Editor’s note: While ethnographers sometimes encounter resistance from their research subjects, it’s not everyday that these subjects threaten to harm or otherwise humiliate the researcher. In her second guest post,Whitney Phillips @wphillips49 tells us how she responded to threats from the community she was studying. Whitney also shares with us how she adjusted her everyday life to her research, how she handled professors’ concerns, and how her analysis evolved over time.
Whitney also reflects on earlier criticisms of her work, giving us an intimate sense of how she negotiated her position within her fieldwork.
Her second post is a fantastic follow up to her riveting post from last month about her ethnographic work on an anonymous community, internet trolls.
Check out past posts from guest bloggers.
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.
It’s Just a Death Threat, Don’t Worry About It
For the first few years of my research project, I kept the lowest public profile possible. I had published a short thought piece on trolls’ relationship to 2009’s Obama/Joker poster, but otherwise was conducting my research in stealth mode. My friends knew what I was working on, sort of, and whenever I could I angled seminar papers towards my dissertation project (an especially neat trick in the Piers Plowman class I took during my third year of coursework). So my work wasn’t top secret, but it wasn’t something you could easily find just by Googling my name — which was exactly how I wanted it.
This changed after I started working on Facebook memorial page trolling (RIP trolling for short), which could run the gamut from harassing so-called “grief tourists,” people who post condolence messages onto the Facebook RIP pages of dead strangers, all the way to attacking the friends and family of murdered teenagers. By 2010, and spurred by that year’s series of gay teen suicides (the coverage of which trolls were more than happy to exploit), memorial page trolling was shaping into a pretty major news story. Because my University of Oregon student bio had recently been updated to include information about my research on the subject, media outlets began reaching out. I did one newspaper interview, which lead to another, which resulted in my name and information being posted onto 4chan’s /b/ board, one of the internet’s most notorious trolling hotspots (my article on /b/ can be found here).
I had been preparing for this, sort of, in the sense that I knew it was a possibility and had taken measures to avoid precisely that sort of exposure. Still, seeing my information on site—I’d been alerted to the thread’s existence by an anonymous troll who thought I at least deserved a heads-up—was nerve-wracking, as was reading through the trolls’ plan to email compromising, Photoshoped pictures of me to all my professors. They also threatened to rape and murder me, but that was pretty standard; I was mostly concerned about what they might cook up on Photoshop. In a moment of panic, I emailed all the professors whose classes I had taken, just in case. I saved the /b/ thread as a PDF and attached it to my message, along with the explanation that the trolls had threatened to kill me, but don’t worry, just let me know if you start receiving any weird emails or pictures.
At no point did it occur to me that one cannot simply walk into the Mordor that is trolling (particularly trolling on /b/) without experiencing a pretty major culture shock. I was so used to trolls and trolling behaviors that the violent, offensive language and images I’d just passed along to all my professors quite literally did not register—not until the next day, when I reopened the PDF I’d saved and noticed all the porn, not to mention the various points of trolling grotesquerie for which /b/ has become infamous. As you can imagine, this gave me a great deal of pause. Because at what point did that stuff become invisible to me? You’d think a person would notice when their brains stopped registering X-rated content. And yet there I was, not seeing the things I was seeing. This proved to be a recurring theme in my research.
A few months after I outed myself as a researcher to the RIP trolls I’d been observing, I was scheduled to appear on a radio program for a segment on Facebook memorial page trolling. While waiting for my call time, I opened Facebook chat. One of the trolls I knew –by that point I was embedded within a loose group of high-profile Facebook trolls, many of whom targeted memorial pages– was online, and I struck up a conversation.
After a few minutes, the producer called with the segment panel lineup. I told the troll that I would be afk (away from keyboard) while the producer and I discussed the show. The troll said ok, and I answered my phone. The producer greeted me, thanked me for agreeing to the interview, then explained that I’d be talking to the father of a recent teenage suicide whose RIP page had just been attacked by trolls. The father was distraught and wanted to know why his son had been targeted. He also wanted to know just how evil a person had to be in order to engage in that sort of behavior. Before I had a chance to respond, the producer thanked me again and said to hold tight; he’d call back once the interview was live (for radio interviews, the producer usually calls twice, once to prep you for your interview, and again a few minutes later to patch you into the broadcast).
I hung up and returned to my Facebook chat. The troll I was talking to asked me what happened, and suddenly nervous –there is a big difference between having an academic discussion about trolling and being asked to speak on behalf of all trolls to a grieving father– I explained what the producer had said. The troll was quiet for a few seconds. “Just remember,” he finally said. “It’s not your job to defend us.”
The troll’s reminder struck a nerve. One of the most consistent early critiques of my work (one example can be found here) was that I was an apologist for trolls, or at least that I wasn’t critical enough. This line of criticism was a source of constant anxiety, largely because it contained a kernel of truth. Several kernels of truth, in fact.
The first of these kernels had to do with the vast spectrum of trolling behaviors. As I quickly realized after starting my research, trolling takes many forms, some of which are grotesquely problematic, a point even many trolls would concede (the troll in the above example was disgusted by RIP trolling directed at friends and family of the deceased, and took aggressive steps against those who crossed what he saw as a clear ethical line).
Other forms of trolling are playful and interesting and occasionally even positive. Maybe not directly or deliberately positive, but certainly generative, particularly when trolling behaviors draw attention to racial and/or class bias in news coverage, or corporate greed, or any number of things that trolls seize upon as being unfair or worthy of coordinated retribution.
