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Trolling and/or/as/alongside Harassment: what I learned from writing (poorly) about Dickwolves

Whitney Philips (University of Oregon, PhD Candidate in English)

About a year ago, I wrote an essay about Dickwolves. Well, tried to write an essay about Dickwolves—about halfway into the project, I realized I was out of my league, or at least was working outside my jurisdiction. Because as trollish as some of the engagement might have been, a large percentage of the responses were clearly more than “simple” trolling. Scare quotes very much intended, as there’s nothing simple about trolling behaviors. But Dickwolves, especially the subsequent attacks against feminist bloggers, was something else, a hybrid mess of trolling and harassment. Despite this, I applied my analysis of the former to what I should have recognized as the latter, which was a mistake.

Even though the resulting essay was a failure, and a spectacular failure at that (hey, go big or go home), my misadventures with Dickwolves forced me to consider the difference(s) between trolling and other forms of online aggression, a distinction with major methodological—not to mention legal—implications.

First, a few notes on the term itself. When I talk about trolling, I am not referring to online aggression generally. The term may have started out as a post-hoc descriptor of nasty online behavior, but in the last few years, “trolling” has taken on a very specific subcultural meaning. Trolls are people who self-identify as trolls; trolling is what they do. And what they do can run the gamut from harmless mischief (redirecting an audience to Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up”) to extreme racist, sexist and homophobic expression.

There is much more to say, including the role of play and performativity in the trollspace, the ethical dilemmas necessitated by trollish laughter, described by trolls as “lulz,” and the homologous relationship between trolling and dominant androcentric ideologies—but space here is limited. So I will return to the basic distinction between trolling and harassment. This is not a point of mere semantics; how we define our terms has, and will continue to have, a profound impact on how we respond to aggressive online behaviors, and how efficacious our efforts are likely to be.

Consequently I am inclined to draw an invisible line between the computer screen and the living room. If aggressive, and as the trolls would say, “lulzy” behaviors can be silenced by closing a window or powering down a computer, it falls under the category of trolling. If the behavior enters the living room, that is, persists in a way that cannot be contained by switching off the computer, then we’re in the realm of harassment.

THERE ARE BIG CAVEATS HERE, many of which I’m sure I’ll address in the comments. The first and most important is that there is not, I repeat NOT, some natural or necessary demarcation between the “real world” and “the virtual world.” I am using the terms “computer screen” and “living room” somewhat metaphorically, to indicate the persistence and relative searchability of data. Nor am I saying that what affects someone in one realm cannot spill over to the next, or that trolling is somehow “less real” than harassment, or even that these categories are static.

What I am saying is how a person responds to a particular behavior (whether legally or within the context of a particular forum or social networking platform) should first take into account what kind of behavior it is. That is the first step. By establishing basic categorical distinctions between trolling and harassment, we will be better equipped to respond thoughtfully and efficaciously to problematic online behaviors. This, ultimately, is the goal—to direct pushback in the right direction, for the right reasons.

5 comments for “Trolling and/or/as/alongside Harassment: what I learned from writing (poorly) about Dickwolves

  1. May 24, 2012 at 8:16 pm

    I came across this from the debacle tumblr timeline of the whole Dickwolves thing. I used to be a casual PA fan, but the whole way that the cartoonists responded to people’s concerns through mockery and ridicule turned me off completely.

    A year later I can come back and revisit it with some new academic tools and lenses, which really piqued my interest when I saw someone was writing a paper on it. Sorry it didn’t work out so well. Online culture and behavior is a fascinating topic of study, and “aggression” takes many forms. I think what happened with PA had a lot to do with the latent misogyny in video game communities. Developers often cater to a young male audience, use sexually evocative imagery, female characters are rarely empowered, and “rape” itself a casual verb in gameplay. The internet, bringing together such a myopic idea of one audience with real people (ie, female gamers, rape survivors, etc), results in these tensions and identity crisises. And “trolling” becomes the simplest means to perpetuate the “dominant androcentric ideologies” as you term them.

    Your refusal to differentiate between the virtual and the physical is part of a trend that goes from Jullian Dibbell’s observation of “A Rape In Cyberspace” in 1993 to these correlations, the contemporary view to see online behavior as an extension of oneself. People like Sherry Turkle used to write about the multiplicity of personas we could develop in virtual environments and communities for experimenting with our identity (and we can conceive as that as possibly positive insight into other’s identity politics). Now she (and others) change their tune, even as Facebook and Google are the predominant platforms for internet use, and they demand our real names.

    There’s upsides and downsides to this – we are responsible for our behavior, but do we take ownership of it? The authors of PA can clearly and loudly become rape apologists, because it doesn’t suit their ideology, and that gives licence to their fans to make all sorts of dickwolves jokes. Gabe and Tycho (are those their real names?) can get away with it, but JohhnyFragsALot probably wouldn’t be comfortable if in 5 months, or 5 years, he looked back and saw he wrote that. Or if his boss/future spouse/future child (more sensitive to these issues? a woman? etc.) saw what he wrote.

    Anyway I’m rattling, but the whole incident was facinating and I would have liked to read a paper on it. I’d also love to see what you think of Poe’s Law.

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