RIP Trolling Article -- The Fallout

(cross-posted from my other blog)

(written in response to the Gawker article, after a long day of feeling anxious about my work suddenly going public) 

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.

Amanda Phillips

Trolling

Whitney, we corresponded briefly in the past about your work on the Dickwolves fiasco, and I've been keeping an eye out for your work since. I'm still working through Dickwolves issues for my dissertation chapter, but from the opposite perspective you've been pursuing - I am interested in feminist bloggers' responses to trolls on their forums.

You have my sympathies about the anxiety of a large audience. It's really frustrating when people don't respond to your work the way you'd like, but exposure on Gawker! That's quite an accomplishment!

I have to say that given my own research interests and perspectives on Dickwolves, I found myself nodding along with one of Chen's last sentences: "And it means something that the worst trolling is usually done by young, white men, against young women, gays, and minorities—some of whom are forced off the internet forever as a result of rape and death threats."

Perhaps this is an angle to incorporate more seriously in your future work on trolls? I find that it's something that game studies folks often ignore in their anxiety about their objects of study - sometimes we get so wrapped up in defending the medium that we overlook some of the valid points that video game opponents have about the level of violence, misogyny, and racism in our favorite objects like Grand Theft Auto.

Anyway, I'd love to hear your perspective, as someone who does understand trolls better than the rest of us, about the bigoted aspects of trollish behavior. Because as noble as it is to save the rest of us from our media-induced eye-rolly mourning behavior online (which bothers me as well), it makes it difficult to take those motives seriously when there is so much trolling out there that seems to lack any political motivation other than that which puts the little people in their place.

Whitney_Phillips

Quick response

This will be a much shorter response than I'd like to write, as my today and tomorrow are a bundle of cross-country travel insanity. But a few quick points: First, not all nasty/bigoted online behavior is trolling behavior. My work deals exclusively with trolling subculture -- i.e those who self-identify as trolls. There is of course much to say about other forms of online aggression, but that extends far beyond the scope of my project (there is also much to say about the difference between trolling and harassment; from my perspective that is a very important distinction to draw, and is a conversation for another time).

Obviously, you encounter all kinds of problematic behaviors within trolling subculture(s), particularly on FB and 4chan. But because so much of trolling is performative, it's really difficult --if not downright impossible-- to know which trolls are saying bigoted things because they mean them, because they're trying to entrap actual bigots (this happens quite frequently), or because they're simply ("simply," this impulse isn't simple at all) trying to get a reaction. This isn't to say that their words don't still convey whatever bigoted message, just that you can't posit intentionality.

Instead of trying to figure out what's real and what's "just" play, I treat the behaviors as culturally digestive, and in my work --including articles on 4chan, the Obama/Joker/Socialism image, the historical origins of trolling, all of which will end up in my dissertation-- look at the ways in which trolling behaviors reveal uncomfortable truths about the host culture. As I argue throughout the above pieces, trolls are scavengers; they scour the landscape, seize the most exploitable material (racism, sexism and misogyny being the most obvious examples), recombine the scraps, and shove the resulting monstrosities into the faces of an unsuspecting populace. This is not always pretty --in fact the behaviors are often quite ugly, and deliberately so-- but by examining the effects of trolling, and the recurring targets of trolling, all of which are mined from the host culture, it is possible to see the outline of our own reflection. That this reflection is *also* often quite ugly is very important.