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Is Online Trolling a Reflection of Our Social Values?

This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things confronts the interrelation between subversive trolls and mainstream ideas, and opens up conversations about post-internet politics, activism, and human relationships.

“Don’t feed the trolls” is a common adage in online spaces, repeated especially by those who express progressive opinions online and/or engage in online activism through social media. Progressive discussion or writing in online spaces is often coupled with a crash course in trolling, wherein writers or commenters are subject to explicitly oppositional and/or offensive commentary. Such commentary is intended to upset and frustrate those attempting to change the way that we understand critical social issues, whether it is women’s rights, animal cruelty, or climate change.

Yet, as much as we believe the commentary of trolls to be politically and ethically misguided, we also know that talking back will only make us angry and it will do nothing to change the worldview of trolls. Provocation and belligerence, paired with intentionally poor grammar and profanity, is the name of the trolling game.

Trolling activities extend beyond commentary on progressive news stories, however. In recent years, trolls and trolling have caught the attention of the mainstream media. The mainstream media is quick to identify something as an instance of trolling (“Burn it Like Beckham: David Trolls Son Brooklyn With an Almighty Putdown“, Edited by Amrita Kohli, NDTV, 20 April 2015) but, at the same time, it expresses repulsion and concern over trolling and its effects (“Social media trolls and why Periscope is bad news for women everywhere“, by Jenna Price, The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 April 2015). The media decries trolling, especially the kind that targets grieving family members of the recently deceased (known as RIP trolling) and victims of violence or tragedy. Public outcry over the proliferation and effects of trolling has become so significant, in fact, that algorithms to identify and automatically ban trolls are in development (“New algorithm could put an end to online trolling“, by David Nield, Digital Trends, 19 April 2015)

The mainstream media teaches us that the intention of trolls is to silence, humiliate, and intimidate victims of tragedy or crime and/or people from marginalized communities. One thing that is often on the minds of pundits, and likely the general public, is: Why do people troll? What kind of individual would maliciously target and provoke outrage in people whom they do not know? The mainstream media denounce trolling behaviors as pathetic, unsympathetic, and vindictive; trolls themselves are represented as lowlife scum who have nothing better to do with their time.

Within these pseudo-psychological parameters, the mainstream media positions itself as oppositional to trolls and their actions (“Germanwings plane crash: Racist Twitter trolls make vile jokes over deaths of 150 tragic victims“, by John Shammas, Mirror, 25 March 2015), while trolls understand themselves as engaged in a combination of media and social critique.

For Whitney Phillips, lecturer in Communications at Humboldt University, this is a peculiar dichotomy. In her new book, This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, Phillips proposes that sensationalist, corporatized media and trolls have far more in common than either party might like to admit. This affinity is what trolling reveals, and it is the object of Phillips’ study. Her provocative argument, in fact, is that trolling is in many ways not only a product, but a reflection, of the very society that denounces it.

Phillips’ investigation of online trolling identities and activities brings together folklore studies, critical media studies, and ethnographic research. Phillips interweaves these perspectives not only to make sense of trolling within the cultural milieu, but also to propose the existence of a symbiotic relationship between trolling activities and the rhetoric of sensationalist media. This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things is anchored by a correlation between the politics of trolls and the ideology of sensationalist media (à la Fox News). Phillips’ premise is that, contrary to what we might expect, trolling is informed by the same logics and rhetorical strategies of the mainstream media.

Trolls profess to be anti-establishment and working in opposition to the disaster fetishism of the corporate media, but the rhetoric that informs their activities is a normative one that’s very much aligned with the mainstream and its conservativism. On this point, Phillips compares trolling activity and mainstream media coverage in the early days of Obama’s presidency. Her analysis reveals that online imagery of Obama as socialist joker (“Philip Kennicott on Images: Obama as the Joker Betrays Racial Ugliness, Fears“, The Washington Post 6 August 2009) and mainstream media’s concerns about Obama’s citizenship and religion are both informed by the same xenophobic and racist sentiments. The only difference, she finds is that the racism of trolls is implicit, while the racism of the mainstream media is overt. So, the antagonistic relationship between trolls and mainstream journalists, Phillips shows, simply does not hold, for both are cut from the same rhetorical cloth.

