Digital Labor

Antonio Casilli


Antonio A. Casilli is an Associate Professor of Digital Humanities at Telecom ParisTech (Paris Institute of Technology) and a researcher in Sociology at the Edgar Morin Centre, School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS, Paris). His main research foci are digital cultures and critical digital humanities; privacy, censorship, and freedom of expression online. He also develops advanced ethno-computational methods and agent-based simulations for social science. He blogs about research and society on, tweets as @AntonioCasilli, and he’s a regular commentator for Radio France Culture.

The Trolletarian Condition: Trolling as Digital Labor
The moral panic surrounding internet trolling has originated a full bestiary of digital creatures: hate trolls, rape trolls, concern trolls, religious fundamentalist trolls, bullies, griefers – but also feminist trolls, anti-religious trolls, white knights, Wikipedia vandals, anonymous, 4chaners, discordians… the list could go on forever, as well as the diatribe as to who is an actual troll (as opposed to a rightfully upset internet user trying to defend their opinion).

The attempt to personalize and essentialize both victims and perpetrators of trolling is a feature of recent media narratives and political discourse about “online sadists” and “Internet incivility”. Yet this effort hides the relational dimensions of what can first and foremost be construed as a social process. Recent orientations in research tend to define trolling as context-dependent socially disrupting pattern of interaction based on content production and sharing. Comment and forum trolls, for example, stimulate engagement in conversation-based web environments; trolls who dox their victims or post online defamatory messages can be regarded as harvesters and analyzers of user data.

Within the digital ethos, trolling and labor cut across the same socio-technological territories. Our presentation, taking the form of a lecture/communication, aims to bridge the gap between these two supposedly unrelated topics, by focusing on three cases of monetization of trolling in social media environments:

1) Native advertising (meme marketing and the monitoring of troll communities for trend-sniffing);

2) Astroturfing (hiring shills and “troll activists” to taint the reputation of political adversaries and highjack political debate online);

3) Crowdsourcing for product testing (trolling to stimulate collective code-debugging and game beta-testing, calls to hack and pwn platform to spot security breaches).

Tech companies’ ambivalent attitude towards trolling – censorship on the one side, monetization on the other – reveals the continuity between troll labor and digital labor, as far as both modalities are caught in cycles of repression and exploitation. More interestingly, the analysis of trolling-specific repertoires of contention (e.g. 4chan’s détournement of Google reCAPTCHA) points towards the paradoxical proliferation of antagonistic and empowering approaches to online labor. Interpreting trolling users as “trolletarians” would ultimately amount to spot in their behaviors the Nietzschean “human impossibility”, that hides behind what is still “a harsh and inappropriate social arrangement”.