Ethnography Matters Post: Ethnography of Trolling, part 2 of 3

February 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

trolls on my message board

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.


A Reaction to the Defense of the James Holmes Tribute Page

July 27, 2012 § 4 Comments

Yesterday, Fruzsina Eördögh posted a piece to Read Write Web defending one of several James Holmes Facebook (and obviously troll-made) tribute pages. I’m quoted in the piece, and for once was framed as LESS permissive than the interviewer (typically when I give interviews the dynamic is reversed — I’m the one attempting to contextualize or offer a more measured account of whatever behavior). As Eördögh writes:

It doesn’t matter where the dozen or so Facebook users behind the joking spend most of their time – 4chan’s notorious /b/ board, an Encyclopedia Dramatica IRC channel or a Something Awful forum. After the Colorado shooting, they came to this digital place, hung out, told jokes and laughed. Phillips advised against framing the page as “an emotional or coping mechanism” because “trolls motives may vary,” but, when you imagine the amount of time the Facebook creators spent making their pages, it’s hard not to think the trolls were grieving in their own way.

Of course, that doesn’t make the jokes polite or tasteful. “It’s important to place these sorts of transgressive behaviors in context, but it’s also important not to sugarcoat the behaviors,” Phillips wrote in an email. “They troll because it upsets people, and because they derive amusement from their targets’ distress. National tragedies are a perfect opportunity to capitalize on heightened sensitivities, and so that’s precisely what they do.”

But free speech covers impolite and distasteful statements. And on Facebook – if the site will allow – we can all grieve together.

As is probably obvious just by reading the above quotes, I’m quite wary of this explanation. Which isn’t to say that I think Eördögh is wrong to challenge the accepted narrative regarding RIP trolling (i.e. “it’s bad”). Rather, I take issue with the idea that RIP trolling is equivalent to or indicative of “legitimate” forms of mourning. To reiterate an earlier statement, trolls are, above all else, trolls — whether or not the act of trolling allows them to work through their own grief (which by the way isn’t how any of the trolls I’ve worked with have framed their behaviors, in fact I can imagine most of them lolling mightily at such a suggestion), their aggressions are primarily, and definitionally, externally focused. Trolling first, in other words, and feelings –however complicated they might be– later.

My basic argument is that, while there’s much more to say about RIP trolling than simply “it’s bad,” it’s also important to call it what it is, and furthermore to acknowledge the behavioral and emotional variation even within this relatively niche troll space. In other words, making the blanket statement that RIP trolling is good/healthy flattens the individual behaviors into one monolithic category just as quickly as making the blanket statement that RIP trolling is bad/sociopathic. As always, the truth falls somewhere in the middle, where the waters are deeper, muddier, and are as overrun by sharks as they are with plastic floaty toys.

When Research Attacks, Part One Million

July 11, 2012 § 2 Comments

I defended my dissertation in June and was blessed with the curse of excellent committee feedback. Since then, I’ve been scrambling to make all requested changes before depositing the manuscript (hopefully) by the end of the month. One of the trickiest revision suggestions came from my advisor Carol Stabile, who said that my RIP troll chapter, which considers the behavioral and rhetorical overlap between Facebook memorial page trolling and sensationalist mainstream disaster coverage, needed more specific examples of the media’s decidedly ghoulish (if not outright trollish) coverage of 2010’s rash of teenage suicides.

So I reread all the articles and rewatched all the news segments about so-called “bullycide,” which according to the media was the reason our teenagers kept dying. Subsumed by this framing was the sinister figure of the memorial page troll. In more extreme cases, these trolls (or as they were still called in the U.S., “cyberbullies”) were further condemned as time-traveling demons somehow capable of attacking a teenager’s Facebook memorial page AND convincing the (already dead) teenager to kill themselves.

Particularly disturbing (though there is much to say about the RIP trolls themselves, I am for the moment tabling the question of the trolls’ culpability and instead am focusing on the media’s role in propagating the moral panic surrounding cyberbullying and teen suicide) was the frequency with which the media would show a screencap of some outrageous statement or image and then decry the awful trolls who posted it. This was some pretty gristly X-rated shit, including one image of a dead teenager with her head photoshopped through a noose, and yet there it was on my MSNBC.

