My name is Isabella Tangherlini, I am twenty years old, and I used to be an internet troll. It sounds like something you’d hear at a group therapy session with a twelve-step program, or maybe an episode of Dr. Phil. Either way, it’s not a very good way to introduce a person, or an essay. The word “troll” conjures an image of a short, hairy imp with pointed teeth and a penchant for lurking beneath bridges. And this negative imagery is absolutely on point when it comes to the business of online trolling. Many have a simplistic view of Internet trolls—but trolls are more than simply anonymous bullies. Trolling is a bastardization of culture jamming, itself already a form of anti-consumerism with roots in anarchy and subversion. Trolling takes this anarchy to a different level, an extreme form of schadenfreude. Trolls basically weave through the online universe creating conflict and discord as they go. The terminology and culture are complicated and extensive, with many ins and outs and bizarre rules and caveats. The basic idea is simple: trolling exists for trolling’s sake. The vitriol, dissonance, and bedlam left in a troll’s wake is the point. Nothing is sacred, nothing is off-limits—everyone and anything can be trolled.
My career as an internet troll began in the library of my high school six years ago. I was a fourteen-year-old sophomore on lunch break with two friends: Michael, who owned a full-body camouflage suit and loved airsoft guns, and Robert, who once set my jeans on fire in Chemistry with a torch lighter. We were discussing our impending sophomore research paper and brainstorming potential research topics. After a while, Michael, bored, asked me, “Would you like to see some kittens?” Michael logged into his school account and brought up the web browser. “Here,” he said, motioning to the keyboard.
“I thought you were showing me kittens,” I said.
“I’m feeling a little lazy. Type in encyclopedia dramatica dot com slash kittens,” Michael said. I heard Robert snigger and cast a knowing glance over at Michael. Frowning, I followed Michael’s instructions and hit “enter.” I was greeted with an entire page of the most viscerally graphic images I’d ever seen. Stillborn children with horrifying birth defects. Rows and rows of mutilated genitals afflicted with venereal disease. A man who had attempted suicide via shotgun, and failed. Bizarre illustrations of fetish pornography. “What the hell, Michael?” I whispered, quickly closing the page.
“That’s kittens for you,” he replied, laughing.
This morbid experience might have turned a person off the internet forever. ButI was intrigued. Although the images were gruesome, I was more interested in the reactions to the pictures recorded in the comments area. No one seemed particularly perturbed by the images. If anything, the commenters were glad to think the pictures would disgust other viewers. This strange website with its flippant disregard of society’s taboos piqued my interest and I wanted to know more. I went home and returned to the website, and one of the links at the top of the page was simply titled, “4chan.” But what is 4chan?
4chan is, officially speaking, an image-based internet forum. You post a picture, people reply to it, and discussion happens. 4chan is organized into dozens of different boards that cater to different interests. Do you like cars? There’s a board for that. Video games? There are at least four boards dedicated to them. Grown men discussing which animated pony in a show for little girls is the most sexually appealing? Yes, there’s a board for that, too. 4chan is almost completely anonymous, and keeps no archive of the thousands of threads and pictures that are posted to it daily. Once the thread reaches its post limit it disappears forever. Maybe because of the anonymity, or the lack of archives, there’s an aura of mystery around the website.
The most famous board on 4chan, whereall the worst horror stories and tall tales come from, is /b/. /b/ is the “random” board of 4chan, where a user can start a thread about virtually anything. For whatever reason, /b/ attracts more trolls than any other board, which explains its harsh reputation. I was fascinated by /b/. On it, nothing was sacred. My heart pounded as I waded through images that felt secret, forbidden. I was privy to the very things society tells us to close our eyes to. What was hidden from almost everyone, was laid bare for me. I found dozens of threads featuring dead and mutilated children, terrible war crimes, and amateur snuff films. There were also discussions on why the Holocaust was almost certainly a hoax, and what seemed like a veritable ocean of white supremacist theories. And yet, despite the serious tones of the conversations, a muted tone of sarcasm ran throughout the whole place. Somehow, I understood that this was the ultimate “Just kidding!” Yes, the jokes were awful. The humor was off-color to the extreme. But these people were largely harmless. I didn’t believe the anons I came across on /b/ were genuinely bad people. I thought of /b/as a place where we could participate in the unfiltered, honest conversations that only took place in real life after a few drinks.