Phillips’ work contributes a thorough history of trolling behaviours, which upsets prevalent assumptions about the origins of trolling. It’s often assumed that trolling is a 21st century phenomenon, borne out of the anonymity of comment spaces on blogs, the dark corners of 4chan’s /b/ board and, more recently, Twitter. But Phillips’ genealogy of trolling reveals that trolling in fact precedes 4chan. What we now call trolling has apparently long been part of human culture, but internet trolling has its origins in the online forums of the ’90s. These “proto-trolling” activities include, for example, large-scale antagonism on forums like rec.pets.cats, where trolls posed as pet owners to solicit assistance from the forum, while other trolls inundated the forum with gruesome “advice”.

For Phillips, though, it’s the trolling activities borne out of 4chan’s /b/ board that align current iterations of trolling with a distinct subculture. It was 4chan and comparable forums like reddit that sedimented trolling activities, identities, and ideologies. These subcultural origins gave way to a “golden” period when, in the late 00s, trolling “crystallized”, flourished and, importantly for Phillips, came to most explicitly mirror dominant ideologies about race, gender, ability, and sexuality.

For the Love of Lulz

Trolls troll for the production of and reveling in the “lulz”, an “unsympathetic, ambiguous laughter” derived especially at another’s expense. Phillips likens lulz to a more lethal iteration of schadenfreude, but suggests that three defining characteristics make it a distinct phenomenon. She points out that lulz fetishize emotional distance via myopic humor; it’s a force that generates community; and it attracts attention. But lulz is more than simply a motivator for trolls. It is, Phillips maintains, a “critical concept” in understanding trolling, specifically because it informs who will be targeted and in what manner, and also because it situates trolls within a community of like-minded individuals with established and stable personae.

Phillips proposes that it’s impossible to determine the demographics of trolling due to trolls’ commitment to anonymity. But, she says, the fact that trolls typically target people marginalized by and because of their gender, race, age, ability, class, and/or sexuality suggests that trolling is marked by what Ryan Milner calls a “white centrality”, a political and rhetorical space occupied by middle-class heterosexual men aged 18-35.

Crucially, Phillips makes a sharp distinction between trolling and its affiliates public shaming and (cyber)bullying—or, more generally, online antagonism. She argues that trolling is undergirded by a politicized critical logic of anti-disaster-fetishism and anti-seriousness that cannot be similarly located in instances of shaming and (cyber)bullying. Phillips also delineates between trolling behaviours and the activism of hacker collectives like Anonymous: trolls are motivated purely for lulz, whereas Anonymous has become a force for tangible social change. In being motivated purely by lulz, trolls are thus only successful when an act of trolling produces lulz. In contrast with shamers and cyberbullies, the intended effect of lulz is supposed to be political: successful production of lulz means that the target is outraged, and has therefore taken the trollbait. Ultimately, as Phillips’ ethnography reveals, trolls want targets to understand, through their outrage, that nothing should be taken seriously.

Phillips concludes by agreeing that trolling is an unpleasant side effect of the openness of the internet. At the same time, she wonders whether attempts to regulate trolling would be effective, or merely thwarted by the tech-savviness of trolls. She doubts whether an anonymous-free internet would in fact be a more sympathetic space. Phillips’ book offers a case for the potential political effectiveness of trolling, pondering its potential usefulness in and for feminist politics.

This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things is a strong introductory text on the historical and cultural aspects of trolling, and it offers numerous insights into the logics and ideologies that undergird it. This timely work also opens up an opportunity for much-needed dialogue about the ethico-political implications of online antagonism.

The Methodological Challenges of Researching Online

Ethnographic research of online cultures poses intriguing methodological challenges, which manifest in Phillips’ work. In some ways it’s little different from traditional ethnography. Researchers must gain the trust of a self-contained community: must come to understand what is acceptable behaviour, and what is not; what constitutes a warning, and what constitutes a joke. When are people being serious, when are they offended (and why), and when are they testing you or pulling one over on you, the outsider? When is a statement to be taken at face value, and when is it to be understood as masking deeper meaning?

Like any ethnographer, the observer of online culture must learn through trial and error, deploying equal measures of self-restraint, patience, perception and analysis, all bolstered with a dose of courage. The ethnographer can’t sit back forever, lurking in the chatroom shadows: eventually they must put themselves out there and engage, or risk incurring the disrespect and disdain of the group. In the final analysis they must hope that sincerity, truthfulness and an honest effort will earn them tolerance, if not complete acceptance.

