Wednesday, August 13, 2008

NYT Magazine - The Trolls Among Us

This disturbing article was in Sunday's NYT Times Magazine. i hesitated to post this at first, wondering if some of those named in the article (and linked to) might exact some trollish revenge on me for "judging" them -- and these guys don't just leave annoying comments, they destroy people's lives.

The Trolls Among Us

Robbie Cooper for The New York Times

The Trolls Among Us: Weev (not, of course, his real name) is part of a growing Internet subculture with a fluid morality and a disdain for pretty much everyone else online.

By fluid morality, i think He means amoral. As You'll see below, Weev enjoys destroying people, and He knows how to get the info needed to do so.

Here is some of the first page:
/b/ is the designated “random” board of, a group of message boards that draws more than 200 million page views a month. A post consists of an image and a few lines of text. Almost everyone posts as “anonymous.” In effect, this makes /b/ a panopticon in reverse — nobody can see anybody, and everybody can claim to speak from the center. The anonymous denizens of 4chan’s other boards — devoted to travel, fitness and several genres of pornography — refer to the /b/-dwellers as “/b/tards.”

Measured in terms of depravity, insularity and traffic-driven turnover, the culture of /b/ has little precedent. /b/ reads like the inside of a high-school bathroom stall, or an obscene telephone party line, or a blog with no posts and all comments filled with slang that you are too old to understand.

Something about Mitchell Henderson struck the denizens of /b/ as funny. They were especially amused by a reference on his MySpace page to a lost iPod. Mitchell Henderson, /b/ decided, had killed himself over a lost iPod. The “an hero” meme was born. Within hours, the anonymous multitudes were wrapping the tragedy of Mitchell’s death in absurdity.

Someone hacked Henderson’s MySpace page and gave him the face of a zombie. Someone placed an iPod on Henderson’s grave, took a picture and posted it to /b/. Henderson’s face was appended to dancing iPods, spinning iPods, hardcore porn scenes. A dramatic re-enactment of Henderson’s demise appeared on YouTube, complete with shattered iPod. The phone began ringing at Mitchell’s parents’ home. “It sounded like kids,” remembers Mitchell’s father, Mark Henderson, a 44-year-old I.T. executive. “They’d say, ‘Hi, this is Mitchell, I’m at the cemetery.’ ‘Hi, I’ve got Mitchell’s iPod.’ ‘Hi, I’m Mitchell’s ghost, the front door is locked. Can you come down and let me in?’ ” He sighed. “It really got to my wife.” The calls continued for a year and a half.

In the late 1980s, Internet users adopted the word “troll” to denote someone who intentionally disrupts online communities. Early trolling was relatively innocuous, taking place inside of small, single-topic Usenet groups. The trolls employed what the M.I.T. professor Judith Donath calls a “pseudo-na├»ve” tactic, asking stupid questions and seeing who would rise to the bait. The game was to find out who would see through this stereotypical newbie behavior, and who would fall for it. As one guide to trolldom puts it, “If you don’t fall for the joke, you get to be in on it.”

Today the Internet is much more than esoteric discussion forums. It is a mass medium for defining who we are to ourselves and to others. Teenagers groom their MySpace profiles as intensely as their hair; escapists clock 50-hour weeks in virtual worlds, accumulating gold for their online avatars. Anyone seeking work or love can expect to be Googled. As our emotional investment in the Internet has grown, the stakes for trolling — for provoking strangers online — have risen. Trolling has evolved from ironic solo skit to vicious group hunt.

“Lulz” is how trolls keep score. A corruption of “LOL” or “laugh out loud,” “lulz” means the joy of disrupting another’s emotional equilibrium. “Lulz is watching someone lose their mind at their computer 2,000 miles away while you chat with friends and laugh,” said one ex-troll who, like many people I contacted, refused to disclose his legal identity.

Another troll explained the lulz as a quasi-thermodynamic exchange between the sensitive and the cruel: “You look for someone who is full of it, a real blowhard. Then you exploit their insecurities to get an insane amount of drama, laughs and lulz. Rules would be simple: 1. Do whatever it takes to get lulz. 2. Make sure the lulz is widely distributed. This will allow for more lulz to be made. 3. The game is never over until all the lulz have been had.”

/b/ is not all bad. 4chan has tried (with limited success) to police itself, using moderators to purge child porn and eliminate calls to disrupt other sites. Among /b/’s more interesting spawn is Anonymous, a group of masked pranksters who organized protests at Church of Scientology branches around the world.

But the logic of lulz extends far beyond /b/ to the anonymous message boards that seem to be springing up everywhere. Two female Yale Law School students have filed a suit against pseudonymous users who posted violent fantasies about them on AutoAdmit, a college-admissions message board. In China, anonymous nationalists are posting death threats against pro-Tibet activists, along with their names and home addresses. Technology, apparently, does more than harness the wisdom of the crowd. It can intensify its hatred as well.