But some of us, an inner circle of people, had different intentions. Most people who trolled on /b/ were trolling the other boards as well, like /o/ (the automobile board) for example, and posting irrelevant content to anger the regular posters. Like, they liked cars, so we’d find really awful porn of dragons having sex with cars and post it in one of their threads talking about BMWs. Sure, it was nasty, and at the end of it all I had a collection of weird images saved on my laptop, but to this day I find that stuff harmless.
The real trolling took place off-site.
Back in 2010, there was a series of truly epic flame wars taking place in the comments section of YouTube. If you’re at all familiar with the comments section of YouTube, you know it is the ninth circle of comment hell, dripping with personal, often vicious attacks. Flame wars were an everyday occurrence then, as they are now. But what set the flame wars of 2010 apart from today’s wars were the participants. On the internet, spread across many sites and forums, are a group of fetishists known as “Furries.” Furries are people who are attracted to anthropomorphized animals. Members of the community vary in terms of their level of outspokenness. But, like any fringe community, the loudest members are often the worst. And on YouTube, the loudest furries were beginning to grate on the nerves of /b/. To /b/, furries represented an extreme fringe community even they didn’t want to accept. While furries rallied for acceptance and normalization of their behavior, /b/ lashed out against them. I took part in those 2010 flame wars between /b/ and the many furry-centric YouTube channels and users. Any prolific furry user whose channel we found out about, we attacked. Posting nasty comments, flagging their videos for no reason, making parody videos of their content—it was all-out war. The furries retaliated. They would post furry pornography on /b/, or make videos of themselves in their animal costumes ranting empty threats. In retrospect, I don’t think I fully know why /b/ chose to target the furry community. But I latched on to this dislike and made it my own, even though I’d never felt personally offended by furries. I wasn’t in any school clubs and had few friends. I felt a greater sense of companionship with the faceless, hateful, politically incorrect horde of /b/ than I ever did with any of my classmates. And the feeling that I could say or look at whatever I wanted online gave me a greater adrenaline rush than anything I could do as a high schooler with limited freedom.
The thing about being an internet troll, though, is that eventually who you are online and who you are offline start to blur together. And when you post on places like 4chan, those two personalities meld into something uniquely unpleasant. To be short, I was a really mean high school sophomore. I would openly bash my Jewish classmates. Despite being a member of the LGBT community myself, I freely used the word “faggot” in everyday speech. Once I was sitting with Robert in our chemistry class, and instead of taking notes we drew the popular memes of 4chan in the back of my notebook—Kanye West interrupting Taylor Swift at the Grammy Awards, Rick Astley singing “Never Gonna Give You Up,” and Advice Dog, the puppy who gave questionable counsel. I saw nothing wrong with what I was doing or who I had become. For me, everyone was in on the joke. It wasn’t my fault if they couldn’t detect the sarcasm in my voice, or tell that I wasn’t really anti-Semitic or racist or homophobic. As far as I was concerned, the uninitiated were beneath my notice—4chan was like a secret club that only a few people could join, despite the millions of users worldwide who posted there.
I browsed and posted on 4chan daily until I was a freshman in college. And then….I stopped. I was a sophomore in college when I realized that trolling, this culture of nastiness, wasn’t who I wanted to be. 4channers call it “troll’s remorse”—the sudden moment of clarity when you realize that being mean to another human being for no adequately explored reason is kind of awful. And troll’s remorse hit me hard when I remembered the longest-suffering victim of 4chan’s efforts, Christian Weston Chandler. Christian—abbreviated on 4chan to Chris-chan or CWC—was a 24-year old, high-functioning autistic man who made videos on YouTube about his fan-made comics and figurine collections. He posted a video venting his rage at not winning a contest, which caught the attention of many viewers—including some 4channers. From that point on, Chris-chan was trolled mercilessly for nearly five years. He’s been hacked, had his personal information leaked, he’s been harassed, and mocked for being sent to jail and suffering the death of his father. Chris-chan’s life has been thoroughly tainted, if not completely ruined, by trolls. When I came across Chris-chan at the age of 15, it was via his entry on Encyclopedia Dramatica. The entry itself was expansive, with many links to chat logs and screenshots. It was all dedicated to Chris-chan and what had been done to troll him. I read the entire entry and its links. In a few hours’ worth of reading, I found out nearly everything about Chris-chan’s life—where he went to school, how many girls he’d dated, where he lived—even where to find his amateur sex tape. He was hilarious. He was pathetic. He was homophobic, unhygienic, and completely backwards. He deserved to be trolled, I thought. I was delighted when I read about the things that’d been done to him: the deception, the fake accounts pretending to be girls interested in him, the dozens of pizzas ordered to his house. At the time, it was hilarious. I’d show my friends his YouTube videos, where he’d be ranting and raving at the camera, laughing my head off while they looked on with mild interest.
