The World of Today

By Adrian Chen
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Apr 16






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May 2
NEW YORK CITY: Please come to this event I’m hosting. It’s going to be fun.

NEW YORK CITY: Please come to this event I’m hosting. It’s going to be fun.

Mar 5

Why Theorizing The Web Matters

I took part in the Theorizing the Web conference last weekend, organized by Nathan Jurgenson and PJ Rey. It was really fun, and I was honored to be on a panel with danah boyd and Zeynep Tufekci, two of my favorite internet thinkers. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see many of the other presentations. But it got me thinking about why it’s important that people like Nathan are theorizing the web*.

Theorizing the web is important because we need people thinking about how the web works who aren’t venture capitalists and start-up people looking to cash in on the next social craze. What you’re seeing with the TtW crowd is the rise of a new kind of social media criticism that is augmenting older media criticism: It’s questioning the assumptions and structures that underpin the production of social media like older media scholars questioned the production of television and newspapers. Social networks are the new television networks, at least when you think it about it in terms of hours of media consumed. 
If you read Nathan Jurgenson’s pieces on Snapchat or Instagram, you see someone who really values and understands the technology but is also highly skeptical and curious about how it really works. It all goes back to the question of control: Are we letting these technologies control us while Silicon Valley billionaires get rich? Or can we maintain our critical facilities and agency, while still taking advantage of social media? Theory can help us address the very real issues about social media without falling into the technophobic “is facebook making us lonely” panic that characterizes so much mainstream discourse around social media and the internet.
*I originally typed this up as a comment for this Observer article, but they didn’t make it in because I think I responded too late.

Dec 31

My Top Ten Stories of 2012


2012 was a good year for me at Gawker. I was able to really take time on stories for the first time since I started as a part-time night blogger back in the fall of 2009. Here, in no particular order, are the ten favorite things I wrote for Gawker in 2012:

• Unmasking Violentacrez - Currently the Violentacrez story is 400,000 pageviews short of my most-read Gawker post ever, a blurry picture of Anthony Weiner’s penis.

• The Mercenary Techie Who Troubleshoots for Drug Dealers and Jealous Lovers - About “Martin,” who sets up cell phones for drug dealers and helps people snoop on their spouses. This was super fun to report and write. 

• Inside Facebook’s Outsourced Anti-Porn and Gore Brigade - I got a copy of Facebook’s content moderation guidelines and spoke to a number of third-world contractors who get paid $1 an hour to screen Facebook’s worst content.

• How I Found The Human Behind Horse_ebooks - I tracked down the guy who runs Horse_ebooks, Alexey Kouznetsov. He wouldn’t talk to me, but he’s been more and more forthcoming and I’m still working on doing an interview with him. Maybe in 2013?

• Finding Goatse - The definitive history of the grossest internet meme ever. I became immune to Goatse after this. 

• Profile of internet troll Weev: Can a Reviled Master Troll Become a Geek Hero? - This was hell to write, given that my reporting and his trial was interrupted by Sandy, but I’m happy with how it turned out. Weev gets sentenced in February, so look for more then. 

• The King of Porn Gossip - a profile of porn gossip blogger Mike South. 

• Profile of photographer Daniel Arnold: The Best Photographer on Instagram Got Banned for Posting Boobs - Daniel Arnold is still taking amazing photos on Instagram. And the excellent Paddy Johnson recently named him “The best artist you’ve never heard of,” validating my pretty crude aesthetic judgement. 

• Why do Mormons love Pinterest? I was briefly fascinated with Pinterest this year, and less-briefly fascinated with Mormons. So I was glad to do this article and talk to some Mormons who were so accommodating and nice it almost made me cry. 

• Reporting on “Innocence of Muslims” - This sort of came out of nowhere, but following up on a tip I was able to get the first interview with an actress who appeared in the film; I confirmed the identity of the director as softcore porn director Alan Roberts, and got a copy of the original script.

Dec 24

How I Found Out Santa Was(n’t) Real

My contribution to the Gawker staff post on the day we learned Santa didn’t exist.

When I was seven I became suspicious that Santa wasn’t real. I confronted my Mom angrily a couple weeks before Christmas. Mom denied everything. At least until I broke into a full tantrum. “You’re right, Adrian,” she said with a sigh. “Dad and I are Santa.”

I was stunned. My accusation had been based on only a vague hunch—and a hunch I desperately wanted to be untrue. And now Mom had just confirmed it after a few minutes of me hounding her? But my wavering flame of belief was fanned by the tone of Mom’s confession, which was the tone moms use when they are sick of arguing with their seven-year-olds and will say anything to make them go play Gameboy.
This tone confused me and I got angrier, to the point of tears.

"Are you REALLY Santa?"

"Yes, Adrian, your Dad and I are Santa." (In that same whatever-you want-dear tone.)

"But, mom, are you REALLY SANTA?"

After ten minutes of this, Mom flip-flopped again and said that she and Dad actuallyweren’t Santa, and that, as her tone suggested, she’d confessed just to make me happy. Having stared into the terrifying abyss of Santa’s nonexistence, I accepted this last point with relief. I had overplayed my hand and Mom had expertly called my bluff. I slinked off to play Gameboy.

