The Read-Only Hangover

If you’ve encountered me at all (online or off) in the last 5 years or so, you’ll probably have figured out that I’m a little hung-up on the failed utopian promises of what we used to call “read-write” culture. Giving everyone access to the means of information production was going to set everyone free (we confidently predicted in 2004) . Now its 2019 and Trump is president and Nazis are swarming everywhere. What gives?

One of the most informative recent scholarly work investigating these broken promises of online culture is Whitney Phillips’ This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, which presents a fascinating critical ethnography of the online culture of “trolling.” The troll, Phillips argues, may be presented as the reason why we can’t have the “nice thing” of a truly inclusive and democratic online culture but the truth is more complicated and implicates a much wider swath of mainstream media culture. Yes, trolls are abusers, but their abuse is formed, motivated, and structured by the larger sensationalist media culture we all exist in.

In particular, Phillips examines how trolls use over-the-top sensationalist hoaxes as an exploit to capture the attention of the larger media apparatus. In one example, they spread false accounts purporting that a (non-existent) drug called “jenkem” made from fermented human feces is becoming popular in American high schools. In response, local news outlets across the country published sincere warnings to parents instructing them to watch their children for signs they had been huffing human waste. In another, trolls submitted a hoax “confession” supposedly authored by a member of an online pedophile ring to Oprah Winfrey. The phony confession was riddled with references to online memes, which Winfrey earnestly read to her audience. As Phillips recounts, Winfrey told her audience that she had been contacted by “a member of a known pedophile network” who claimed that “his group has over 9000 penises and they’re all … raping … children” (a reference to the Dragonball-Z derived ‘Over 9000‘ meme). Oprah’s credulous recitation of mimetic catchphrases was a source of great amusement for the trolls in their den on 4chan.

This second example is, for me, particularly telling. Why go to such lengths simply to trick a well-known talk show host into reciting an obscure in-joke on the air? In part, Phillips suggests that the answer lies in the troll’s desire to take control of the larger media apparatus. This is viral media, not in the sense that it spreads from one exposed victim to the next, but in the sense that it’s a small fragment of information capturing and re-using the cellular machinery of a much larger organism for its own goals.

The desire of trolls to use this viral technique to bend large media outlets to their whims reminds me of Neil Postman’s description of the alienating effects of mass media. For Postman, the mass media of the television age collapsed distance and thus swamped viewers with information about far-away problems they had no meaningful agency to solve. He writes:

Prior to the age of telegraphy, the information-action ratio was sufficiently close so that most people had a sense of being able to control some of the contingencies in their lives. What people knew about had action-value. In the information world created by telegraphy, this sense of potency was lost, precisely because the whole world became the context for news. Everything became everyone’s business. For the first time, we were sent information which answered no question we had asked, and which, in any case, did not permit the right of reply

Read through the lens of Postman, the troll may appear then as culture-jammer, seizing the “right of reply” from the alienation of one-way media. The kind of read-write hero we all yearned for in 2004. But of course, that’s not what trolls are (or at least, not all they are). Trolls, as Phillips reminds us, taunt those grieving the recently dead and spread racist and sexist humor with glee. Trolls are no read-write hero, but a heavily dissociated subculture interested in the manipulation of hapless others for their own amusement.

Part of what might account for this, I’d like to speculate here, is the slippage between mass-media and everyday communicators in the era of social media. This slippage (which Alice Marwick describes in her review of the concept of “micro-celebrity”) encourages us to use the same detached, critical lens we developed for reading the carefully managed presences of mass-media celebrities for interacting with ordinary people in online spaces. For me, this slippage is perhaps best captured in young people’s use of the word “cancelled” to describe someone they have pointedly decided to purposefully ignore/block/mute online. We’re all TV now, and if we don’t like what’s on, we “cancel” it.

In the heyday of utopian read-write culture we hoped to turn Television into genuine communities. Maybe part of what has actually happened is that genuine communities have turned into something like television.