When people talk about internet bubbles, there’s a tendency to treat material inside the bubble as somehow naturally occuring. People choose their desired political outlook and then stumble into a land where the news has been ideologically filtered to fit.
From my years as a Dude On The Internet, I feel this framework is incomplete. Some people need to make the actual content for everyone to feed on, don’t they? It doesn’t just emerge out of nothing, someone needs to make an active decision to inject content into the ecosystem. This can take the form of ideologically-slanted websites, inflammatory clickbait, ‘fake news’ — issues that have been discussed to death.
Much less attention is paid to the “groundlings” of the process: the mixture of true believers and hard ideologues and enraged new converts and the bored and the NEETs and internet culture war veterans who actually do the retweeting, check the “new” section on subreddits for good material, and turn tricky political arguments into an easily digested tribal memes for the normies. Maybe some of these people are paid operatives, or Russian trolls, or what-have-you, but the process certainly doesn’t need them. Most will just be happy to be playing for the team.
Tangent, but one fascinating example was the process of Wikileaks releasing John Podesta’s personal emails in October 2016. One could watch as Wikileaks did a massive data dump, announced it on Twitter, which then made its way to Reddit and 4chan, whose groundlings trawled through it in search of the juiciest bits, who then either got a bunch of replies or a bunch of upvotes, which created visibility for that particular email (and the accompanying narrative), which then resulted in more tweets and posts, which could usually wind up as a Daily Caller article by the end of the day, which would be much easier for the normie crowd to digest and share on Facebook.
But the easiest way to contribute to an ideological tribe is a classic: meticulously catalogue the worst behavior of your enemies, to show that the counter-narratives about them are correct, and to further build the outgroup totem. All it takes to do this is some basic knowledge of why you hate a group, an awareness of some of their websites, and screenshot software. Some people literally do this all the time, all day every day: choose your ideological flavor. In many ways, it isn’t much different than what political campaigns try to do: document and broadcast everything that may work as a political hit, wait for (and be able to identify) the prime political moment to strike with a narrative, and carry a backlog of relevant information for any occasion which may arise. Some of this behavior is probably just natural humanity, but on the internet, it can take on particular forms.
Which brings me to Something Awful’s Helldump forum.
For those who don’t know, in the early 00s, Something Awful was among a small handful of internet message boards in which intelligent conversation was a possibility. The website’s founder, “Lowtax,” had a simple solution to the troll problem: if you charge people $10 to buy an account, you weed out the riff-raff. The forum also contained some basic level rules for how to post —novel at the time. Given the barriers to entry, it should not be surprising that Something Awful wound up with a high opinion of itself as a forum and took on the rest of the internet as an enemy: Weekend Web documented the worst of other internet forums in column format, “mock threads” existed on the forums to make fun of other forums in a more real-time environment. Finding the bad shit was a way to forum stardom.
The website Vox has run a thinkpiece explicitly endorsing Something Awful’s approach to moderation: https://www.vox.com/first-person/2017/6/7/15757954/harvard-memes-alt-right-racism-sexism
There was one of these forums, a place called Something Awful, that became kind of a beacon for all of these other message boards. Two things set Something Awful apart — the quality of the content (I can say with certainty that you’ve laughed at memes from Something Awful, where LOLcats and Slender Man found their start), and the fact that in order to post, you had to pay $10.
It was an excellent community that was maintained by a large number of moderators of varied backgrounds that had the ability to back up the rules about quality of content with a cost of $10 to re-register if you got banned. This meant that if the moderation team wanted to crack down on content, they could. It also meant that posters had to keep things relatively civil.
As the years went by, the forum became more and more strict in its rules: an early example was that if you made a thread just to introduce yourself to the forum, then you were an idiot newbie, clearly hadn’t read the rules, and were banned (no refunds). One-word replies got weeded out; outplayed memes and catchphrases became offenses; some topics became forbidden, etc.
