Theorizing the “Weird Internet”: Case Studies in the Strange and Uncanny

Adrienne Massanari, Shira Chess, Eric Newsom, Whitney Phillips, Ryan Milner, Alex Leavitt


Early new media/cyberculture work often focused on the “strange” as a subject of inquiry. Examples of this are myriad: Escape Velocity and The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium (Dery, 1996, 1999), Mondo 2000, USENET alt groups, My Tiny Life (Dibbell, 1999), cyborg augmentation, Life on the Screen (Turkle, 1995), etc. In other words, the counterculture roots of the web were starting points for cyberculture studies (Turner, 2006), and the focus was often the expressive possibilities of the fluid self living online. However, as more people gained access to online spaces, researchers, the media, and the culture at large started emphasizing the banality of these experiences and the ways in which they were woven into everyday life. This shift was mirrored in the kinds of phenomena and platforms that many scholars investigated. For example, researchers often moved away from investigating all of the unique and potentially “odd” ways the net might be used to explore one’s humanity (or sexuality, or personhood, or identity, etc.) to explorations of the mundane. This was likely as much a result of the increasing numbers of people online in the “Web 2.0” era, as it was an implicit strategic move. To finally put an end to the “digital dualism” argument (Jurgenson, 2011), it was important to focus the conversation on things that connected everyone and that could be viewed as, if not mundane, than “normal.” And while useful in offering a deeper theoretical understanding of online spaces and providing a more comprehensive methodological tool kit for exploring them, we might have elided the importance of the fringe as a result. The “weird internet,” in other words, has never gone away; it’s just under-theorized.

This panel proposes returning to the “weird internet” to interrogate, problematize, and unpack the complexities of human behavior in on/offline spaces. By “weird internet” we mean those phenomena that seem from the outside as potentially odd, bizarre, morbid or dark, but are simply complex expressions of human behavior, worthy of further exploration and explication. From the Slender Man, to a found box of strange documents that holds Reddit’s sway, to Twitch Plays Pokemon, to the folkloric origins of the dark web, to the fear of holes and sounds that cause brain tingles, this panel offers a number of case studies in the “weird.” In our papers (and the ensuing discussion they provoke), we hope to highlight the technical and social affordances that the web offers in terms of exploring the weird, how it too is a part of everyday life lived on/offline. We also explore the tension between “weird” and mainstream and the ways in which weirdness intersects with issues of privilege, power, and ethics. Important, too, are the ways in which web infrastructures normalize certain behaviors online while “weirding” others. Drawing on a variety of theoretical and methodological approaches, we hope to highlight the ways in which the “weird internet” is nothing new – just a new formulation of the weirdness that lurks inside all of us.

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