While all of this is disturbing, and the "professional" trolls are pretty screwed up people, the Weev dude pictured above "seems" really disturbed (I use "seems" because I am not sure how much of what they say is true), as does Fortuny, with the f**ked up family he sems to have had.
I first met Weev in an online chat room that I visited while staying at Fortuny’s house. “I hack, I ruin, I make piles of money,” he boasted. “I make people afraid for their lives.” On the phone that night, Weev displayed a misanthropy far harsher than Fortuny’s. “Trolling is basically Internet eugenics,” he said, his voice pitching up like a jet engine on the runway. “I want everyone off the Internet. Bloggers are filth. They need to be destroyed. Blogging gives the illusion of participation to a bunch of retards. . . . We need to put these people in the oven!”

I listened for a few more minutes as Weev held forth on the Federal Reserve and about Jews. Unlike Fortuny, he made no attempt to reconcile his trolling with conventional social norms. Two days later, I flew to Los Angeles and met Weev at a train station in Fullerton, a sleepy bungalow town folded into the vast Orange County grid. He is in his early 20s with full lips, darting eyes and a nest of hair falling back from his temples. He has a way of leaning in as he makes a point, inviting you to share what might or might not be a joke.

As we walked through Fullerton’s downtown, Weev told me about his day — he’d lost $10,000 on the commodities market, he claimed — and summarized his philosophy of “global ruin.” “We are headed for a Malthusian crisis,” he said, with professorial confidence. “Plankton levels are dropping. Bees are dying. There are tortilla riots in Mexico, the highest wheat prices in 30-odd years.” He paused. “The question we have to answer is: How do we kill four of the world’s six billion people in the most just way possible?” He seemed excited to have said this aloud.

Uh, yeah. Okay. He's right that the world is in a hell of a mess, but I can't justify in any way the extermination of 4 billion people.

Here's some more pleasantness:
Of course, none of these methods will be fail-safe as long as individuals like Fortuny construe human welfare the way they do. As we discussed the epilepsy hack, I asked Fortuny whether a person is obliged to give food to a starving stranger. No, Fortuny argued; no one is entitled to our sympathy or empathy. We can choose to give or withhold them as we see fit. “I can’t push you into the fire,” he explained, “but I can look at you while you’re burning in the fire and not be required to help.” Weeks later, after talking to his friend Zach, Fortuny began considering the deeper emotional forces that drove him to troll. The theory of the green hair, he said, “allows me to find people who do stupid things and turn them around. Zach asked if I thought I could turn my parents around. I almost broke down. The idea of them learning from their mistakes and becoming people that I could actually be proud of . . . it was overwhelming.” He continued: “It’s not that I do this because I hate them. I do this because I’m trying to save them.”
What We have here is the egocentric, tribal developmental stage given technology far in advance of its moral development. This is the Ken Wilber version of what that stage looks like:
Red (ego-to-ethnocentric—able to take a 1st- to 2nd-person perspective): Red Altitude is the marker of egocentric drives based on power, where "might makes right," where aggression rules, and where there is a limited capacity to take the role of an "other." Red impulses are classically seen in grade school and early high school, where bullying, teasing, and the like are the norm. Red motivations can be seen culturally in Ultimate Fighting contests, which have no fixed rules (fixed rules come into being at the next Altitude, amber), teenage rebellion and the movies that cater to it (The Fast and the Furious), gang dynamics (where the stronger rule the weaker), and the like.
Clearly, this isn't a case of life conditions requiring such behavior, so there must be some developmental trauma that got these guys (and they all seem to be guys in the article) stuck in this primitive and aggressive stage of moral growth -- certainly They have the intellect to be far more morally developed.

While there is a hint of the ethnocentric, authoritarian stage -- able to take a 2nd-person perspective, and maybe a third-person singular perspective -- in these kids, it's very undeveloped and its very situational.

But then i go to Weev's blog and read this:
I saw a lot of truth in India. Truth you wouldn't understand unless you go experience it for yourself. India's motto is "truth alone triumphs". Lately, the truth seems to be beating its way through every barrier in my skull.

This is the one of the few truly selfless things I've ever done. The first was when this friend of mine, Ryan, got beat up by these four dudes. Like, savage, third world style beatdown. Broke his skull, broke his jaw, broke his ribs. As a result, he lost his job and couldn't make rent. I'd known Ryan for over a decade and seen him slowly go bad. Ever since then, I hadn't seen him grateful, or regretful or sorry for anything in his life. But I put him up for a little bit, to the complete ire of my roommates. For a little bit, I got to see what Ryan was like before all the drugs and whores. He was thankful. He was smiling out of legitimate happiness. It was one of the most satisfying things of my life. I think back to an old warehouse church, where a woman with atrophied arms got a motorized wheelchair. She broke down into tears.

