Internet Trolling: A People’s Philosophy

Who gets to define and label ‘trolls’? Will there be redemption for the comment section?

Once touted as a hopeful platform for generative, democratic participation, many people now see online discussion as a cesspool of hatred and toxicity. Just how angry is the Internet?

Yimin Chen (@Shinypants0) is a PhD Candidate in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at Western University, where he studies satire, clickbait, and other types of “fake news”. His research interests include online communication, internet culture, and memes. In his spare time, Yimin co-hosts Western’s Gradcast podcast and occasionally finds time to work on his dissertation on internet trolling.

Justina Díaz Legaspe is a professor and researcher in Philosophy of Language, with a PhD from the University of Buenos Aires (Argentina). Her main focus is on evaluative and discriminatory language. She is currently a post-doctoral visitor in the Philosophy Department of Western University, where she is conducting research on the meaning and use of slurring expressions. One of her goals is to come up with guidelines for fruitful exchanges with users of these expressions.

Dispatches from the campaign trenches

In the summer of 2016 after finishing his undergrad, Micah Richardson (@richardsonmicah) quit his job and joined a fellowship in the Hillary Clinton Campaign. He was stationed in New Hampshire, working in field operations, where he organized a volunteer organization with regular phone-banks and canvassing.

In this podcast — a tiny dose of modern history — we hear Micah’s story and reflections on the nature of social movements, the politics of media and messaging, and how large groups of people align themselves to ideas and ideals.

We are joined in conversation by Jennifer O’Brien (@JeninLdnont) — a highly respected journalist and reporter in our community.

The Podcasting Panel: Beginnings

On Friday, October 20, 2017, I hosted a panel discussion (in partnership with Innovation Works) for anyone interested in learning more about starting their own podcast. This discussion is produced and made available as a resource for anyone in the community thinking about joining the ranks of the ‘DIY broadcasters.’

Thanks to a great panel of experienced, funny, and informative people!

The Panelists

  • Charles Blazevic is the General Manager, 121 Studios (unLondon)
  • Stephanie Ciccarelli (@StephCiccarelli) is Founder and Chief Brand Officer at Author of Voice Acting For Dummies (Wiley Publishing, 2013), The Podcasting Ebook (2005), and The Definitive Guide To Voice-Over Success (2005)
  • Stuart Clark (@StuartClark) is an IT professional, writer, podcaster and technology enabler. Co-host of the Canadian Tech Podcast
  • “Backstage Ben” Cummings (@BackstageBen) is Producer and co-host of Jeff and Rachel in the Morning on 97.5 Virgin Radio, voiceover artist, movie reviewer and overall pop-culture sponge
  • Dan Dawson is a retired, veteran broadcaster, and a popular public voice and announcer at community events of all kinds in the city
  • Lindsay Harris is Coordinator, Public Service: Innovative Spaces and Services for London Public Library
  • James Shelley (hey, that’s me)

Links to equipment discussed on the podcast…

Panel’s suggestions for further learning…

Next event… Join Janet Frood, Jennifer O’Brien, Heenal Rajani, and James Shelley at London Public Library for a special edition of Curious Public entitled, The Art and Anatomy of the Question (Monday, November 13, 2017). This will be an interesting discussion for interviewers, researchers, journalists, podcasters, and anyone interested in developing their question-asking (and listening) skills.

Terror of Agreement

What is scarier than a society perpetually accusing one another peddling lies, broadcasting ‘fake news,’ and manipulating the truth? A society where everyone agrees and nobody asks any questions.

Raging ideological dispute feels psychologically and civically disruptive, yes, but it can have a buffering effect. History is instructive: when we all subsume a single narrative, we soon find ourselves marching obediently into disaster.

Be careful what you wish for. The gleeful agreement of the masses is no less perilous than the mass polarization of opinion.

Conversations and Media: a vision, an idea

On Monday, February 6, I am beginning a new experiment: a community-created podcast series, produced in partnership with my beloved public library.

It is a podcast with some twists.

The above outlines the what, but here are some reasons why this project enthuses me:

First, the series aims to be constructive. I am an avowed advocate of critical thinking, second-guessing the obvious, and weighing opposing viewpoints. I love debates for the very reason that they force me to hear ‘the other side.’ However, I am concerned that ‘critical’ has become synonymous ‘controversy’ in today’s sensationalized pop-news environment. We do not promote counterpoints because we hunger for truth yet realized, but rather because conflict and dispute sell advertising space. Socially valuable criticism — the kind of critical thinking needed in civil democracy — also needs to be constructive: it needs to help us move our discourse from where it is by forcing us to wrestle with choices and actions.

For me, this podcast is a way to (hopefully) foster some constructive conversations. I do not want to shy away from controversies, but rather bring some semblance of sober, critical inquiry to bear upon them. I want to make controversy as unsexy as possible; as if blunting sensationalism with an infusion of dull, rational contemplation. In other words, I hope this podcast produces the kind of conversations that most mainline media corporations simply cannot afford to produce for broadcast: discussions that constructively address divisive issues instead of pouring gasoline on them or snowballing them into magnitudinous, populist frenzies.

What if the true social value of an idea does not necessarily correlate with its likelihood of ‘going viral?’ What are we missing in our effort to distract one another with competing headlines? It feels like most prevalent models of media consumption incentivize turning everything into a soundbite, including the most complex social issues and the variable contingencies of scientific data.

Speaking of the media, the journalism landscape in my city is experiencing a bizarre and swift metamorphosis. By no means whatsoever do I purport to be a journalist, but I hope this project is valuable due in part to the fact that no other entity in the current media ecosystem could reasonably justify funding for a program like this in a budget cycle. As far as I can tell, it has zero prospects for profitability. This idea is entirely untested for market. But this is fine. The whole idea here is to tell stories and facilitate conversations that current media revenue models leave untold.

Since the American presidential election, I have wrestled with the question, ‘What do I do now?’ This project represents my best, feeble answer at present: gather people who have a manifest commitment to building an equitable and equal society, and do everything in my meager capacity to join my voice with theirs. At this point, I just do not know what else to do.

Like I said at the outset, this is an experiment. A very public experiment. The library and I are mutually committed to a three-month ‘prototype trial’ through April to gauge the viability and practicality of this initiative. I have no brilliant plan for sustainability. I haven’t the foggiest clue how many people will be interested in attending the live events at the library or even listening to the podcast. This initiative is just a good ‘ol, classic case of believing that something needs to happen and foolishly trying it. (But hey, worst case scenario, there is so much to be learned from failure, right?)

At a minimum, from February to April, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to engage with some remarkable and thoughtful individuals. I am deeply grateful to (in order of appearance) Susan Toth, Matt Ross, Rowa Mohamed, Jeff Preston, Gerda Zonruiter, Javeed Sukhera, Abe Oudshoorn, Jacqueline Specht, and Cassandra Cervi. All of these people willingly accepted my pleas to be guests on the podcast, and thereby became fellow collaborators in this experiment as well. Also, thanks to Carolyn Doyle, Lindsay Harris, Ellen Hobin, and David Caloren for facilitating this vision on the library side. To everyone: I am grateful for your willingness to try something a few steps off the beaten path.

The first episode will be recorded live on Monday, February 6, at 7pm, at the Central branch of the London Public Library. Come be part of the experiment, too.