When Gawker reporter Adrian Chen publicly outed troll and influential Reddit user Violentacrez as Michael Brutsch two weeks ago in what many are calling the “best story of the Web,” he changed the nature of the Internet forever. The resulting journalist-sanctioned public shaming:
1. Highlighted how ignorant the media is of Internet culture.
2. Forced the Internet’s core psyche, sometimes referred to as the “hive mind,” to mature from a teenage boy to a relatively respectful young adult almost overnight.
3. Legitimized digital lynch mobs.
The Seduction Of A Public Shaming
Our technology may have evolved, but our attitudes have not: Nothing pleases humanity more than a good public shaming. Instead of pelting rotten tomatoes at a man locked in the town square stockade, society’s “sinners” are now paraded on national television, courtesy of Anderson Cooper, and branded with a scarlet “T.” (Just Google “Michael Brutsch” if you don’t know what I mean.)
Brutsch is now the physical face of the most hated thing on the Internet: the Troll. That anonymous person who goes out of his way to provoke a response. While few people understand what trolls actually are, where they came from and why they do what they do, it is generally accepted that they are the scum of the Web. Hating on them unconditionally is not just acceptable, it’s encouraged, as Cooper implied by calling Brutsch a sad “little person,” sitting “alone in his room, typing on his keyboard, interacting with people he doesn’t even know.” Cooper did stop short of calling him a “neckbeard,” but other outlets have not – he’s been called a “monster,” and even falsely tied to the suicide of Amanda Todd and the “capper” community.
Brutsch didn’t create the act of trolling, nor was he the original or most notorious troll. (Brutsch might not even be a troll, as tech culture journalist Xeni Jardin pointed out.) Nor is Brutsch the first man to have an offensive porn collection, or the first man to sexualize children. Regardless, Brutsch will be made an example of, dammit, because we the media (or as Forbes Kashmir Hill called it, “The Internet Cool Kids”) are sick and tired of these vile human beings mucking up our Internet! Never mind that the same media leverages these same transgressors to drive pageviews – all cloaked in hand-wringing and faux outrage (an act Reddit itself is guilty of) . And, of course, the same said media also sexualizes children.
Trolls Are Easy Targets
Calling Brutsch’s transgressions “vile” isn’t an overstatement – his stuff was downright disgusting. Brutsch had his hands in some of the most controversial subreddits, including /r/incest, /r/misogyny, /r/beatingwomen, /r/chokeabitch, /r/Jewmerica, /r/Jailbait, /r/niggerjailbait, /r/rapebait, /r/picsofdeadkids and /r/creepshots, just to name a few. If you are offended by those titles, that’s the point of a Troll: Brutsch’s online behavior is so offensive that anyone that wants to be considered a respectable member of society has no choice but to oppose his behavior.
As Chen describes trolling in his unmasking piece: “A troll exploits social dynamics like computer hackers exploit security loopholes, and Violentacrez calmly exploited the Reddit hive mind’s powerful outrage machine and free speech values at the same time.” If “troll” wasn’t the hot button word of the year, we’d be calling Brutsch’s digital binders of scantily clad or beaten women “performance art.”
Whitney Phillips, a scholar studying Internet trolling culture, put it another way, calling trolls “cultural scavengers” that “engage in a process I describe as cultural digestion: They take in, regurgitate, and subsequently weaponize existing tropes and cultural sensitivities.” Trolls don’t engage in this sort of behavior alone or in a vacuum, Phillips said. Rather, they come out to play when they have a supportive “host culture.”
Enabling Adolescent Behavior
This is exactly what Brutsch meant when he told CNN’s Drew Griffin that Reddit “enabled” and “encouraged” his online behavior: “When two years ago, when all of this was at its height, the audience was appreciative, and supportive of the sort of gallows humor that I put out there.” When Brutsch, who is one year shy of 50, said he was catering to an audience of college kids, he means this both literally and figuratively. Brutsch’s fanbase isn’t necessarily college-aged, but the core Internet psyche is.
Established sometime between late 1993 and 1999 through sites like Usenet and WebCrawler, and then reborn in 2003 with the creation of 4chan, the Internet psyche is skeptical, self-absorbed, sadistic and lazy – except when it comes to porn, cute animals, digital pranks and acts of Internet vigilantism. For various reasons, perhaps elated to being wealthy, white and privileged, users connected to this hive mind regularly post the most disturbing (re: misogynist, racist) content they can find. You might see this behavior as a way to compensate for, and feel alive in, their mundane real-world existences.
The infamous Usenet troll Ted Frank told Stryker in an interview for his book Epic Win For Anonymous: How 4chan’s Army Conquered The Web, that trolling served as “an educational tool for newcomers.” Modern trolling culture has evolved from its roots on Usenet, however, and Frank “insists” the trolling similarities between 4chan and Usenet are “an etymological coincidence.” (In fact, the notion of trolling can be traced back even further than Usenet: Stryker describes comedian Andy Kaufman as one of the finest examples of a “pre-Internet troll,” and draws parallels with the “Greek prankster Pan, the Norse god Loki, and the conniving Native American Coyote.”)
As the Internet goes mainstream and effectively kills the mantra “there are no girls on the Internet,” older generations, women and traditional media increasingly bump into this hive mind. Their presence will age and mature the digitial pysche just by being there, is the hope.
The 4Chan Connection
Much of Reddit’s young, trolling psyche comes from 4chan, specifically /b/, but 4chan has managed to stay out of headlines during this flame war. “I don’t understand why everyone was upset at jailbait, while 4chan continually posts bullshit across the internet and no one bats an eye,” wrote redditor he_cried_out_WTF in response to the Violentacrez controversy. “4chan is apparently the petulant child that everyone pretends doesn’t exist as it throws yet another vase on the floor.”
Reddit (and 4chan) aren’t the only social news sites that regularly tap into the vase-throwing Internet psyche: Digg, 9gag, Fark, Something Awful, Encyclopedia Dramatica, Buzzfeed, The Daily Dot, Know Your Meme and the entire I Can Haz Cheezburger clan regularly regularly tune in. Even Erik Martin and fellow paid Reddit employees were guilty of listening to this psyche when they cried “free speech” and “privacy” as knee-jerk reactions, when they could have denounced the misogynistic and racist behavior Brutsch catered to.
Brutsch gave the community exactly what it wanted. In return, he heaped up “meaningless Internet points… It had a reward, like the monkey that pushes the button to get a food pellet, it’s addictive” said Brutsch on national television. “Why do people spend money playing [World of Warcraft], why do people play games like that to build up their meaningless stats?, [it’s] exactly the same as 800,000 karma on Reddit.” Gamification, baby.
Where Do The Rest Of Us Fit In?
Our reaction, as both journalists and “respectable members of society” prove we’re not that different from Brutsch and the dark side of the Internet. We behaved trollishly when we celebrated his job loss, demanded he be imprisoned or burn in hell, and gleefully discussed how his life is now ruined forever. Our collective outrage – what trolls eat for breakfast – also earned us meaningless Internet points in the form of Facebook likes and Twitter RTs. Chen’s piece made White Knights of us all, but is that enough to fix all the societal ills Brutsch was pointing out with his “trolling?” And is a digital lynching really the way to go?
We don’t accept this kind of treatment of criminals in the real world – our current justice system is not ruled by a mob mentality – but Chen’s piece and the resulting digital lynching is generally viewed as an acceptable means of punishment online.