• Ethnography of Trolling: Workarounds, Discipline-Jumping & Ethical Pitfalls (2 of 3)


    whitney phillips december 2012Editor’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.

    sagan trollsss

    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.

    inb4 apologist

    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.

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  • Citation

    Suggested citation: whitneym49 (2013) Ethnography of Trolling: Workarounds, Discipline-Jumping & Ethical Pitfalls (2 of 3). Ethnography Matters. http://ethnographymatters.net/blog/2013/02/05/ethnography-of-trolling-workarounds-discipline-jumping-ethical-pitfalls-2-of-3/

  • About the Author(s)

  • 18 Responses to “Ethnography of Trolling: Workarounds, Discipline-Jumping & Ethical Pitfalls (2 of 3)”

    1. February 7, 2013 at 1:47 am #

      Really interesting series (also I loved the discussion of online vigilantism linked in your earlier post). Apologies if this seems like kind of a hopeless question, but I’m wondering how you would define “trolls” or “trolling.” From reading the first post, I got the sense that your definition might have something to do with anonymity (or maybe pseudonymity), but I’m not sure if I’m reading that in where it doesn’t belong — or if it does belong, to what degree.

      From my pov, trolling and pseudonymity get mentioned in the same breath too often in a way that suggests not using your wallet name online = trolling, when there are non-trolls who use pseudonyms, and trolls who use “real” names. But I suppose it depends on how you define trolling.

      Anyway, I was reminded of that when I got to this bit:

      “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.”

      Makes me think of different interpretations of what trolling is or is not that I see floating around, and how definitions can change over time. For some people “trolling” seems to just mean “saying stuff I don’t agree with,” or some see it in terms of intent, or in terms of behaviors. Being (deliberately, from some perspectives) unconstructive v. being provocative v. seeking retribution. Or, I dunno, other stuff :)

      • February 10, 2013 at 1:59 pm #

        Hi Rachelle! Sorry for slow response, I was traveling and then stranded due to SNOWPOCALLYPSE. Just getting back to normal internetting patterns. As for your question, anonymity often accompanies trolling, and the vast majority of the trolls I’ve worked with privilege –and maybe even fetishize– anonymity, but anonymity/pseudonymity in itself does not mean that trolling is afoot. There are people who troll under their real names (though due to potential legal and social ramifications this is fairly uncommon) and people who are perfectly nice anonymously/pseudonymously, and everything in between. The question of “what counts as trolling” is a much trickier one, since as you say, people often frame as trolling any behaviors and statements they dislike or disagree with. I’m certainly not interested in telling those people they are “wrong,” but in my project, deliberately confined my study to those individuals who self-identify as trolls, and are subsumed by a very distinctive trolling style (style used in the subcultural sense). That may not fully answer your questions, but hopefully that explains how I orient myself in relationship to them!

        • February 11, 2013 at 2:48 am #

          Makes sense, thanks Whitney, and glad you got un-stranded. I wonder how people come to identify as trolls, and if they see themselves as trolls in some parts of their [online] lives but not in other parts, and and and.. anyway, clearly I need to read your dissertation.

          • February 11, 2013 at 4:30 pm #

            I appreciate your interest (no really; you made my morning!), but currently the diss isn’t publicly available. And good thing too — I’ve since revised the manuscript for publication, and restructured/revised probably 40% of the whole argument. Regarding the question of how a person comes to identify as a troll — that line of inquiry could yield as many answers as there are self-identifying trolls. My work focuses on the subcultural variety most closely associated with 4chan’s /b/ board / the thing loosely described as “internet culture” which used to mean something very specific but now means all kinds of things as “internet culture” has become more and more mainstream (I devote an entire chapter of the book manuscript just to that transition; oh the tangled web we weave!) (which isn’t to say that all trolling can be traced back to the /b/ board, as a cultural practice it has ample precedent, but the /b/ board helped incubate and amplify a very distinctive subculture style, which in turn helped solidify a very particular understanding of the term to those who self-identify as such).

            And yes, absolutely, trolls –at least, the trolls I’ve worked with– are often quite keen to partition their trolling selves from their real life (“real life” encompassing online behaviors as well) selves. The Facebook trolls I worked with would go so far as to describe their trolling personas in the third person, as if the troll were somehow entirely and necessarily separable from the person. This was pretty disorienting at first, and forced me to think critically about the relationship between person and troll, or at the very least, what the trolls make of this relationship…

            Thanks again for reading & commenting!

    2. February 7, 2013 at 12:54 pm #

      Thanks for asking that question, Rachelle! I was going to ask it too :) Whitney, I can’t get enough of your posts and I seriously don’t know what I’m going to do after your third :( Looking forward to it!

      • February 10, 2013 at 2:01 pm #

        Hi Heather! I just responded to Rachelle (was traveling, got stuck in blizzard) —– thanks, and for thanks for posting/reading! :)

    3. selmo
      February 11, 2013 at 3:37 am #

      Hi i came across your ethnography on trolls as I’ve been looking for somekind of 4chan ethnography , I am looking forward to your next post as I’ve recently started learning anthropology at college. I would like to do something of the sort someday studying 4chan,its memes and their effect on society, rites of passage (newfag,agingfag,oldfag) the culture it has created/influenced etc. Got any tips?

    4. February 24, 2013 at 1:26 pm #

      Hey Whitney – Love the first two parts so far. You allude up front to a focus on the what of trolling and not the why, and since I’m a real motivations-oriented person, I wonder if you could suggest any references that explore theoretical frameworks for why here, why now, why this. Also, I assume part 3 will be published here in March? If so, any dates to look our for?

      • February 24, 2013 at 6:09 pm #

        Hi Rich! I discuss the “why” in greater detail in the book, though I’m much more interested in cultural/political forces than I am trolls’ individual psychological motivations (which are difficult to come by and impossible to verify). I know some researchers who are interested in or are in the process of applying psychoanalytic models to trolling behaviors, but as far as I know, none of these studies include an ethnographic component. And yes, part 3 will be published on March 5…thanks for reading!

        • March 6, 2013 at 5:58 pm #

          I read the third part; very nice, but I’m drawn more to your earlier focus on the process and insights. Do you have a date for the publication or your book (and title) or did I miss that it’s already out?

          • March 9, 2013 at 3:40 pm #

            Hi again! Nope, book not out, still in manuscript phase. Hopefully I have more publication information soon!

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