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

whitney phillips december 2012Editor’s note: In the final installment of Whitney Phillip‘s @wphillips49 series on ethnography of trolling, she shares with us how she navigates academic territories when her own work and academic background–she has three degrees from three different fields–does not fit neatly within pre-existing boundaries. While some people fear border jumping in academia, we see this as a strength and as a sign of a fearless learner. Now that Whitney is on the job market, we invited her to discuss how she is managing her identity as “Dr. Whitney Phillips” and to share some tips she has picked up along the way. 


discipline hopscotch

Often I am asked about my research focus, and when that happens I never quite know what to say. My PhD is in English, I have a Folklore structured emphasis (the PhD equivalent of a major), and my dissertation is on trolling. Although this combination makes perfect sense to me, it tends to raise more questions than it answers (“English, really?” being the most common response, followed closely behind by “Oh you mean like Norse mythology?”). To simplify things, and especially early in my research project, I would usually just say that I studied internet trolls and leave it at that.

But as I came to realize, the claim that “I study trolls” was misleading, since that sort of framing implied that I somehow received training in trolling (…lol?), or at least narrowed my field of interest/expertise to that one behavioral practice. And I don’t just study trolls, not even in the dissertation. Throughout my project I also address digital culture more broadly (specifically meme culture and the steady mainstreaming of similar), and devote a great deal of space to the discussion and critique of sensationalist corporate media. I even have a chapter on trolls’ relationship to the Western philosophical canon (Socrates, come on down!). In a lot of ways, the dissertation project—now revised book manuscript—is as much about the wider cultural context as it is about trolls themselves, complicating the so-called “elevator pitch” (20 second research synopses) all academics are expected to perform at conferences and other professional gatherings.

That I don’t have a concise elevator pitch doesn’t bother me. In fact, given my  academic background, it’s entirely appropriate—I have a B.A. in philosophy (2004, Humboldt State University), and/but whenever I could would apply specific philosophical approaches to pop culture, primarily television (television is my absolute favorite medium). I also have an M.F.A. in fiction (2007, Emerson College), and/but throughout my program mostly wrote non-fiction, avoided writing workshops (the backbone of all M.F.A. programs), and took as many lit classes as possible. I’ve never fully fit into any one field or department, and have always been perfectly comfortable—happy, even—playing hopscotch with disciplinary borders. Because why not, and anyway they’re just chalk marks.

Regardless of how I might feel about clear-cut borders, I do have to navigate the academic waters, and have had to learn to take things like elevator pitches seriously (well seriously-ish). And not just elevator pitches, but academic taglines—the one or two word signal phrases journalists and other academics use to designate your research area (i.e. “anthropologist Jan McTenure”; “social scientist Bill O’Jobby”). This has proven to be even more difficult than distilling my research focus into a 20 second soundbite. Because what am I, really? In 1-3 words, anyway.

business cards whitney phillipsThis past fall, I decided to order my first batch of post-PhD business cards, and could no longer waffle on the question. I tried out about 20 different combinations (Digital culture scholar? Media folklorist? Media Ethnographer? Media: Various and Sundry?) before I settled on “Digital Culture/Media Studies.” That’s the least inaccurate way to put it, but still doesn’t quite capture what I do (and, as I just realized, is not the handle on my Twitter profile. There I identify as “Digital Culture/Folklore”).

Again, I’m not that worried about what words get affixed to my work or myself. As far as I’m concerned, definitions—along with academic disciplines generally—are (or should be regarded as) fluid; how I frame my work depends on the project I’m working on. But academia is rife with traditions, territory marking being one of the most conspicuous. So “Digital Culture/Media Studies” (or “Digital Culture/Folklore,” depending on how I’m feeling, apparently) is a thing I say now, though in my mind there is, and will always be, an implied asterisk. What that asterisk indicates, who knows. Ask me again at the end of my next project.

I know I’m not alone in my resistance to traditional disciplinary bounds (the question of why we insist on public binaries when privately almost everyone vacillates between different shades of gray has always baffled me), so for the remainder of this post I will offer some advice for young scholars engaged in and/or contemplating interdisciplinary or otherwise nontraditional research–advice I would have appreciated having spelled out at the outset of my project.

Make sure you have a good support system: The impulse to take the academic (or any) road less traveled is often accompanied by an aversion to seeking out advice/being told what to do/listening to other people. Sometimes this sort of independence will propel you forward. Sometimes it will send you zooming off a cliff. Embarking on a new research project is one of the latter times. So find someone–or even better, a group of someones–who believes in the basic spirit of your project, and who is smart, careful, and good at asking questions. And then try to listen to them. You might not agree with what they have to say, and might end up taking your research in a different direction. That’s fine. Just keep in mind that  you are a novice, and as such could use some help. If you didn’t, you’d already be done with the book and would be tenured somewhere. Even then, no one knows everything, so don’t pretend like you already own the universe before you begin surveying the land. This is especially true of projects that fall outside traditional disciplinary bounds, which may not have many, or even any, established theoretical roadmaps. You can try going it alone, and can resolve not to listen to anyone but yourself, but as much as you might like to, you cannot stubborn your way into thoughtful conclusions. Thoughtfulness means finding the right balance–and it is a very tricky balance, but what isn’t–between what you think you know and what others think you should.

