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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. Read More…

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). Read More…

Ethnography of Trolling: Workarounds, Discipline-Jumping & Ethical Pitfalls (1 of 3)

whitney phillips december 2012Editor’s Note: Reddit. Facebook. YouTube. Twitter. These days it’s difficult to go anywhere online without encountering an anonymous troll (or ten). Debates about trolling, which is best described as deliberately antagonistic or otherwise provocative online speech and behavior, have even seeped into congressional hearingsIn research conducted between 2008 and 2012, Whitney Phillips @wphillips49 –who received her PhD in English with a Digital Culture/Folklore emphasis from the University of Oregon– investigated the origins and subcultural contours of online trolling. Using a combination of cultural studies, new media studies and ethnography, Whitney postulated that there is more to trolls and trolling behaviors than detractors might initially think. 

The subject of Whitney’s research leads us to ask, how does one conduct ethnographic research on an anonymous, and at times malicious, online population? In the first post of her three-part guest series, Whitney shares with us how she tackled the ethical pitfalls of her groundbreaking research. She also discusses how these pitfalls allowed her to make larger claims about trolling, with particular focus on the striking overlap between trolling and mainstream behaviors.  We look forward to her next post on her participant observation expeditions with trolls.       

Check out past posts from guest bloggers



My name is Whitney Phillips, and I study trolls. Well, not just trolls. I’ve also written about meme culture, so-bad-it’s-good fan engagement (my essay on the kuso aesthetic in Troll 2 is forthcoming in Transformative Works and Cultures), and online shaming. But for the better part of five-ish years, my life has revolved around trolls and the trolls who troll them. The title of my dissertation—THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS: The Origins, Evolution and Cultural Embeddedness of Online Trolling—pretty much says it all.

As I will discuss in this and several subsequent guest posts, my research experiences have been something of a mixed bag. Writing about trolls (to say nothing about working with trolls) has certainly been engaging, but has also proven to be the most consistently frustrating, challenging, and at times downright infuriating endeavor I have ever attempted. Which is one of the main reasons it has been so engaging, go figure.

Because in the end, it was the complications—the incomplete data sets, the trolls’ endless prevarications, the incessant march of subcultural change—that gave rise to my basic argument, the nutshell version of which can be found in my response to the Violentacrez controversy. As I argue, trolls are agents of cultural digestion; they scavenge and repurpose mainstream content, allowing one to extrapolate what’s going on in the dominant culture by examining what’s going on in the troll space. I could not have written my way into this argument if things had gone according to plan. I needed those roadblocks, even if at the time they made me want to rip out my hair.

Read More…