A Universal History of Online Iniquity

by James McGirk

“BREAKING: Confirmed flooding on NYSE. The trading floor is flooded under more than 3 feet of water.” It was a horrid thought, but Shashank Tripathi’s (i.e. Comfortablysmug’s) infamous Hurricane Sandy tweet had panache.

Tripathi mimicked the style of a breaking news tweet perfectly. The image of water sluicing into the New York Stock Exchange was too good to be true. An irresistible nugget of news distilling the potent emotions stirred by the storm: Sorrow for afflicted New Yorkers, fear for the future, the thrill of seeing history unspool in real time, and a dose of snickering glee at the idea of cuff-linked financiers wading through filthy water.

The cruelty and incendiary media appeal of Tripathi’s tweet was reminiscent of another notorious prank: the attack on the Epilepsy Foundation. On March 22, 2008, a horde of eBaum’s World users (a community devoted to online humor) logged onto the Epilepsy Foundation’s online forums, and plastered its pages with blinking graphics.

As despicable as deliberately triggering thousands of epileptic fits or enflaming a vulnerable community during a catastrophe may be, consider how hard it is to shock a contemporary audience with a piece of art or literature. As subversive texts go, these are arguably genuine artistic achievements, thrilling to witness in real time or read about afterwards.

It’s an aesthetic experience Sherrod DeGrippo, an information security expert who founded two of the world’s preeminent repositories of Internet drama, Encyclopedia Dramatica and OhInternet.com, compares to watching reality television. “I think that a lot of what is attractive about Internet drama is the combination of schadenfreude and superiority people feel when looking at it,” says DeGrippo. “Reality TV inspires a lot of the same feelings. The viewer thinks of himself as superior, but when examined, the viewer is obsessively voyeuristic.”

When Tripathi’s identity was revealed, he certainly looked like a real-life Omarosa or Wendy Pepper. Here was a hedge fund analyst who wrote a sex diary for New York Magazine reminiscent of Preppie Murderer Robert Chambers and managed a Republican campaign, spending his free time trying to rile people up during Hurricane Sandy: a despicable man, and deliciously so.

Tripathi apologized for his barrage of misleading tweets. Most of the delinquent denizens of eBaum’s World did not, however. Their anti-social behavior was unapologetically deliberate. They were—to use the correct Internet jargon—trolling.

“Trolling is a lot like graffiti,” writes essayist and Internet grey eminence Paul Graham (he founded Y Combinator). “Graffiti happens at the intersection of ambition and incompetence: people want to make their mark on the world, but have no other way to do it than literally making a mark on the world.”

Graffiti is an apt metaphor. It began as a diffuse, sub-literary phenomenon, and grew to become a permanent part of the global urban experience. To make the leap from anonymous malcontents scratching their names on the walls of Roman prisons to a graffiti “artist” like Jean-Michel Basquiat took millennia and a series of technological leaps and daring appropriations.

Christopher “moot” Poole created 4chan in 2003, an online image board that would become, according to NYU digital culture and folklore scholar Dr. Whitney Phillips, a “specially demarcated troll space.” There, tens of thousands of anonymous users interact in real time and together create a flood of never-ending nudity and subversive humor. It was the trolling equivalent of the cheap, portable spray-paint can.

“Pretty much all the people you encounter [on 4chan’s /b/ board] are trolls,” says Dr. Phillips. Ethical issues are cast aside. “Everyone (or almost everyone) is aware of the game and consents to playing.” But when 4chan’s users flock together for the Internet equivalent of a Viking raid they forget that “outside these specially demarcated troll spaces, people are NOT aware of the trolling game and therefore are NOT afforded the opportunity to consent. Trolls don't give targets the opportunity to say no, in fact tend to be triggered when they encounter resistance (the common trolling aphorism “your resistance only makes my penis harder” speaks volumes).”

Media attention is like sloshing gasoline on a fire. In a forthcoming academic article, Philips argues that: “trolls and mainstream media outlets, specifically Fox News, are locked in a cybernetic feedback loop predicted upon spectacle.”

