After 666 comments, a friend of mine was kicked off Metafilter. That was ten years ago. He told me his old screennames over drinks a while back, and I spent the rest of the evening reading the archived posts. As "Settle" and later, "Kettleblack" he was often “cryptic and awkward,” as one commenter complained. But there was something honest about his writing as well, (which, of course, I say with all the biases of an AFK friend.) I can see where what he was trying to express wasn’t quite what was being said. The frustrations of college and crushing loneliness compiled into posts that were illegible and diffused. However warm and welcoming an online community may be, it is still words on a screen. What do you write when words to express yourself fall short but the desire to be heard is still strong?
He would put a duck emoticon — o< — at the end of his sarcastic posts, in a way to brand himself, but it also seemed to reveal the person and the representation were not the same. Toward the end, the posts became more inflammatory and designed for reactions. Metafilter just wasn’t the place for it. I talked with him about the experience over gchat the other evening:
How did it begin? Did you have any real sense of the identities of the other people on Metafilter?
my first posts were actually pretty civilized.
I gathered a sense of who the colorful people were, but I got the impression that the people who were most interesting AFK were not the most amusing people on there.
What do you mean by that— like the wittiest people clearly put a lot of time into their answers?
No, like there was a group of people who used the site for earnest discussion because they were having their emotional needs met by reality, and then the rest of us.
I think I confused this earnest discussion for sadness on some level because a lot of my first posts were childish attempts to bring some levity into the family.
To get reactions from people? Or just to put yourself in the discussion on your own terms?
I think when I realized I wasn’t getting the results I wanted I began to just look for reactions
It evolved into a game of course where I was pitting an increasingly imaginary version of myself against a lot of other characters and then a bunch of innocent librarians and programmers.
How soon did things change?
Like a week
My first post was basically a document of my netstalking of some netstalking someone ELSE had done who I was netstalking
So since the people I was stalking was stalking someone, I stalked them, and that was my first post, a series of usenet prank artifacts.
The kind of old microcelebrity that inspired multiple usenet group subdomains…
that was the joke, they made a million subdomains for this guy, thinking the whole world would see
And now it’s all blended into an area of the internet barely anyone knows about any more
One of the guys in on these antics is now a pretty prominent business techno-blogger.
I was inspired by Jerkcity, which is a still-running webcomic
Which I had been reading since 1999 or so, a long long time.
It centered around these incredibly close online friendships, it was basically chat logs between these guys, I wanted something like that.
That post is just a bunch of odd reactions. And partly because it’s about usenet in 2002
Precisely, and you can see how poorly I read that situation. In retrospect it is absurd to think that anybody but me could have even passing interest in that.
I didn’t really read metafilter then, did people put themselves in their posts the way you did? like here: http://www.metafilter.com/activity/13755/posts/mefi/ with all the small font asides you added
Sometimes, I definitely liked stretching the limits of the allowable html.
I think especially Kettleblack had some extremely creative formatting.
and this one http://www.metafilter.com/15997/Trolling
Oh how meta, good find
It reminds me of an all-caps piece I wrote on poemranker entitled “HOW TO BE FUNNY”
Remind me again what were you doing on Poemranker?
Well that was interesting in that the mischief makers were really given a great forum to practice their art, and I do mean art
And the captive audience was of course hysterical to bait
I actually became online-buddies with some guys at the comp-sci program at Cambridge who were writing these really rude limericks
And also this actor in LA, who I met once.
We all had different trolling styles - mine was mostly about abusing the format
I once turned an image of a man groping another man’s genitals into an enormous piece of ascii art
I would also do these poems where I would copy and paste nonsense so it would take 5 minutes to scroll through and then at the end say “THANK YOU I AM COMMITTED TO EXCELLENCE
Poemeranker, as we called it, was not very well moderated
Could you see how many people were reading?
yes, and it gave me great pleasure. Some of the outraged comments were delightful.
