We had a particularly drawn out trolling incident show up on our twitter feed a few days ago that we decided could be an interesting source for discussion. Luckily, we were able to catch up with Adam Sullivan (aka Harmonic Inferno), who runs Adam Sullivan’s Music Theory Blog; and has helped start Team Young Spark, and he was willing to talk to us. The post covers such things as the trolling incident on his twitter account , “pandering” to the fandom within MLP:FiM, media ideologies, and fedoras. Check it out below the break!
(J= Jason Nguyen; K= Kurt Baer; A= Adam Sullivan)
Anatomy Of a Trolling
A: Trolling is bullying and bullying is bad.
The end. 😛
J: Haha! So, I was thinking, maybe we could start by just laying out what happened that day?
A: Oh, from those ignorant people just going after Inferno?
J: Yep. You had made an offhand comment about a fedora club, and then a bunch of internet jerks descended upon you, as far as I could tell.
A: Correct! I had posted a few days before about wondering we (bronies) had a club for the fedora lovers in the fan base. Someone who was a brony retweeted and replied to me about it and apparently they had a lot of anti-brony/brony trolls following and they went to attack me.
J: So that suggests a couple of things to me. First, that this other brony had a bunch of trolls/asshats following him, which is pretty horrible for him to begin with, I imagine. But also that these people were, in effect, happy to find another victim in their trolling game. How did you end up handling that entire exchange?
A: Sort of. I went and used my best efforts to defuse the entire situation but one was going through my pictures and making comments, tagging more people into it and more or less trolling. It got to the point where I had to block him/her (assuming him), and report him on all accounts.
J: Okay, to broaden the scope a little bit: there are moments when the impulse to troll by people on the Internet is a source of great amusement to me, I fully admit. I wrote last month about the 4chan campaign to send Justin Bieber to North Korea, which is in some ways the source of the “___ is best pony” meme, and while doing that research, I was really tickled by the way these guys mobilized themselves to play this naughty prank on the Internet. I’m not sure whether I would call that trolling as well, but it comes from a similar place. From where you’re sitting and having just gotten trolled by a bunch of random folks (though seemingly less sophisticated than anon in their tactics), what’s the difference?
A: Honestly, I feel like they are very similar but the difference between “trolling” and “bullying”, trolling being more of a gag thing than only trying to gain something from it. I will admit that at one point I would consider myself a troll, but not towards one group of people. It was more of a “how to be a smart ass but make sure everyone laughs” sort of thing and that’s how I have gone about defining trolling. The incident we are discussing may be seen more as bullying and trying to instigate something against us.
J: Yeah, and it seems important in a lot of ways to be able to make that distinction, because so much of the fun we have as a fandom includes skills and posturing that can look a whole lot like trolling or bullying if used in particular ways. I’m thinking in particular about the Twilight becoming an alicorn thing and the fairly vicious way some members of the fandom ripped into the creators for doing the worst thing ever to their favorite show. A lot of those actions could be seen as a kind of trolling–perhaps even bullying in some cases–but then it also turned into one of the greatest ongoing gags ever…THANKS M.A. LARSON!
A: (Laughs hysterically) I know! I think that was a bad idea of them to do to but I understand that they are (or at least SHOULD BE) tending towards their target audience and not serving to us. However, going beyond that point and actually heckling or harassing the creators isn’t the way to go. As you were saying though, I think that her becoming an alicorn could be partially a troll to us as well but it’s all about if you want to see it from that perspective or if you want to see it from “Is this what our target fan base wants?”
J: There’s something rather profound in what you just said: some things that appear to be trolling may be catering to a different recipient of the message. I didn’t really think we’d end up here in a discussion about trolling, but I think the relationship between the fandom and the creators actually is a GREAT way to have a new perspective on what trolling is and how it functions, because I hear/read people say stuff like “they’re totally trolling the fandom” every time some background pony shows up with a fedora or a grumpy cat cutie mark. And of course, fandom outrage can very quickly escalate into these crazy storms where words are being hurled without thought at real people (since I don’t think MLP is being produced by robots yet), and that’s not unlike what happened to you…a snowball of negative rhetoric just all being thrown at a person who may not really deserve it but is perhaps representing something bigger than him/herself.
