Mary Beard on the Literary and Philosophical History of Women Being Told to Shut Up

February 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

Mary Beard opens her recent London Review of Books essay on the public voice of women –or lack thereof– by beginning at the beginning, or very close to the beginning, specifically the Odyssey. She describes an incident in which Telemachus, Odysseus and Penelope’s son, tells his mother to shut up and go upstairs to make crafts or sing or something because “speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.” As Beard explains:

There is something faintly ridiculous about this wet-behind-the-ears lad shutting up the savvy, middle-aged Penelope. But it’s a nice demonstration that right where written evidence for Western culture starts, women’s voices are not being heard in the public sphere; more than that, as Homer has it, an integral part of growing up, as a man, is learning to take control of public utterance and to silence the female of the species. The actual words Telemachus uses are significant too. When he says ‘speech’ is ‘men’s business’, the word is muthos – not in the sense that it has come down to us of ‘myth’. In Homeric Greek it signals authoritative public speech (not the kind of chatting, prattling or gossip that anyone – women included, or especially women – could do).

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HA HA AWESOME THIS IS TERRIBLE: My Essay on the Kuso Aesthetic, Plus Exciting Bonus Material

September 16, 2013 § 2 Comments

A few months ago, I wrote an article about fan engagement with so-bad-it’s-good media content. I focused specifically on Troll 2, which is the greatest terrible movie ever made (and is the inspiration for countless tribute videos). Open-access media studies journal Transformative Works and Cultures just published the piece, the full text of which is available here. Here’s a portion of my conclusion:

[4.2] Although proponents of the “so bad it’s good” aesthetic may appear to subvert the hegemonic meaning of a particular text by imposing some new or wholly unintended meaning (Hall [1973] 1980)—for example, by laughing at a statement or scene not intended to be comical—they adhere to larger and more pervasive cultural conventions that must remain intact for the subversion to function. In the case of Troll 2, these conventions have to do with the “correct” way to write, produce, cast, edit, and perform in a film. Troll 2‘s scathing critical reviews echo this point, particularly James Kendrick’s (2010) insistence that the film commits “infinite and varied sins against the traits of good cinema.” A person who does not accept these conventions—which ultimately are arbitrary; they could be otherwise, but they are taken to be natural and necessary—would have no reason to laugh at the glorious failure that is Troll 2. There would be nothing to laugh at.

[4.3] Of course, only those who have fully internalized the rules (about filmmaking, about television production, about video game design, about anything else to which these sorts of conventions may be affixed) will be invested in the degree to which they are followed. Not everyone has the access to the requisite materials, education, or time to pursue these types of leisure interests, nor the inclination to care one way or another. In this way, giddy engagement with “so bad it’s good” content is as much an indication of privilege, my own privilege as a white middle-class American academic very much included, as it is an expression of a particular comedic aesthetic. In fact, I would argue that in this case, privilege and kuso are one and the same. You can’t have the latter without a certain degree of the former—a point that brings into sudden political focus the overwhelming whiteness of the fan audiences profiled in Best Worst Movie.

In a later iteration of the project, I ended up connecting kuso stuff to discussions of the New Aesthetic. That exclusive bonus section is after the jump!

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“In Defense of Memes”: My Essay From Spreadable Media

December 3, 2012 § 8 Comments

In late 2010, Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green invited me to contribute to their forthcoming book Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. I decided to discuss the ways in which trolls use the term “meme,” focusing specifically on trollish engagement with the ICP’s art video “Miracles” (above). The book comes out in January, and today my essay went live. As I explain in the first paragraph:

Contrary to the assumption that memes hop arbitrarily from self-contained monad to self-contained monad, memes as they operate within trolldom exist in synecdochical relationship to the culture in which they inhere. In other words, memes spread—that is, they are actively engaged and/or remixed into existence—because something about a given image or phrase or video or whatever lines up with an already-established set of linguistic and cultural norms. In recognizing this connection, a troll is able to assert his or her cultural literacy and to bolster the scaffolding on which trolling as a whole is based, framing every act of reception as an act of cultural production.

Two years on, I still stand by this description. What I don’t stand by, however, or what I stand by with some basic qualifications, is my –from a 2012 perspective– blithe, oversimplified use of the term “troll.” I may have been able to throw that term around in 2010 without much ado, but that’s no longer the case. A lot has changed since I wrote this piece, most notably WHO and WHAT the term “troll” subsumes, and what the implications of this distinction might be. This is something I have talked about on this blog quite frequently. Because moving targets, they are tricky!

