It Wasn’t Just the Trolls: Early Internet Culture, “Fun,” and the Fires of Exclusionary Laughter

Whitney Phillips

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

36 Scopus citations


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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalSocial Media and Society
Issue number3
StatePublished - Apr 1 2019


  • Internet culture
  • Internet humor
  • extremism
  • irony
  • meme culture
  • trolling

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Communication
  • Computer Science Applications


Dive into the research topics of 'It Wasn’t Just the Trolls: Early Internet Culture, “Fun,” and the Fires of Exclusionary Laughter'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this