Still, I had my hunch and I was determined to get to the bottom of it without letting Mom lead me down another psychologically fucked-up hall of mirrors. I needed empirical evidence, something solid to stand up to the adults I’d just learned were equipped with a sociopathic ability to lie when it came to Santa. I came up with a plan.

Christmas morning, we were at my grandparent’s house. My sisters and I roamed the wrapping paper wreckage in the living room while my parents drank tea with my grandparents in the kitchen. I went into the kitchen and asked Mom if she could write a phrase on a piece of paper. I fed her a story about how I was playing a game with my sisters or something. What phrase should she write? Oh, just a random phrase like, say, “To Adrian: from Santa.” She suspected nothing, wrote out the phrase, and I sprinted back into the living room to compare her handwriting with what was on my presents.

I was shocked. The handwriting was completely different. She hadn’t wrapped my presents. Santa was real. The world was a place of wonder where anything was possible after all.

Of course, I didn’t consider that the fact the presents weren’t wrapped by Mom didn’t mean they were necessarily prepared by Santa in his North Pole workshop and not some other non-magical being, like, maybe my dad in our basement. Mom did typically wrap all of the presents for my two sisters and me, but that particular year, she later told me, she’d been so burned out by the end that my Dad did the last batch, which happened to include my presents. So the handwriting didn’t match, and I continued to believe.

The next year I found out Santa wasn’t real. I don’t know exactly how it happened, but I remember not caring too much.

Dec 1

My Top Ten Comedy Movies

I was thinking about my favorite comedy movies the other day and decided to come up with a list. These are roughly in order of favoriteness:

  1. The Jerk
  2. Zoolander
  3. Annie Hall
  4. Talledaga Nights
  5. The Naked Gun 22 1/2
  6. The Big Lebowski
  7. The Pink Panther (The original one, duh)
  8. The Naked Gun
  9. Bananas
  10. Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Does anyone want to fight about it?

Jul 11
The faces of Mechanical Turk.
In 2008 Andy Baio offered users of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk Crowd-sourcing service 50 cents to:

Upload a photo of yourself holding a handwritten sign that says “I Turk for …”, filling out why you turk. For example, “I Turk for Cash,” “I Turk for My Kids,” “I Turk to Kill Time,” or whatever else you like. Be honest, be funny, be whatever you like.

This was (part of) the result.

The faces of Mechanical Turk.

In 2008 Andy Baio offered users of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk Crowd-sourcing service 50 cents to:

Upload a photo of yourself holding a handwritten sign that says “I Turk for …”, filling out why you turk. For example, “I Turk for Cash,” “I Turk for My Kids,” “I Turk to Kill Time,” or whatever else you like. Be honest, be funny, be whatever you like.

This was (part of) the result.

Jun 5

Trollpunk Is the New Cyberpunk

My friend Claire Evans has an excellent post on Motherboard asking "What Happened to Cyberpunk?" Why is cyberpunk, the genre/movement that coupled obsession with information technology and wraparound sunglasses, giving us Blade Runner and Neuromancer, only brought up in the context of rollerblade jokes today?

Claire’s answer: Cyberpunk didn’t really go anywhere. It’s everywhere. 

It’s under our noses. Privacy and security online. Megacorporations with the same rights as human beings. Failures of the system to provide for the very poor. The struggle to establish identity that is not dependent on a technological framework: the common themes of the cyberpunk classics are the vital issues of 2012. Quite simply, we’re already there.

I think she’s totally right. Cyberpunk set the stage for its own demise by being almost too prescient.

But this raises the question: If the fucked-up labyrinth of today has obviated the kind of speculation that drove cyberpunk, what’s taken its place? What’s the current ascendent culture among the young and net-obsessed? The only obvious answer is troll culture. Which, at the risk of an infinite scroll of #seapunk jokes flooding my timeline, I will refer to as trollpunk. I only got five hours of sleep last night and just don’t feel like writing “troll culture” forty times in a row like some coffee-addled anthropology grad student, OK? (No offense, Whitney.)

Like cyberpunk, trollpunk is hard to define, and any attempt will generate noxious clouds of butthurt large enought to blot out the sun. But here: Trollpunk is an aesthetic, technological, and even literary movement focused on the drama that occurs when you fuck shit up on the internet. General touchstones include: 4chan and Anonymous, “Doing it for the Lulz,” ragefaces, N00dz, doxing, swatting, and all activities from Wiki-definition of "trolling". Basically, trollpunk is underground web culture.

Trollpunk used to be the domain of gross trolls who defaced Facebook memorial page or Anonymous partisans planning Scientology raids in IRC. But all the Tumblr kids wanted in, and then old people on Facebook discovered image macros and now trollpunk has become an important part of mainstream internet culture, whatever that is. Nyan Cat, the hacker group LulzSec’s unofficial logo is in a Sprint commercial. Someone would probably be writing the trollpunk equivalent of Wired’s 1993 ”cyberpunk is dead” piece right about now if anyone had bothered to define trollpunk in the first place.

