Situated between the humanities and social sciences, Whitney Phillips' research draws from science and technology studies, critical theory, and media history. Her early research on online play, transgression, and other forms of ambivalent public participation gave way to a focus on media ethics, as even the most amusing, playful, or social behavior could have far-reaching -and sometimes devastating- consequences for those who laughed and those who did not, could not, or would not. Her current research and teaching interests foreground three basic questions: What are our hypermediated worlds like (and to what ethical effects for what groups)? How did those worlds get that way? And most important, what we can do to make them better? Always in dialogue with these questions, recent research and teaching foci have included: the ethics of journalistic amplification, conspiracy theories and other world-building stories, political communication, political manipulation, media literacy efforts for K-12 students, strategies for navigating difficult political conversations, the relationship between wellbeing and social media sharing, histories of hybrid religious and secular media, the rhetorical and cultural significance of monster archetypes, and sensationalist media, including true crime.
- PhD in English with a folklore structured emphasis (digital culture focus) from the University of Oregon (2012)
- MFA in creative writing from Emerson College (2007)
- Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from Cal Poly Humboldt (2005)
In early 2023, Phillips will be publishing her fourth book, Share Better and Stress Less: A Guide to Thinking Ecologically about Social Media (Candlewick Press/MITeen), for young adult readers. Co-authored with Ryan Milner, it draws on ecological, social justice, and storytelling frameworks to explain how and why information pollution - including distressing true information - spreads across social media, and offers strategies and tips to avoid causing accidental harm online. Grounded in the exploits of a cast of hyperconnected middle schoolers, the book also explores the relationship between stress, wellness, and social media sharing.
Phillips’ current book project, co-authored with political science and religion scholar Mark Brockway of Syracuse University and technology reporter Abby Ohlheiser, explores what they call the shadow gospel: a tangle of decades-old, densely overlapping set of wraparound, hybridized religious and secular messages reinforcing a vision of "real" America branded as traditional but which is, instead, an invention of the post-WWII landscape. Drawing from a vast demonology - the belief that an evil force is threatening to destroy a culture's most important values and institutions - and deriving strength from communications advancements and shifts in media policy extending back to the 1940s, the shadow gospel pits a righteous us against a wicked them said to threaten everything that "real" Americans hold dear. The shadow gospel is thus central to understanding events like the January 6th attack on the US Capitol, along with a host of culture wars issues that will only intensify as the 2024 Presidential election approaches.
Major published works include:
- You Are Here: A Field Guide for Navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and Our Polluted Media Landscape (MIT Press 2021), co-authored with Ryan Milner
- “The Oxygen of Amplification: Better Practices for Reporting on Extremists, Antagonists, and Manipulators Online.” Data & Society, 2018
- The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online (Polity Press 2017), co-authored with Ryan M. Milner
- This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture (MIT Press 2015).
Book chapters, articles, and cultural critiques include:
- W. Phillips, M. Brockway and A. Ohlheiser. 2022. "January 6th, Trump, and the Rise of America's Dangerous Shadow Gospel." NBC.
- W. Phillips and C. Wardle. 2021. “Disinformation Goes to Hollywood: Four Lessons from Journalism.” First Draft News.
- W. Phillips. 2021. “Whose Anger Counts? ” Boston Review, January.
- W. Phillips. 2020. “Light Disinfects: A Cultural History and Critique.’” Georgetown Law Technology Review, Special Issue on Network Ecologies.
- W. Phillips. 2019. “It Wasn’t Just the Trolls: Early Internet Culture, ‘Fun,’ and the Fires of Exclusionary Laughter.” Social Media and Society’s 2K. April.
- W. Phillips. 2018. “Am I Why I Can’t Have Nice Things?: A Reflection on Personal Trauma, Collective Play, and Ethical Sight.” In A Networked Self and Love, ed. Zizi Papacharissi. London: Routledge.
- W. Phillips and R.M. Milner. 2018. “Ghosts in the Machines: How Centuries of Technological Play with Death Has Helped Make Sense of Life.” In A Networked Self: Birth, Life, and Death, ed. Zizi Papacharissi. London: Routledge.
Phillips has written numerous popular press pieces for publications such as The Atlantic, The New York Times, NBC, and Slate, including the work she published in her WIRED magazine Ideas column. She regularly provides expert commentary on national and global news stories and her work has been profiled by the Columbia Journalism Review, Niemen Journalism Lab, and Knight Commission on Trust, Media, and Democracy, among many others.
Honors and Awards:
Phillips has been invited to deliver dozens of talks and has given a number of national and international keynotes focused on a range of journalism and communication topics, including journalistic ethics, K-12 media literacy education, and the relationship between wellbeing and information sharing. She has had the opportunity to present her work to Congressional and other governmental entities, including to the January 6th House Select Committee, and is regularly asked to provide ethics consultation for national and global news outlets. Phillips' first book, This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things, was awarded the Association of Internet Researchers' Nancy Baym best book award.