This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture Book Cover This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture
Whitney Phillips
Non-Fiction
The MIT Press
September 2, 2016
Hard Cover
256 pages

From The Publisher:

Why the troll problem is actually a culture problem: how online trolling fits comfortably within today's media landscape.

Internet trolls live to upset as many people as possible, using all the technical and psychological tools at their disposal. They gleefully whip the media into a frenzy over a fake teen drug crisis; they post offensive messages on Facebook memorial pages, traumatizing grief-stricken friends and family; they use unabashedly racist language and images. They take pleasure in ruining a complete stranger's day and find amusement in their victim's anguish. In short, trolling is the obstacle to a kinder, gentler Internet. To quote a famous Internet meme, trolling is why we can't have nice things online. Or at least that's what we have been led to believe. In this provocative book, Whitney Phillips argues that trolling, widely condemned as obscene and deviant, actually fits comfortably within the contemporary media landscape. Trolling may be obscene, but, Phillips argues, it isn't all that deviant. Trolls' actions are born of and fueled by culturally sanctioned impulses―which are just as damaging as the trolls' most disruptive behaviors.

Phillips describes, for example, the relationship between trolling and sensationalist corporate media―pointing out that for trolls, exploitation is a leisure activity; for media, it's a business strategy. She shows how trolls, “the grimacing poster children for a socially networked world,” align with social media. And she documents how trolls, in addition to parroting media tropes, also offer a grotesque pantomime of dominant cultural tropes, including gendered notions of dominance and success and an ideology of entitlement. We don't just have a trolling problem, Phillips argues; we have a culture problem. This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things isn't only about trolls; it's about a culture in which trolls thrive.

This book is amazing. Full stop. This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things by Whitney Phillips is a must read for anyone who wants to understand how the information environment can and is manipulated, in this instance symbiotically both by trolls and media.

Beyond the fact that Phillips is a talented and engaging writer, what I love most about this book is that it is systemic. Instead of simply looking at trolls in isolation, Phillips’ study is sweeping and puts trolling behaviour in the context of a wider information ecosystem. This sort of analytical approach is sorely needed, and anyone trying to make sense of propaganda and information warfare in a Digital Age should look to this as a good example of how to assess the landscape.

The examples Phillips draws on to demonstrate how trolls use news-worthy events, in particular elections, to provoke target audiences should be case studies for anyone on the front end of addressing information manipulation on internet platforms, as they clearly demonstrate how complex the information ecosystem is and how difficult it can be to differentiate actors such as trolls from political operators or foreign astroturfers.

While This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things was published in 2016, and as Phillips notes in it the situation is ever in flux, I couldn’t help but recall media coverage about Reddit and 4chan user “support” for Trump during the 2016 presidential election while reading this book. That coverage was like an echo of what Phillips describes in her book – some media seemed to take at face value that pro-Trump posts were obvious support for his candidacy, completely missing the deliberately provocative nature of trolling. In other words, as support for Trump seemed to upset so many people, it was low-hanging lulz – and likely still is.

This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things is a great read – and a testament to the idea that PhD research need not be boring or written for an audience of one.

This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things is available on Amazon.


Cover Image: An anti-harassment Soviet propaganda poster calling for discipline of lecherous wretches from the 1930s

About Author

Alicia Wanless

La Generalista is the online identity of Alicia Wanless – a researcher and practitioner of strategic communications for social change in a Digital Age. Alicia researches how we shape — and are shaped — by a changing information space. With more than a decade of experience in researching and analysing the information environment, focusing on propaganda and information warfare, Alicia conducts content and network analysis, and has developed original models for identifying and analysing digital propaganda campaigns. Alicia is currently a PhD Researcher at King’s College exploring alternative frameworks for understanding the information environment.

2 Comments

    • Alicia Wanless
      Alicia Wanless on

      Indeed. It would have helped more than a few commentators and journalists had it come out before then. More should be reading it now still.

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