My basic argument was that, by sandwiching troll-made content between excessively sentimental coverage of the suicides themselves, these outlets were no better than the trolls they condemned. Just like trolls, the media harnessed audience distress for their own personal gain. In the trolls’ case, that gain came in the form of lulz. In the media’s case, gain was measured in terms of advertising revenue. Either way, both groups benefited from personal tragedy. That these particular tragedies were teen suicides only complicated matters, as there is a direct and directly observable relationship between sensationalized suicide coverage and increased suicide rates, particularly within younger demographics. In short, media engagement with memorial page trolling wasn’t just cynical and hypocritical, it was deeply irresponsible—challenging the assumption that trolls were the only villains in this story.

This put me in a strange ethical position. On one hand, I wanted—and in fact needed, given the seriousness of my claims—to provide concrete evidence of the media’s homologous relationship to memorial page trolling. On the other hand, by (re)republishing those images on the same grounds that the media first republished the trolls’ images, and with a similar ethical objective, no less, I risked replicating the same sensationalist logic that characterized the media’s response to RIP trolling (and the RIP trolls’ response to the media’s response, and the media’s response to the trolls’ response to the media’s response, ad infinitum nauseum). Initially, I justified my inclusion of the more sensationalist screencaps on the grounds that at least I wasn’t making any money off my research—until I realized that I was, at least indirectly. But even if I never saw a penny for my efforts, I would accrue a certain amount of social capital for having written about the subject. I would, in other words, benefit. This concern went beyond the facile –and fallacious– assumption that because what the media posted and what I posted looked alike, the behaviors really were alike. My concern was that the desired outcome –essentially to rustle my audience’s jimmies, in the name of shaming the object of my critique– was in fact identical. I’d like to think that I was publishing the images for “good” reasons, but I suspect they did as well.

That’s all, I don’t have a conclusion. And I will be using one or two of the images in my dissertation. My actions may be problematic (it’s hard to avoid engaging in problematic behavior; the waters are muddy on all sides), but unlike sensationalist media, at least I’m taking responsibility for what I’m choosing to do.

This is a Post About Trolling

February 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

I like the part about how he's a little bit scary looking

I was afi (away from INTERNET) most of yesterday, and am just now catching up on the last 36 hours of cats and general fuckery. I don’t like missing INTERNET, it makes me feel the way normal people feel when they’re sick or on vacation and their friends end up going out and doing stuff without them and the next time everybody gets together their friends keep giggling about “sloth penis is not a meme, is now a meme” or whatever, and they’re all like hey. Yup, that is precisely the relationship I have with INTERNET.

Also, yeah ok so, this morning BuzzFeed posted a clip of the BBC chasing down an RIP troll irl (they interviewed me for the program, though I haven’t seen the whole thing so don’t know if I was just a consultant or if any of my statements were actually used) and linked to the Gawker piece which talks about my piece which is…weird. Here’s the vidya:

The interesting this about this is that the producers assume he’s going to try and justify his behaviors, freak out, trip over some tortuous self-aggrandizing logic — which of course is not what happens at all, and reminds me of my favorite clip from MTV’s H8RS. The premise of this latter show is like, bullying is bad, and forces “h8ers” to confront the celebrities they hate (get it, H8). In the first episode, Snooki from That Show I’ve Never Watched ambushes her biggest “h8er” and demands to know if he’s willing to say the same things to her face. The “h8er” is surprised, but holds his ground. “Yes,” he says, then tells her she’s terrible. Back to actual trolling: when the host asks “Nimrod” if he knows the impact his behaviors have, his answer is unequivocal. “Yeah,” he says. And when asked what he thinks, Nimrod shrugs. “Fuck ’em.” This doesn’t surprise me one bit, but it does surprise the producers. “There you go,” the host says. “An internet troll. That’s what they look like.” All I can say is, well, yes and no…

It’s All Fun and Games Until Facebook Starts Losing Money

December 13, 2011 § 3 Comments


Over the last few months, I’ve had the very cool and sometimes incredibly weird opportunity to talk to all kinds of media people and academics about my research, particularly the stuff I’ve done with Facebook memorial page trolling. Although I’m grateful for (if a little confused by, since what the hell do I know) the platform, I often end up feeling like some kind of ambassador to trolldom. This is a very odd position to occupy, especially when talking about the most emotionally damaging forms of trolling behavior.

