Because I was 16 and because I was angry, too readily bored and too easily lonely, and because I wanted very badly to be accepted by anyone at all, I once spent the better part of an October weekend doing nitrous oxide in a San Diego hotel suite with a dozen or so hackers and internet trolls.
My presence wasn't some freak happening. It was the result of some two years I'd spent running in trolling circles: an affiliate of Bantown, a sometimes-member of 4chan, and an early contributor to Encyclopedia Dramatica, the Wiki site where we documented our exploits (that is: where we documented every time we made somebody cry or scream for our own amusement). I wasn't a hacker. I didn't have the technical know-how for much of that. But I compensated for this deficiency with an over-abundance of juvenile sociopathic impulse. I was one of them, or at least I had the company t-shirt (bright yellow; red, MS-Paint style star with a missing pixel; ‘LOL DONGS' printed across the front).
I was in San Diego for 2006's ToorCon, a "hacker convention" of the gray-hat kind that is still held there today, still somewhere between a legitimate security conference and a gathering of criminals. The main event was a talk by two fellow trolls: Mischa Spiegelmock ("Rev. Mischa"), who worked for SixApart, the company behind LiveJournal, and Andrew Auernheimer ("weev"). Auernheimer was relatively obscure then, but six years later would become considerably more famous after he was convicted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for exposing the email addresses of tens of thousands of AT&T iPad customers, served a year in federal prison, was released on a technicality, and promptly expatriated to Lebanon. He was the one who invited me to San Diego. He was also the one standing over me with the nitrous and telling me to take it while I pretended to know why anybody would want to inhale freezing gas from a balloon.
I want to tell you about when violent campaigns against harmless bloggers weren't any halfway decent troll's idea of a good time
Among the topics on offering during the speech: how floating servers of the near-future will allow untraceable black-market arms sales; how the Chinese internet could be brought down from inside with a fairly simple package overload if a brave troll didn't mind "being disappeared"; how the revolution — still ill-defined in the nascent days of digital libertarianism — was nigh.
The Firefox lackey eventually took the stage to beg. Then he followed five or six of us into the hall. This was when the only evidence of my being there was captured: a picture accompanying CNet's write-up of the threat, of several of us standing with Firefox Man in the hall. I was on the periphery, wearing a tie-dye dress shirt and a black velvet jacket and grinning like an idiot because I didn't get out of the house much and I was finally in on the joke.
I want to tell you one last thing about ToorCon: while Mischa and Auerenheimer talked, the rest of us trolls sat scattered in the audience. During the Q&A section, our task was to ask Auernheimer the following two questions: first, is it possible to suck a dick by accident? (He cracks up. "Yes. Yes, I believe that is possible.") Then, if it happens a second time, is it still an accident? ("That would be hard to believe, no"). If you're looking to understand the animating spirit of trolling, understand that this regrettable little skit, played entirely for ourselves and obscure in origin even for some of us who knew it was part of any public appearance by weev, was as important to our sense of what we were doing in San Diego as threatening an international technology corporation. It remained a source of vaguely homophobic, adolescent glee even after law enforcement got involved and Rev. Mischa folded and decided not to go after Firefox after all and everyone did one more line and went home.
Trolling isn't quite so David vs. Goliath anymore. If it was adolescent then, more mean-spirited fun than outright malice, it is now a frighteningly adult enterprise where the joke is lost somewhere amid the sexual harassment and death threats. What began as the occasional doxxing of a Tumblr user or the occasional angry 4chan /b/ post leading to the uncoordinated harassment of a social justice blogger has grown into a series of ever more serious and well-organized public attacks. Earlier this year there was "Gamergate," the precious name we've given to the harassment of two women in the video game community, critic Anita Sarkeesian and developer Zoe Quinn. Quinn was harassed on Twitter and by phone, had her Tumblr hacked; Sarkeesian fled her home after receiving gratuitous threats with her home address included for emphasis. Then there were trolls, reportedly from 4chan, who were involved in acquiring and disseminating nude photographs of several female celebrities. (The same group was briefly implicated in a plan to retaliate against actress Emma Watson's speech at The United Nations with nude pictures of the Harry Potter star, although the empty threat was revealed to be the work of an entirely separate, for-profit trolling entity hoping to exploit 4chan's rash of publicity.)
It isn't that these darker elements haven't always existed in the trolling scene. But I want to tell you about when violent campaigns against harmless bloggers weren't any halfway decent troll's idea of a good time — even the then-malicious would've found it too easy to be fun. When the punches went up, not down. Before the best players quit or went criminal or were changed by too long a time being angry. When there was cruelty, yes, and palpable strains of sexism and racism and every kind of phobia, sure, but when these things had the character of adolescents pushing the boundaries of cheap shock, disagreeable like that but not criminal. Not because that time was defensible — it wasn't, not really — but because it was calmer and the rage wasn't there yet. Because trolling still meant getting a rise for a laugh, not making helpless people fear for their lives because they're threatening some Redditor's self-proclaimed monopoly on reason. I want to tell you about it because I want to make sense of how it is now and why it changed.