So in addition to providing a riveting account of the miracle of magnets (HOW DO THEY HOW), this essay serves as a reminder that on the internet (especially this corner of the internet), emergent online behavior –to say nothing of the words we use to describe emergent online behavior– often evolve faster than we can publish things about them. As a researcher, this can be deeply frustrating. Then again, stagnation would be much worse, and furthermore would result in me not having a job. I happen to like having a job, so…thumbs up to the inexorable march of verbs, on account of they give us no choice.

“Cats and Penises All the Way Down: Performances of Gender and Sexuality on 4chan/b/” — ICA 2012 Presentation

May 25, 2012 § 4 Comments

I presented the following paper at the 62nd annual International Communications Association meeting in Phoenix. The panel was titled Performing Bodies: Sex, Gender and Community Online.

My name is Whitney Phillips and I study trolls. Trolls and the trolls who troll them! I am two weeks away from defending my dissertation, titled “THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS: The Origins, Evolution and Cultural Embededness of Online Trolling,” at the University of Oregon.

When I submitted my abstract for this panel, my plan was to discuss representations of gender and sexuality on 4chan/b/, particularly trolls’ use of the word “fag,” and even more particularly, how trolls’ use of the word “fag” fits into and complicates their relationship with cute online content. That was the plan. But that’s not what I’ll be presenting today, since in the months between submitting and presenting, trolls’ relationship to that most problematic word changed. Before we can consider the significance of this shift, I must first provide a bit of subcultural background, starting with 4chan itself., a simple imageboard modeled after Japan’s wildly successful Futaba Channel, was founded in 2003 by then-15 year-old Christopher “moot” Poole. Currently the site houses dozens of content-specific boards, all of which cater to a particular subset of the 4chan population. The /a/ board, for example, is devoted to anime, the /x/ board to paranormal phenomena, the /v/ board to video games, and so on.

The most popular board on 4chan—and the board to which I have restricted my focus here and in my other work—is /b/, the “random” board, which generates the bulk of 4chan’s traffic. Populated by tens of thousands of self-identifying trolls, users who revel in transgression and disruptiveness, /b/ is widely regarded as an epicenter (arguably the epicenter) of online trolling activity, and consistently pumps out some of the Internet’s most recognizable, not to mention offensive, viral content. As Matthias Schwartz explains in his 2008 profile of the site, “Measured in terms of depravity, insularity and traffic-driven turnover, the culture of /b/ has little precedent…[it] reads like the inside of a high-school bathroom stall, or an obscene telephone party line, or a blog with no posts and all comments filled with slang that you are too old to understand” (Schwartz 2008).

Schwartz’ association of /b/ with X-rated latrinalia is particularly fitting, as content—much like its bathroom-stall equivalent—is almost always posted anonymously. Although users are given the option to populate the [Name] field, very few do, and even fewer provide identifying details (that is to say, actual names or names the poster intends to use more than once). As a result, the vast majority of content is created anonymously and modified anonymously and downloaded, re-modified and attributed anonymously. Users are thus known as “anon,” and the collective “Anonymous.”

This term has undergone a profound shift in recent months; I could devote three separate presentations to the ever-widening gulf between lulz-Anon and political-Anon. But I don’t have three separate presentations to give, I have one. And for this particular presentation, let the record show that I’m referring to what is known as “little-a” Anonymous, the Anonymous that conducts its business on and around 4chan. Furthermore I am restricting my focus here to on-site behaviors. In other words, to the ways in which anons on /b/ perform for other anons on /b/—often described as trolls trolling trolls trolling trolls. The conversation shifts as soon as you start talking about off-site behaviors, but that’s outside my present scope.

Although trolling on 4chan is predicated on anonymity, it is possible to posit a few basic demographic markers. Based on four years of research and nearly 2,000 hours of participant observation, I feel entirely confident asserting that the vast majority of trolls on 4chan/b/ are white, male, English-speaking members of the middle class between the ages of 18 and 30. There is much to say about the whiteness and nationality and socioeconomic class of trolls, but for now I am restricting my focus to gender (hence the title of this presentation, “Cats and Penises all the Way Down”).