The ethnographer of online culture engages in many traditional modes of research: conducting interviews and participant-observation (at conventions, conferences, and social get-togethers and parties). Phillips recounts spending “thousands of hours engaging in participant observation on 4chan’s /b/ board, Encyclopedia Dramatica, Facebook, Skype, YouTube, and various other online spaces (commercial websites, personal blogs, specific comment threads)”.

Yet other aspects of online culture are unique. Online ethnographic work means that one doesn’t have the advantage of being able to observe the other person’s body language and facial cues: normally invaluable aids for the ethnographer. One can’t even make educated guesses as to gender, ethnicity, age, or other characteristics which usually equip us with some potential frames of reference for the people with whom we’re engaging. Do these challenges hinder good analysis; or do they in fact help the researcher by stripping away potential stereotypes and bias?

Another key variant when it comes to ethnographic research of online culture lies in the omnipresence of the culture, as well as the nature of the power dynamic. Trolls and hackers can follow the researcher anywhere in the virtual world (and even intrude into their offline worlds). As well, the researcher is dealing with professionals who often have a great deal more technical skill than the academic. Put bluntly, the research “subjects” could easily target and cause a great deal of anxiety and upset for the researcher if they didn’t like what she had to say. And the likelihood of the research subject being able to access and follow the academic’s work is greater than that afforded by traditional ethnography, in which there is often an informal divide (geographic, linguistic, or class) between the community under study and the ivory tower academic forums in which the researcher shares the results of their work. Ethnographic study of online culture is an area where the subject has a far greater ability to respond to the researcher.

In a chapter focusing on her methodology, Phillips outlines other challenges she encountered: “how and where to restrict my research focus, the ever-shifting dynamic between community and platform, trolls’ insistence on anonymity, constant subcultural change, and most vexingly, my own research myopia (by which she means the insecurity she felt as a tenuously accepted insider, which included pressures to perform and defend the culture she was studying).”

Two of these points are particularly interesting. The “ever-shifting dynamic between community and platform” refers to the ways in which the technology of a particular community space – Facebook, or 4chan, or whatnot – has a direct impact on how the community expresses itself. For example, Twitter’s 140-character limit shapes the nature of dialogue on that platform; Facebook’s efforts to combat trolling in fact shape the strategies trolls use to maintain community and resist policing. The impact of technology, in other words, shapes culture in these research spaces.

“Constant subcultural change” is also a significant dynamic: online culture undergoes transformation at a much faster pace than other forms of culture and cultural expression. Staying on top of that is a challenge, illustrated by Phillips’ chagrin at the fact that an academic journal article she wrote in 2010 about memes didn’t appear in print until 2013. This is the normal slow pace of academic peer-reviewed journals, yet it meant the article was no longer entirely accurate by the time it appeared in print, given the far more rapid pace of change in online culture.

Such are the unique challenges faced by ethnographers of online culture; yet as Phillips observes, they also offer illuminating insights into the very nature of that culture.

Tricksters, Play and Privilege

A characteristic of ethnographic research is the identification of deeply rooted symbolic tropes or motifs – archetypes, in traditional folkloric or anthropological parlance – which provide useful theoretical and conceptual framings for the particularized and expressive qualities of the culture being studied.

The trickster motif has become a key component of the explanatory framework offered by this new generation of researchers of online culture. Gabriella Coleman, ethnographer of Anonymous and hacker culture more broadly, also draws upon this motif in her analytical framework (See “The Increasingly Political, Ever Lulzy, Richly Cultural World of Hackers“, Hans Rollman, PopMatters, 13 May 2015). The trickster serves as a social leveling mechanism, both toward individuals and society as a whole. Tricksters demonstrate both the value and danger of rule-breaking. Breaking rules stimulates creativity and innovation, exposing outdated social structures and processes.

At the same time, excessive rule-breaking risks spilling over into unmanageable and destructive chaos. Tricksters operate in a liminal space balanced precariously between these two extremes. Unpredictable, although often operating within an ethical framework that is consistent on its own terms, tricksters operate outside of social norms, yet do so by manipulating social norms so as to leverage greater impact on normative society.

Trickster functions manifest in trolling, and part of this manifestation is an inscrutability of motive. It can be difficult – particularly the more invested one is in one’s own moral or political position – to recognize that one is being trolled, and to fight back against someone who is interested not in proving or disproving a point but rather in undermining the seriousness with which an argument or position is being taken. The more vehemently one argues back, the more effective the trolling proves. The message is: Don’t take yourself, or your position, too seriously. Nothing is that sacred.

