The Ambivalent Internet is a study of online culture grounded in folklore, the unruly yet deeply traditional medium through which stories, much like memes, are passed down and permitted to evolve with every retelling.
Authors Ryan Milner and Whitney Phillips, Assistant Professors of Communications and Literary Studies, delve into storytelling from creepypasta to Xeroxlore, from Harambe to Hulk Hogan. Woven throughout is the theme of linguistic ambiguity: whether we mean what we say online, and if not, then what else might we be implying?
I spoke to Phillips over Skype. An assistant professor at Mercer University, Georgia, she previously wrote This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things, a study of trolling and its cultural background in which she went undercover on 4chan for years to research and write.
"Folklore has so many tools which are perfect for describing 'moving' behaviour [such as] how people interact with each other and how traditions change over time," she said.
What's refreshing about the book is how it treats the internet as a written culture, a tapestry of collaborative fiction. Phillips views social media as a disorderly, ever-evolving canvas which we struggle to define, let alone make sense of: "The tools of online writing allow people to not only bring more meaning to the table, but to create an entirely new thing… People are participating in cultural production, not just responding to it, in highly creative ways. "
Milner and Phillips agreed to hand in their final version of the book the day after the 2016 election: "In a sense the book was written in a different era—the Trump era is it's own thing, even if the concepts discussed in the book are relevant still," she said. Consequently, the text addresses the rise of a particular kind of online bigotry, where ambivalence acts as a veil for hate speech. Journalists struggle to make sense of alt-right "humour," while anyone hurt is accused of being a "sensitive snowflake."
Phillips traces this underlying strand of nihilistic cynicism to trolling communities which emerged post-9/11: In 2003, while wars in Afghanistan and Iraq raged, President Bush advised the public to combat terrorism by going to Disneyland. During this time, 4chan began to develop its signature tone in which nothing but "lulz" mattered.
Eventually, this nihilism was absorbed into certain parts of the mainstream. "Irony and cynicism is baked into the DNA of so much internet culture," Phillips explained. "And the fact that this tone emerged when it did, and remains prevalent even now, at least within certain communities, isn't coincidental—folklore is always a reflection of its time."
4chan's influence reaches its frenzied apex in the book's final chapter, which addresses a video titled "Trump Effect." Heavily influenced by videogame franchise Mass Effect, the clip is an orgy of militaristic hyperbole. We see homeless veterans, a bald eagle in flight while choirs sing. Later there's a cackling Hillary, a somnolent Ben Carson and a shredded American flag, backgrounded by voice of a villainous Martin Sheen. The clip might be satire; it might be a work of fanatical support. Later it was retweeted by Trump himself.
While the book maintains a level of academic distance, Phillips herself is adamantly for sincerity: "That mode of cynicism has not aged well into 2017. It was always bullshit; it's always been a deeply privileged position to take. For those people who are under threat, they don't have the time and space to be ironic. They have no choice but to give a shit."
Phillips believes that change is coming, and that ambivalence can only get us so far: "If this is how we got here, with cynicism and irony, it sure as hell isn't going to be what gets us out. Yes, there's the risk of coming across as mawkish, but what's the alternative?," she said.
Change belongs to those who dare to ask for it: "There is nothing more vulnerable, online, than saying that you care. That takes a certain kind of courage, that cynicism doesn't know anything about."