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Can Counter-Trolls Have Nice Things? Whitney Phillips' Book on Trolling and Final Thoughts

Can Counter-Trolls Have Nice Things? Whitney Phillips' Book on Trolling and Final Thoughts

Part IV in Blog Series: We're Not Mad: Counter-Trolling and Marginalized Online Identities

As a way of concluding this blog series, I'd like to talk a little bit about Whitney Phillips' new book on trolling, This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture. The book's title comes from the argue-cat meme, which suggests that argumentative and defensive people, or in the eyes of the troll, anyone who takes anything seriously online, are "why we can't have nice things" on the Internet. This argument is obviously flipped when viewed through the eyes of the average Internet user, for whom trolls are the reason we can't have nice things online. 

Arguecat: why we can't have nice things

The dual nature of this title represents one of Phillips' key arguments: that trolling must be viewed contextually, especially in the ways that it exploits and is derived from mainstream media. Phillips even goes as far as to suggest that trolling behaviors are, in form and function, highly similar to behaviors we deem "normal," or those accepted within mainstream culture. She states that, "the most exceptional thing about trolling is that it's not very exceptional."

The cover of Phillips' book, MIT Press, Copyright 2015

I really can't praise this book enough, and as a pseudo book review, I won't attempt to remain partial. With the kind of work I've been attempting in this blog series, it is very important to me that trolling is separated from a simple moral binary. Phillips does this almost immediately, noting that we have come to conflate all forms of online harassment and belligerence with trolling, and how her research is meant to investigate the later, not the former. Because Phillips is exploring the connection between mainstream media culture and trolling, her argument must inherently include a discussion of the political nature of trolling, and while she admits that as far as trolling is concerned, "the impulse to posit clear political meaning" is misguided, "political or cultural critiques can be extrapolated from the troll's behavior." Again, this is important for the topic I'm looking at because it is a concrete example of the ways in which trolling can have, if ambiguous, substantial political power.

Phillips' analysis of faulty Fox News reporting in 2007 in repsonse to a trolling incident is a powerful example of the political outcomes of trolls' actions

Perhaps I am most pleased with Phillips' early introduction of the trickster archetype as a way of analyzing troll behavior. My first impulse when beginning to think about the cultural significance and operation of trolls was also to gravitate towards this archetype- although in my case, I chose to focus on the jester because it gave me an avenue to talk more specifically about the performative nature of trolling (see post II in this series). While this is perhaps the part of the book I am most pleased about, I am most excited about Phillips' final chapter, "Where Do We Go from Here? The Importance of Spinning Endlessly," which touches heavily on the issues I have been examining in my last three posts.

Her argument, like mine, takes a dialectic path. She argues in her section "About the Bathwater," whose title suggests that throwing trolls out altogether might not be the best idea, that "trolling is, or at least can be, an extremely effective rhetorical strategy," and that trolling rhetoric itself "is an extremely effective countertrolling strategy." However, she counters in her next section, "Trolling for Good?", that even when one "trolls for good," trolling remains an act of antagonism, and in such inherently asymmetrical. I raised this concern as well in my first blog post, using a superhero-vigilante metaphor, in which a "hero" brutally tortures a "villain." She also raises another question I raised in my original blog post about counter-trolling: "what does it say when the solution to the problem contains a trace of the problem?" In the end Phillips claims that she is "reluctant to whole-heartedly claim for the feminist cause a rhetorical mode so thoroughly steeped in male dominance," yet that if "the goal is to dismantle patriarchal structures, and if feminist trolling helps accomplish those ends, then are the means, however problematic, retroactively justified?" Phillips does not reach a conclusion on these matters and states that, for now, she remains simultaneously intrigued by and wary of the political potential of trolling.

Internet activism, including counter-trolling, is, and will continue to be, complicated

I myself, even after my research for this blog series, feel in a similar position. For me the problem with counter-trolling is not so much that I consider it to be a method steeped in a mode of male dominance, but simply a mode of asymmetric antagonism. Phillips, citing Audre Lorde, warns that we should be wary of using patriarchal rhetoric and structures to dismantle the patriarchy. Personally, I would rewrite this statement to say that we should be wary of using antagonistic and asymmetrical measures to dismantle an antagonistic and asymmetrical practice. However, I like Phillip's impulse to turn to Lorde on these matters. I believe that there has been a significant amount of theorizing on the matters at the core of counter-trolling, but that this theorizing has yet to be applied and adapted to the topic specifically. I have found Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s work particularly helpful in my own theorizing, and I believe that there are many other scholars whose work would be particularly useful, especially those in the fields of activism, ethics, and feminist thought, if re-read and re-analyzed through the lens of "troll studies." Perhaps all this is to say that I believe our best theories will not be new theories, but adaptations of the old. In other words, I have a very high appreciation of Phillips' undergraduate degree in philosophy, and her MFA in creative writing. 

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