Good support systems are not magically bestowed, and are not something you’re owed by anyone: This is a subcategory of the first point, but is important enough to warrant its own paragraph. Specifically: it is your responsibility—not your advisor’s, not your department’s—to find and cultivate your own support system. Ideally, you won’t have to go far to find one. At the University of Oregon I was surrounded by amazing people, particularly Lisa Gilman in the Folklore program and my incomparably badass advisor Carol Stabile. But you might not be so lucky. If you can’t find the right people in your own department, look for them in another department, or even at another institution. This might take a fair amount of work, but having the right people at your side is well worth any effort. And by “right people” I do not mean people who will rubberstamp whatever you do, and shower you with gold stars simply for showing up. Rather, you want—and will need—people who respect you enough to tell you that you’re wrong, because you are going to be wrong a lot.

deal with it dog

Take strange questions seriously: All academics have had the ulcer-inducing experience of being asked a seemingly bizarre or off-topic or downright mean question at a conference or workshop. More often than not, these questions are posed by someone working in a different area, or under a different methodological (or ethical, or political) framework. You may feel inclined to reject the question on the grounds that the person asking just doesn’t get you/your project/life, but especially for someone working at the intersection of one or more disciplines, you should avoid this sort of knee-jerk dismissiveness. Yes, the question might seem bizarre to you. And maybe it is unfairly antagonistic (incidentally, academics often make the best trolls). But even then, these sorts of questions call attention to real or perceived weak points in your argument. Your questioner needn’t even be right for this assessment to be helpful. In fact, their being wrong can be every bit as illuminating. What they’re telling you is that something isn’t scanning from their particular perspective. If they’re onto something you haven’t yet considered, great, now fix it! If they’re wrong, also great, now find a way to preempt that line of questioning.

Remember that you are not the center of the academic universe: This point is directly applicable to the above, but also holds for other types of unpleasant academic interactions. Specifically, just because something makes sense to you does not mean it makes sense objectively. Consequently, when faced with—what may seem like—a stupid question or criticism, do not automatically assume that your interlocutor’s inability to grasp your argument or stakes or evidence or whatever is their failure to understand. Allow for the possibility that it was your failure to communicate effectively, and adjust your argument accordingly.

Learn to appreciate naysayers: One of the things that will likely happen while working on an interdisciplinary project—or any nontraditional project—is that you’ll bump up against people committed to the Way Things Are, and who will scramble to find fault in your….probably everything. Like strange conference questions, this sort of resistance can be extremely frustrating. It can also be every bit as generative, since resistance forces you to watch, and most importantly to justify, every step you make. This might seem unfair or unnecessarily stressful, particularly because so many academics—particularly those who fall into traditionalist camps—don’t bother with this step. And yes, that is unfair. But checking and rechecking your work using as many theoretical tools as possible from as many directions as possible will only strengthen your project—and incidentally, will prepare you to field any number of off-the-wall questions, training for which you will be very grateful during job talks and other high-stakes presentations.

Looking back on my own project, the negative feedback I received—whether directed at my methods, my relationship to the trolls I studied, or the academic legitimacy of internet culture generally (a rarer breed, but twice as frustrating)—proved to be the very best and most valuable feedback I ever encountered. That isn’t to say that I didn’t resent hearing it at the time. I still resent the assertion, whether explicitly or implicitly forwarded, that trolling isn’t something that should be studied as much as prosecuted. That said, knowing that there were people out there who rejected the basic premise of my work only motivated me to reinforce my argumentative frame.

Conversely, the least helpful responses I ever received were uncritically positive congratu-feedback, which could be summarized as a smiley face + gold star = omg yay!! This sort of response might be warmer and fuzzier, and certainly provides a reprieve from the deluge of strange questions and subtle conference side-eyes, but from a purely utilitarian perspective, smiley face + gold star = omg yay!! is useless. In fact it might be counterproductive, since it suggests that nothing in your project needs improvement—and that is never true of anyone’s work, no matter how carefully it has been researched.

Imagine a diverse audience: Try to anticipate feedback from across the academy, particularly those disciplines with which your project is (or could be) in dialogue. What kinds of assumptions are you able to make, and what assumptions will you need to earn? How might different people react to the stakes of your argument, your evidence, your methods? What kinds of solutions might each discipline provide? What kinds of roadblocks might each discipline pose? What can you recombine? What can you repurpose? –All of which will help you avoid methodological solipsism.

Another critical step in the pursuit of not being a solipsist (a worthy endeavor in any profession) is to run your ideas past people outside your primary field(s). People who don’t already accept your basic assumptions—or even more helpful, who have never even heard of whatever you’re talking about—will be able to respond, and more importantly to formulate objections, that you, who take far more for granted than you realize, will not be able to see otherwise. Even if you decide not to take their advice, you can learn a lot from the argumentative holes other people encounter and how they think these holes might be filled.

This was the most important step in my process. I cannot believe how much I overlooked, and how many holes I needed to patch. Initially I assumed that everyone knew what trolling was. Initially I assumed that everyone would know why the conversation mattered. Initially I didn’t talk about gender or race. Initially I didn’t talk about privilege (how did I not talk about privilege?). I hardly even talked about the media’s role in the development of trolling behaviors—discussions that ultimately comprised the bulk of my analysis. Without robust, uncompromising feedback from feminists and social scientists and folklorists and performance theorists and anthropologists and philosophers and critical race theorists and technology historians and film and media studies scholars, all of whom contributed complications and objections and resistance and solutions, I have no idea what form the project would have taken. A big book of internet anecdotes, if I worked really hard and was lucky? I don’t even like thinking about that.

In short, the very things that make interdisciplinary and other nontraditional work so difficult are also the things that make it rewarding to write and engaging to read. I can’t imagine approaching my research any other way, regardless of the difficulty I might have when trying to quickly and easily describe what kind of work I do. In many ways I’m glad I can’t, and am glad I’m not the only one who lingers between the chalk lines.

Thanks for reading—now go play hopscotch.



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

  1. Alex
    March 6, 2013 at 12:42 pm #

    Really good a piece, made my day, thanks!


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