Every week, the New York Times Magazine features some sort of profile article about a person or group of people who are supposed to represent some sort of trend. Every week, the people they choose to write up come off as vaguely horrible, usually in some sort of entitled-suburbanite fashion.
I’m not sure if this is an editorial mandate, but if it is, this week’s feature article takes it to the logical conclusion of just profiling people who are irredeemably awful, and unapologetic about it. This week, they take a look at the culture of Internet trolls:
Jason Fortuny might be the closest thing this movement of anonymous provocateurs has to a spokesman. Thirty-two years old, he works “typical Clark Kent I.T.” freelance jobs — Web design, programming — but his passion is trolling, “pushing peoples’ buttons.” Fortuny frames his acts of trolling as “experiments,” sociological inquiries into human behavior. In the fall of 2006, he posted a hoax ad on Craigslist, posing as a woman seeking a “str8 brutal dom muscular male.” More than 100 men responded. Fortuny posted their names, pictures, e-mail and phone numbers to his blog, dubbing the exposé “the Craigslist Experiment.” This made Fortuny the most prominent Internet villain in America until November 2007, when his fame was eclipsed by the Megan Meier MySpace suicide. Meier, a 13-year-old Missouri girl, hanged herself with a belt after receiving cruel messages from a boy she’d been flirting with on MySpace. The boy was not a real boy, investigators say, but the fictional creation of Lori Drew, the mother of one of Megan’s former friends. Drew later said she hoped to find out whether Megan was gossiping about her daughter. The story — respectable suburban wife uses Internet to torment teenage girl — was a media sensation.
Fortuny’s Craigslist Experiment deprived its subjects of more than just privacy. Two of them, he says, lost their jobs, and at least one, for a time, lost his girlfriend. Another has filed an invasion-of-privacy lawsuit against Fortuny in an Illinois court. After receiving death threats, Fortuny meticulously scrubbed his real address and phone number from the Internet. “Anyone who knows who and where you are is a security hole,” he told me. “I own a gun. I have an escape route. If someone comes, I’m ready.”
This is a deeply unsatisfying article in a lot of ways, starting with the obvious “I feel dirty just reading about these people.” Not only are they unpleasant to read about, the article isn’t even well done.
Of course, it’s tough to say whether this is the fault of the author, or the editor. In places, it almost reads like an excerpt from a longer work, but in classic New York Times Magazine style, they don’t make it obvious if that’s what’s actually going on. Apparently, it’s some sort of state secret whenever they’re taking bits out of a book, rather than buying an original article.
Whatever the cause, the piece as it appears is either really sloppily excerpted from a longer work, or just sloppily written to begin with. It opens with an anecdote about a kid whose suicide struck some trolls as funny, leading to months of harassment of his family. The anecdote is a decent enough example of the antisocial behavior of trolls, but it doesn’t appear to have any direct connection to the people who were actually interviewed for the article, and it doesn’t have any closure.
Later on, we get the following story:
Sherrod DeGrippo, a 28-year-old Atlanta native who goes by the name Girlvinyl, runs Encyclopedia Dramatica, the online troll archive. In 2006, DeGrippo received an e-mail message from a well-known band of trolls, demanding that she edit the entry about them on the Encyclopedia Dramatica site. She refused. Within hours, the aggrieved trolls hit the phones, bombarding her apartment with taxis, pizzas, escorts and threats of rape and violent death. DeGrippo, alone and terrified, sought counsel from a powerful friend. She called Weev.
This leads into a long-ish section profiling “Weev.” Unfortunately, the profile goes on long enough that either the writer or the editor forgot completely about the intro, and it never does explain what he told or did for DeGrippo. She never appears again.
The whole thing is just a frustrating and unpleasant read. The whole concept of printing a long profile article about Internet trolls is of questionable worth in the first place, but if you’re going to do it, you could at least do it competently.
And, of course, there’s no real point to the whole thing, in the end. As with all such magazine profiles, it carefully avoids drawing any conclusions, making any suggestions, or having any clear purpose beyond netting its author some per-word payment. It’s just sort of… there.
Why do I bother reading these things, you ask? Good question. In this specific case, it’s just because the Internet has failed to provide me with anything more amusing to distract myself with while I wait for FutureBaby’s arrival. Get with the program, people!