The Ambivalent Internet: An Interview with Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner (Part Two)

Much academic work on digital culture focuses on questions of meaning, yet as you note, it is often hard, if not impossible, to determine meaning and intent within online spaces and some of the groups you study refuse to ascribe meaning or sentiment to their otherwise overwrought content. So, if meaning is not your focus, what is?

Not being able to objectively confirm meaning or intent—even in individual instances of remix or sharing, to say nothing about the assessment of an entire memetic life cycle—might seem like a research roadblock. It certainly can be frustrating, particularly when the goal is to push back against a false claim or expose (what appears to be) a coordinated hoax, like the White Student Union Facebook groups. At the same time, not knowing who created what, what the(se) creator(s) meant to accomplish, or what a given text “really” means, forces one to stay empirical and focus on the things that can be known and confirmed. These questions can focus on logistic issues, like where the participation occurred and over what time period the resulting folklore traveled. 

Most critically when considering identity-based harassment, these questions can also focus on political and ideological issues. For example, who was empowered to speak as a result of an action, and who was silenced or minimized? Was this speech an instance of punching up, in which underrepresented groups were empowered to speak truth (and/or snark) to power? Or was it punching down, in which members of dominant groups further minimized already marginalized identities? What existing cultural norms were reinforced and what cultural norms were challenged? 

These questions are particularly helpful when attempting to unpack antagonisms that are—or seem to be, or are claimed to be, big question mark—couched in irony. White nationalists operating under the euphemistic banner of the alt-right as well as fascist apologists like Milo Yiannopoulos are conspicuous proponents of this approach. We don’t buy it, though. Whatever someone is trying to accomplish, however thick the layers of “lulz” they claim to be antagonizing under, does not matter to the final analysis. 

What matters to the final analysis is what seeds a person casts into the air. In the case of white nationalist antagonisms, these are seeds of bigotry and hatefulness. The more of these seeds there are, for whatever reason they may have been thrown, the more clogged the atmosphere becomes. And the more likely, in turn, that everyday people will end up with an itchy eyeful. 

Ultimately, this is the benefit of the ambivalence frame, and employing agnosticism when considering  motive. Saying that something can go either way, or has gone either way, or could go either way, might be true, but such a framing doesn’t—such a framing can’t—posit any further universalizing, broad stroke conclusions about any inherent personal or textual meaning. Whatever conclusions there are to draw hinge, necessarily, on what happens next. 

You explore throughout precedences for contemporary digital culture genres and practices within earlier moments of the history of folklore, but there is also a sense here that it matters that this is taking place through digital media. In what ways does the digital matter? What would surprise Alan Dundes were he to be able to read your book?

We’d frankly be surprised if any of the case studies we featured in the book surprised Dundes, who justified his 1966 analysis of latrinalia, i.e. anonymous bathroom scrawlings, by asserting that “the study of man must include all aspects of human activity.” Nor can we imagine he’d be surprised by the similarities between contemporary internet folklore and the folklore he collected in the latter half of the 20th century. People exhibited very familiar WTF-ness long before they were making internet memes. Indeed if there’s one thing that remains true across eras, it’s that human beings are pretty strange creatures, however or wherever this humanity unfolds.

Dundes’ and Carl Pagter’s 1975 study of Xeroxlore—jokes and images spread between and across American offices via copy machine in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s—provides one example of this overlap. A year before Richard Dawkins even coined the term meme, Dundes and Pagter were describing precisely the same kinds of memetic processes underscoring the quirky, crass jokes that have become so prevalent online. Like memetic jokes shared on the internet today, the humor of Xeroxlore stemmed from its resonant reappropriation. Office memos were cut and pasted together to mock incompetent bosses; existing “dumb blonde” jokes evolved into  “dumb secretary” jokes with the intent of demeaning a specific coworker, entire gender, or both at once; and sexually explicit drawings of pop culture staples like Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, or Charlie Brown and Lucy, were traced, retraced, photocopied, and passed around with great aplomb. 

Trust us, anything you’ve done to PBS’s Arthur has been done by your memetic forebearers.       

But of course there’s an equally strong counterpoint (ambivalence and all). Age-old folk practices, and the age-old ambivalence that characterizes these practices, are sent careening into overdrive thanks to the affordances of digital media. The fact that it is exponentially easier now to find, modify, and share a specific text or image, coupled with the fact that more people have more access to the tools required for remix and poaching (these days you don’t have to be a white-collar office worker to degrade Wile E. Coyote), exponentially accelerates the spread and audience of ambivalent folkloric expression. For example, as prevalent—and potentially scandalous—as prurient Looney Tunes Xeroxlore may have been in certain offices in 1960s and 70s, lewd Arthur content become so prominent so quickly across so many different social media platforms in the summer of 2016 that the show’s producers had to issue a statement asking people to cut it out

People, of course, did not, and news stories about the statement only amplified the practice further. Such amplification also affords rampant decontextualization, in this particular case and more broadly. Xeroxlore certainly ripped texts from their original contexts, but still tended to ground those reappropriations within smaller, more insular, word of mouth collectives. 

