to too many assholes, Levy discusses her own experiences with online antagonists. As she writes:
And I’m over the online bullying. Mostly. But some of the comments break my heart. They make me want to pack up my things, get off the stage, and go back to being a behind-the-scenes editor. I want to quit the entire thing, stop producing the show that I love, and give up.
She then mentions that my Daily Dot article changed how she looked at trolls, particularly the imperative not to feed them, which is really — I mean just nice, what a nice thing to read.
I’ve since then changed my tactics. Now, whenever the comments on my YouTube page are accidentally left on, I pop in there, comment back, and sometimes tweet the responses. It makes me feel better. Kind of.
Extrapolating out, she continues:
If comments can’t be moderated, should there be comments at all? If the whole purpose of reader comments is to engage the readers, and all I get is personal attacks, am I the one doing something wrong? The Internet can be a place that fosters free speech. And while yes, everyone is entitled to their opinion about my looks, does that mean they should let those opinions be known when it’s irrelevant to the work I’ve produced? I don’t think so. Maybe there shouldn’t be comments at all. Maybe this is why we can’t have nice things.
Years ago, when I first started my trolling research, I aligned myself with the “don’t feed the trolls” logic. But as I continued researching, and more importantly, grew the fuck up and started seeing more examples of the offline impact of online shit-stirring, I began to question how we should deal with online antagonism (note that I’m not using the word “troll” here and instead am focusing on the full range of bad behavior online, a category which includes subcultural trolling but also includes straight-up unambiguous bigotry).
My position these days veers somewhere between “SHUT IT DOWN,” putting me in the comment section-closing camp, and “LET ME AT ‘EM,” putting me in the “if you can’t beat them, then shame them straight to hell” camp. Context matters, of course, so I have a slightly different perspective depending on the specific forum and topic and community. But overall, I’m tired of how much airtime the assholes are getting, and support efforts to push back against those who feel entitled to do what they want, when they want, with little fear of impunity. And don’t even get me started on discussions of “free speech.”
August 8, 2013 § 1 Comment
One of the things that’s a little strange and at times pretty frustrating about doing media interviews is that, more often than not, an entire 45 minute conversation or 8,000 paragraph email exchange is distilled to one money-quote sentence. Sometimes this is the best sentence you said, and sometimes it is the one sentence that appears to undermine your entire argument and makes absolutely no sense and why did you ever say that, you idiot. Either way, the context is often lost, which makes reading the articles you appear in somewhat surreal. Plus, that is a lot of (unpaid) labor for a one-sentence payoff.
Which is why I’ve decided to start posting my full responses to the questions I’m asked, along with the articles my quotes appear in. Few of the arguments I’m making can be summarized in one sentence, so this way I can say my full peace.
Most recently I was interviewed by Rebecca Greenfield at The Atlantic Wire, who was interested in writing about troll attacks against feminist activists. She wanted to know what the precedent was for these sorts of behaviors, the specific question being “where did this kind of stuff take place before the Internet?” and to which I replied:
This is a very interesting question, though maybe not for the obvious reasons. Specifically, the phrase “this kind of stuff” suggests that there exists some basic coherence to the attacks against Caroline Criado-Perez and others — in turn suggesting that someone could make an overarching claim about the attacks. And I’m not sure that’s possible, or even all that helpful. Because what KIND of stuff is this, really? Some of the misogynist, violent responses were likely sent by people who meant every word they said. Some were likely sent by people who self-identify as trolls and would claim to care less (if at all) about the issue itself, but rather the outraged reactions their behaviors might elicit, or by people who don’t necessarily identify as trolls, but who enjoy a good internet fight, or perhaps by people, whether self-identifying troll or not, who wanted to see if they could be quoted by a news outlet, for laughs. And those are just a few possibilities — there are an untold number of reasons why someone might engage in these sorts of behaviors.
And, ultimately, none of those reasons matter. What matters is that the rape threats and harassment did occur, regardless of the why or the who. In fact, focusing exclusively on why and who tends to divert focus away from institutionalized outposts of sexism and towards those who are condemned as aberrational, but who in fact merely represent the grotesque extreme of more commonly held prejudices against women (something as simple as “men are better writers than women”).
This of course makes it extremely difficult to establish behavioral or technological precedent for the behaviors described in this NYT article. It really depends on what you mean by the phrase “this stuff.” If by stuff you mean violent misogyny generally understood, the answer is yes, there is ample precedent, more precedent than can even be enumerated, precedent beyond any attempt at hyperbole. If you mean people being horrible online, sure, there’s plenty of precedent for that as well — for decades now the internet has been a breeding ground for antagonism, mischief and so-called acts of fuckery. If you mean trolling, particularly if it you’re using the term as a synonym for being horrible online, well pull up a chair, because that’s an entirely separate rabbit hole to fall down, as I explain in this post.