Especially weird, and especially difficult to articulate, is my position on Facebook’s position on trolling. Essentially, and as I’ve explained before, I’m deeply suspicious of Facebook’s motives, and find myself at odds with almost every single one of their policies — including their pushback against trolls. But not because I think RIP trolling (it’s important to note that not all FB trolling is RIP trolling; many FB trolls steer clear of memorial pages, but that’s a different conversation) is awesome and above rebuke. Quite the contrary. What I take issue with is the profound cynicism of Facebook’s response, compellingly discussed here.

It might seem surprising for me to use Grant’s argument –which gestures towards and in no uncertain condemns a number of problematic trolling/trollish behaviors– to support the claim that Facebook’s response to trolling is disingenuous and gross. Despite the strange bedfellowsedness of it all, I think Grant’s argument is apt, especially the following:

If it was not clear before, we must understand now that Facebook wasn’t built for us — it was built for the profit of the very few. That Facebook is of value to the public as a communications platform is only important to Facebook insofar as it allows them to sell targeted advertising against our own speech. Its governing document, the Terms of Service, has been repeatedly applied unfairly and without accountability to its users, as its purpose is to legally protect Facebook from our conduct, not provide us with a free space, or even a safe space. 

In other words, it’s not the trolling Facebook cares about. It’s the economic disruption that trolling causes. Currently it’s in their interest to make trolling impossible, but this isn’t so much a victory for the targets of trolling as much as evidence that trolling is bad for business. For one thing, you can’t advertise to trolling sockpuppets. They have no purchasing power, and consequently have no place on the site. When Zuckerberg waxes poetic about “authentic user identity,” this is what he’s describing. Real people are worth money. Fake people are not.

Again, I’m not suggesting that Facebook’s response to trolling is somehow unfair to trolls. Instead, it illustrates the ways in which economic incentives trump whatever lip-service Facebook might be paying to the groups they think are most relevant to their interests. Trolls just so happen to be the canary in this coal mine.

You’re a Vampire, Whitney

September 2, 2011 § 3 Comments

Just got back from Sears portrait studio

I was initially attracted to trolling because I really fucking like to swear! As a result my early research focused on trolls’ astoundingly naughty language (even by my standards), specifically the metacommunicative signals they would deploy to indicate that trolling was indeed afoot. By learning the language I learned about the culture, and by learning about the culture I started interacting with actual trolls, who introduced me to more and ever-scarier trolls, who by the grace of god decided to humor my incessant, and initially very stupid, questions (inb4 my questions are still very stupid, it’s true). It was through this spiderweb that I discovered RIP trolling, which I’m currently revisiting. This has me thinking about my research generally and the extent to which it has turned me into an ambulance-chasing ghoul.

But let me back up. One of the occupational hazards of ethnographic research is that you enter into a symbiotic, and sometimes outright parasitic, relationship with your research subjects/informants/collaborators/whatever other PC word (in regular conversation I tend to describe them as “my trolls,” though recognize the weird possessive connotations of that sort of framing and avoid it in research papers and whatnot, instead favoring “research collaborators” or just “the trolls I’ve worked with” — despite the fact that “my trolls” feels more natural due to I use “my” the way normal people use “my” when talking about “their” friends). As a result, you’re naturally and necessarily and definitionally affected when anything happens to any of them. The event needn’t even be related to your research proper, it could be as simple as someone gets sick, or someone gets pregnant, or someone gets arrested or hit by a car or the band breaks up or X divorces Y or whatever. As a researcher you’re suddenly –though often subconsciously– tenting your fingers like some shifty-eyed cartoon villain thinking oh how FASCINATING I wonder how the community will RESPOND.