So, although I was unwilling to apologize for the most problematic trolling behaviors, I was similarly unwilling to condemn all trolling outright. This position was further complicated by my relationship to the trolls I was working with. These relationships were profoundly important to my research, and took a great deal of time to establish and even more energy to maintain. I worried—and it was a legitimate worry—that I would lose this access if I was too publicly critical, and worried—and it was a legitimate worry—that I would lose academic credibility if I was too publicly permissive. Finding the appropriate balance was a daily struggle, and I got things wrong more often than I would care to admit.
In hindsight, it isn’t surprising that I did. After all, while I didn’t set out to defend trolls, I did set out to understand them. In the process of learning their customs and their language, in the process of learning how to “pass” in order to better interact with research collaborators, the distance between myself and my research shrunk in ways that often made it difficult for me to see what I was seeing, as evidenced by my initial anecdote.
Not that I lost all critical faculties. It’s just that my vision would sometimes go fuzzy, and I wouldn’t notice until after the fact. On one hand, this allowed me to see things about the subculture I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. On the other hand, it meant I constantly teetered on the edge of being too close to my subject.
This was disorienting, and didn’t stop being disorienting until I figured out not just what I wanted to argue, but how I wanted to argue it. Even then, I sometimes needed help recognizing (literally re-cognizing) the contours of my own work, and will forever be indebted to all those people—my PhD advisor Carol Stabile and UO Folklore Program Director Lisa Gilman in particular—for pressing me to keep looking.
You’re a Vampire, Whitney
On the evening on May 2, 2011, I received a text message from my mother saying that my aunt had died. Her death wasn’t a shock—she had been battling aggressive late-stage cancer for months—but like these things always are, it was still surprising. I put the television on mute and just sat there, because what else could I do.
Less than two minutes later, I received what I assumed was a follow-up message about funeral arrangements. Instead, it was a push notification from MSNBC—Osama bin Laden had just been killed, and President Obama was preparing to release an official statement. This was also surprising, though I reacted to this news much more emphatically, with a string of expletives. Not because of bin Laden himself, not because of the politics behind his death (those reactions would come later), but because it meant I had to go spend all night on 4chan and Facebook pouring over the RIP bin Laden/good night sweet prince pages I knew would start cropping up.
This was a solipsistic, knee-jerk reaction, but I didn’t have the space in my brain to deal with trolls, not that night anyway. Still, and as I later wrote in a blurry-eyed blog post, “this shit isn’t going to archive itself.” So I shuffled over to my computer—“dragged my sorry carcass,” as I described it at the time—and sat there for hours taking as many screencaps and notes as I could.
But other than having the wind knocked out of me by my aunt’s death, it was a pretty normal night. The difference was that, in my grief, I was suddenly aware of how abnormal my normal had become. Staring at a screen collecting hundreds of the most aggressive, upsetting images and mean-spirited scraps of conversation—what kind of job was this? The answer, of course, was “the one I signed up for,” which in that moment was very cold comfort.
By that point I had been studying trolls for three years, and was slowly, slowly establishing a theoretical and argumentative foothold. This didn’t mean the work was getting any easier. Because RIP behaviors followed and were spurred by mainstream disaster coverage, I needed to keep my eye on the news cycle; the second something horrible happened, I had to drop whatever I was doing, get myself to a computer, and start mapping the trolls’ responses, and the media’s responses to the trolls’ responses, and the trolls’ responses to the media’s responses to the trolls’ responses, until my head exploded. I would also reach out to my various research collaborators and try and figure out what raids were in the pipelines, and more importantly, who was responsible for what.
In itself, this push to gather information was value-neutral. At the very least, it served a basic practical utility. The more information I had, the stronger my analysis; the stronger my analysis, the better my dissertation; the better my dissertation, the rosier my future job prospects. The problem, of course, was that the information I was gathering wasn’t value neutral. This was tragedy. This was horrible. This was dead kids and teenage suicides and chortling, asshole trolls. That the data was awful, however, did not mitigate the fact that it was ethnographically rich. And that was a very unsettling feeling—appreciation for a dataset I wished didn’t exist.
More often than not, and especially during the height of memorial trolling activity (from March 2010 to mid-2011), my work made me feel like an ambulance-chasing ghoul. Because it wasn’t just that I was chronicling trolls’ responses to other people’s tragedies, I was becoming—and had to become, if I was to retain any shred of emotional equilibrium—hardened to bad news. It was research. It was something to use in my dissertation. Any other approach would have made the work impossible.
It was through these experiences that I began to understand—and begin to theorize—what I eventually came to describe as the mask of trolling, the process by which trolls affect emotional distance from their targets, allowing them to focus on and, ultimately, fetishize, the most exploitable aspects of whatever story. My mask may have been constructed from different stuff than the trolls I was researching—I wasn’t dissociating in order to attack anyone, but rather to do my job; I wasn’t fetishizing the most exploitable aspects of a given tragedy, but was committed to presenting the most illustrative case studies possible—but to put a very fine point on it, I had become a site of that which I sought to understand, and to more importantly, that which I sought to critique. Again.
So, in other words, yes. My research was pretty weird. I don’t think I realized just how weird until sitting down to write this post. I’m not sure how I feel about that.
In my third and final post I’ll be focusing on something decidedly less ambivalent, namely the pitfalls and benefits of academic discipline-jumping. I will be considering inter/transdisciplinarity in terms of my troll research and in my life as an academic who still isn’t sure how to describe her own work. So check your local listings, and see you next month.