So, again, the answer becomes muddied by the question itself. One thing this conversation does precipitate is an examination of the ways in which these behaviors –whatever their precedent(s)– are are built into, and in some cases are directly impacted by, the technological systems out of which they emerge. Just as significant as “Where did this kind of stuff take place before the Internet, if at all?” is the question “What do our current cultural and technological circumstances have to do with this kind of stuff?” The answer to which would go something like, while the sort of violently sexist bile directed at Criado-Perez definitely has precedent (and not just precedent but precedents), it also has context. It may not be new, in other words, but it is unique to this specific media landscape. Not only does Twitter allow for anonymous or pseudonymous communication, not only does it provide a forum for users to directly interface with public figures, its social functionality encourages the breakneck spread of information. Compounding this point is the fact that the majority of journalists and I would venture to say all mainstream media outlets have a Twitter presence, and with a simple retweeet are able to amplify –and lend legitimacy to– stories that might have otherwise remained local or limited in scope. More users can then engage with a story — and not just engage, but engage in ways that never would have been possible 20 years ago.*
In short, the fact that the Jane Austen Twitter troll controversy unfolded the way that it did has as much to do with where were are NOW as whatever might have come before–for better and for worse, in this case mostly worse.
Greenfield responded by asking me to clarify whether or not trolling can be considered “new” behavior. I replied:
I’ve written a bunch about the ways in which trolling behaviors echo more established cultural tropes and behaviors, which I discuss here and again here. That said, the internet is its own space with its own contours — the underlying ethos/politics of many of these behaviors may have ample cultural precedent, but the specific expressions of these behaviors are impacted by the technological affordancees not just of whatever specific platform but the internet as a whole. Put most pithily, trolling (and when I say trolling I mean subcultural trolling) is old behavior expressed in a new medium.
To see how these quotes got used, check out Greenfield’s article here. It’s a fun new game, this!
*I should have added something about how the media then reports on the resulting audience engagement (particularly when the audience engagement is antagonistic and/or abusive), locking the audience and members of the media into a frenzied feedback loop.
July 11, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Today Nick Thompson of CNN published a long article on trolling, including quite a few quotes from yours truly. Here’s some from that article:
While Whitney Phillips agrees that anonymity plays a role in someone’s propensity to spew bile down Facebook walls, Twitter pages and news website comment boards, she says the bile was there first, just waiting to be hurled out at unsuspecting passers-by in cyberspace.
“The problem with blaming anonymity is that it assumes people are only horrible anonymously. Search a racial slur plus Obama on the internet and you’ll see more people than is reasonable who are perfectly happy being disgusting bigots under their own name.”
Is it possible to separate your online behavior from who you really are? Many trolls reject any relation between their profiles on the Web and their real life personas, according to Phillips, and say they are merely performing in order torment their targets “for the lulz,” or to teach people a lesson.
“Some trolls think that spending your time posting condolence messages on Facebook to someone you’ve never met is weird, and grounds for being trolled. They think they’re teaching people a lesson, teaching people how to behave online.”
Ultimately, Phillips says, it’s impossible to definitively say what makes trolls tick when you don’t have any demographic details about them. “We can’t very easily or in any kind of verifiable fashion sit a troll down and ask him what is in his heart, and if you could he would lie. They would tell you some bulls**t about what’s in their heart.”
I like the part about how CNN quotes me as saying “bullshit.” The full article is worth a read, and can be found here!
June 10, 2013 § Leave a Comment
As I mentioned the other day, I’ve written an article for The Daily Dot in which I argue against the phrase “don’t feed the trolls.” The post just went live, so for a good time check it out. Here’s a snippet:
Instead of agreeing not to feed the trolls, thereby accepting the terms of the antagonist’s game, the target should be encouraged to respond with his or her own game—a game called Ruining This Asshole’s Day.
The first and most basic way to play Ruin This Asshole’s Day is to shut them down, ideally by unceremoniously deleting their comments. (This presumes that the target has some control over the posted content, and that the target can keep up with whatever comments, which isn’t always the case and immediately begs a nest of questions about best moderation practices—a conversation for another day.) This shouldn’t be done passively, as an act of acquiescence, but actively, as an exertion of power—specifically the one-two punch of a raised eyebrow and extended middle finger.
Now go read the rest please!
May 20, 2013 § 1 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.