That mainstreaming story just one of many similarities between cyberpunk and trollpunk. Both share close proximity to online message boards and hackers, for another. Cyberpunk founding father Bruce Sterling describes in his epic non-fiction book The Hacker Crackdown how one of his sci-fi writer colleagues was raided when Feds mistook one of his book for a real-life hacking guide. Most of trollpunk came from, or was at least distilled by, 4chan and Anonymous hackers.

Cyberpunk and trollpunk are both a special kind of edgy, tracing (some times crossing) the boundaries set up by contemporary information technology in search of new freedom. But they’re on perpendicular edges. Cyberpunk trucked off into the unknown cyberspace of the near future; trollpunk finds the cracks in today’s internet: unguarded Facebook profiles, trollable commenters, remixable memes.

And both movements have had a real impact on how we approach information technology in general. Claire writes that cyberpunk bent reality towards the fantasies it depicted: “Our idea of technology, our sense of what it can do and how we can live with it, is always going to be at least partially informed by the speculative fiction that first introduced us to it.”  Similarly, the antics of trollpunks have highlighted certain values in the web. On the positive side would be the value of unbridled creativity and a fearlessness of failure. A negative would be a callousness towards privacy: 4chan trolls pioneered the “revenge porn” genre of stolen sexts popularized and monetized by Hunter Moore’s Is Anyone Up.

It’s in the cultural products of cyberpunks and trollpunks that the comparison sort of falls apart. Cyberpunk left us gems like Neuromancer, Sterling’s Hacker Crackdown and Angelina Jolie’s hair in Hackers. Trollpunks’ contributions to the culture are less important but are maybe more… uh formally interesting? Still, it’s not entirely clear that today’s punk is any less punk. We’ve all trolled and been trolled. But there can only be one William Gibson.

Feb 5

Today I Learned What a Jewnicorn Is

Here is a lengthy email I got from Safy-Hallan Farah over Ryan’s post on Gawker about the surprisingly vibrant The Social Network fanfic community. (She mistakenly thought I wrote it.) Safy took issue with his characterization of the work of the community as ‘Mark Zuckerberg fanfic.’ It’s really about the relationship between the actors Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield, she explained.  

Which brings us to the Jewnicorn. It is not Jeff Goldblum with a horn stuck to his forhead. Safy writes:

There is also a large segment of TSN fandom that believes Jesse Eisenberg, and Andrew Garfield are in an actual relationship. This part of the fandom is referred to as ‘Jewnicorn.’ Urban Dictionary defines ‘Jewnicorn’ as: “A word used by the incredibly quality faction of The Social Network fandom on Tumblr to describe Andrew Garfield and Jesse Eisenberg, as both of them are Jews who were clearly raised by unicorns in a magical forest somewhere.”

Judging from the most popular definition, the people of this fandom are well aware that it’s very likely a relationship between the two actors is as mythical as unicorns. 

Judging from her Tumblr, Safy has been set upon by the TSN fandom community. (Admittedly, she seems to be enjoying it.) A lot of the fandom thinks that their community has been ruined by the exposure on Gawker, and Safy is contributing to its demise by trying to explain it to us. As one Twitter user put it: “UGH. long story short some idiot emailed Gawker telling them all about the TSN fandom and i mean EVERYTHING.”

Here’s another response from Iloveeveryoneinthistheatre

No. Just no. This is not okay. An entire fandom is compromised because you just couldn’t sit back and let our mild humiliation pass. Now, it is tenfold. You haven’t proven that we are educated people and proud of who we are, because, for the most part, though educated, we aren’t proud of what we do, that’s why we hide behind sceennames and do all of our shrill, screamy fangirly ranting deep within the shadows of what most people refer to as the weird corner of the internet (tumblr and livejournal share a block with 4chan, don’tcha know), where adults caution their kids not to go. And not only did you go, ‘hey look at us freaks, please objectify us in a future article’, you drew them a fucking map.  They have keywords to search now, more fics will be locked or deleted and you should know that you are fully responsible for the collapse of fandom that will inevitably ensue. I hope you’re proud of your fandom and your accomplishments when 3/4 hates you for outing them without their consent. This isn’t cool. At all.

I’m pointing this out because I haven’t seen a community react so viscerally to being covered since I started writing about 4chan a couple summers ago. This was one, tiny post!

I love that these online communities foster a sense of intimacy that lets people behave and speak in ways they wouldn’t in the real world. I’d probably be out of a job without it, given how much I cover the odd corners of the web. But I’ve never understood the moral indignation when someone from the outside takes an interest. When something like TSN fandom happens entirely on the open web, you can’t be shocked when someone else links to it. That’s the internet, and I suspect part of the thrill of taking part in these communities is the possibility that anyone can stumble on it.

For better or worse, the bubble’s been popped, and Safy did a good thing by trying to explain to me what was actually going on. You should definitely check out her whole letter.

(Oh, and you can follow the whole Jewnicorn drama with this Tumblr search.)

Jan 23

I’m excited to be part of this project with some really great moms! Please stay tuned for future episodes of Mom’s the Word.*

*Not actually endorsed by/associated with Ragu

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