NYT Room for Debate: Uncut

I published a solicited opinion piece in The New York Times Room for Debate in response to questions about Internet trolls, anonymity, and 4chan. The word limit was 300. Of course I initially submitted something more like 400, which was then cut down to 300-ish, but I was asked to write more to clarify and not worry about the word count. So of course I ended up with 800-ish words. The top editors then cut it down to 230, and after some back-and-forth with the editor who had solicited me (and who worked hard to preserve the integrity of the original), we settled on a version that was 311 words, that didn’t alter factual meaning, that retained the gist of the earlier drafts, and that still seemed to contribute substantively to the discussion.

As a side note, I find it both flattering and terrifying to have my headshot and bio alongside greats like Gabriella Coleman, Whitney Phillips, and others whose work I frequently cite in my own scholarship. It’s one of those “Have I arrived? No, probably not” moments where I’m straddling others’ assumptions about my expertise in, well, anything, and my own infamous self-deprecatory and cautious sense that I will never be expert in anything because expertise is unachievable. There’s always something more to observe and know.

I’ve worked with editors before on both creative and scholarly publications, but never a mass media outlet, and the differences are striking. I’m blessed to have only had to revise and resubmit a scholarly article twice, once just to make the material more accessible to a layman audience, the other time an overhaul of a couple of sections. Both times, even where sections were slashed to the bone or sentences were ghostwritten as an example of what they wanted me to do, the editors were careful in their use of language to leave my original meaning intact. With regards to creative work, my edits tend to be few and have thus far boiled down to negotiations over a handful of words. We’re talking a back-and-forth for ten emails to figure out a more accurate word than “screaming.” There was a deep respect for what I had already produced.

I’m good with fast turnaround–I had about a day after being solicited to draft the Times Room for Debate piece–but the edits initially threw me into panic mode. I’m lucky to have been solicited by an editor who cared about preserving the meaning and factual accuracy of the piece, albeit within the limitations imposed on her from above, because the round of edits from Above (capital A) not only stripped sentences of accuracy, purportedly in the interest of accessibility, but also were grammatically incorrect. (I believe there’s still a pronoun without an antecedent in the final copy.) Maybe it’s because I’m a writer/editor and I’ve developed a particularly obsessive eye for fine details, but in a few minutes my agent and myself figured out what from the old draft needed to be retained

I’m posting the old draft after the jump, for multiple reasons and readers. For readers of the Room for Debate piece who might find their way here by clicking on links in my Rutgers profile. For former students who stalk me online, and possibly for future students, because there is a teaching moment embedded here in the transformation across drafts: namely, this is what radical revision looks like, and your professors have to face it too. And to assuage my own feelings of having ever-so-slightly sold out, although the published piece is something I can live with (and had I not been able to live with it, I was prepared to rescind it).

So, without further ado:

When “trolling” becomes an umbrella term

What’s the solution to Internet trolls, besides “Don’t feed them?” Perhaps we ought to be asking: “What do we mean by ‘trolling,’ and where and when should anything be done about trolls?”

Incorrectly portrayed as a monolithic phenomenon, “trolling” describes a set of diverse behaviors that encompasses both pranks and efforts to destroy a target’s reputation. Its appropriateness is spatially contingent – changing depending on the Internet platform – and the catch-all label has only limited our understanding of this phenomenon.

“Trolling” has been applied to Anonymous’ campaigns, DDoS actions — the generation of more traffic than a site can withstand to temporarily knock it offline — as well as their failed efforts to expose the identity of individuals the group perceives as criminals. (When they accurately identify someone, like they did with the football players in Steubenville, the participants become “hacktivists”; when the names are wrong, as in Ferguson this past week, they remain trolls.) But on 4chan, the decentralized, nonhierarchical imageboard behind many of the Internet memes in mainstream circulation, trolling as tricksterism is the prevailing ethos. Characterized by its unique ephemerality and anonymity, 4chan’s primary purpose is for image sharing and discussion.

The goal of trolling on 4chan can be likened to the objective of a Zen koan, provoking “great doubt” through disruption and reminding 4channers to remain mindful in potentially deceptive discourse and remain disengaged and rational in outrageous circumstances. A Zen koan is a paradox meant to force trainees to abandon reason for the kind of intuition that leads to sudden enlightenment. The implication is that this intuition can only be grasped through the trial-and-error process of wrestling with a statement that interrogates established belief and could supplant old ways of thinking, feeling, and being.  On 4chan, to successfully troll others or avoid being trolled, users must similarly relinquish conscious, linear rationality and preformulated response in exchange for instinct and intuition — namely, the ability to recognize the opportune moment for action and advantageously use that opportunity. In a sense, then, 4channers internalize this way of thinking and being through trial-by-fire participation. As trolls, users learn to intuit and exploit opportune moments for trickery by gauging what will interest and outrage their audience; as an audience attempting to withstand trolling, users learn to anticipate trolling and rid themselves of outrage. The trolls “win” if they incite outrage; the audience “wins” if — in Zenlike fashion — it frees itself from egocentrism and refrains from outrage.

In short, “don’t feed the trolls” may not advocate the momentary suppression of emotion so much as mindfulness.

The popular understanding of trolling owes much to moral panic, the sensationalized response to a phenomenon that is often falsely novel, presented in the media as “new” despite having consistently occurred in the past. In making the phenomenon widely visible through frequent, spectacular coverage, the media exacerbates social anxieties about it and seeks uniform agreement on diagnoses, prognoses, and solutions — even when the behavior varies wildly. The reporting is, in a sense, characterized by the search for parallels to legitimize the “new” crime; thus, trolling has been conflated with hacking, identity theft, and sexual predation — all very different behaviors — and we receive it as new and sensationalistic even though trolling most often employs age-old tactics like social engineering.

The general feeling that trolling, as a phenomenon, must be solved also seems to align with these cycles of amplification in the media.

In reality, trolling extends beyond interpersonal agendas, and may inadvertently take on political dimensions, as in 4channers’ yearlong trolling campaign against hashtag feminism, in which they posed as radical women of color but in doing so highlighted the position of minorities in the general feminist movement. Sensationalistic coverage of Anonymous’ inaccuracy during OpFerguson — the campaign to uncover the identity of the police officer who shot the 18-year old outside of St. Louis last week — shouldn’t overshadow Anonymous’ successes in previous operations like Steubenville. Accounting for tactical and ethical variance within 4chan, Anonymous, and their transgressions against the normative order — their deceptions and disruptions that highlight inconsistencies in and the arbitrariness of our social constructs and established, preformulated ways of thinking, reacting, and being — would change the terms of the debate, revealing a multifaceted problem requiring multiple approaches.

Creative Commons License
This work by V. Manivannan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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