Are MetaFilter users too cynical? Or simply more intelligent and analytical?
September 25, 2006 8:32 AM   Subscribe

The online confession of a childhood murderer. The story behind a trolling comment that caught notice here long ago and I never stopped wondering about.
posted by mathowie (47 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I once made up a story and posted it on the Internet ... or did I?
posted by chunking express at 8:41 AM on September 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

Are MetaFilter users too cynical? Or simply more intelligent and analytical?

Intelligent and analytical! Intelligent and analytical! We're so misanthropic we trust no one. No one!
posted by geoff. at 8:42 AM on September 25, 2006

Well, the comment may have been a hoax, but the commenter has some problems:

Or my attempt at selling my co-workers on a company intranet, comparing them in value to a bag of old soil (a contributing factor to getting fired). A local mental health charity was not impressed when I edited their newsletter and included a tagline suggesting that it was printed using scratch & sniff prozac ink.

To say those things to be funny is one thing, I suppose, but to do them is anti-social behavior of an entirely different order, and perhaps that's what everyone here picked up on.
posted by Pastabagel at 8:53 AM on September 25, 2006

Are MetaFilter users too cynical?

Who gives a shit?
posted by mr_crash_davis at 9:06 AM on September 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

Well done. Well done, indeed. If in fact cops really showed up, and it's not a further fabrication.
posted by Mayor Curley at 9:13 AM on September 25, 2006

I used to believe it was impossible that people on MetaFilter could be cynical at all, but, after enough exprience with them, I am no longer surprised by anything.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:17 AM on September 25, 2006

Are MetaFilter users too cynical? Or simply more intelligent and analytical?
Since Kaycee Nicole, I think the assumption around here is "it's a hoax until proven true." That was the day santa claus died around here.

Did the Kuro5hin users, both those who supported me and those who were disgusted, actually want the story to be true? Did the Metafilters want it to be false?
MeFites tend to assume the role of hoaxbusters. I don't think it's a question of "want(ing) it to be false" so much as leaping to the most plausible conclusion, then finding evidence to support that conclusion.
posted by whatnot at 9:19 AM on September 25, 2006

I don't think it's a question of "want(ing) it to be false" so much as leaping to the most plausible conclusion, then finding evidence to support that conclusion.

I am sharpening Occam's razor, fer to stab folks with.
posted by Mister_A at 9:28 AM on September 25, 2006

posted by whatnot at 9:30 AM on September 25, 2006

Why give this worthless troll more traffic?
posted by afu at 9:31 AM on September 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

Why give this worthless troll more traffic?

indeed ... i was very active at k5 and remember reading this confession

i decided to ignore it
posted by pyramid termite at 9:53 AM on September 25, 2006

So his motivation wasn't academic, or obnoxiously moral, or any other justifiable method: it was pure curiosity. How is that a point of interest and not just annoying?

Next up, I'm going to tell my boss he's an asshole -- just to see what he does! I'll let him know later that it was just an experiment. You know, the kind of experiment done by a guy who is just curious, not in the spirit of actual research or anything.
posted by mikeh at 9:54 AM on September 25, 2006

Er... so we are paying attention to this asswad? That seems rather stupid. Mathowie, why in gods names would you wish to encourage him?
posted by five fresh fish at 9:55 AM on September 25, 2006

Wow, I was actually reading K5 at the time and remember that comment.

I remember another comment on there buy a guy on K5 who said he let his daughter hang out with pedophiles and planned to get her a vibrator when she was five.

And another guy who was a misogynist who had his kid taken away from him because he acted like a dick during the deliver "staring down" nurses and soforth. He blogged about the whole experience, and he had some serious anger and self-entitledment issues.

There are a lot of weird people on K5.
posted by delmoi at 10:28 AM on September 25, 2006

For what it's worth, the tone in the follow-up story reeks of sociopathy, or at least something similarly iffy. It's all, "gee, isn't it interesting how people reacted," as if human beings (the cops, his mom, K5 and Mefi posters) aren't people, but an alien species to be examined. I'm certain the author is going to read this discussion, too, after discovering it in his referral logs.

In my observation, sociopaths also tend to think along these lines: "okay, I'm caught, I need to act like an 'innocent' person. How would an 'innocent' person act? Oh, I know, they'd act all nonchalant because, hey, they're innocent and have nothing to hide." So they go around spouting off at the mouth instead of being humble and feeling slightly shamed like any empathetic person would do.

