Spotlight On – METHOD

May 22, 2011 § 1 Comment

(Originally posted February 26 2011)

Just say no.

I am something of a late bloomer, I suppose, and didn’t start researching INTERNET or thinking about INTERNET or even spending that much time on INTERNET until a few years ago, when I discovered 4chan (“Go check out this website,” my brother kept telling me. “You’ll like it there”). He was right, sort of — I’m not sure “like” is quite the right word, but I was pretty intrigued.

So intrigued, in fact, that I enrolled in a 4/500 split English class titled “Comedy and the Grotesque” for the explicit reason (lol u see what I did there) of writing about trolling behaviors on /b/. The problem was, not only did I have very little experience with my subject matter, I quite literally had no theoretical or generally smart-sounding language with which to describe what I was seeing.  When I sat down to try and write about /b/ (jesus how many times do I have to say this, I DO NOT CARE ABOUT RULES 1 & 2) I had very few methodological tools to work with, in large part because I was a first-year English PhD student who could barely tell my ass from the Norton Anthology of British Literature (in that sense not much has changed HAR HAR), but also because I was treating troll-stuff like a text to be read and subsequently deconstructed. I had a difficult time making sense of all that anonymity, and an even harder time accounting for the simultaneously chaotic and yet somehow highly structured behavioral patterns which trolling seems to necessitate. Not to mention the seemingly endless march of the meme-guins.

I can’t really blame my young & stupid self, though — how do you do close textual analysis of a target that keeps shifting? You can do what I did and throw some effing Freud at it, or even worse, some Bakhtin. Not that I would recommend either approach, as they lead one to the respective conclusion of a) dicks, the end and b) dicks, the end. There aren’t many places to go after that, which is where I left my first draft swinging like some raggedy sock draped over a fishing wire (i.e. precarious! inexplicable! toeless!).

My next pass fared a little better — in large part because by then I’d discovered performance theory. This was important for a number of reasons, including my subsequent introduction to ethnography. Mainly, though, I was able to move beyond (or perhaps not beyond, but I was no longer solely reliant upon) theory which had the unfortunate effect of calcifying its subject. Under the methodological umbrella of straight-up close reading, I was treating trolling –and its emergent humor– as a noun, something that could be pinned to the inside of a decorative box. With performance theory, I was suddenly dealing with a present progressive. The target was still moving, but this time I was too. Since then, I’ve continued to round out my approach with various social science oddities. But I no longer fight against the fact that what I study is verbs, and boy oh boy does that make a difference.

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