:: Article


By Richard Marshall.


Whitney Phillips, This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, MIT 2015.

In 2007 Phillips is encouraged to visit 4chans /b/ board and finds porn, gore and offensive antagonistic humour. 4chans /b/ board is a trolling site. Phillips asks: who uses the site? (A: “Trolls and the trolls who troll them”); what is a troll and what kind of people are they? (A: “ A troll is a person who likes to disrupt stupid conversation on the Internet. They have two basic rules: nothing should be taken seriously, and if it exists, there is porn of it”); are they made or born?(A: “Yes”); why do they do what they do? (A: “Amusement derived from another person’s anger. Also the only reason for doing anything”) and the result is this great book. Rather like Finn Bruton’s fascinating look at Spam, Phillips takes what seems an uncontrovertibly bad internet thing and shows that it needs to be better understood and judged with care. As with Bruton’s Spam, Trolls are not necessarily bad, and are a significant part of the digital landscape.

Phillips only writes about self-identifying trolls in the USA, those people there who are actively identifying themselves with trolling as ‘highly stylized subcultural practices.’ Much of the stuff encountered and discussed in the book is NSFW (Not Safe For Work) and she’s careful with what is replicated, citing with approval Ryan Milner: ‘Even if it’s done in the service of critical assessment reproducing these discourses continues their circulation, and therefore may continue to normalize their antagonisms and marginalisations.’ The book is nevertheless packed with illustrative details that I don’t have space to discuss but are the engine of the book. She’s subtle and careful in what she proposes and seems well up to the job of negotiating the territory.

Phillips argues that there is a relationship between trolling and mainstream culture. As an example, she discusses ‘Jenkem.’ In a 1998 article in the New York Times a story came out of Zambia that children there were getting a cheap high by inhaling bottles of urine and fecal matter known as Jenkem. A subsequent BBC story used the article by Suzanne Daley as evidence. Jenkem then started to be used in different contexts, an example of gross-out going viral on different internet boards. In 2007 someone posted hoax Jenkem information and pictures. It was taken seriously and even after the guy confessed and deleted his post it became news. Fox news covered stories of Jenkem abuse amongst US youths and the whole story of Jenkem went viral. Here is an example of Phillips’ idea about the strange symbiotic relationship between trolls and the media where‘… media outlets give the trolls what they want, namely, exposure and laughs, and participating media get what they want, namely, a story and eyeballs to commodify through advertisements.’

Trolls aren’t inconsequential. They manipulate news cycles and understand the use of the sensational in current audience chasing media outlets. They have political significance, producing either on purpose or not, critiques of current media and cultural systems. Additionally, impressed by Mary Douglas’s exploration of dirt and taboo, Phillips argues that because Trolling is considered bad, obscene and transgressive studying them will reconstruct what the dominant culture regards as good, appropriate and normal. However she also makes the point that the more the trolls are studied in detail they come to be seen as so ‘natural, necessary and downright normal that most people will assume things couldn’t be otherwise.’ So she’s careful.

Philips argues that there is only the thinnest of lines between trolling and sensationalist corporate media. The main difference is that Trolls do it for leisure and for no pay whereas corporate media do it as a business strategy and get paychecks. She claims that they are comfortable fits within the hypernetworked digital media landscape. Trolls use the internet technologies creatively and expertly. They align with corporate and social media marketers. They mobilize the dominate cultural tropes of adversarial and (mainly white) male gendered notions of success, dominance, western entitlement, expansionism and colonialism, and embody the key values of the USA – life , liberty and freedom of expression.

For Philips, ‘trolls are in many ways the grimacing poster children for the socially networked world.’ Philips makes suggestive use of the mythic trickster character, drawing on insights from Lewis Hyde. Tricksters like Hermes, Coyote, Krishna and Loki are boundary crossers, male gendered, lie to preserve truths, are amoral, shameless, fearless, desire-driven, appetitive, drawn to dirt and are creative and mischievous. They see right through to the very heart of things and reveal those truths. This is the domain of much avant-garde and underground anti-art work including our contemporary cultural Loki, Stewart Home. A Trickster rejects any laws or rules of propriety and sets himself up as ‘an erasing angel who cancels what humans have so carefully built, then cancels himself.’ Nothing is explained, all is revealed to those who work out the trick. Gabriella Coleman notes the affinity between trickster mythologies and trolling, pointing out that just as Trickster’s, trolls scavenge cultural domains and then reveal them back to the culture.