For instance this posting: "I'm convinced he's playing up a real incident - exaggerating his own role or something. He seems depressed, and I've said similar self-blame things when I've been in major depressions (though nothing so serious). Still, I'd rather have the police and prosecutor look into it; if nothing else, someone carrying around a burden like this needs serious therapy for his own sake." Is very empathetic and forgiving towards the author. Instead of having an emotion, or feeling empathetic enough with the poster's own confession of depression to not make light of the comment, the author just lumps it together as just another case study in that alien thing called human emotion.

A childhood rival of mine committed suicide in the 6th grade. Therapy's been very helpful towards helping me make peace.

So, James, why not tell this story to a therapist to gauge their reaction? Maybe it would help you understand more about why some people were quite upset.
posted by Skwirl at 10:30 AM on September 25, 2006

At least two other websites picked up on this - RadioFreeNation, which appears to be down, and MetaFilter, which seemed a lot more skeptical (I'm not sure why). Original post, then replies:

posted by delmoi at 10:31 AM on September 25, 2006

Also, my intuition of the other K5 user that delmoi mentioned is harmless. IIRC you're taking the pedophile comment out of context and the virbrator wasn't for prurient purposes or harmful purposes, but because he's got some neuroticly f-ed up ideas about sexuality. I've met him in person and I couldn't imagine him forcing anything on anyone, let alone causing harm. Hopefully, if it ever comes to be, the kid will be all like, "WTF?" then go on with their life.
posted by Skwirl at 10:38 AM on September 25, 2006

The similarities between this guy and the Jason "Look at all the dirty perverts" Fortuny are pretty striking to me. I'm pretty good at ignoring trolls but it's all sort of sad to me, just the same; is it a sense of utter powerlessness that makes people perform harmful "experiments" like this?
posted by peptide at 10:59 AM on September 25, 2006

I don't get it with the trolls. It's the one hobby I can't wrap my head around.
posted by Divine_Wino at 11:00 AM on September 25, 2006

I don't get what you don't get: Attention Perv's. Seen one, seen 'em all.
posted by ewkpates at 11:22 AM on September 25, 2006

What a freaking loser. I'm sorry I actually wasted my time reading through that page.
posted by my homunculus is drowning at 11:31 AM on September 25, 2006

Are MetaFilter users too cynical? Or simply more intelligent and analytical?

I don't know -- if you disbelieve someone who claimed to have been a childhood murderer, that's kind of the opposite of cynical, right?
posted by UrineSoakedRube at 11:44 AM on September 25, 2006

Also, my intuition of the other K5 user that delmoi mentioned is harmless.

i agree, although i've never met him in real life ... his webpage has some pretty interesting stuff on it

he caught holy hell from another user over that whole thing and i got involved in a massive flame war with his accuser over it, because i thought the accusations were way over the line ... later, his accuser hinted that i had told the police he was running a meth lab in his apartment ... utterly batshitinsane

truth is, i think the accuser had a lot more issues going on than the guy he was accusing ... but that's often the case, isn't it?

by the way, the accuser is a stalwart republican and hopes to get involved in politics someday
posted by pyramid termite at 11:58 AM on September 25, 2006

For what it's worth, the tone in the follow-up story reeks of sociopathy

Sociopath was my first thought, as well. As if people online are just bugs under glass who exist for his amusement and edification.
posted by ereshkigal45 at 12:10 PM on September 25, 2006

I'm so mean, I once killed a man just for snoring too loud, and then bragged about it in an online forum.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:18 PM on September 25, 2006

I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him, no, wait, that was Johnny Cash.
posted by ?! at 12:39 PM on September 25, 2006

Thank you for posting this. Not because of the content -- that was shit. But because it contained the name of an article I've been looking for for a long time.
posted by bpm140 at 12:47 PM on September 25, 2006

You shot Johnny Cash?!
posted by Floydd at 12:50 PM on September 25, 2006

The part I like the best is where he asks all these bullet point questions as if they are grave and serious questions to be pondered. I imagine that he nodded, made that face that actors make to show that they are thinking of an idea, stroked his chin, and puffed on his pipe as he typed them in.
posted by moonbiter at 12:58 PM on September 25, 2006

I caught that this morning too. If Matt never stopped wondering about it, I honestly have to say I never started. I had completely forgotten about that until today. But I'm pleased to have been vindicated in my initial feeling that it was a hoax.