One thing has remained consistent. Then, as now, the imagined age of a troll depends on the extent to which they're ascribed sexual frustration as a motive. If yes, they are 25 or 30; whatever age seems just slightly inappropriate for continued occupation of mom's basement. If not, they are 14 feigning older, hiding on the internet where nobody knows you're a dog. (Both types are true and common enough, although they don't fill out the roster: at ToorCon, for example, one of the most successful and popular of our group was a woman from the Bay Area who helped found Encyclopedia Dramatica and who constituted my first encounter with polyamorous domestic life. Another friend of ours was an unassuming woman with a young son; she's since gone on to semi-professional Roller Derby. A third, a woman of color, is now in law school.)
But I was the 14-year-old white boy kind of troll and it came about like this. The web has corners that produce, in teenagers, a psychological effect not terribly dissimilar from the scene one might have encountered by running away to New York or San Francisco some 40 years ago. The landscape is obscure, the pressure to seem with it and local is immense, and the people you meet first, no matter how incidental the contact, assume an exaggerated gravity in your concept of the local topography. My encounter was with Auernheimer and the incident was the first time I was banned from LiveJournal. I don't remember the play in special detail — something to do with setting LiveJournal's inexplicably Furry-dominated moderation team against teenage photo rating communities. The practical consequence was my first ban from the site and an instant message from an internet friend asking if I'd be willing to help out a buddy of theirs in a much bigger, better troll.
The friend was weev, and the angle was a LiveJournal post that contained an embedded script, one that when viewed by a LiveJournal user pulled their PayPal cookie information and automatically broadcast the post to their own friend list to let the scam spread exponentially. I don't remember if it worked or not. More than likely, it just sent all of us in search of another proxy to get around another IP ban. What was important were the conversations that started that day, over AIM and over Addium (better for encryption) and in IRC chat rooms with a growing cohort of misfits plotting the next way to humiliate some unlucky sector of the web. Furries; Neo-Nazis; MySpace Celebrities — anybody who it seemed might come back swinging. Once the lulz were sufficient, the troll could be documented on Encylopedia Dramatica. Like all misfits disdainful of vanity and convinced nobody could get our story right, we were obsessed with chronicling our every thought and deed. (My first entry: "Chronic Troll Syndrome," wherein an overabundance of trolling makes the patient unable to distinguish between situations where the result of their troll will be laughter and when the result will be a well-deserved beating.)
It comes back as 20 or 30 people hanging around IRC on any given day, hidden behind proxies, developing a lexicon of cruelty that seemed at the time like good fun. And it was. And this should embarrass me more than it does.
I am going to find it difficult to tell you precisely why I was so taken by this scene and why I threw myself so enthusiastically into its underworld. The simplest and likely sufficient answer is that I was 14 years old. It all felt vaguely dangerous, vaguely revolutionary, but with ill-defined goals. Its romance was the same one that makes Randians of so many high-school sophomores. It gave the sickly sense of power one gets from finding the next button to push, laughing in a rapidly reddening face. It's no different from the power trip a bully takes at school, except now I was the powerful one and not the victim. It was something between having power for the first time and the guilt of knowing it was ill-gotten. Power, because there is nothing quite so seductive to a teenage malcontent as a world that offers belonging coupled with authority; that is secret in the way that everybody knows you're into something slightly criminal. Guilt, because it was all schoolyard. Even when it was less dangerous, it was offensive, vaguely sexist and vaguely racist and vaguely homophobic in the daring-to-transgress kind of way. Even if I wasn't better than it then, I already had the sense that I might like to be.
I can't tell you whether my experience and motives were typical or not. I am, however, certain of a few things. If there was a difference between trolling and schoolyard taunting, it was trolling's particular take on the best way to be an outsider. The prototypical rebel without a cause is either a nihilist or self-serious, disappointed by a vapid world or giving up on it entirely; in either case, he is not content to gossip while there are motorcycles to be ridden in stoic search of the real. For us, it was neither possibility: the world was the place that cared too much, but the way to be above it all was to take aim at its vanity, to embarrass those who thought themselves too composed and too in charge to ever be caught flustered by something petty. We engaged. We had a cause. Whether it was a worthwhile one was a separate issue entirely.
Trolling isn't really trolling anymore. The motive isn't sublimated. The rage is bare.
I don't know if that sensibility is still prevalent in theory, but if so, it no longer means what it once did. Now, as then, the victims of a concerted trolling effort are selected not only by the probable combustibility of their reaction but also by the sense that they have it coming. In the previous decade, you had it coming because you were pompous or entitled or privileged or foolish. The spirit was mischievous, and its intent was to humiliate unclothed emperors. Today, to have it coming is to expose the nakedness of masculinity or whiteness or some other sacred cow of the self-serious; the trolls these days are the red-faced ones, the ones who cannot stand to have their worldview made fun of. "Butthurt" used to be a schoolyard taunt for our marks, not us.