The issue of play also arises repeatedly. “To hackers, technologies were made to be played with,” writes Phillips. “People can play with technology, and so they do, and so they should, or at the very least one mustn’t be surprised when the inevitable comes to pass.” Creative appropriation and play is convincingly identified as one of the key motivations and drivers underlying hacker and troll culture; indeed, of online culture generally, with its more low-key variants of memes and other types of light “layperson” play.

The interesting point about this is the critical response to hacking/trolling-as-play. Researchers sometimes have a tendency to discount its value and legitimacy by framing it as a form of privileged play. Even Phillips, who is in many respects sympathetic to troll culture, cautions that it is “those in positions of privilege – whether derived from racial, gender, and/or class position – have the inclination, access, and most importantly, the internalized sense of entitlement” to play with technologies in this fashion.

But this caveat bears rethinking. Computers are ubiquitous in this day and age. Spending any amount of time in cheap cafes whose clientele are often lower-income will reveal no shortage of wireless devices. They are often older models, with cracked screens and taped-up batteries, but functional wired-in computers nonetheless. In parts of the so-called developing world, smartphone proliferation is denser than the so-called first world. Coleman’s ethnographic profiles of hackers reveals that while the white male is still a dominant demographic, there is in fact a great deal of diversity in the community: many of the hacker attacks against governments during the Arab Spring were spearheaded by hackers in those very countries. Her research reveals hackers who live in housing projects, US-based hackers who are visible minorities and far from rich.

The notion of hacking/trolling-as-privilege needs to be reconsidered more critically in view of the rapid pace of technological change. A cellphone used to be considered a sign of ostentatious luxury and privilege; today it’s considered as an everyday tool.

Perhaps, in fact, the issue is that hacking/trolling is not so much a form of privileged play, but rather a form of play that is unsanctioned and considered illegitimate by mainstream culture and the institutions of power within that culture. Ostentatious consumerism and conspicuous material consumption is considered legitimate: as is purchasing big-screen televisions, flashy cars, and splurging on expensive nights out at cocktail bars. It’s hardly considered a sign of privilege to go see a band and wind up at a bender on the weekend.

Yet if one sits at home, typing away on a computer (which might easily cost less than a concert ticket and a night out), trolling or hacking, it’s considered privilege. It’s not, really: it’s merely an unsanctioned form of play. The distinction ought perhaps to be more clearly considered in studies on the topic.

Similarly, while trolling requires a certain mental or psychological attitude, and one that is more commonly associated with white “malestream” culture, it also offers a unique opportunity for otherwise marginalized and oppressed identities to fight back and resist. The ability to reshape one’s online identity in any creative form one desires – gender, race, class – and to hit back with impunity (and no fear of physical violence) provides a unique space for cultural resistance through trolling. That, too, is something worthwhile to investigate further.

On the other hand, there could be differences in terms of how privilege operates and manifests itself between the distinct spheres of trolling and hacking. But at the very least, it would be useful for researchers to more critically position privilege beyond simply the confines of time and money. The more significant and political operation of privilege, it could be argued, is ideological.

Trolling, Anti-ethics, and Post-internet Relationality

For her part, Phillips is careful to be neither too enthusiastic about nor too critical of trolling. She notes that to be uncritically enthusiastic about the subversive potential of trolling is to risk being seen as an apologist, whereas to be too condemnatory is to be too politically conservative. Phillips aims for a nuanced approach to trolling that does not accept it as a free speech act, and she argues that to critique trolling is to simultaneously critique sensationalist media.

This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things opens us up our thinking about other reasons to be suspicious of the anti-ethics of trolling. If trolling is, as Phillips makes clear, motivated by the myopic laughter of lulz and an anti-seriousness towards and distance from tragedy or violence, what does trolling reveal about what it means to be human in the post-internet era? What are the ethical and relational implications of trolling?