I agree with those of you who say that the whole thing smells of sociopathic tendancies though. I don't know if people online are representative of people as a whole, but this kind of absence of empathy is creepily common, IME. It may just be that for some otherwise roughly normal people, it's too easy to forget that the people you talk to online are actually people, or too difficult to grasp that in the first place.

I also think that today, K5 wouldn't have been nearly so eager to believe the guy. 2002 was just about the end of the fuzzy-trusty era. I think now you're assumed to be a troll until absolutely proved otherwise, and even then, you're still assumed to be a troll.
posted by rusty at 1:30 PM on September 25, 2006

rusty, there's little reason to be on k5 if you aren't a troll ... k5 jumped the shark years ago
posted by pyramid termite at 1:35 PM on September 25, 2006

pyramid termite: You troll.
posted by rusty at 1:36 PM on September 25, 2006

posted by pyramid termite at 1:46 PM on September 25, 2006

Henrietta, is that you?
posted by Bugg at 3:13 PM on September 25, 2006

"Are MetaFilter users too cynical?..."
posted by mathowie (34 comments total)

At the outset, let me beg pardon for the old school tone and content of this comment. But it's my experience that a lot of people reading it on MeFi won't know anything about Usenet, or the high art of trolling as once practiced there, so I've no choice but to be a bit pedantic, so as to take them along, while making my points. Not that there aren't a bunch of old time bulletin board systems (BBS) and Usenet denizens regularly reading and posting here, too, which I invite to assist my meager recollections.

But "Locked" demonstrates considerable ignorance of what a "troll" is, as originally developed on Usenet, and various bulletin board sites, when he suggested in his opening of the post that is mathowie's second link, that the hoax he propagated was a troll. His was more the garden variety bullshit post, that any competent 6th grader can create these days, and as such, it wasn't even a good hoax. So, I want to address that ignorance, because of the pleasure of watching and participating in various top flight trolls has given me, and what it taught me and others about human nature, that is missing entirely from this thread, so far.

First, a bit of history. Bulletin board systems (BBS) and Usenet were both born in the days of incredibly limited, slow, and expensive mechanisms of digital communications. BBS systems were generally single computers running a forum software package, maintained by a single person, or a small group, with very limited dial in lines, maybe 3 or 4 modems on a good board, with perhaps 6 to 10 lines on the biggest regional boards. Except for the limited number of concurrent sessions, MeFi (and Kuro5hin, and most other Web "forums") is much like a BBS, culturally, but with certian important differences, in respect to the high art of trolling, which I'll get to in a minute.

Usenet, unlike BBS systems, was a voluntary confederation of computers, linked by the nntp protocol into a network of machines that collected posts and responses from individual users at the various sites, aggregated them into hierarachies, by topic (group) and thread (post number), and distributed them throughout the network. Usenet quickly demonstrated massive concurrency was feasible, which was a possible improvement over the BBS model, but it also demonstrated that massive concurrency was nothing but a crap flood, unless all users employed considerable restraint. Usenet really introduced the concept of a meritocracy of ideas to online communications, out of which came a bunch of useful conventions, like "Netiquette" and Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) lists, which are common expectations of Web users today.

Thus, in both the BBS world, and the Usenet world, many more people read and followed discussions, than ever participated in them, due to the cost of communications and the personal time commitment required, as well as the larger communities' intolerance of junk. In the early days, a bad attempt at a hoax or troll was cause for intense anger from the whole community, because it was a waste of precious resources and human attention. So, to get away with posting a joke, a hoax, or even a troll, your post had to rise to the standard of a "contribution" which either encapsulated something of inherent worth, or whose followup was noteworthy for the broad community.

When something really good got posted, most people tended to concentrate on it as word got around, but few wanted to dilute it, by commenting or participating, as that wasn't the ethos of those mediums, at least in the early days. MeFi, Kuro5hin, and similar discussion sites on the Web increasingly invert that ethos, in that the worst postings on these sites frequently create the most traffic. A crapflood here on MeFi often becomes more fun for its participants than any other post of that day.