Phillips argues that actually Trolling is at the extreme end of pretty normal behaviours in the culture. This may at first seem counterintuitive but by the end of her analysis it makes sense. However, at a first glance, as Phillips points out, trolling seems much more like the thing that stops us having nice things. Surely the internet would be a kinder, nicer and more equitable environment if only the trolls would stop. Phillips doesn’t buy this line. Instead, she argues that ‘… trolls are born of and embedded within dominant institutions and tropes, which are every bit as damaging as the trolls’ most disruptive behaviours.’ It is those dominant institutions and tropes that stop us from having nice things.

Phillips begins by giving some historical background, writing about the origin period of trolling from between 2003 and 2007. It is in this period that the trolling phenomenon took on underground, subcultural connotations. The trolling mantra is ‘Nothing should be taken seriously.’ Trolling tends to be framed as pedagogical – learn your lessons, stop being so stupid. They don’t have to mean what they say but targets are expected to take them at their word and are trolled harder if they don’t. She then goes on to discuss and define lulz, ‘perhaps the most critical concept within the subcultural troll space.’ Lulz is laugh out loud but is longer, girthier and more pleasurable than just LOL, and it is the catchall excuse, explanation and punchline in the Trolling universe. It’s what its all about – amusement at other people’s distress.

Phillips identifies three characteristics of lulz: ‘fetishism, generativity, and magnetism.’ The fetishism of trolling is the ability of trolls to ignore the emotional context of any story. All that is seen is the absurd and the exploitable. The fetishising is the Marxist notion of commodities ‘made magic’ by capitalism so that social conditions and power relations sustaining economic disparities are invisible. Trolling is generative in that the humour gestures towards previously existing shared content, adding value to it so that, ‘trolls laugh themselves into existence and sustain their existence through further laughter.’ Gabriella Coleman says lulz is magnetic in two ways: they literally attract external attention from both the outside and inside; and they are metaphorically so – ‘Trolls may not know who their comrades are in real life… but through lulz they are united.’ Phillips also discusses the ‘mask of trolling’ which refers to trollings’ permanent emotional disassociation. This masking is what enables trolls she interviewed to draw distinctions like this:

‘If someone called me a chink or gook online I really wouldn’t care at all. In real life though, depending on who says it, if someone called me a chink or gook I would want to beat the hell out of them… Reason for this is because online they have no clue what race I am and so they are obviously trying to troll me which I find funny. Real life though they are actually attacking my culture/race which I can’t stand, unless it’s a friend or something.’

This becomes more problematic when boundaries between online and offline become fuzzy. However, ‘masking’ doesn’t mean that trolls aren’t skilled at how to hurt their victims. As one troll puts it:

‘Being obscene for shock value can only go so far. You have to interact with the people you are trolling. Twist their words, respond to their comments etc. They get even angrier when you point out flaws in their argument. And you can make them absolutely rage when you start getting inside their heads. Either by selecting a line of attack based on their previous responses (suicides go to hell for religious types) or trying to guess aspects of their lives based on their profiles. The things that hurt most are the comments grounded in truth. Ones that echo the thoughts of whoever you are trolling, bringing up doubts that haunt them everyday.’

It is easy to want to see trolls in clear black and white terms and reading this kind of thing it makes you think they are clearly bad. But Phillips is interested in testing this and inevitably the more she investigates the less helpful it becomes to use such black and white judgments to understand what’s going on. Working out how they fit into our mainstream culture is more enlightening.