After all, although it is not possible to prove definitively that all anons are biologically male, the ethos of /b/ is unquestionably androcentric. In addition to reveling in sexist tropes and deriding posters who come forward as female (the standard response being “tits or gtfo”), /b/ is home to a seemingly endless supply of pornographic material, all of which is filtered through an explicitly male gaze. But not necessarily a heterosexual male gaze; a large percentage of porn on /b/ is gay, and trolls devote a great deal of energy to ostensibly homosocial (if not outright homosexual) behavior, including frequent “rate my cawk” threads, in which anons post and rate pictures of each other’s penises. (Again, see presentation title)

The prevalence of the word “fag” further complicates this picture. Whenever anons joke about “an hero,” a trolling term for suicide, wax poetic about drug use, or ask Anonymous for advice, the standard response is “do it faggot,” often accompanied by a picture of someone or something (cartoon characters, dogs, bears, children) bearing his or its teeth grotesquely. The accusation of “faggotry” is rampant, from second person claims that “your a faggot” to sophomoric discussions of “buttsecks.” And yet when asked to self-identify, whether in terms of geography of college or major or interest, anons automatically affix “fag” to the end of whatever self-reflexive noun. Thus novice posters are “newfags,” old hands are “oldfags,” people posting in California are “Califags,” posters claiming to be gay are “gayfags,” and so on.  Depending on the context, “-fag” can function as a homophobic slur, term of endearment, or neutral mode of self-identification.

In short, “fag” is what anons describe themselves as and what anons distance themselves from.

These already-muddy waters become even muddier when one considers trolls’ engagement with cutsie-pie content, particularly of the cat variety; it’s worth noting that LOLcats, the now-ubiquitous SFW staple, were first popularized on 4chan in the early-mid 2000s. It’s also worth noting that many trolls describe themselves as “catfags,” due to their love of cuddly kitties.

This seemingly oxy-moronic positioning is best illustrated by the following series of images taken from a standard “IT’S CATURDAY POST SOME FUCKING CATS” thread (Caturday is a much-honored tradition within the trollspace; it consists of exactly what you would assume). In these threads, trolls coo over cute pictures of cats, thereby challenging heteronormative gender expectations…


…while in the same thread re-inscribing heteronormative gender expectations…





…and sometimes simultaneously.


Had I been able to give this presentation the same day I submitted my panel proposal, my argument would have been that trolls’ relationship to cuteness, particularly cats, mirrors their relationship to the word “fag”; in their engagement with both, trolls reject and embrace and comment upon and ludicly recombine heteronormative masculinity. Put (not at all) simply, I would have argued, the trollspace somehow manages to be both homophobic and queer/ed.

This would have been the argument. But then in mid 2011, 4chan implemented a word filter designed to block overused or otherwise offensive words. “Fag” was at the top of that list; unless posters bypassed the filters by implementing a complicated series of Unicode characters, “fag” was automatically replaced with the still-problematic phrase “candy-ass.” (examples below)

Perhaps counter-intuitively, the shift from “fag” to “candy-ass” did NOT result in a reduction of homophobic sentiment. In fact, by calling attention to the new phrase, as well as rendering casual or self-reflexive use of the term impractical (“newCANDYASS” just didn’t look right), “candy-ass” took on increasingly aggressive connotations. What once flirted—albeit problematically—with queerness suddenly connoted more straightforward forms of homophobic expression. After the word filters were implemented, even after they were unceremoniously lifted in March of 2012, the sort of gender play (however ambivalent it might have been) exhibited in images like “brofist cat” and “I’m a fuzzy cuddleball, look at my fuckin balls cat” became more and more infrequent. Trolls no longer called themselves “catfags,” they just called other people fags.

So what can we take from this case study? First, it illustrates the ephemeral nature of online communities, and calls somewhat ulcer-inducing attention to the comparatively glacial pace of academic research. In the time it took to submit an abstract to a conference and actually present my findings, my original argument was rendered moot. Not all online communities move as quickly as trolls, but the fact is, what gets data-collected today may no longer be applicable, or no longer applicable in the same ways, six months from now.

Second, and perhaps more problematically, this case study challenges the efficacy of surface-level censorship. In this particular case, banning the word “fag” didn’t reduce the frequency with which it was posted, nor did it reduce the word’s visibility on the site. It quite literally highlighted its visibility, which in turn affixed a very specific meaning to a word that had till that point enjoyed a certain degree of semiotic flexibility. Even the anons who managed to bypass the word filter were affected—they had to expend extra energy to call their fellow anon a fag, so when they did, the insult was all the more pointed.

