Regarding that University of Manitoba Trolling Study

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!

My Book, Officially Forthcoming with MIT Press

February 13, 2014 § 5 Comments

Yes thank you

Yes thank you

It is with great…..good lord, I don’t know, excitement? Gratitude? Relief? ALL OF THE EMOTIONS? that I announce that my book on trolls (which for those of you who are new to the scene, is a millionth-degree revision of my dissertation) will be published by The MIT Press (yes that MIT Press) in early 2015. This has been a long, weird road; let’s take a look back, shall we?

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!

The day the contracts were signed, my husband and I decided that there could be no more appropriate response than to rewatch our favorite art film Troll 2, which is actually about goblins and not a sequel. So that was great, but then Chris did one better by making and sending me this video, which serves as a reminder that I could not have done this on my own. I also had television.

So without further ado, I’m publishing a book! Here is the new, finessed abstract:

This book 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.

PBS Idea Channel Tackles Trolling, Opens with the Greatest Line Basically Ever

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.

« Read the rest of this entry »

“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.”

“Are Internet Trolls the Modern Incarnation of Witch Hunters?” -My Interview with the Atlantic Wire

August 8, 2013 § 3 Comments


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.

Twitter Under Fire

July 31, 2013 § Leave a comment

Over the last few days I’ve received several press requests regarding the recent attacks against Caroline Craido-Perez, a journalist and activist who successfully campaigned for Jane Austen’s portrait to be featured on British banknotes. Unhappy that a woman would be featured on official tender (THE HORROR!!!), a bunch of dumbasses on Twitter threw a temper tantrum and started hurling rape threats at Craido-Perez as well as MPs Stella Creasy and Claire Perry, who supported Craido-Perez’ efforts. The British government demanded that Twitter intervene, and called for Twitter representatives to appear before a Commons committee focused on online abuse. Twitter has since agreed to include a “report abuse” button on/for individual tweets, which in theory will streamline the reporting process and allow will Twitter to respond more effectively to abusive on-site behavior.

A few quick points: first, as usual, the number one question I’m getting is “what motivates these trolls??” –to which I can only say slow down buddy, what do you mean by troll? As I’ve written before, how you define the term directly impacts how the question can and should be answered. Given how little we can know about the people responsible –maybe they’re trolling for lulz, maybe they’re just misogynist assholes, maybe they’re hoping to make the front page of the Daily Mail, maybe some combination of all three, maybe something else entirely– it’s better not to focus on motivations. The question is moot, for one thing, and more importantly diverts attention away from the underlying issue of pervasive cultural sexism — which is only reinforced by the subsequent and similarly poorly-defined imperative “don’t feed the trolls.”

For me, then, the issue has less to do with trolls per se and more to do with best moderation practices. In fact I would argue that the troll question follows and is directly contingent upon the moderation question. Kate Miltner and I considered this point in our last Awl post, which although focused specifically on Reddit, could also be applied to Twitter’s current situation. And no, “free speech” has nothing to do with it, dear god.

My Interview with CNN on Trolling

July 11, 2013 § Leave a comment

stop trolling jesus

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!

My Daily Dot Article: “Don’t Feed the Trolls? It’s Not That Simple”

June 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

deal with it dog

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!

What is a Troll, Exactly? My Daily Dot Article on Definitions

May 20, 2013 § 1 Comment

something ducks walk on

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.

“Dissecting the Frog” — My Article on Humor Published by The New Inquiry

April 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

not bad

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!

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