She looks at the period from 2008 to 2011 as the ‘golden years’ of trolling and looks at 4chans /b/ site. This has been discussed by many as a ’surreptitious cultural powerhouse.’ In July 2008 Time reported that it had 8.5 million daily page views and 3.3 million monthly visitors. The New York Times in August that year reported that it had the monthly hit rate of 200 million. Out of this, with lulz as its ‘behavioural rudder’, the 4chan community started to become a group with the notion that ‘none of us is as cruel as all of us’ bringing them together into an anonymous mass. Anonymous grew out of this and by 2006 its avatar was the greenman. In July 2007 Anonymous became the subject of the Fox news story describing them as ‘… hackers on steroids, treating the web like a real-life video game… sacking websites and invading MySpace accounts, disrupting innocent people’s lives… and if you fight back, watch out.’ This report fed the trolls in the most lutziest way possible. Traffic grew because of the media interest.

In 2008 Anonymous targeted Scientology. Protesters wearing Guy Fawkes Anonymous masks taken from Alan Moore’s brilliant graphic novel (and subsequent crap film) ‘V for Vendetta’ turned up outside various Scientology centres. By February, two days after the first of these protests, Anonymous had their own Wikipedia entry. Out of the mainstream media’s interest, ‘trolls were given the framework upon which to build their public face.’ Meme creation spliced in with media attention led to detournment, the Situationist/Lettrist process by which a meaning of a statement is turned against itself ‘…by reinforcing the real meaning of the original element’ as Debord scholar Anselm Japp puts it. Trolling draws attention to normalized behaviours in mainstream media that are invisible. The investment in spectacle, the push for success and the quest for profit motivate trolls and media alike, although profit for a troll isn’t money. Phillips’s point isn’t to argue that corporate media institutions are vast trollers, but rather to draw attention to the fact that they use the same tactics and don’t get condemned.

‘The issue is that, while trolls’ exploitative behaviours are condemned as aberrational, journalists’ similarly exploitative behaviours are accepted as being par for the capitalist course. Condemning one while giving the other a free pass doesn’t obscure the cultural conditions out of which trolling emerges, it almost guarantees that the most problematic behaviours will persist – and not just in the darkest corners of the Internet , but under the false flag of moral superiority…’

To enforce this point she examines facebook memorial page trolls, compares trolling behaviours to sensationalist, mass-mediated disaster coverage, trolling in the 2008 US Presidential election, the 2009 Obama as a Socialist poster controversy, compares trolling’s racist humour with ‘legitimate’ corporate punditry and why we shouldn’t be surprised by trolling given the culture out of which it emerges. By looking at the mess trolls leave behind Phillips claims that we get to see what the mainstream is really like. This takes us back to the Trickster/detourne notion that they reveal the true meanings of our world rather than invent a nastier alternative.

She then looks at the period from 2012 to 2015 to show how trolling has changed. Two things contribute to the change: ‘the mainstreaming of participatory meme culture and profound shifts within the mass noun Anonymous.’ Memes became mainstream and ‘no longer performed the … subcultural function’ as their means of production moved from individuals to platform. As one troller put it in 2012, ‘ Back in my day, we walked five miles to school and were more predisposed to be producers of content, instead of just consumers.’ One anon posted that, ‘ … back then we did things for the lulz, we conducted raids, pranks, and trolls for the sake of having fun; and gaining a laugh. Now, despite having more people than ever, we are limited to trolling each other with the same shit we see every hour of every day for months at a time. We don’t even bother having fun fucking with the unsuspecting. The only raids we conduct … have a moral basis, it is no longer about having fun, but about seeing justice. It fucking disgusts me.’ There was a feeling of nostalgia and disgust, a lost dream ‘.. where you can live in an eternal bucle of lamejokes and fail.’


