Image taken from the front cover of The Ambivalent Internet by Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner.
Professor Whitney Phillips, author of This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things, a book about trolling, has teamed up with Professor Ryan M Milner to pen another book about internet culture. The Ambivalent Internet is about how we express ourselves online, the ways in which we do it, why we do it and how it ends up the way it does. The book was written on the eve of Donald Trump's ascension to the world's highest office, and deals, in part, with the memeification of politics – which is of course hard to avoid when a politician is essentially a meme himself.
I spoke to Phillips about the book, racist memes, what she means when she talks about "ambivalence" online, and whether or not the future of being online is as dark as it seems right now.
VICE: For those who haven't read it, give the elevator pitch for your book.
Professor Whitney Phillips: We were trying to show how digital media can help and harm, bring together and push apart, make you laugh and make you angry all at the same time, especially as the book was being written when the presidential election was unfolding. We really wanted to show how everything that allows people to communicate in a positive, pro-social, democratic way can also be used to really hinder democratic participation and make the internet an inhospitable place for those who want to express themselves.
Are there any ways to get past that problem?
There are no easy solutions or one-size-fits-all answers to these questions about free speech and democratic participation and issues of safety. If these tools were only used for good, or if the tools were only used for negative expression, it would be much easier to find out what to do about them. But because they can be used positively and negatively, that means it's hard to find what a universalised ethical response should be.
In the course of your research, what did you learn about memes, how they are created and how they last for so long?
This is true of all informal expression, but it's really, really hard to know why something is created, because a lot of the time the person that originally creates something, once that leaves their hands it's near-impossible to know how many other hands it passes through. At each juncture, as the narrative seeds keep getting cast and recast, it's really hard to know why each person at that moment decided to re-share something. The one thing you can always say about internet memes that are successful – in the sense that people share them – is that something about that meme resonates.
Is that why there is so much "relatable" humour online? Vine was basically people going "teachers be like", or some variation on that theme.
Yeah, the most successful memes tend to be the most flexible memes, in that they can mean lots of different things to lots of different people. It's a way of feeling connected to other people who have similar experiences, and that can be really positive and life-affirming and pro-social and all these good things, and that is also how people connect with racist memes, because that resonates with their racist sense of the world. That is another example where this act of communal engagement and participation sounds lovely – and it often is lovely – but it is often very ugly or weird, or some combination of that.
People on 4Chan and sites of that ilk would always say their racism was a joke, but there's the argument that claiming it's a joke is merely a front for people coming around to ideas of white nationalism. Would you agree with that?
In some ways I don't disagree with you, but I would also add the idea that, especially on places like 4Chan, it's not that people are now simply expressing "real racism", it's that populations of these platforms also change, and over time 4Chan has attracted a different user base. Given my experience with trolling, it seems pretty clear that really it's not people using jokes to justify racism; it's that actual racists have been emboldened in a way that they maybe weren't before.
I agree with you that there's quite a lot of ironic racism, which is problematic for a lot of reasons, but I think a lot of it is actual racism that just happens to be told in a comedic context – in a highly vernacular internet style or pun. One of the things that is so tricky about all this is that just by looking at something online it's not clear – especially if you've never met the person – if they're sincere or not in what they're saying, or if they're just trying to get a rise out of someone.
What we argue in the book is that, ultimately, whether or not the racism is ironic, it's irrelevant, because all you can see is the message online, so the message is the only thing that is relevant. So the alt-right is kind of vexing in a way, because it's not clear how much of it is a joke and how much of it is real, so let's just look at what is being expressed and take them at their word.
Why do you think racist memes seem to have a greater audience and seem to spread farther than their liberal counterparts?
Ryan and I have thought about this a lot, and part of the issue is that bigotry tends to be abstract by its nature. When you're expressing racism you're saying something hateful about black people or Mexicans, and you are always attacking that generalised idea. That is what a bigot is: a person who is not able to actually interact with individuals in a meaningful, compassionate way, so they just lump everybody under the single category of Mexicans and say they are rapists, which is what Donald Trump did. That's an easier sentiment to memeify because it's not making any argument or claim, it's just a nebulous statement that people can then bring their own bigotries to, so it almost allows for more individual resonance because it's not saying anything real. When liberals or progressives try to combat that, typically they try to combat that abstraction with specifics – specific stories, specific tragedies – and those simply do not lend themselves in the same way to memetic engagement. Memes need to be abstract, disconnected from specific experiences so that more people can latch on and do their thing with it. Far-right wing expression is just a little bit easier to memeify.
"Whatever tools we use to dig ourselves out of the hole are going to be the same tools that the other side try to use to dig a new hole"
Can you explain the meaning of the word ambivalence with reference to this book?
Typically, in more casual conversation, at least in the United States, ambivalent often is shorthand for "meh". You are sort of apathetic, and apathy and ambivalence are often used interchangeably in the US, when actually the dictionary definition of ambivalence means "tension and fraught tension between opposing forces", pushing and pulling and holding at the same time. We wanted to use that term to really underscore the fact that all of these terms we were describing – online memes and different social tools and social media platforms – can both be used for negative ends and positive ends simultaneously. It can be good if people are using it in a pro-social, way and it can be bad if people are using it in an antisocial way.
Even that distinction is a problem, because the most mean-spirited, nasty aggressive trolls on the internet, they are very social – just with each other. This distinction of saying what is social and what is antisocial becomes problematic, so we wanted to use a frame which acknowledges that complication but which can't posit an answer. That is what's beautiful about the ambivalence frame, is that it can't explain anything – you have to fill in all the details in order to have a position on a particular event, because you just can't make broad stroke claims about anything online.
Do you feel good about the future of the internet? It seems like it's going down a bit of a rocky road.
I don't think our perspective on the internet is necessarily negative. As much as people have used online spaces to forward false narratives and damaging narratives and hatefulness and bigotry and all of those things that are fundamentally upsetting, many people have been using these tools to push back against that. Ambivalence sinks down to even that most basic level of feeling optimistic or pessimistic about the future. It's hard to conjure too much optimism at the moment, but it certainly isn't a pessimistic thing. These tools are what we make of them, and up until this moment negative forces have utilised them in ways that have been incredibly successful – but that doesn't mean they will be forever.
In fact, these tools are going to be precisely what we'll need to push back against that. Trump's election was horrifying and we were not expecting it. We didn't structure the book to anticipate for it; we didn't know it was coming. But even subsequent to that, the internet just represents people figuring out the world; sometimes it's awful and sometimes it's not, but in the end it's not a reflection on whether or not the internet is evidence of things getting worse – it's people being people in ways they have always been. In some ways that's sort of heartening, simply because it's not like the internet just created us – created an entirely new species. We just have new tools that have different stakes, and we need to figure out how to use them in the most positive way possible.
It's nice that you see it in such a positive way.
It's not that it's positive; it's that it's ambivalent. There is a lot going on right now that is horrible, and it feels like those forces are winning at the moment, but that's not set in stone – and whatever tools we use to dig ourselves out of the hole are going to be the same tools that the other side try to use to dig a new hole. It's more about recognising that there is continuity and there are always ways of pushing back that are meaningful and that everyday people can use.
It causes a lot of tension that the possibility for democratic participation in online spaces emboldens assholes and gives people like Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer a platform to communicate their messages, but at the same time it gives anti-fascists, anti-racists – people who are just not accepting this reality – it gives them a way of speaking back, and that creates a clash. That clash is complicated, and we're still figuring out what to do about that clash and how you maintain ideals of free speech when a lot of people participating in conversations want to make the argument that some people don't deserve to be part of the conversation.
This interview has been edited for length.
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