"I’m speechless. I’m sorry, and I have no wish whatsoever to spark a
race war, but as a Brit this typifies what I hate about Yanks. Where is
your style? This is an absolute horror of a piece. 0, and for the first
time ever if I could give minus points I would. The worst piece of shit
I’ve ever read on this site. I can’t believe a poem has been posted
going through the alphabet for inspiration. Not only that, but your
verses are completely and utterly uninspiring. The final line beggars
belief, and your use of caps throughout and the various references to
homosexuality suggest that you are a child pretending to be an adult.
that one still makes me laugh
"Does it all have to be in capitals? I feel like I’m being shouted at.
Quite like the poem though.”
were most of the people there sincere?
"I was kind of into this until the stupid faggot fuck face stanza. It
took me right out of the poem and I couldn’t finish it. “\
Some were, some were in on it, some were in between
i’m trying to figure out what made trolling that site fun. or at least not boring
There were just enough serious teenagers to make us feel like we were being rude at church
also it was competitive - me and this guy Dark Angel would one up each other with AIDS limericks
The funniest part of this is that whenever I got into a serious relationship with someone AFK, or IRL as I call it now
I would feel this urge to show them my AIDS poemes.
The emotions surrounding this activity have come into clearer focus as time moves on
i think i just found those poems
oh no I thought I deleted them
Dark Angel didn’t
metafilter was much more troll resistant
what do you mean?
Well it was a more cohesive community, those people knew each other in many cases
And these people often had more wholesome uses for the site
Ranging from ordinary procrastination to thought provoking discussion
and other things adults do which I never understood
It was ahead of its time. It is still pretty unique in how diverse and large yet homey it is.
Again this is what attracted me to it as opposed to, I don’t know, Fark I guess.
It seems like you mostly liked the people on metafilter
I have never disliked someone on the internet
I have done obnoxious things to some people
I never really recognized them as real people
Which had ugly consequences
And being about ten years younger than most of the people on the site had to be part of it
Yes, I wanted to be the baby
Middle child and all that
You have to understand my social circumstances at the time were very very bad
i imagine the most frustrating times would be when you wouldnt get some kind of response —like http://www.metafilter.com/15967/Really-Good-Haiku-in-English
"agreed settle- the appreciation of the minimalist beauty is where the enlightenment lies, wackybritt."
Those were certainly not my favorites. I liked stirring controversy, where some people would take my side and others would be disgusted
I think on a very deep level boys want to make girls scream in horror
So, the duck emoticon….
That arose out of people wanting more clarity vis my motivations for saying idiotic things
Since I valued their attention, I wanted to keep them on board so I made that concession to their understanding
that is the post in question
What’s funny is, it imagines people will remember that comment
Yeah, although to metafilter’s credit at least some people would
You’ll note someone right down from there called up some old comment of mine
a comment about my body and amphetamine use
lots of teenage issues being aired
Oh that’s right. And that kind of deep reading is probably what kept you on the site then, right?
a little goes a long way
I mean I was at a point in my life where I would go months without having any sort of personal interaction with anyone
None of those people knew how important that was to me
Well they knew insofar as they could deduce from how annoying I was being
yeah, people generally were so much more invested in conversations online then. it makes sense. so they would remember your interests, habits…even in a negative way.
now the o< makes more sense
After I got banned, I returned with a name that rhymed with my old one, like some sort of demonic posession
Anyway I did a post about something interesting, and deep in the comments I dropped a o<
and someone picked up on it
Which I am sure gave me quite a thrill
how did you get kicked off the first time?
I was being consistently annoying
I think people were complaining
also I threatened to show up to a meetup and beat people up or something
ahh, that’s crossing the line
Yes, any time your bad behavior leaks out of the internet it is a big mistake. It only took a few such incidents to make me realize that.
All told it wasn’t that bad, kids nowadays outdo me by miles, but it was very bad
I mean I can keep the idiotic behavior a secret but I have trouble living that down
were you in touch with the people behind the site as yourself ever?
I never contacted people on the site
I certainly would have kept it secret
what happened when you were banned? you couldn’t login again? or did you get some kind of message?
