This face is now a familiar, perhaps even iconic one online — it is the face of Weev, the one-named pseudonymous online troll introduced to the world via the NYT mag story this weekend. In "Malwebolence: The Trolls Among Us," writer Mattathias Schwartz recounts his explorations into the heart of trolling subculture, a world where anonymous cyber-poltergeists wreak havoc on people and organizations via extreme online harassment that sometimes carries over into the real world.
The opening anecdote of the piece sets the tone - these aren't harmless pranksters:
One afternoon in the spring of 2006, for reasons unknown to those who knew him, Mitchell Henderson, a seventh grader from Rochester, Minn., took a .22-caliber rifle down from a shelf in his parents' bedroom closet and shot himself in the head. The next morning, Mitchell's school assembled in the gym to begin mourning. His classmates created a virtual memorial on MySpace and garlanded it with remembrances....Someone e-mailed a clipping of Mitchell's newspaper obituary to MyDeathSpace.com, a Web site that links to the MySpace pages of the dead. From MyDeathSpace, Mitchell's page came to the attention of an Internet message board known as /b/ and the "trolls," as they have come to be called, who dwell there.
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.
Lately it's been the commenters who have been getting all the attention, but those anonymous dart-throwers don't hold a candle to the kind of, well, malwebolence exhibited by the trolling community.
This takes us back to our poster-boy, Weev. His are the comments that have been excerpted across the internet, mostly because they are, if I may, the bats--t-craziest. "I hack, I ruin, I make piles of money...I make people afraid for their lives" is only the start of it:
"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.
In addition to being crazy, he is also scary — real-world scary, like this: "Weev says he has access to hundreds of thousands of Social Security numbers. About a month later, he sent me mine."
What's interesting about these web-themed articles is how they, to borrow a phrase, explode online — not just in coverage, but in how they are debated and expanded, with actual principals weighing in — even the author — and adding to the story. Semi-iconic troll Jason Fortuny, whom Schwartz likened to a troll 'spokesman', wrote a lengthy discourse on the piece on his own site (and in the NYT comments sections), emphasizing his points of importance and his own message:
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.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.
(Fortuny's most famous experiment about human behavior was posting as a woman seeking a "str8 brutal dom muscular male" on Craigslist, and then posting the names, email addresses and photos of the men who responded.)
He did, however, offer a magnanimous appraisal of the article ("an exemplary piece of journalism") and of the editorial processes that resulted in some of "the finer points of trolling" getting left out ("We all need to remember that Mattathias answers to an Editor, and that Editor has to balance the sincerity of the piece with the practical needs of the readers...[t]he facts and opinions that Weev and I put forward have to be distilled down into something manageable and accessible to the general public").
Weev was a bit less charitable on his livejournal page (livejournal? For this omnipotent Troll of Trolls?). Here's his beef :
I while ago I met with Matt Schwartz from the New York Times Magazine, under the explicit condition that I would be covering philosophy and history and not my personal business. I feel I didn't really get what I want out of this exchange, as the important philosophy I conveyed to him was only conveyed in short bits that I think were taken out of context. What I feel was most important and totally untouched in the mainstream media so far, the history troll organizations, was not covered at all.
...and here's his pitch:
If any members of the media (old or new) would like to give the real story Matt passed over some coverage, they can contact me by sending an email. Also, if you agree with my vision of the future, are an "accredited investor" according to the SEC's regulations or just an investor who is not a US citizen and would like me to start you a private investment trust, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org to chat (minimum startup capital, 700k).
Here's his philosophy — click to read it all, but basically he's "got some deeply veiled gnosis to share about the nature of reality, about ancient Gods, and about the future of humanity." Oddly, it seems to culminate in the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, which as I recall was all about harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding. If I read the article right, that isn't really the troll philosophy. But where there are showtunes, there is hope.