In short, 4chan’s attempt at censorship backfired, providing an interesting counterpoint to debates surrounding trollish or otherwise abusive online behaviors. If outright censorship doesn’t work, what does? I don’t pretend to offer a solution here, but look forward to discussing the issue during the Q&A.

4chan Article Published!

May 11, 2012 § 2 Comments

Damn hippies

My article “The House That Fox Built: Anonymous, Spectacle and Cycles of Amplification” was accepted for publication by peer-edited journal Television and New Media. A pre-proof version is available here. Abstract:

This article focuses on 4chan’s /b/ board, a—if not the—pillar of online trolling activity. In addition to chronicling the history of the site, as well as the emergence of the nebulous collective known as Anonymous, the article considers the ways in which early media representations of and subsequent reactions to trolling behaviors on /b/ helped create and sustain an increasingly influential subculture. Echoing Stanley Cohen’s analysis of moral panics, the article goes on to postulate that trolls and mainstream media outlets, specifically Fox News, are locked in a cybernetic feedback loop predicted upon spectacle; each camp amplifies and builds upon the other’s reactions, thus entering into an unintended but highly synergistic congress.

Fembot Laundry Day

April 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

Today the Fembot Collective published a collection of perspectives on trolling/online aggression. I was one of the contributors, and wrote a thing about some trollthings. Here’s a snippet from my entry (for some reason my name isn’t on the article just yet, though I’ve been told that will be fixed soon):

About a year ago, I wrote an essay about Dickwolves. Well, tried to write an essay about Dickwolves—about halfway into the project, I realized I was out of my league, or at least was working outside my jurisdiction. Because as trollish as some of the engagement might have been, a large percentage of the responses were clearly more than “simple” trolling. Scare quotes very much intended, as there’s nothing simple about trolling behaviors. But Dickwolves, especially the subsequent attacks against feminist bloggers, was something else, a hybrid mess of trolling and harassment. Despite this, I applied my analysis of the former to what I should have recognized as the latter, which was a mistake.

 Even though the resulting essay was a failure, and a spectacular failure at that (hey, go big or go home), my misadventures with Dickwolves forced me to consider the difference(s) between trolling and other forms of online aggression, a distinction with major methodological—not to mention legal—implications.

For more, go to here.

Be Careful What You Wish For

December 15, 2011 § 2 Comments

As I mentioned in a previous post, First Monday just published my RIP trolling article. This was exciting, but also weird (I’m always shocked to see my name on things that aren’t mail or parking tickets — this here blog is pretty much the only place I live online, and come to think of it I’m not even sure my full name is posted). The next day I was contacted by Scott McLemee  from Inside Higher Ed, who profiled my article on his blog Intellectual Affairs. This was also exciting, and also weird. Then today Adrian Chen at Gawker published his own take on my piece, which was doubly exciting and doubly weird.

I doubt I need to clarify the “exciting” part. But “weird” probably warrants further explanation. In a nutshell, I have always occupied a very fraught relationship to my object of study (not just talking RIP trolls, here, but trolling and internet culture generally). At times this has been an asset, since understanding the thing makes it easier to talk about the thing. At other times, understanding the thing makes it more difficult to speak objectively about the thing. It might seem counter-intuitive, but cultural literacy (to use a somewhat annoying term) is my Achilles heel. I take certain behaviors for granted. I forget to unpack all kinds of assumptions. And although I try very hard not to justify trolling behaviors as much as provide an explanation (to gesture towards and maybe push back against Chen’s final argument), I am painfully aware of the fact that my approach often scans quite sympathetic, perhaps more sympathetic than would be expected of  (or appropriate for?) an academic. This is especially true of RIP stuff, which is so beyond the cultural pale that even just writing about it opens me up to attack. I accept this risk when the only person reading my work is my advisor. Make the audience a little bigger, though, and suddenly I’m chewing off my fingers.

Because I want to get it right. I want to make sense of trolling, and to the extent that I have access, want to make sense of individual trolls. I can’t do this as an outsider. But I also can’t do this as an insider. I’m stuck somewhere in the middle, and the middle is often very confusing. Someday I will write more about this. For now, it’ll have to be enough to say —— it’s complicated, I don’t know.

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