No, I just couldn’t log in
although when you had threads deleted the mods would enter in funny reasons
so what we see in the archive is that which *wasn’t* deleted
Not too many were deleted, the moderation was very lax back then
and KettleBlack was kicked off the site too?
did you try again after that?
they started charging $ for membership
possibly as a reaction to people like me
Although I think I was the most obnoxious person there at the time
How do you feel about this experience in retrospect?
I would say I’m lucky
The internet has gotten a lot better at forming places for people to not grow up
People like me are so common that they’ve formed their own communities
Which is unfortunate because what I really needed was to grow up a bit
ongoing process of course
But I am lucky to have not had people who liked me for who I was when I was truly awful
so there was just enough interpersonal connectivity then? it still had to be hard
It was enough to keep me being a bastard but not so much that it sucked me in
I sort of went from one place to another
Eventually I became less destructive
But the number of truly horrible people online has only increased
you think these people are horrible or just working things out?
I don’t think anyone is intrinsically bad
I think there are a lot of teenage boys without a future
The problem with this behavior is that it escalates
no one act is ever enough because none of them address the underlying vacuum in their life, of course I am projecting quite a bit
if the point is to get a reaction that doesn’t stop
So if the internet is big enough, and there are enough earnest women running websites about their rabbits, there is an unlimited number of people to move to tears
do you fall into these habits anymore?
No, my vice is still wanting to make people laugh
Same thing really but a lot less innocuous
I am a big hit on the /r/hiphopheads subreddit, but not active elsewhere
I did some pretty hilarious couplets about the lil wayne hospitalization
LEAN WAS A POPULAR DRINK, STILL IS
GOT ME DYIN HARD, BRUCE WILLIS
I am proud of that one
it’s got to be strange to think of the metafilter archive as a document of your history at that time
It’s horrible because I can’t delete it
The text is so worthless but it really did occupy my time
I would have been better off not having it as an outlet
Well I might have just killed myself, but I like to think I would have done something constructive
It’s dangerous having a meaningless outlet for your energy
you don’t think of it in retrospect as just testing things out?
It didn’t feel like I was taking much of a risk at the time
You can turn off the internet
it was just reaching out to anybody in general?
The fact they talked like a family is what attracted me
It seemed like a place I could have value
right because even the weird one in the family has a place at the table
It’s funny I always thought I would find a place
everyone around me did
maybe it wasn’t the right table then
But I have pushed away many plates to extend this metaphor further
virtual relationships are easier
Some of the most overwhelming experiences I have involved nothing more than realizing that whatever weight my consciousness had others had too in equal measure. Online relationships keep me from feeling that.
online relationship feels out of balance?
they feel safer in the sense, I can turn them off, I can have a flexible notion of myself
When you hate who you were in 2001 because you have documentation of your behavior
the idea that you are a certain person is sort of distasteful
I would rather reinvent myself with every person I meet
But in person that is harder, no backspace key on my shitty posture
that’s going to be a problem for every kid from now on
It will be different when it is normal
I didn’t grow up sending pictures of my dick to girls, I don’t get the kids
there’s nothing name or image-wise to connect you. it’s really only you that knows it is there
Yeah, it’s funny, as I said, I consider it a very intimate thing to show people that stuff
mostly my poems and old livejournal
but you want these people to see it though? for the same reason confessing anything to someone close it hard, right?
Thats an excellent point you bring up
There’s sort of a pit in my heart and the only efficient way to show someone is to point them at the jokes it made
A relationship that doesn’t see that side of me isn’t real
that you need to be accepted to feel authentically cared for, but then it’s so hard to believe that everyone has these kinds of dark spots
Well, i think mine is a bit darker
More tempestuous, and certainly more poems about homosexuality
I’m not online friends with people anymore, I gchat with family and people I know now. How boring.
not a lot of avenues in nowadays
No, but I’ve gotten used to that kind of life
I realize I was on an odd path the whole time but it seems clearer now
you had the internet as a witness. to acknowledge you were a person somewhere in the world
Yes but it also showed me the value of loneliness
As much as it sort of sustained me it also trained me to be fine with being on my own
Ironically this has worked out well for me, and I consider it a tremendous gift that I have which other people lack