Which isn’t to say that ethnography is irredeemably cynical or solipsistic (things only matter if they impact the project, everything revolves around the project, BUT WHAT ABOUT THE PROJECT etc) — but it is the case that the project does matter (well, hopefully, at least to the researcher), and that your informants do animate whatever analysis. Meaning that, in a very basic way, what impacts them –what they do, what they don’t, who they hate, who they love, trouble they’ve either gotten themselves into or out of, what they watch on TV, anything and everything– has a direct impact on you(r research). So when you encounter these kinds of things, your ears perk right up. Well, they do if you’re any good at your job. Seeing as your job is to pay attention to the people you’re paying attention to. In itself, this setup is entirely value-neutral. The problem is that the things that happen to people often AREN’T, which can thrust an otherwise straightforward, maybe even clinical relationship into murky ethical waters. To say the very least. Ethnography can be real weird, is what I’m saying, and relationships can be complicated, and it’s very difficult not to occasionally –and/or permanently, depending on how much of an asshole you are– fall into a pit of grotesque self-involvement.

Now, if your collaborators happen to be trolls who descend upon the memorial pages of dead strangers, you find yourself taking special notice when you encounter a news story describing an “interesting” or otherwise notable death — after all tragedy = trolls = oh man this will work GREAT in the Facebook chapter! = WHAT HAVE I BECOME. I have the same reaction whenever there’s a high-profile disaster — Irene being the most recent example, but also the tsunami in Japan and the shootings in Norway. When something bad happens, I have to drop whatever I’m doing and park my ass in front of the computer because as I said here, this shit isn’t going to archive itself. It’s horrible, but it’s good for the project, and things that are good for the project are good? Maybe, but it’s still blood-soaked, which can be upsetting and surreal and also entirely prosaic, because let’s face it, this is what I do for a living, and is what I signed up for. I don’t know how I feel about that. To be perfectly honest. Sometimes. I do however know where I’ll be on September 11th, and let me fucking tell you, that is a very strange feeling.

Spotlight On – BESTIARY

May 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

(Originally posted on March 6 2011)

A few days ago I got an email from the Folklore department secretary — apparently someone at the BBC had seen my interview with the Daily Mail and decided to follow-up with a radio thing.

just kidding, I WAIT WHATd

Because of the time difference, I had to wake up at 2:45am — the producer wanted to check in one more time to make sure I was still on board. I was, and he said they’d call again and pipe me into the conversation at 3:05. “The conversation?” I asked. “Oh you’ll be on with the father of one of the dead teens whose memorial page was attacked.” And I was like oh. Um. But it was 2:45 and my brain was still a little fuzzy, plus it was the BBC, so I said ok and during the 10-minute wait tried to strategize. I had a feeling that this was some sort of set-up — it’s not that I defend RIP trolling (many of the FB trolls I work with have little interest in trolling RIP pages, and some express outright contempt for trolls who go after mourning family members and friends — mostly their interest is in combating grief tourism, what they describe as inauthentic expressions of grief by random strangers), but I do have an answer, or at least a partial answer, to the question oh my god WHY?? -but that’s probably not what they were looking for here. What they probably were looking for here was confirmation of what they already knew (or thought they knew) to be the case.

And I was right, the opening question was something like, “how evil are the evil people responsible for this evil new internet trend called trolling” — immediately I knew I was in for a bumpy ride. Because what do you say? What could I say? This poor father was in mourning — no matter what I’d said, no matter how carefully or thoroughly I tried to place trolling, and RIP trolling in particular, into the appropriate historical/techno-social context, his kid would still be dead, and he’d still want to kick the asses of every person who’d posted something off-color onto his son’s page. It was a surreal moment for me as a researcher — my focus is on trolling behaviors themselves, and the people engaging in trolling behaviors, and the possible reasons that people, both individually and collectively, are drawn to trolling. Not grieving parents.

Don’t get me wrong — it’s not like talking to Rodger changed my mind about my research, or revealed something I didn’t already know about trolls/trolling (namely, that their behaviors affect people in the “real world,” especially when the trolling-in-question involves dead teenagers). But it was a reminder that the people I study are regarded by many as monsters –hence the choice to include this post under “bestiary.” At one point in the interview, I was asked point-blank what was wrong with trolls. They had to be bad guys, right? In some way DSM4-worthy? I said what I believe to be true, that most trolls are as “normal” as anyone, though of corse there are outliers (as there are whenever you’re talking about a large group of people). The host and Rodger balked, as in literally let out a gasp, when I said that — these people can’t be normal, the host insisted, and I found myself in the very odd position of being, or at least feeling like, some sort of trolling ambassador. That’s not my job, exactly, but neither is the alternative. So I don’t know. In conclusion, bestiary!

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