Phillips identifies this lulz vs cause divide as a key to understanding the new phase of trolling, and Anonymous started pigeonholing itself as a movement. If it wasn’t careful it would attract activists. It wasn’t. It did. In 2010 the WikiLeaks scandal solidified the gulf between lulz and hacktivists. Anonymous sprang to the defence of Julian Assange attacking websites and organisations thought to be against Assange. The attacks were effective but not very lulzy. Anonymous became involved in the Arab Spring events of 2011 in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Lulz and Anonymous were no longer synonymous. Big-A Anonymous was the political Anonymous, little-a Anonymous the lulz side, and the little-a’s were becoming a fringe event by 2011. Occupy Wall Street made this very clear. Little-a Anonymous reacted to the Big-A Anonymous’s political stance supporting the Occupy movements calling them ‘annoying, deluded hippies.’ One anon wrote:

‘Anonymous isn’t supposed to represent anything. We did stuff for lulz, for lulz only. Not because we care what happens to the world, we found shit and made it amusing to us. Old anon would be in occupy wallstreet and trolling protesters to the max, not joining them. We used to represent nothing and were feared because of that. no one knew when we would act and what we would do. Even we didn’t. Look at yourselves, we are discussing about our logo and how others recognize us? We are not supposed to have this kind of shit. We are supposed to be the unknown. We do not have ideals, we do not fight for anything, we do not care about anything.’

What had happened was that a new culture, with new values, had entered the subcultural space of trolling and because of this Phillips argues that she needs to have an expanded definition of trolling that can accommodate positive applications of ‘trolling rhetoric’ as well as the various negative ones. Phillips rejects the idea that there is just one way of trolling and deviation is something else. As she says, she is ‘… wary of the legal and political implications of couching all acts of online aggression under a single umbrella category.’ She rightly says that what one calls an act can determine whether someone is prepared to do it or not. So this is an important issue. As she says, ‘ nothing justifies legal intervention faster or more effectively than vaguely threatening abstract nouns, particularly when there exists no basic definitional criteria on which to base one’s conclusions.’ Agreeing with Jonathan Zittrain in his ‘The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It’, Phillips points out that lockdown may seem like a way of stopping the things we don’t like but would ‘preclude innovation, pigeon-hole users into corporate-approved behaviours, and all but invite panoptic surveillance.’ Reactionary interventions would not have the desired effect. Rather than futile lockdowns, Zittain suggests the way forward is to understand better what one is dealing with. Phillips’ book is a good place to start.

She ends with a fascinating issue, that of feminist trolling. The issue comes from the deep context of speech in our culture, which assumes that is the purview of men, not women. She draws on Mary Beard who compares the moment in the ‘Odyssey’ when Telemachus, Oddyseus and Penelope’s son tell Penelope to shut the fuck up with our contemporary pop cultural moment. Beard argues that just as in ancient Greece, women’s voices are silenced because of very old and deep attitudes in our culture towards women. Beard argues that we are still in the grip of attitudes of classical Greece when it comes to gender. She also argues that women in positions in power ‘harness aspects of male rhetoric in order to be taken more seriously by subordinates, peers, and superiors.’ Serious speech is male is the take home message of Mary Beard and something needs to happen. She writes:

‘ We need to go back to some first principles about the nature of spoken authority, about what constitutes it, and how we have learned to hear authority where we do. And rather than push women into voice training classes to get a nice, deep, husky and entirely artificial tone, we should be thinking more about the faultlines and fractures that underlie dominant male discourse.’

If so, then the question for the feminist troller is whether their trolling solutions contain traces of the problem. Trolling rhetoric and culture is male. Trolls engage in asymmetric relations with victims, they want to dominate their victims, humiliate them and preclude consent. As Phillips says, in trying to understand the political potential of trolling we are confronting ‘… a project and behavioural practice steeped in ambivalence.’

Phillips’s book is not, therefore, just about trolls: it’s about the culture that spawned them too. Their trickster nature reveals the moral ambiguity of all behaviours in the mainstream culture, ambiguities masked by inflated righteousness. She concludes that ‘… trolls replicate behaviours and attitudes that in other contexts are actively celebrated (“This is how the West was won”) or simply taken as a given (“Boys will be boys”).’ There’s an overlap between trolls and us.

Phillips suggests that the reason we can’t have nice things is not because something out there stops us. When we see trolls, we’re looking in the mirror.

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his book here to keep him biding!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, August 25th, 2015.