And that's what makes a really good troll so hard to do on the Web these days. A well baited troll hook on the Web these days gets a pissing elephant GIF (and 40 crapflood contributions) before it can generate enough steam to be worthwhile. As a community, we've lost the common sense to quietly find a good seat in the bleachers, and let the troll develop, if we're not the owner of the hook. We're all far to quick to smartly smack down fisher folk, I think, and too suspicious that they won't "catch and release."

The intentionally humourous Recreational Trolling FAQ defines a troll thusly:
troll v.,n.

To utter a posting on Usenet designed to attract predictable
responses or flames. Derives from the phrase "trolling for
newbies"; which in turn comes from mainstream "trolling";, a
style of fishing in which one trails bait through a likely spot
hoping for a bite. The well-constructed troll is a post that
induces lots of newbies and flamers to make themselves look even
more clueless than they already do, while subtly conveying to
the more savvy and experienced that it is in fact a deliberate
troll. If you don't fall for the joke, you get to be in on it.
In Usenet and BBS practice, at least, you got to be "in on it" by shutting up and watching the action. Occasionally, the best trolls would be spun out with the help of a small circle of confederates, but it was hard to make these work, since the very best trolls accomplished something, without degenerating into meanness: At their best, trolls taught people about the groups in which they were conducted, and about themselves.

It's easy to be mean on the Internet, but if doing so accomplishes nothing of greater purpose than temporarily fooling the gullible who happen across it, it's kind of pointless. So many fish, so many barrels, so little time. Posting something that trades for effect on a reader's willingness to suspend disbelief in something as inherently unverifiable as a common user's Web posting, is just plinking at any fish (luser) who happens along. Even an apparent murder confession, posted as a hoax, abominably stupid as that idea is, and less frequent, perhaps, because of its tasteless stupidity, isn't all that rare, once you start crawling the millions of personal sites in the nether regions of the Web, where people post any damn thing that comes into their heads.

What's far rarer, and great, is when a Web site that "supports a community" stumbles into trolling greatness, even though no troller dropped a baited hook, or the luser brought their own as occasionally happens. Crapflood as education, snark as guidance, flameout as mea culpa, humanity in misspelling, that thread has it all.

What's even rarer than that, being the Thread Worth a Permanent Sidebar Link, and for which I hope, everytime I load the front page, is a post which starts out with something informative, and gets a swinging rise out of some commenter, who can be elegantly walked around all four corners of a rhetorical ring by the erudite OP and perhaps two or three confederates, reminding all as they do so of what makes this site unique, before they gently let down the commenter, buying him a welcoming drink, for his help in providing good sport. I hope for such, every day, when I load The Blue, but mostly, what I get are occasional promising starts and pissing elephant GIFs.

Still, after the mushroom thread, I have hope for this place, if not in the way I originally hoped.

But we won't get there with threads about dinking hoax posts. Color me cynical.
posted by paulsc at 3:39 PM on September 25, 2006 [9 favorites]

I'm a bit weirded out that he quoted me, and that Skwirl quoted me and analyzed my reaction and his non-reaction to me. Very ... meta.

But I think it is telling. The first thing I picked up on, reading the new piece, was:
act really blase about a shocking situation... a strategy used by people who scam online communities into thinking that they have a terrible illness: casually mention a supposedly life-threatening symptom, but do nothing about it and watch your audience scurry around in panic*

which in itself might have been a reference to Kaycee Nicole (which was written up at K5). Nevertheless he wasn't shooting for us, but for K5. So it's a confession about a confession, with much the same affectless demeanor: let's say something and see how they react. The part that's a little off, if you ask me, is the next step -- there isn't one. Most trolls poke, prod, scare up a shitstorm, and get banned or yelled down. He wanted the shitstorm, just to watch. He didn't need to keep feeding the meter, so "attention perv" isn't quite spot on. So you get a sense he's playing the kick-an-anthill game, but doesn't feel the need to step on the ants.

It's more extreme detachment -- autism, Asperger's -- than sociopathy, then.

But the weird thing is the recapitulation here. Because this itself is a troll -- the recounting of all those responses, and all he really does is classify them. And then he puts a prominent array of Digg etc. links at the bottom.

