It wasn’t just the trolls: Early internet culture, “fun,” and the fires of exclusionary laughter

Phillips, W. (2019). It Wasn’t Just the Trolls: Early Internet Culture, “Fun,” and the Fires of Exclusionary Laughter. Social Media + Society, 5(3)


Open access: Yes

Notes: In this short essay, Whitney Phillips reflects on the toxicity of early internet culture. Here, she begins reflecting on what many of us remember as’ a simpler time’ of internet culture. However, through an analysis of meme collections, she notes that early internet culture was somewhat aligned with specific ways of being in the world, arguing that “internet/ meme culture was a discursive category, one that aligned with and reproduced the norms of whiteness, maleness, middleclassness, and the various tech/geek interests stereotypically associated with middle-class white dudes” (p. 2).

In this period, demarcating what was ‘internet culture’ and what was ‘toxic, supremacist, trolling internet culture’ was nearly impossible. Indeed, she notes that the toxicity of early internet culture was flattened, where we would go from the ‘fun’ and the ‘ugly’ as a flip book. However, she warns us that “it is very easy to approach ugly and fun, fun and ugly, as morally equivalent images in a flip book, when your particular body is not in danger” (p.2). Critically analyzing early internet culture as a building block to societal problems (whether digital or not) is a necessary step for all researchers.

Abstract: When considering the extremist turn of the Trump-era internet, it is critical to interrogate the influence of subcultural trolling on and around 4chan from 2008 to 2012. The troll space isn’t the only space worth interrogating, however. During this same period, there was a marked overlap between subcultural trolling and the nebulous, discursive category known colloquially as “internet culture.” Both were swiftly absorbed into broader popular culture. Both were characterized by overwhelming irony and detached, fetishized laughter. That participants in these early internet culture spaces (which included but were not limited to “classic” subcultural trolling) were overwhelmingly white, middle class, and felt comfortable enough in their subject positions to respond to the world with a blanket “lol” speaks to much deeper problems than the obvious problems. Pressingly, the things that were—and that for some people, still are—fun and funny and apparently harmless online need more careful unpacking. Fun and funny and apparently harmless things have a way of obscuring weapons that privileged people cannot see, because they do not have to see them. They also have a way of establishing precedent and a step-by-step media manipulation guide that is easily hijacked by those looking to do harm, whose actions often fly under the radar—because those actions look familiar, because they look like the things that used to be fun.

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