“Isn’t he funny, in like a pathetic way?” I’d say, grinning widely.
“Isn’t he retarded or something? That’s kind of mean,” my friends would say. I’d just shake my head and roll my eyes, thinking, He’s just autistic.
Either way, I wanted in on it. I wanted to troll Christian Chandler myself. He was growing harder and harder to find as more and more people trolled him, and the only place I could reach him was through Sony’s PlayStation Network. I found his PSN ID through the Encyclopedia Dramatica entry and clicked the “Add Friend” button. I waited nearly a week for his response. When he accepted, I was ecstatic. “Is this really Christian Chandler?” I sent in a message to his account. “I am the one and only Christian Weston Chandler,” he replied. At that point, my options seemed infinite. What would I do? How would I troll him? Just go the usual route, and call him out for his various online misdeeds? Threaten to call his parents? Maybe try to phish the password for his account?
Honestly? None of these things happened. Once I’d typed out the perfect nasty message and sent it to him, he promptly deleted me and never replied. It was all very underwhelming. Mine was probably the umpteenth nasty message he’d received that day, and definitely not the worst message or the last. My fascination with CWC ended very quickly after that, and I didn’t give him—or my own delight in hurting him—much thought for the next four years.
I was taking a sociology course my sophomore year in college, and one of my friends was commenting on his autistic brother and the stigma he faced in society. I’d had many, many conversations about autism, and heard plenty of stories about autistic children and family members, but for some reason it all finally clicked in that classroom. Trolling Christian Chandler, reading about his whole life and laughing about it on Encyclopedia Dramatica, trying to add to his misery—it was awful. Suddenly I didn’t understand myself. Everything that I’d found hilarious as a high school sophomore wasn’t funny anymore, four years later. Christian Chandler was an autistic man raised by uneducated parents in a low-income neighborhood in Virginia. He certainly hadn’t had the same advantages that I had. I grew up in one of the richest towns in Connecticut and had the luxury to sit in a sociology classroom in a private liberal arts college. Who was I to laugh at Christian? Who was anyone to laugh at Christian? Rich or poor, autistic or not—why did we laugh? And why for so long? Suddenly everyone seemed pathetic to me. The poor guy who’s been harassed and victimized for years and the people who have nothing better to do than type angry words on a keyboard all day. It suddenly seemed so obvious: It’s not fun to laugh at disabled people or tell furries to kill themselves.
It’s been more than five years since Christian was “discovered” by 4chan. I checked on his Facebook page a few months ago, and he still gets nasty comments on his statuses from trolls who won’t give up the game.
I like to think that I wouldn’t fall into the same pattern of behaviors I displayed all those years ago, and I haven’t. But can an internet troll be reformed? Am I really a retired 4channer? I still browse and post on the chans occasionally. My sense of humor remains sharp and off-color. Images of disaster and victims of violence still don’t faze me. Have I really managed to separate my online persona from my offline persona? Or have they simply consolidated neatly into a low-empathy, high-functioning human being?
Maybe this essay is what they’d call the “ultimate troll.” A literary confession on memes and 4chan. You’d never think that the same culture behind the hacking of Sarah Palin’s Yahoo! account would have any place in the digital space of a literary journal, but apparently it does. Haven’t I just trolled you? Reformed, indeed.
Art by Matt Monk
Isabella Tangherlini holds a degree in Communication Studies from Manhattanville College.