I’ve just finished reading the excellent This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things by Whitney Phillips. It offers fascinating insights into the evolution of ‘trolling’ as a practice, leading from its original form of sub-cultural self-identification to the diffusion of the label across the entire spectrum of online activities deemed to be anti-social. Her overarching thesis is that trolling is framed as an aberration relative to the mainstream culture, when in fact it represents the logic of that culture taken to its extreme. Trolling only makes sense against a background that facilitates it, such that trolls should be read as an inditement of contemporary culture rather than a threat to it. This diagnosis is most acute when it comes to broadcast media, with trolls expertly hacking the media for their own amusement in a way that takes advantage of the media’s propensity for those very things (misleading information, lack of understanding, morbid preoccupations and a deep need for attention) which trolls are seen as embodiments of.

Her operationalisation of ‘troll’ as a self-identity is an important part of the book. The problem I have with the contemporary use of troll is that it subsumes a wide range of behaviours into a singular pathologised description. To point this out is not to defend any of these behaviours, only to remind that we should not assume people do similar, or even the same, things for the same reasons. The diversity of trolling behaviours gets obliterated by the seemingly straight-forward designation of ‘troll’, something which I suspect many people now think they unproblematically recognise when they see it. But underlying ‘trolling’ we might find the urge to incite and manipulate for amusement (i.e. ‘troll’ in the self-identifying sense), online activists who see themselves as fighting a culture war through their keyboards, outpouring of hatred reflecting a generalised contempt for other human beings, the desperate externalisations of someone unable to cope or any number of other things. We need to recognise this variety at an ontological level while nonetheless remaining attentive to the epistemological and methodological problem of how, if at all, we are able to read back ‘offline’ motivations from ‘online’ behaviour.

Towards the end of the book, Phillips talks about her experience of out-trolling trolls. She recognises that this runs contrary to familiar advice “don’t feed the trolls”, something which I’ve always found to work just as well as face-to-face as on the internet:

This strategy—of actively trolling trolls—runs directly counter to the common imperative “don’t feed the trolls,” a statement predicated on the logic that trolls can only troll if their targets allow themselves to be trolled. Given that the fun of trolling inheres in the game of trolling—a game only the troll can win, and whose rules only the troll can modify—this is sound advice. If the target doesn’t react, then neither can the troll.But even this decision buys into the trolls’ game. The troll still sets the terms of their target’s engagement; the troll still controls the timeline and the outcome. (pg. 160)

I don’t quite follow the reasoning here. A refusal to engage only leaves the troll in control in a formal sense of the term. In practice, there isn’t a timeline or an outcome, with an enormous caveat I will get to later in the post. Instead, she details a strategy of out-trolling the trolls, performing an earnest response to their attempts at engagement in a way which reveals their own investment in trolling.

The dynamic shifts considerably if the target counters with a second game, one that collapses the boundary between target and troll. In this new game, the troll can lose and, by taking umbrage at the possibility, falls victim to his or her own rigid rules. After all, it’s emotion—particularly frustration or distress—that trips the troll’s wire. In most cases, the troll’s shame over having lost, or merely the possibility that he or she could lose, will often send the troll searching for more exploitable pastures. I frequently utilized this strategy in my own dealings with random anonymous trolls, particularly on my quasi-academic blog. (pg. 160)

I’d like to have seen more example of what she means here but I find it an intriguing idea. As I understand it, her notion of ‘trolling rhetoric’ entails seeking to provoke another person to express their concerns in a way deemed to be excessive, revealing what is taken to be their over-investment in their online activity. Underlying this is a belief that “nothing should be taken seriously, and therefore … public displays of sentimentality, political conviction, and/or ideological rigidity” are seen as a “call to trolling arms”, with the ensuing trolling often understood in an explicitly pedagogical way. The lulz enjoyed through this represent a “pushback against any and all forms of attachment” but, as she notes, trolls themselves are deeply attached to lulz (p. 25). There’s a power in revealing this attachment, inciting trolls to perform it through the very rhetorical strategies through which they seek to dominate others. Ignoring them leaves the troll unmoved, engaging in this way reveals the deep paradox at the heart of their behaviour.