Not only does media attention encourage trolls, it infuses their historical moments with images and vocabulary. “Trolls are cultural scavengers, fashioning amusement from that which already exists,” says Dr. Phillips. She describes a 4chan user who successfully trolled Oprah Winfrey’s online message board by posing as a pedophile. Oprah actually read his post aloud on the air:

“Let me read you something posted on our message boards,” she gravely began, “from somebody who claims to be a member of a known pedophile network: He said he does not forgive. He does not forget. His group has over 9000 penises and they’re all… raping… children.”

It was a trolling triumph. The message incorporated recognizable 4chan memes (the official slogan of Anonymous—an online hacktivist collective closely affiliated with 4chan—is: We are anonymous, We are Legion, We do not forgive, We do not forget, Expect us; while “over 9,000,” is one of the board’s most popular memes; as is anything having to do with pedophilia.) And a clip containing Oprah’s words was spliced with images of various troll memes and circulated.

There is no history on 4chan; nothing is archived. Any image, link, or message posted to the board will soon slip off the board’s front page and vanish unless users continue to “bump” the post or recycle its content.

If 4chan were the only “specially demarcated troll space,” whatever culture was created on it might never stabilize into something more significant. Moments like the Oprah’s trolling would be lost as soon as 4chan turned its attention elsewhere. So in 2004, 4chan and their Internet ilk began to use Sherrod DeGrippo’s Encyclopedia Dramatica as an archive for Internet drama they had witnessed online and that they created.

“The site started as a joke,” says DeGrippo. “A friend had placed an article on Wikipedia, only to have it swiftly deleted. So I threw a quick instance of Mediawiki up on my own server and put the article there. It was intended to just have the one article, but people started adding more and more.”

A Mediawiki (the software that Wikipedia uses) lets users simultaneously create and edit content online. This added another dimension to the experience of Internet drama.

“[Contributors to Encyclopedia Dramatica would] view and then create derivative works off of things they claimed to despise or mock,” explains DeGrippo. “Then those new, created artifacts began to take a life of their own and make a story of their own.”

Because items don’t vanish into the ether as soon as they are forgotten about, Encyclopedia Dramatica evolved into something more akin to a wild garden than the primordial ooze of 4chan’s /b/.

There is actually something resembling a coherent voice to the site. “For me, the voice of a lot of ED's content came from a sysop who went by the name of OldDirtyBtard,” says DeGrippo. “He was a British guy living in LA and a friend, very jovial. I preferred to assume everything written was in his accent, he killed himself in 2010.”

The Encyclopedia Dramatica page dedicated to OldDirtyBtard (Sean Carasov, a one-time Beastie Boys tour manager) contains a strange and touching tribute. There is a copy of his suicide note. A video of his memorial that sadly does not include “the first time in history that got rickrolled by a bagpipe player,” photographs of the man’s tattoos, and a link to his exploits under another moniker that he used to harass the Church of Scientology with (and who allegedly poisoned a feral cat he had tamed).

DeGrippo relinquished control of Encyclopedia Dramatica in 2011 (a mirror of the site continues to be updated and now includes a very unflattering page dedicated to DeGrippo). She has made a second repository, OhInternet, with a more advanced interface that tries to avoid the bloody and obscene “shock” content that infests Encyclopedia Dramatica.

What binds a community like Encyclopedia Dramatica together? “I think people just do things on the Internet until they're not fun anymore,” says DeGrippo. “I ran ED for 7 years, the user base and readership changed on a continuum. People would disappear and come back all the time. I think that's what is appealing about a lot of Internet communities, you can leave them, or they can change, but ultimately it's the same people in the same places.”

Clearly Shashank Tripathi craved community. He left hundreds of comments on the New York Magazine’s website and broadcast more than 67,000 tweets to his followers. His Hurricane Sandy tweet may have had panache, but like any clichéd villain, all he really wanted was for someone to pay him attention.