Yet, bad posters remained — unwanted entities, ruining the purity of the forums, and threatening a more enlightened future. The desire to clean up the forum resulted in the creation of Helldump. An entry from the “SAclopedia,” Something Awful’s internal quasi-wiki of forum events, gives a good rundown of the idea:
The official birth of Helldump 2000 spawned a new creative outlet for pedophiles, racists, bigots, Ron Paul supporters, gun zealots, defenders of anime and otherwise crap posters to be outed in a thorough, convincing manner by an astute civilian task force. Essentially, it checks and balances the stupidity that seeps its way into the forums as a whole, although (unfortunately) it does not function as a preventive treatment (shit posters still propagate at an alarming rate). Rather, the modus operandi of Helldump is to profile and insult the (assumed) poor goon for his questionable views, and in turn function as a virtual tourniquet in an attempt to stop the bleeding, as well as force said shit poster into online anonymity and / or reclusiveness.
(It’s worth noting that the Something Awful mods made the intelligent decision to not allow doxxing, the digging up of personally identifying information — however, offsite material was allowed to be used in making a case that the poster was bad and deserved to be shamed and/or banned)
Reading that description, even if its done in a jokey tone, one notes how “bigots” and “defenders of anime” and “Ron Paul supporters” are lumped together into an amorphous bloc of Enemies of the Forum. Also note the invoking the perpetual and overwhelming threat of a “shit poster” underclass, needing to be trimmed and controlled by their betters. Threads often played out the same way — being a furry probably earned as much scorn as being a pick-up artist; getting a sad sack internet poster to write an ill-conceived manifesto of anger in defense of himself for being a bad poster was an unambiguous positive. One could very easily become a Helldump superstar yourself, if you could successfully destroy other forum users.
This created an unintentional Maoist environment, in which posters were demanded to answer for a wide variety of sins. Occasionally, bits of rules lawyering would take place in an attempt to find bannable material on the poster that could persuade the moderators to ban the impure poster — “wouldn’t this count as a bannable post?”, etc. This was, in essence, callout culture before callout culture had a name. And lord help you if you tried to quell the mob behavior by pointing out how toxic or arbitrary it all was: this basically meant you were de facto defending racism, or pedophilia, or Ron Paul, or the furry fandom, or perhaps were defending racism via your defense of an anime defender, or whatever. A thread which successfully broke down a poster into sufficient rage or resulted in a ban would wind up in the forum’s equivalent of a hall of fame, “Helldump Success Stories.”
With the main incentives being forum stardom and the sense of community that emerges from being on the side of good, Helldump predictably turned on itself. In fact, they even had an internal purification process (also from SAclopedia):
In addition a process known as Garbage Day has been instituted, whereby every Monday (or Tuesday if Lowtax forgot), Helldump users who have posted at least one thread in Helldump may vote to ban a user and permanently lock them out of helldump. The target must have had at least 10 posts or have made at least one thread in order to be eligible. Voters must provide links to their target’s posts proving they meet the criteria, as well as a link to the thread that qualifies them.
Following a major bout of forums drama, involving a Helldumper who became a Helldumpee, Helldump closed down about 2 years after its creation. Perhaps this other definition from the SAclopedia sums up the whole of Helldump:
A place for fat people to openly mock pictures of slightly fatter people.
Other writers, in admittedly odd outlets, have documented the influence between Something Awful culture and the modern left:
Helldump was closed after two years, and many of its regulars migrated to a different subforum, Laissez’s Fair, “the original Dirtbag Left.” The SA wiki entry for LF helpfully explains that it was “opened up to put all the Ron Paul shit” and became a “refugee holding bay” for Helldump after the latter was closed. “Over time people started making effort posts about such things the nightmare that is our criminal justice system, social justice in general, as well as the ideas of Karl Marx. The lack of moderation was made up for by basically shouting people out of the forum who were stupid MRAs and concern trolls. Gradually the complexion of the forum shifted from liberal to socialist.” Eventually, LF was closed, because “LF posters went internet detective on mods and posted death threats,” including several to then-President Obama.
