Skepchick Book Club: This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things
Welcome back to the Skepchick Book Club! Even though you don’t get free pizza for reading this month’s book, you do get a discussion on this month’s book, This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture by Whitney Phillips.
The book is exactly as the title says: it’s about trolling culture and how it both is influenced by and influences mainstream culture. The title implies that the book is about why trolling ruins the internet, but in fact the book is about how trolling thrives in our culture and what that says about us. From the Amazon description:
Internet trolls live to upset as many people as possible, using all the technical and psychological tools at their disposal. They gleefully whip the media into a frenzy over a fake teen drug crisis; they post offensive messages on Facebook memorial pages, traumatizing grief-stricken friends and family; they use unabashedly racist language and images. They take pleasure in ruining a complete stranger’s day and find amusement in their victim’s anguish. In short, trolling is the obstacle to a kinder, gentler Internet. To quote a famous Internet meme, trolling is why we can’t have nice things online. Or at least that’s what we have been led to believe. In this provocative book, Whitney Phillips argues that trolling, widely condemned as obscene and deviant, actually fits comfortably within the contemporary media landscape. Trolling may be obscene, but, Phillips argues, it isn’t all that deviant. Trolls’ actions are born of and fueled by culturally sanctioned impulses — which are just as damaging as the trolls’ most disruptive behaviors.
Phillips describes, for example, the relationship between trolling and sensationalist corporate media — pointing out that for trolls, exploitation is a leisure activity; for media, it’s a business strategy. She shows how trolls, “the grimacing poster children for a socially networked world,” align with social media. And she documents how trolls, in addition to parroting media tropes, also offer a grotesque pantomime of dominant cultural tropes, including gendered notions of dominance and success and an ideology of entitlement. We don’t just have a trolling problem, Phillips argues; we have a culture problem.
Even though I’m reasonably familiar with trolling culture (having been on the internet since the ’90’s), I did learn something about the logic that trolls use, and how trolls compartmentalize their “troll identity” as separate from their actual identity (to give themselves emotional distance from their actions). Also, how the term “troll” has evolved, because it used to be reserved for people who trolled others just for laughs (especially if those laughs caused trauma and offense), and it has instead come to mean someone just being a jerk online. Phillips made good points when she correlated Fox News and other corporate-sponsored punditry with trolling. Because, after all, what is the difference between trolling the media with teenage drug hysteria stories and claiming that Obama is a muslim who attended terrorist camp as a child.
A few passages in the book really spoke to me, like this one about describing how people who claim to be non-racist rationalize using racist language:
I am a good and normal mainstream sort of White person. I am not a racist, because racists are bad and marginal people. Therefore, if you understood my words to be racist, you must be mistaken. I may have used language that would be racist in the mouth of a racist person, but if I did so, I was joking. If you understood my meaning to be racist, not only do you insult me, but you lack a sense of humor, and you are oversensitive.
And this section about the self-perpetuating cycle on how something (e.g. the Obama birth certificate controversy) becomes newsworthy by virtue of being featured in the news, not because it’s based in fact:
Again, this is not to say that network employees, even those most complicit in perpetuating racist coverage, were themselves racist. That information is unverifiable and beside the point. The point is that racist hysterics over Obama’s birthplace, middle name, religion, and brown skin had indeed become “legitimate” news […] not because any of it really was legitimate, but because racism directed at Obama was profitable, and was therefore regarded by corporate media outlets as being worth repeating, and repeating, and repeating, perhaps to further a white supremacist agenda, perhaps to further a capitalist agenda, perhaps some combination of both. Whatever the motivations might have been, the outcome–namely, grotesque racist caricature–remained the same.
It’s no wonder that in an age where media is based in fear that trolls are so effectively able to manipulate it to get pundits to believe that teens are hooked on sniffing fermented poop.
As far as what I didn’t like about the book, while I think that the author tried to be fair to trolls, she was overly generous in some parts. In fact, she mentions that friends and professors really pushed back on some sections because her perspective was a bit biased in favor of the trolls, since she spent so much time in their midst. I thought the book could have drawn from a few more sources, and more visuals to illustrate the memes that she referenced throughout. At times, the book dragged a little, and at times it was hard to read because it was so damn depressing reading about how much glee the trolls got from harassing rape victims or the families of dead people. But overall, it wasn’t a bad read and gave me another perspective on mainstream punditry and internet culture.
Next Month’s Book: Modern Romance
Next month, we’ll be reading Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg, and I’ll be posting on Sunday, March 13th. (Or if you’re in Boston come visit us on Saturday March 12th, details on the Boston Skeptics facebook page.)