Internet memes, on the other hand, can very visibly and very publicly turn someone from an actual person into an abstracted, fetishized object of laughter. Just ask anyone who’s ever become “internet famous” by virtue of someone else taking the wrong photo of them at the wrong time. That notoriety can spiral out in frightening ways, sometimes instantaneously. That is the one thing that might come as a surprise to Dundes, or any folklorist who worked in a pre-internet context. 

Embodied folklore like latrinalia, denigrating jokes, and workplace hijinks certainly had their own problems—ones Dundes assesses thoroughly—but the ethical stakes shift when those practices can spin hopelessly out of control with a few clicks of a button.

Are people often too nostalgic in their understanding of traditional folklore, given what you tell us here, that 80 percent of it is obscene? What are the consequences of this overly romantic conception of the folk?

When people talk about traditional folklore, a few things tend to happen. First, the word “traditional” is often used interchangeably with “old” (rather than with the act of passing down cultural elements to the next generation, which technically can happen across era and media). Second, these traditions—from dances to foodways to oral traditional tales—are frequently lauded as being purer or at least more authentic than contemporary mass mediated culture. This contrast is especially pronounced alongside assumptions about digital media, and how thanks to the internet, or anonymity, or Facebook, or whatever, everything is terrible now. 

The fact is, things were just as ambivalent back in the presumably halceon pre-industrial days as they are in our contemporary world. Yes the tools of communication are different. Yes these tools affect ethical stakes. But folklore didn’t suddenly get obscene or weird or harmful because it was mediated through a screen. 

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Aarne-Thompson-Uther tale-type index, a massive collection of the most successful narrative elements in the history of human storytelling. As we discuss in the book, much of the content collected in the ATU—including stories of violence, murder, corpse-eating, assaultive sentient skulls, and various sexual grotesqueries—would be right at home on any 4chan thread. Much of the content collected in the ATU would also be immediately recognizable as the basis for literally every Disney princess movie (here’s some background on Beauty and the Beast, one of countless “animal as bridegroom” narratives collected in the ATU). 

Placing pre-modern folklore in its own little box risks downplaying these points of continuity. Again, yes, there are significant differences between folklore now and folklore from two hundred years ago. But as much as ours is a brave new world, there is also nothing new under the sun. The same tensions—between formal and populist elements, between the laughing us and the marginalized them, between those whose voices carry the loudest and those who fight every day to be heard—remain as pervasive as they ever were. 

Considering how and why helps isolate the cultural elements that are truly new, and what the implications of that newness might be. Folkloric nostalgia has a much more insidious consequence, however. The assumption that pre-industrial folklore was reflective of a simpler, purer past overlooks the kinds of regressive, damaging seeds—from racism to xenophobia to homophobia to breathtaking levels of paternalism and misogyny—these stories cast. 

Not just then, however, but now; contemporary stories across a variety of media continue to employ regressive folkloric elements, even those—like Disney’s latest crop of seemingly more progressive princess movies—that don’t as obviously forward problematic ideologies. These seeds are so densely concentrated, yet are such a common sight, that it is easy to mistake them for air. When restricted just to fictional narratives, these clouds might seem like nothing to worry about. 

Just whiffs of folkloric tradition; how quaint. Narratives aren’t just the stories we tell, however. Narratives are how we see the world. So when someone like Donald Trump shows up with the political equivalent of a box of Miracle Gro, feeding into too many people’s fears of the other, the different, the screw-em-they’re-not-me, then suddenly all these clouds of seeds take on a much darker cast.      

Whitney Phillips is an Assistant Professor of Literary Studies and Writing at Mercer University. She holds a PhD in English with a folklore structured emphasis (digital culture focus), as well as an MFA in creative writing. Her work explores digital media and technology studies, communication studies, cultural studies, folklore studies, literary studies, and critical race, gender, and sexuality studies. The MIT Press published her book This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture in 2015, which she followed in 2017 with The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online (Polity Press), co-authored with Ryan Milner of the College of Charleston. She tweets at @wphillips49.

Ryan M. Milner is an Assistant Professor of Communication at the College of Charleston in Charleston, SC, USA. He investigates the social, political, and cultural implications of mass connection. He has published in outlets like Fibreculture, The International Journal of Cultural Studies,and The International Journal of Communication, along with contributing public commentary to Slate, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The New York Times. His book on memetic media, The World Made Meme, was published by The MIT Press in Fall 2016. His research on memes informs his second book, co-authored with Mercer University’s Whitney Phillips; The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online, is forthcoming from Polity Press in Spring 2017. He tweets at @rmmilner.