Many people from the more leftist parts of SA went on to become “Weird Twitter,” which was puffed by outlets like Buzzfeed. John Herrman and Katie Notopoulos, the authors of the linked piece, gravitated toward LF superstars on Twitter and tried to replicate their style. Some of them, such as Lund, Kriss, David Thorpe (who had a regular column on SA and is now a music journalist), Virgil Texas, Jon Hendren (who was, as docevil, once an admin of the “Fuck You And Die” (FYAD) subforum, but was shamed off the site after a bizarre incident involving a charity event featuring Smash Mouth and Guy Fieri), and Alex Nichols, parlayed those connections into posting careers.
As an old goon, this feels pretty darn correct.
As you may have heard, conservative writer Kevin Williamson was let go from The Atlantic, following a Twitter uproar over his hiring.
Williamson made a name for himself as a harsh, sometimes troll-y, conservative writer. His controversial piece on the white working-class, in which he blamed stagnating wages and social breakdown on the moral failings of the individuals, is a pretty good example. The Atlantic is a center-left publication which has seemingly committed itself to Jon Haidt-style ideological diversity; Williamson was a choice made to represent social conservatism. The one article he did produce before his firing was an (oddly appropriate) argument that the libertarian moment was over.
Already an enemy of the left, the journalists and the hangers-on and the groundlings and everyone else went to work on Williamson. In this particular case, it was pretty mainstream and journalist-oriented: Slate’s Jordan Weissman noted Williamson’s old deleted tweets calling for the death penalty for women who had abortions, which itself had been catalogued years earlier by a liberal activist. Popular feminist writer Jessica Valenti tweeted about the abortion comments, earning more exposure. Sarah Jones of the New Republic invoked the idea of Williamson terrorizing his co-workers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates with his (presumably violent) opinions. Coates, incidentally, had praised Williamson as a writer while acknowledging his deep disagreements, but that’s not especially useful to the helldumping process, so it’s not important.
To sum up my point: it may be true that Williamson’s comments indicated misogynistic hatred; it may be true that, even if they didn’t, Williamson’s comments were far beyond the pale and deserved a sacking. Maybe he shouldn’t have even been hired in the first place. That’s all your call. But the fact that these old comments emerged at this particular point in time should be understood as an extension of the Helldumping style: internet activists dug through Williamson’s history for the express purpose of finding material that could be used to persuade an authority figure — in this case, The Atlantic’s editors — that the person (who they already disliked for other reasons) was unacceptable, was bad for the media community, and Should Be Removed. In this context, the specifics of any given offense are irrelevant, except to the extent that they can be weaponized against an enemy — and, after a successful usage, the entirety of the proceedings should be understood only in terms of whether or not the material was acceptable. If it wasn’t abortion that sunk Williamson, they probably would’ve tried something else — hell, Media Matters just tossed out the other bits of anti-Williamson material they were presumably going to use over the next week or so. “We don’t want Kevin Williamson to work at a mainstream magazine” becomes “do you think women should be hung for having abortions?” The previous point, being the true motivator, becomes lost in the process.
“Williamson was uniquely bad” — okay, you could argue that. But the exact same process played out with PC critic Bari Weiss a month or so ago. Having criticized the Women’s March leadership on anti-semitism grounds, the excesses of #MeToo, and the left’s reliance on the word “fascist,” Weiss earned a particular ire of left-wing Twitter. So when Weiss let out an ill-conceived tweet which seemingly referred to the child of an immigrant as an immigrant via a Hamilton quote, the groundling community saw an opportunity to attack an enemy, on grounds that could potentially win over an authority figure. The idea that the New York Times was tormenting and insulting their reader base by Weiss’s continued employment was a theme. Keeping in the Helldump style, a strategically useful op-ed from her sister criticizing campus diversity culture was drudged up by a groundling, as a means of crafting a larger “Weiss family is racist” narrative. Leaks were made to the Huffington Post presenting Weiss’ tweet mishap as causing pain comparable to Japanese internment — in a move that could be described as ill-conceived. As summed up by Wesley Yang:
There were two categories of people attacking Weiss online: those operating with the desperate sincerity that people leading hate-mobs on Twitter bring to positions held in obvious bad faith, and actual bearers of the identity microaggressed-against. Most of the former group were white people (typically women, but a growing number of men) appropriating the resentments of nonwhite people as weapons with which to anathematize and harm other white rivals for power and precedence, at once immunizing themselves (so they believe) from a similar fate, and recasting their own indulgence of malicious personal impulses as politically righteous ally-ship. That the woman who hit the actual triple axel did not perceive herself as being a victim is, of course, irrelevant to those ostensibly offended on her behalf. Nagasu herself told a press conference quoted in Bleacher Report, “I think that tweet that got a lot of attention was just a quote from Hamilton, so I took it for what it was, a joke … I knew that it was a quote from that, so I didn’t take any offense.” This is indicative of a rule governing social media mobs: No one has the standing to moderate mob rage at those it deems to be wrongdoers: not Margaret Atwood, not Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and not even the actual “victim” of an ostensible microaggression.