Phillips recognises how contentious such a strategy can appear, honestly recounting her own ambivalence about the possibility. It nonetheless has a certain appeal though, specifically the idea that we might “troll better, and to smash better those who troll us”But there are two huge caveats to its employment in the academic context within which and for which I’m writing. Firstly, how would university departments and communications offices respond to examples of ‘out trolling’? The evidence we have suggests not very well. Secondly, do we have any reason to assume that those who are increasingly targeting academics online represents trolls in this self-identified sense? I think the argument offered by Phillips is deeply plausible but suspect it only holds true for those who share this sub-cultural identity. Those who, for instance, see what they do as activism are much less likely to be moved by it and engagements of this could be deeply counter-productive.

I’m very excited that the Digital Geographies working group of the Royal Geographical Society is now up and running. Find out more on their website here.

Our aims are to:
  • Provide a platform and intellectual community for geographers to engage in discussions of the digital and geography
  • Help stimulate and deepen critical engagement and conceptualisation of the digital, both within Geography and beyond
  • Offer a focal point within Geography to showcase the relevance of geographical research in contemporary discussions of the digital
  • Nurture discussion of how digital technologies are changing the methods of geographical research, scholarship, teaching, writing and impact work
  • Develop links to other disciplines, networks and practitioner communities related to “the digital”

From The Monsters of Educational Technology, by Audrey Watters, loc 1530:

We act at our peril as if “open” is politically neutral, let alone politically good or progressive. Indeed, we sometimes use the word to stand in place of a politics of participatory democracy. We presume that, because something is “open” that it necessarily contains all the conditions for equality or freedom or justice. We use “open” as though it is free of ideology, ignoring how much “openness,” particularly as it’s used by technologists, is closely intertwined with “meritocracy” – this notion, a false one, that “open” wipes away inequalities, institutions, biases, history, that “open” “levels the playing field.”

Can we reclaim the ideal of the ‘open’ from this ideological morass or must we abandon it? As Watters observes on loc 1578, the idea of openness is often attached to ambitions for problem solving. If only we had more data, tricky  social problems would melt away:

The current administration is interested in more than just data at the school, district, and state level. It’s actively promoting the collection and analysis of student at the individual level, arguing that if we just have more data –if we “open up” the classroom, the software, the databases, the educational practices –that we will unlock the secrets of how every student learns. We can then build software that caters to that, something that will make learning more efficient and more personalized. Or that’s the argument at least. We should remember that this is mostly speculative. And we should recognize here that words like “personalization” function much like “open.” That is, they sound great in press releases, but they should prompt us to ask more questions rather than assume that they’re necessarily good.

I just spotted New Philosopher for the first time, in an airport newsagents. I’ve occasionally bought or subscribed to Philosopher’s Magazine and Philosophy Now in the past. That makes three popular magazines about philosophy aimed at a general audience. Why such an abundance of philosophy magazines and yet no comparable sociology publications? Is it because the public appetite couldn’t support a sociology magazine? Or is it because sociologists haven’t tried since New Society folded? Is it time for Discover Society to launch a print edition? Or something else entirely?

Some thoughts after yesterday’s public sociology day in Manchester:

  • The meaning of ‘public sociology’ is not always self-evident and the enthusiasm of the impulse expressed through the term can cloud its meaning yet further. We need to be clear about what we are doing and why.
  • This clarity can help us negotiate the ambivalent spaces for public sociology created within institutions that speak the language of ‘impact’, ‘public engagement’, ‘knowledge exchange’, ‘enterprise’ and ‘outreach’. There are opportunities for public sociology here but also dangers.
  • The competitive individualism of the academy risks being reproduced in a discourse of ‘public sociology’ dominated by white, male professorial public sociologists. We need to celebrate the practice of public sociology, rather than the academic brands of the most prominent public sociologists. [thanks to the res-sisters and Lambros Fatsis for making this point so clearly, in slightly different ways]
  • Our prevailing systems of scholarly communication risk canalising the impulse towards ‘public sociology’ into abstract reflection upon what should ultimately be a practical activity. Sustaining employment in the academy necessitates ‘outputs’ of a certain restricted kind but we must avoid letting these define what we take public sociology to be.
  • We can take these limitations of existing systems as an inspiration to build new systems. How do we create platforms for public sociology that facilitate and encourage it as a collective endeavour, rather than the lone pursuit of isolated individuals within an accelerated academy? 