A: Right, that’s what I’ve read and seen to. There was a string of episodes from season four, starting with Flutterbat, followed by the episode you mentioned on with the character with the grumpycat cutie mark and then ended with this most recent episode of having “Slendermare” in the background of “Pinkie Apple Pie” and there are three perspectives of all of these cases. From one angle, you have the position on the view of “Man, these writers and animators are only trolling the adult fan base!” or “Geez! When will these guys ever stop fan pandering (feeding pop culture into something just for the reference of that object) the bronies?!”. The problem with that comes from point two, or the position that I feel the DHX staff is viewing it from which is “how can I write for both the adult fan base so they get jokes that they and only they would get while tending to the little ones and giving our signature well received, and well rounded life lesson?” I’m not able to speak for any of them but I feel like they sit at this point because they have actually acknowledged the fact there are two fan bases to their show that wasn’t really aimed at bronies. The last point of view is from the “target audience” which sees everything for face value. The ones that I have talked to, being neices and my best friends’ sisters, all appear to take everything for what it’s worth up front. So for example, there were several cases where my cousins watched the Flutterbat episode and more or less went “Ooh, pretty song! Uh oh, they’re in a dark tree place (orchard). AHH!!!! There’s a bat pony! She looks like fluttershy but fluttershy would never do that! This is scary!” and would preceed to hide from that episode. It’s happen on a couple of occasions that I know of from first person exposure and what I’ve read around the internet and I find it really interesting.
K: Along these lines (although it is yet again a bit of a divergence from our theme here), I think it is really interesting what has fallen under “pandering to the fandom,” embraced as references to the fandom, or not even brought up at all. The writers have done a good job making sure that the references I have caught are, on the whole, things that would probably appeal to both the target audience and the fandom (how many six year olds don’t know about grumpy cat?) and I feel like they have been making these sorts of references for quite a while.
A: Yes, they have been making things like that for a while. I think it started around the end of season one, and the whole “Spiked Punch” joke. Also, it’s probably good to mention that this sort of thing has been going on for a long time now too in other cartoons. I remember off the top of my head Toy Story was a huge cause of wanting to make cartoons meet a point where they balanced entertainment for the child but also had some humour for the parents. Who wants to be that parent who fell asleep with their kid while watching their favorite movie after all?
J: I’m not privy to older discourses about cartoons like Looney Tunes, but it seems to me that embedding multiple layers of meaning has always been central to cartoons that have worked for multiple demographics. Sometimes that goes horribly wrong–like Bugs Bunny chasing a Japanese World War II caricature around a deserted island–but it also provides possibilities for both uptake by multiple demographics and deniability where it’s strategically useful to do so. And I think there’s an affective–that is, relating to feeling and emotion–component to the clustering of so many references together that people are recognizing and valuating as positive or negative. When you start to reference a BUNCH of things that adults are privy to, it produces a particular kind of atmosphere that only that audience is aware of, in the spaces in between the references. Then those adults start having this conversation or debate and the kids are wondering why are these adults so invested in something that to them doesn’t really have the same level of semiotic density (density of meaning)? My fiancee recently told me about her nieces who want you bronies to be very ashamed of yourselves for co-opting their show.
A: It is just one of those things where there is not a similar level of density between the two groups of fans, or even between parent and child. The best reference to that is the statement I made before about the “spiked punch” joke. Parents do not want to explain why that is funny to six year olds, but yet the ones who get it understand what the pun was about. It really boils down to how the writer chooses to handle the situation. They can choose to make it more up front, such as this case, or they can make it subtle as the case with the apple cider having foam (for those who don’t know apple cider in its “natural” form does not foam. It only foams when you add alcohol to it or you allow it to ferment and turn into brandy).
K: It’s interesting as what gets picked up as being pandering or trolling the fandom and what is considered either acceptable for the primary demographic or humor that may be over some peoples’ heads, but still not pandering. I didn’t notice the “spiked punch,” Big Lebowski ponies, or even the Mad Men ponies in “Rarity Takes Manehattan” catching all that much flak from the fandom (then again, I could be horribly wrong). In the process of analyzing and interpreting the show, things can also seen as references to the fandom that may not have been intended as such. For instance, there has been some debate (I haven’t seen any final answers to it myself at least) as whether the “Dusty Cat” reference in “Pinkie Apple Pie” is actually a reference to Dustykatt, or just something humorous. There was also some interesting disconnect in the same episode with “Apple Bloomalicious,” where many assumed that the reference was a direct shout out to BlackGryph0n, who created the fanon “Twilightlicious” video (and thus a direct reference to the fandom) when it was in fact meant as a reference to Tara Strong (who originally tweeted the lyrics and recorded the audio), and thus in some respects more a nod to Tara (or a nod to her nod to the fandom) than to the fandom itself. Maybe? There seems to me to be an interesting distinction between the two.