One of my best friends, a Catholic, always insults those warehouse churches. "They take in so much money, but they don't even build something nice for their followers to look at." They just don't understand. Those warehouse churches are a manifestation of philosophy as old as Plato's ideal of man as spirit. We don't need any special privilege to enjoy ourselves. If you want to be found, get lost. If you want to feel joy, help someone. To me, that look on Ryan's face of angelic serenity was the most valuable thing in the world to me. To take someone truly broken, beaten down, and in complete despair and let them know that someone in the world cares for them-- that is love. That is truth. That is worth more to me than all the gold idols in the world.
There is a soul in this young man. But i struggle to grasp how this connection with another human being disappears when talking in the abstract about 6+ billion human beings. Must be the lack of a true third-person plural perspective.

Back to the article:

Fortuny argues that the article misrepresents the differences among various trolls mentioned:
However, I think if there is a weak point in the article, it is that /b/ gets painted with the same brush stroke that Weev and I do. Let's be clear: there are distinct differences among us.

/b/ members who engage in harassment are quick to point out that they aren't merely trolls. They acknowledge the nature and seriousness of their actions, and the impunity with which they carry out their deeds. They know who and what they are and they don't pretend to be innocuous. I won't cast a moral judgment on them simply because their value system is so vastly different from anything the rest of us know that criticism is nearly meaningless.

Weev is someone to be feared for obvious reasons. I know a lot of people have tried to argue that he trolled the NYT with his outrageous statements. There's no way he is all he says he is. All I have to say is: are you sure? Let's assume Weev rented that Rolls Royce Phantom. He would have had to have it come down from L.A. and be around for two days for $395/hr. How many trolls do you know are willing to spend that kind of money just to get their kicks messing with a bright young reporter from New York?

And then there's me. I make no excuses for me: I troll every once in a while, and I'm not nice about it. Even though I don't phone harass or do anything that crosses into /b/ territory, I know I'm a jerk. Years ago, I trolled indiscriminately for kicks & giggles without realizing what a fantastic and informing tool trolling can be. These days I troll when I want answers about human behavior. Even though it didn't make it into the article, Mattathias and I talked about this extensively.

The trolling that keeps my attention is the stuff that reveals human nature. Yes, I can have a civilized conversation with you, and take what you say at face value. However, as we all know, people are too often wrapped up in their own politically correct notions to say what they really think and feel. If I want to know what you really think, all I have to do is troll you for a bit, and your true colors will light up like a Vegas billboard. That's something you can't get by harassing someone over the phone.

His point on Weev is a good one -- i was wondering whether to believe the stuff Weev says, thinking He might be pulling a meta-prank on the writer, but the Rolls Royce and the SSN are good enough to make me think He is what He claims.

Anyway, go read the article, check out Fortuny's blog (he pulled the Craig's List prank a while back), Weev's blog, and, if you are brave, 4chan /b/.


nanook said...

i believe a common error in color coding people is the assumption that blue needs to be visible in someone's life or else they are pre-blue. but someone only needs to understand blue in oder to "have it" and to move on. blue isnt about a specific society and a specific law.

all i see in the interview is orange and ocasionally insanely deep green but totally disconnected from emotion and heart for self and other.

the thing about puting delusional selfimportant bloggers to gaschambers or getting rid of over population sounds like a sort of joking that involves mirroring how a green world has a lack of correcting means and thus a "security hole" that allows for "explotation" by regression, so it is yellow intuition and demonstrative orange style regression. its like "i am the devil that you create, but only to show you. i am not a politician but just a singe child. i have no power thus i am not to be judged by morals. but you are, because you create this devil not only in me but in everyone, wich makes him powerfull" its like a cry for parenting while eliminating incompetent candidates for the job, but you cant reduce it to a personal need for parenting, cause its just as well a mirror of the world.

and the thing about saving his parents sounds like an honest believe, though its certainly a huge misunderstanding about what will work out - probably he knows that but still prefers to act out.

am i just overanalysing?

[me replying to such a topic must be an insanely stupid idea, especially since my painbody just relaxed a few hours ago]

peace & thanks for your verry inspiring blog.

nanook said...

btw, was it not ken wilber himself who associated hitler and the holocaust with orange? and the bombdripping bush administration?

Anonymous said...

I really don't know what "colour" these people would be, but they do seem to have an almost complete lack of empathy. Most little children have empathy, so it must have been beaten (either literally or figuratively) out of them at some point. This is why I have such a hard time grasping the inclusiveness of the second-tier memes. I can't see how people such as these contribute anything meaningful to the world or to society (unless they're just an example of what not to do).

(And I know you really liked that article on "i, and You, and We", but your new style of capitalization is going to get old really fast. I'm afraid that, when it comes to language and its rules, I'm hard-and-fast Blue. And I know that a lot of the other "grammar Nazis" feel the same way. Perhaps that makes me pretentious... but to someone who's fastidious about the language, such spelling is what seems overly pretentious.)