I’ve just started working my way through this series of books produced by UCL’s massive Why We Post project. The past work of the project team is fantastic and I’m hopeful this will prove to be an important series of books, breaking new anthropological ground in our understanding of how and why people use social media. Not all of the books are released yet but these are the ones currently available:

They’re also freely available in PDF! This is a wonderful innovation from UCL’s Press and one we’ll hopefully see more of in the future.

An interesting opportunity, though personally the language of ‘assistant’ and one year would put me off a little bit:

*Apologies for crossposting*

Dear Colleagues,

Since its launch in August 2014, the Twitter account for Sociology has become a popular and important means of promoting the journal to a wide academic and non-academic audience. Social media are also proving to be a practical way to link the work of the journal to topical news and debates in the media. Sociology is therefore creating the new voluntary role of Social Media Assistant and seeks applicants with an interest in contributing to the current and ongoing development of the journal’s presence on Twitter and other social media platforms.

The role will commence on Monday 3rd October and run for a one-year fixed-term period in the first instance.

For details about the role and the link to the online application form, please see the full call for applications on the BSA site. The deadline for applications is 5pm GMT Friday 22 July. 

 If you have any queries about the role, please contact Sociology Editor, Kath Woodward: Kath.Woodward@open.ac.uk 

BSA Sociologists outside Academia, in collaboration with Sage Publishing Ltd and the Sociological Imagination

Practical Sociology: Agenda for Action

A half-day workshop

British Psychological Society meeting rooms, Tabernacle St
London EC2A 4UE

Monday 17 October 2016, 12.30 – 4.30pm

How come – at least in the UK –you don’t come across people with ‘sociologist’ in their job title working in industry, business, the civil service, or pretty much anywhere outside academia or independent research organisations?

Sociologists seem to all reside in universities, unlike psychologists and economists, who have colonised many kinds of workplaces.

Most sociologists believe our subject is essential for understanding the world around us, or to resolve contemporary problems, from gender violence to climate change.  We have the concepts (like ‘cultural capital’, ‘intersectionality) and the theories (social mobility, moral panic).  But where are the practical sociologists?

So what would it take to establish a ‘practical sociology’ in the UK and elsewhere, with sociologists employed to use sociology concepts and models to address problems in industry, business, government, education or health?  This half-day workshop aims to establish an agenda for practical sociology.

The workshop will explore pressing questions about how a practical sociology may apply its expertise, skills and knowledge to problems at work or in the community.

  • What has prevented the emergence of practical sociology in the UK?
  • What are the core knowledge and models that are needed to solve the problems that organisations, businesses and the public sector face?
  • What kinds of skills would be needed to work as a practical sociologist?
  • How would a practical sociology career pan out?

This workshop will be of interest to sociologists and others who are keen to see the application of sociological concepts, models and theories in practical settings in the public, private and third sectors.  Please come along and help us set an agenda for developing practical sociology.

Registration

Book online at http://portal.britsoc.co.uk/public/event/eventBooking.aspx?id=EVT10571

BSA Members £5; Non-members £8; BSA Concessionary members and full-time students £3.

Tea and coffee will be provided: please bring your lunch.

A two-day postgraduate workshop that explores, defines and practices digital sociological research

Are you curious about Digital Sociology? Consider, or already conducting, a postgraduate study on the subject? Want to explore the relations between Data, Society and the Self? Want to meet digital sociologists? Come and enjoy two days of roundtables, masterclasses, a research workshop and a keynote, with experts from MMU and further afield. The workshop is aimed at postgraduate students but is open to all.

26-27 May 2016, The Shed, Manchester Metropolitan University
Organised by Tom Brock, Adi Kuntsman and Esperanza Miyake, Digital Transformations Research Network, MMU

Keynote: Prof. Patricia Clough, CUNY

Speakers:

Dr. Tom Brock, Department of Sociology, MMU
Dr. Mark Carrigan, Centre for Social Ontology, Department of Sociology, Warwick University
Dr. EJ Gonzales-Polledo, Department of Methodology, LSE
Dr. Adi Kuntsman, Department of Languages, Information and Communications, MMU
Dr. Esperanza Miyake, Department of Languages, Information and Communications, MMU

Follow us on Twitter: #SocDataSelf
Conference flyer