A bit of a tangent, but I do question how much “readership hate” applies to Bari Weiss, in particular. The comment section on the Times is, to my knowledge, limited to subscribers — if one looks at the top comments on some of her more “controversial” pieces, the ones supposedly outraging the liberal readership such as her defense of Aziz Ansari, you mostly find agreement and sighs of relief.
Thank you for this. What is absolutely maddening about the people clamoring to this woman’s side is that they are tacitly saying that women should not be expected or encouraged to have a voice, to speak their mind, to clearly state what they want.
Like most women, I’ve been in “Grace’s” situation more than once. If it was something I was not comfortable doing, I said so. More than once I abruptly left. But never did I feel as though someone was committing any kind of misconduct — they “asked”, I quite clearly and firmly answered.
The #metoo movement is too important to introduce victorian notions that women are too feeble to speak for themselves. I’m sorry this woman left the encounter having not spoken up for herself, but the fault there must — must — lie with her. Otherwise we are saying that women’s voices are without value.
(top comment, 3109 recommendations)
In fact, when Lindy West penned an obvious response to Weiss’s column, the fourth top comment was a recommendation to read Weiss’s Ansari piece instead:
Sorry, I’m going with the writer of Monday’s piece on Ansari. Stop making us appear to be a bunch of whiny, helpless little girls. You’re not helping.
2094 Times readers, who had already clicked on West’s article, agreed enough to hit the thumbs up. This isn’t a fully formed argument I admit, but I dunno, you would think a writer causing hurt and outrage amongst the readership wouldn’t be receiving such a nice comment section…
Or, maybe more cynically, that’s the point. A staunchly pro-Israel writer approaching the excesses of political correctness from a self-identified centrist perspective is one thing to argue against (and indeed, it can be done). But a labeled enemy of the people, causing Violence to her colleagues through her immigrant microaggressing, her dastardly usage of parody Twitter accounts, as part of her family’s larger racist agenda? Now that’s something easy to make people want to destroy.
That’s the Helldump style: look through everything, pick out the worst, make up a caricature from that, then relentlessly attack it. For entities like The Atlantic, who I believe sincerely wish to try and be beacons of ideological diversity: the Helldump process is going to happen no matter who you hire from the right. If not by professional journalists, then by some groundling or other looking for favs and a political hit. The idea is both to score points against ideological enemies and to make it as difficult as possible to “do” ideological diversity itself, purifying the mainstream media outlets in the same way Something Awful’s goons wished to purify its forums. Many left-wing Twitter figures are straightforward and clear on this point. While I do not believe the right is incapable of this behavior, at this exact moment, I really don’t see any equivalent efforts being made from their side of the aisle — misrepresentations sure, but attempts to get people fired, no. In time, that could change.
But for now, both fire-breathing trolls and moderate PC critics are going to get the equivalent Helldump treatment, the same one that applied to bigots and Ron Paul fans and anime defenders and other Enemies Of The Good. Especially so now that there’s a success story. Jeff, you should be more prepared next time.
EDIT 9/21/18: fixed a few typos and a dangling sentence