As Phillips identifies, the behavior of trolls is an attempt to get their target(s) to “not take things too seriously”—whether that thing is sexual violence, the hastened death of already marginalized lives, posting freely in online spaces as a woman (“For Women, The Internet Can Be a Scary Place“, by Rebecca Leber, The New Republic), or being gay in this dominant heterosexual world —so as to extinguish earnest reaction to and dialogue about that which is non-normative and/or difficult to comprehend. In turn, the logic of trolling is one undergirded by the denial of negative (read: “feminine”) affects like sadness and outrage and, with it, the wholesale rejection of sincere and honest emotional engagement with our world. The encouragement of emotional distance from tragic or troubling events may, inadvertently, produce negative emotional distance between people, for it inhibits our capacity to be compassionate and to work together to better our world. To “hold tragedy at “arm’s length”, as Phillips articulates trolling activity, is produced within the alienating system that is industrial capitalism.

The result is a seemingly disaffected world where so much of (western, middle-class) energy seems to be invested in Instagramming rather than in participating in unmediated reality. The logic of dissociation that informs trolling is, in fact, an apolitical orientation precisely because it is normatively ideological. As an affront to collectivism and cooperation, trolling replicates the logic of individualism so championed by the neoliberal order. The idea that one should not take things too seriously merely preserves the status quo for, if we did take things “too seriously”, we might find ourselves politicized together in the streets rather on our individual Facebook timelines.

At the ethico-political level, then, disaffection is a dangerous operating logic. It cultivates, to the detriment of meaningful and compassionate engagement between people, emotional distance and dissociation from the things that are difficult to face and/or the people whose being or thoughts are different from our own.

However, trolling doesn’t have to represent a decline in human connectedness and bankruptcy in relating with one another. In some recent cases, for example, people who have called trolls out for their antagonism have received some interesting and, if you will, heart-warming results. Writers Lindy West (“What happened when I confronted my cruellest troll“, The Guardian, 2 February 2015) and Andrea Grimes (“Do Feed the Trolls—to People Who Will Hold Them Accountable“, RH Reality Check, 13 April 2015) both recently confronted and dialogued with a person who trolled them. Grimes writes that it was on a human level that she was able to solicit seriousness from the person who trolled her. By treating the troll “like a human being, instead of an anonymous insult machine with a keyboard and Internet access,” both she and West generated not only apologies from the trolls but also meaningful human contact. If there is one way for trolling to be politically productive, it might be in spinning lulz into something generative.

Toward a Feminist Ethic of Trolling?

Phillips picks up on another important issue toward the end of her book. She notes that there are deeply rooted causes underlying “our present pop cultural moment, in which women’s voices online are silenced”; causes that can be traced back centuries in the western tradition with its loud, confrontational approach to public speech. In determining how to respond to the silencing of women’s voices, and the fact that even today “speech, ‘serious’ speech anyway, is naturally and necessarily gendered male”, a natural response is often for women to adopt the same “gendered male” approach to speech: “to deliberately harness aspects of male rhetoric in order to be taken more seriously”.

Yet does that really change anything? Phillips suggests that a better approach “is to think critically and self-reflexively about our rhetorical operations.” She quotes classicist Mary Beard, who has also fed—and vindicated—her troll (“Mary Beard reveals she befriended Twitter trolls following online abuse“, by Hannah Ellis-Petersen, The Guardian, 27 August 2014). Beard says that “we need to go back to some first principles about the nature of spoken authority… rather than push women into voice training classes to get a nice, deep, husky and entirely artificial tone, we should be thinking more about the faultlines and fractures that underlie dominant male discourse.”

Do those oppressed by a patriarchal world fight back using patriarchal methods or try to transform prevailing behaviour into something different? This is a fundamental debate that occurs everywhere from gender studies to business management studies; a debate put most succinctly and eloquently by Audre Lorde’s famous admonition “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

The same argument can be raised in respect to trolling. Given that trolling has proven to be an effective rhetorical strategy – one often wielded against women – could it be harnessed for use by feminists? Could trolling rhetorical strategies be used by feminists to counter-attack misogynist men online, and in popular culture more broadly?

In some ways, it already is. Prominent viral meme campaigns have demonstrated this. For example, Bill Cosby’s effort to rejuvenate his career with a meme campaign backfired dramatically as it was taken over by feminists and allies to draw attention to the sexual assault allegations against him. (“Bill Cosby Asked the Internet to Meme Him But Then This Happened“, by Justin Worland, Time, 11 November 2014) Similarly, in the aftermath of the tragic Isla Vista killings, which were carried out by an overtly misogynistic male, efforts to downplay the role of societal misogyny in shaping gendered violence were promptly trolled and destroyed by the moving and powerful #yesallwomen hashtag campaign. (“#YesAllWomen reveals the constant barrage of sexism that women face“, by Jessica Valenti, The Guardian, 28 May 2014) The campaign also engaged with the #notallmen discourse, a play at the “reverse sexism” theme which was also effectively co-opted and satirized (trolled, one might say) by feminists and allies.