I guess my question here would be what not “trolling” or “pandering” to the fandom would even look like. I’d need to re-watch the earlier episodes to bring up specific instances (maybe you could supply some for me), but I feel like the show was initially created to have multiple layers of meaning and humor to appeal (on at least some level) to people that aren’t within the show’s demographic. Now that bronies are such a big part of the fan base and are very adept at reading meaning into the show and analyzing even the slightest references, where does one draw a line between making the show a good show and pandering to the fandom?
A: To be honest, the answer to your question lies in what we are known for: Perspective. There will always be a way to analyze something as being a fan pander. The best example I can think of from an earlier season would be the ending of Return of Harmony where the Mane Six are walking to Celestia in a marching fashion and it feels like they were replicating the ending of Star Wars Episode VI. The surface level viewing of this thought is that it is a momentous achievement in both cases. In Star Wars, they are celebrating by finally defeating the evil Intergalactic Empire and the end of Darth Vader and the rest of the dark side (until Disney finds a way to bring the dead back to life! GRR). In MLP, the Mane Six has defeated the first “true” evil of Equestria that had been ruling ponyville; Discord. Going deeper into the comparison we can see that they have a symbolic showcase of good versus evil. However, this is where I end the analysis because that is all that I see from my point of view. I love Star Wars to death (even if my knowledge of the Emperor’s name at that point is gone) but that doesn’t mean I see Star Wars in the ending of that episode beyond my previously stated points. People always view things differently and that can be true with nearly anything MLP related.
J: I’m going to make an assertion: one dominant axis by which valuations about pandering/trolling are made has to do with the negative valuation of the internet itself as a source of meaning and meaning-making and positive valuations of other forms of media. References to movies and television that the fandom values (Star Wars, Star Trek, Big Lebowski, etc.) are seen favorably because fans have media ideologies (Ilana Gershon up in this biz-naz!) that favor those sorts of things having value and adding to the narrative. Much of the fandom that interacts online has a “film critic” bent to it–analyzing this, deconstructing that, etc. Applying that to the show, they are more likely to value intertextuality that brings in material that is meaningful to them. The Internet is, by and large, seen as ephemeral and somewhat trivial and meaningless, even by people who use it regularly for social ends and for meaning-making (oh, the ironies of being human). So if the dusty cat reference is indeed a reference, it is being viewed negatively by some because for them, it’s a referential dead-end: “oh, it’s just some person on the internet.” Same thing with grumpy cat. References to “spiked punch” draw from life experiences, which of course in the (false) dichotomy of real/virtual are valued higher as well.
K: I’m inclined to agree with that assertion. In order to bring things around full-circle from the fedora club, to the show, to our favorite (or not) fedora-wielding grumpy cat Manehattanite, and back, I am still a bit curious about the nature of the trolling that we started out discussing. I’ve seen a bit, but it looks like a lot of it is pretty hard to reach. Along what lines were these people trolling? Was it purely anti-brony? I know there are a lot of negative associations of people wearing fedoras being douches and things along that line, which I find quite sad since I’m a hat buff myself.
A: It appeared as if they were. One of the guys was trying really hard to be my “buddy” while sharing photos. Another was there just spamming comments at me, while a third was dragging in a bunch of people onto my account which they all responded with calling me a pedophile, and a couple of accounts with Rebel Flags (Southern American flag from Civil War) sharing my photo of Vinyl I bought from the con I was at saying “All bronies do is f___ themselves at this stuff”. So, it varied but I know for sure there was anti-brony actions during the flood of comments and harassing.
But seriously, I think that there is something useful in, say, comparing the way you were trolled to–if we assume grumpy cat pony is some sort of metonymic representation of the fandom–the way the creators of the show trolled its audience. Which is to say, embedded even in the plot is Rarity’s offering of a flower to the cranky guy in his fedora and the offer of friendship. That’s the sort of playful ribbing that is possible in a relationship of general good will, where conflicts may occur but the assumption is not that the conflict is arising for its own sake. To get at some of my concerns at the start, perhaps that’s the way to operationalize a difference in the “fun” trolling of one another that is part and parcel of the Internet and the bullying that became so viscerally clear the other day.