Let me give you an example of the difference. Let me tell you about a man we called Feltcho.
I am unsure where we found him — the record offers only this vaguely Dickensian generality: "Feltcho, like all other internet crazies, eventually got an Encyclopedia Dramatica article written about him." Feltcho was a run-of-the mill conspiracy theorist, a believer in an international Jewish conspiracy but not — in his words — a Nazi, only "one who sees." This in itself was unremarkable and had things ended at that, Feltcho might've faded into the back catalogue of internet oddballs discovered, written up, and taunted. But at the time, Encyclopedia Dramatica had a public phone number linked to a voicemail box accessible by the group, and Feltcho, discovering that a Google search for his name turned up his entry as the first result, began making phone calls. The rants he left — filled with vague legal threats, stuttering disgust over the "pornography" he found on the page, and an apparent misapprehension that Encyclopedia Dramatica was some kind of school project somewhere — became a source of enormous entertainment. The transcripts are still available here (the better pull quotes are unprintable in this context), but they culminated in a call back from Auernheimer, who coaxes Feltcho into saying the words "I have been trolled by Bantown" (on the false promise that this will bring the page down). He never left another voicemail, but Feltcho kept calling for years, with threats of legal action just around the corner. His page still stands.
A few things should be noted about Feltcho: first, he is a white man. Second, he was at no time made to fear for his physical safety. Third, the snowballing of his case was entirely his own doing; like the best trolls, the fire was fed by the mark's insistence on furthering his own embarrassment out of a misguided belief that if he yelled at just the right pitch, he would be restored in his status as a powerful, respected truth-teller. Was antagonizing him some great service to the world? No. Was it juvenile? Yes. But it was fun, the mostly harmless kind.
(Editor's note: Feltcho said he was misled and harassed by the people behind Encyclopedia Dramatica, and that the information on his page is inaccurate. He affirms that the voicemail transcripts are accurate, though he says they are misleading out of context.)
Trolling as an impulse has always been largely the domain of white men. They — we — are all anxious.
Among other victims of the time: Microsoft executives; AT&T; Myspace celebrities of all kinds; Amazon. All powerful, superficially or literally, all victims of their own defensiveness. None of them targeted because they were speaking out against injustice.
So what changed? Culture, maybe. Ten years ago there weren't quite so many visible writers and activists suspended in the frustrating space between immense cultural influence in writing and the ongoing injustice of their lived experience. To subscribe to the theory that trolling targets anything trolls see as a sacred cow without any underlying political agenda of their own is to believe that trolls now taking aim at the least among us is just a reaction to how much the mainstream has begun to accept those voices. Feminism is in — therefore, it ought to be mocked. Yet this explanation seems inadequate. It strikes me as too easy to see trolling as some force of nature not explicable by political motive. Moreover, such an explanation would seem to place the blame on activists for their harassment — "If you want to be left alone, stop being so successful and popular." This isn't right. The world may have turned to bring up new targets, but the trolls have done the larger part of changing.
For all of my desire to complicate the trolling narrative, to insist that at one time our motives were permissible if not strictly noble, to suggest that it was fun and harmless and surprisingly diverse, trolling as an impulse has always been largely the domain of white men — and especially of those acutely aware of a world where the theoretical foundation of their inherited power is crumbling. They — we — are all anxious. The difference is in how we cope. This fear does not deserve pity, nor does it take priority over the far deeper worries of the genuinely maligned, but there is something explicable in this alienation. It's worth having a little bit of empathy if you want to understand where these people came from. Ten years ago, the worry was easily enough ignored: displaced into pranks and jokes and insistence on being above it all, somehow outside both systems, crumbling and ascendant. Trolling was escapism; a denial of one's place as part of a threatening world by way of imagining a troll as its incidental trickster, here to expose all vanities in equal measure. Today's so-called trolling is the opposite: it is an explicit part of these power dynamics; a reactionary force desperate to stop the world from changing in this way.
It's why trolling isn't really trolling anymore. The motive isn't sublimated. The rage is bare. Trolls don't expose the vanities of the world these days; the world exposes the vanity of trolls. I don't know if it will ever go back to how it was.
When ToorCon was over, I hitched a ride back to Los Angeles in a rental car with a man named darkcube. It was nearly midnight, and he needed to catch his redeye to Detroit. We returned the car to a rental agency down the street from LAX, finishing off the last of the drugs in the parking lot and taking the keys into a room with velvet walls and hanging cigar smoke and a silent TV. The owner drove us to the terminal, and I took a cab back to my parent's house in the Valley. That winter I would finally find some proper friends and some approximation of a girlfriend. Without ever quite deciding to leave, I realized a year later that I hadn't ruined anybody lately and I hadn't checked Encyclopedia Dramatica and I wasn't really a troll anymore. Thank God. I'm not arrogant enough to believe that I am immune to corrosive influence. I'm not sure that if I had hung with it, I wouldn't have woken up one of the monsters one day, browsing for some activist to terrify with simmering, impotent rage.