So feminist trolling is already in effect. But is it effective?

Phillips avoids taking a position on the issue, stating that she is “reluctant to wholeheartedly claim for the feminist cause a rhetorical mode so thoroughly steeped in male domination. On the other hand, if the goal is to dismantle patriarchal structures, and if feminist trolling helps accomplish those ends, then are the means, however problematic, retroactively justified?”

An interesting example illustrates the complexity of integrating trolling, as it is currently enacted, into feminist strategy. In March, writer and journalist Chris Hedges gave a keynote speech at the “State of Extraction” conference at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada. The conference aimed to “examine the new face of resource capitalism in Canada and its influence on the world”; Hedges spoke about the links between resource extraction and sexual violence, in particular prostitution and trafficking of women. The invitation prompted an outcry from sex worker activists, and led the organizing committee to consider canceling his invitation. (“Sex work advocates attempt to no-platform journalist, Chris Hedges, after damning sex industry report“, by Meghan Murphy, FeministCurrent.com, 13 March 2015)

When — in light of further public outcry against possible censorship — Hedges’ talk went ahead, the conference Twitter channel #stateofex turned into a warzone between sex worker activists who opposed Hedges’ “moralistic” position and feminists who supported Hedges’ critique of the sex industry. Much of this confrontation consisted of basic bullying and trolling. As a result, the intrusion of trolling into political and academic spaces can be understood as an annihilation of the rigorous debate and questioning on which the university is founded, in favour of the censorship of unpopular opinions and the ostracism of those who hold them. So trolling has indeed arrived within the feminist community; but whether its use will strengthen or divide the movement is another important question. As Meghan Murphy, director of feminist website Feminist Current, argued in her analysis of “Twitter Feminism” (18 December 2013) “ripping women to shreds and piling up the virtual bodies in order to reach the top of the heap may bring you more followers, but it won’t bring us any closer to liberation.”

What could a feminist ethic of trolling look like? It would probably be the opposite of what Hedges experienced. Insofar as trolls serve the function of undermining established positions and knocking people down a few pegs, feminist trolling would more likely take aim at uncritical, unexamined rhetorical positions. It would target established mainstream positions both within feminism and without, thereby troubling conventions and reminding people that it is often the voice others seek to silence that has the most to say.

At the same time, it would take aim at patriarchal and misogynist speech – online and off. As Phillips’ book reveals, trolling has the power to disarm structures of power by undermining the taken-for-granted aura of respect which surrounds them. It turns disrespect into an act of resistance, as well as one which sows broader seeds of doubt and skepticism. Ultimately, its power lies in public shaming rather than private outrage, and as campaigns like #yesallwomen and the Cosby critiques show, that power can be a potent one. (Yet history also shows that the power of “shame” is one which has consistently been applied against women.)

So perhaps Phillips is right to withhold her verdict on the potential for feminists to reclaim the power of shame through trolling. But at the same time, the adoption of trolling techniques by feminists shows that innovation operates more quickly than introspection: it’s already actively underway. Perhaps then it’s time for researchers to more seriously consider and analyze the implications of feminist trolling as it has manifested itself, and to consider what a feminist ethic of trolling could actually look like.

The Real Problem With Trolling

People often decry trolling and its abandonment of seriousness and sympathy as a threat to civility, an affront to politeness, and a destructive force upon the social order. As Phillips recognizes, people worry that our vision of the internet as a way to bridge social divides and generate global connectedness will be eroded by trolling.

The problem with trolls and trolling is not that they threaten to destroy the meaning, dialogue, community, and relationships that people generate in and through online spaces. Rather, the problem with trolls is that their actions are neither subversive nor anti-establishment but rather another manifestation of the white supremacist, heterosexist, capitalist patriarchy that informs Western culture.

This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things counters the conviction that trolls and trolling are the reason why we can’t have nice things (such as the internet), in that it asks us to face the reality that the ideological underpinnings of trolling are the same ones—racist, classist, sexist, homophobic and ableist—that many in the West believe are “behind” us. Ultimately it’s not the trolls, but our continued habit of ignoring the oppressive and exploitative qualities of our own society, that prevent us from having nice things.