Monday, December 26, 2016

We are all trolls

We are all trolls. We are all, as David Cameron used to remind us, in it together. This is one of the great virtues of Whitney Phillips' book on trolls -- it doesn't feed the moralists, and it doesn't try to externalise the evil it describes. The internet, and particularly social media, may have inflamed cultural tendencies that were already in gestation. It may have enabled their condensation in a new and odd subculture, and magnified the consequences -- but we were all trolling before trolling was a thing.

We are all authors. We all write, and we are all published. One of the consequences of email, social media, and instant messaging services, is that we now spend more of our lives writing than we ever have. We are acquiring new literacies at a ferocious rate. We have yet to grasp the full significance of this vast expansion of literacy, this democratisation (and further commodification) of writing.

We are all artists of the self. When you write, you invent yourself. By putting some part of your being into the form of words, you're giving it a corporeal shape that it would not otherwise had. You are not just 'expressing' something that was already there, but creating something new. And you're doing this every day, all the time. The format in which you can do so matters. Rather than keeping diaries, many of us now metabolise our lives online, for a public. Our pets, our dating mishaps, our family lives, our jobs, our accidents, the quiddity of experience is inscribed in a public realm in the heavily stylised format of tweets and posts, with current moods, filters, hashtags, emojis, stickers and the rest affording us a convenient short-hand to make ourselves conformable to our peers. The social media formats in which most of us do most of our writing is so structured as to make petty entrepreneurs out of us. Our writing becomes a form of corporate personality, a sales pitch seeking to attract eyeball attention and 'followers'.

The internet is a rigged lottery. If our accounts are indeed set up like enterprises competing for eyeball attention, then going viral or 'trending' is like winning the lottery. And in principle, anyone can win. The potential audience for your writing literally is the entire internet. In practice, of course, the lottery is mostly won by well-placed media corporations and public relations firms dominating the terrain. Even if we do win, however, it can be the worst thing that happens. While most of us dream of going viral with that one insightful tweet or post, few of us are equipped to maximise any opportunities that arise from positive publicity, or to cope with the costs of negative publicity. We may be treated as if we're small enterprises, but since we are not corporations with public relations budgets, we are vastly under-resourced to handle the attention we may potentially receive.

If we're going to be writers, we have to become better readers. Like it or not, we are all amateur hermeneuticists. We scan through acres of text, making very quick decisions as to what to spend more time on, what to share, what to 'like', what to dismiss. We are learning, quick sharp, how to discern 'fake news'. We know a paid advertisement when we see it. We know email scams so well that the scammers have had to move on. We are learning to be able to tell when we're being trolled, and when we're being conscripted for someone else's ego-driven crusade. We are learning the whereabouts of all sorts of invisible cultural thresholds, things that can and cannot be said and in what way. We are coming to sense, almost instinctively, when another person's premises differ so vastly from our own, that no discussion on Twitter can possibly be profitable. These are the new literacies we are forced to acquire in a perilous and volatile terrain, if we aren't to be taken in and sent on a wild-goose chase by every con artist, charlatan, or lunatic. We have to become subtle readers of pitch, tone and genre, so that we can keep on writing.

We have to slow it down. Every pressure on us, as readers and writers, is to read glancingly and do everything in first draft. We feel the urge to respond immediately, not several hours later, much less days or weeks later -- otherwise we'll miss the trend, we'll lose the chance to say that one perfect thing, crack that brilliant off-the-cuff joke, come up with that luminous line, that will enter the slipstream of mass attention and potentially go viral. But in playing this game, we deprive ourselves of the chance to think. In online discussion, we've developed an array of interpretive shorthands, ways of classifying statements quickly and easily and thus save time: edgelordism, splaining, entitlement, etc -- a dictionary of all this might be a contemporary equivalent of Notes on Rhetoric. Given the sheer amount of stuff there is to respond to, such labour-saving devices are a necessity, and often effective. But they are also a blunt tool, and an artefact of rushing. And the rush to judgment is what will always trip us up in the end. Resisting the accelerating drive of social media might entail making a conscious decision not to respond to the majority of potential interlocutors, not to post most of what occurs to us. We might prefer to save up thoughts provoked by online discussion, and transfer them to another medium. We might diarise them, blog them, or save them for a novel or play. If we're going to be writers, we don't have to do business on the most ephemeral media, even for the instant gratification of 'likes' and 'retweets'.

