Whitney Phillips is about to publish her second book on internet trolls: The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online, co-written with Ryan M. Milner during the 2016 election cycle, when trolling became an indomitable force for political goals.
Phillips' 2008 PhD was a study of internet trolling. Today, she teaches literature at Assistant Professor of Literary Studies and Writing at Penfield College, Mercer University.
She sees trolling as a gendered, privileged activity: ""When you occupy a privileged position, you have the choice whether or not you can take your own word seriously, or the words of others. You can essentially fetishize just punchlines of situations without actually being impacted by racism. You don't have to think about the lives being impacted."
She traces a thread between this "irony-heavy" form of discourse and white nationalism: "The detachment that trolling normalized was almost an encouragement, within certain circles, to have that ironic response. And Donald Trump metastasized in that crevice while everyone was so goddamn busy being ironic."
I've ordered a copy of The Ambivalent Internet; it feels like an important companion volume to Gabriella Coleman's outstanding 2014 anthropological study of Anonymous, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy.
Trolling might be the traditional domain of reactionary elements online, but recently progressives have started adopting similar tactics and branded themselves the "dirtbag left." These people are not above the brigading, ostensibly joking harassment, and irony that's become the trademark of pro-Trump trolls, but wielded for good instead of evil.
"Trolling can be a very effective strategy because it trades in the sensationalism that thrives in a click-based web economy," Phillips said. "It can be used to go after regressive positions, and I often think that's hilarious. At the same time, it's predicated on a highly gendered logic and the idea that I'm going to take away your ability to choose what happens to you and I'm going to dominate you. Is that something we want to normalize?"
The ultimate answer to that fraught question—which comes at a time where activism and protest are arguably necessary by all available means—remains to be seen. But in the meantime, Phillips said, she's going to work on being more earnest.
The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online [Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner/Polity]
Under the Internet's Bridge With Troll Scholar Whitney Phillips