A short-hand is not necessarily a short-cut. You can be quite witty and concise in 140 characters, but every trope potentially unspools into thousands of threads of argument and haggling over interpretation. Drexel University today issued a statement condemning one of its employees, Professor George Ciccariello-Maher, for a tweet asking for "white genocide" as a Christmas present.  His tweet was, as everyone in their right minds noted, intended ironically. Of course, irony is often invoked, inappropriately, as a sort of ideological get-out-of-jail-free card. In almost all cases of irony, there is a distinction between "use" and "mention". I might "mention" a statement in order to ironise it, without "using" it. But there is no mentioning without some kind of psychological meaning, and such mentioning can involve a dubious kind of enjoyment. Think of the provocateur who, after making a racist joke, says, "oh but of course, I was being totally ironic". But this is simply to say that one should pay attention to the context in which irony is invoked. The context in this case, is actually quite damning of Drexel. In the idiom of the alt-right -- whom Ciccariello-Maher was mocking with a certain jaunty, finger-in-the-eye swagger  -- "white genocide" is caused by immigration. To believe in "white genocide", to feel even remotely threatened by the prospect, to think it could be real, one has to believe all sorts of other implausible things. To wit, one has to believe that there is a coherent biological and cultural entity that could correspond to the notion of 'white race', which is innately worth conserving, and which would be compromised by the biological and cultural mixing that large amounts of non-white immigration would produce. And one would have to see that as being tantamount to genocide, viz. an "attempt to destroy in whole, or in part". To believe in this idea, in other words, one has to be a neo-Nazi, or something close to it. To mock it, one need only be anyone else. But not everyone is au fait with the language of the alt-right, and not everyone has enough historical and political intuition to grasp that no one is likely to threaten genocide against white people, and that such a threat would have no teeth at all in the real world. For some people, it would take time to do a little googling, and think through the logic of the thing. Drexel, reacting the way it did, rushed to judgment without even a courtesy-google. It rushed out a statement during the Christmas holidays rather than wait for the opportunity to talk to Ciccariello-Maher, or even just think. I assume this isn't because management agree with the neo-Nazi view of "white genocide" which was being mocked. Rather, they used it as an opportunity to signal to staff members that they should adopt more corporate, HR-friendly personalities on social media -- even if in practice this means that, like other liberal institutions (ACORN etc), they end up caving to the far right. Whatever institutional resiliency they might have in the face of far right provocateurs was compromised for the sake of public relations expediency. And the more marketised higher education institutions become, the more that knowledge-production and the workers involved in it will be susceptible to the whip of this kind of frantic witch-hunting zeal.

Life imitates fake news. Just today, it transpired that Pakistan had issued a 'nuclear warning' to Israel, in response to a story on one of many fake news sites, claiming that Israel had threatened Pakistan with nuclear obliteration. 'Fake news' is just the chemically distilled version of 'churnalism'. It is the ultimate yield of a political economy of eyeball attention, to which all news is tending. Current online media revenue depends on mobilising attention in short, sharp bursts -- the 'buzz' -- and militates against sustained attention to anything. 'Fake news' exploits this, but so does advertising, spin, trolling, and witch-hunting -- and, of course, 'real news'. We see the culmination of this: fake news becomes a kind of hyperstition, its fiction becoming more real, the more it is believed at decisive moments. Nuclear war may finally occur because that is more buzz-worthy than it not occurring: humanity's autogenocide inaugurated by hashtag. And if not nuclear war, there is always the prospect of a climatological catastrophe. In our written lives, we were already documenting barbarism; now, we are transcribing the potential annihilation of the species.