So now it's sort of, "I just said I lied, how will people react to that?" (Ask Hungary that one.)

At least he does end the piece with some potentially sociologically interesting questions, even if he started it with the word "boredom". About the only thing I'm prepared to say in response is that I think MeFi and K5 have different ranges and patterns of discourse. I'm not sure that he would have formulated the question at all the same way if he'd been a member here.

After all, we've had our hoaxsters in our midst, and they've used somewhat more sophisticated approaches. (To be sure, these weren't trolls, but people attempting to actually get away with something.) Or does the fact that they got away with it for a while indicate that we trust our own first, too?

The real epistemological problem, of course: do the posted responses best represent the reaction of the community? If the community largely ignores a post, is it appropriate to base the evaluation on what is posted?

* Not to derail, but a similar approach is frequently adopted by right-wingers, and professionalized by Coulter, Malkin, et al.
posted by dhartung at 3:49 PM on September 25, 2006

u.n. owen was a hoax?
posted by five fresh fish at 4:18 PM on September 25, 2006

At their best, trolls taught people about the groups in which they were conducted, and about themselves.

exactly ... by the way, your sig is too long for demon.local ... sort it ...

(those were the days)
posted by pyramid termite at 6:10 PM on September 25, 2006

in 1997, in (lots of swearing) ... "yam" (post 59) enters an already heated discussion that's been warmed up by crossposters from alt.nuke.the.USA, a flame group, with an absurd accusation that "Amnesty International estimates FOUR Indian kids die for every Mustang you buy."

chaos results ... (i later joined in with a countertroll, my speciality)

just an example of what usenet was like in the late 90s
posted by pyramid termite at 6:28 PM on September 25, 2006

Although it's the antithesis of what I was talking about upthread, pyramid termite, your comment reminded me of the late '90s Meow Wars. Flame wars could be fun, but they never had the socially redeeming qualities of a top drawer, slowly spun troll. Flame wars just resulted in smoking news servers, cancel bot exploits, and the demise of Usenet at many sites, as the administrative nightmare it became, thanks to idiots like Matt Bruce.

Ugh. Still have a bad taste in my mouth when I think of that cretin.
posted by paulsc at 7:07 PM on September 25, 2006

it should remind you of the meow wars ... i joined the meowers in summer of '97 ... the real matt bruce was a little before my time ... i seem to recall there were others who pretended to be him afterwards though

the flame wars were fun, but unfortunately it got out of hand when people like tim "three fucking weeks" thorne got tired of us telnetting open servers to postforge and screw around and joined forces with grubor, hipcrime and the other net.kooks to perform bot attacks ... the flame war of '98/'99 was the epic end of the meow wars, because of the extreme nuking the anti-meowers were putting over on usenet and ... after that, open servers were either locked down or just blocked and crossposting filters were applied by newsadmins to cut down on the trolling

it was pretty much over by 00/01 ... and the web became much more of a focus for discussions, with the advantage that forums could be moderated effectively ... a lot of people left usenet, including me, although i come back from time to time

we were pretty funny, i think, and often absurd and funny in a pythonesque way ... and we did get a lot of people to reveal their inner fascist ... but we rarely achieved the kind of literate, sophisticated trolling that you admire, which is very hard to pull off

the all time great troll was the infamous is your son a computer hacker? troll that pulled in dec 2001 ... 5913 outraged comments followed by people who didn't realize that it was a joke posted on a site known for its tendency to troll ... most of those people joined the site just so they could vent at the article

pretty awesome

unfortunately, nowadays we're stuck with the likes of the gnaa and other witless wonders who "troll" by being as offensive as possible in the most cliched way ... k5 became overrun by that sort of thing ... well, that's not what i call quality trolling

i give the "i killed a bully" troll a C- ... it wasn't awful, but it didn't fool enough people, it wasn't funny and it really didn't get people to react in the chaotic, divisive way the best trolls do
posted by pyramid termite at 8:20 PM on September 25, 2006

"... and joined forces with grubor, hipcrime and the other net.kooks ..."


paulsc shudders

The horror, the horror...
posted by paulsc at 10:16 PM on September 25, 2006

yeah ... more about tim thorne here ... (by the way, i was the one responsible for his being called fysh, or fysshy) ... and the infamous sooper sekrit hipcrime archives wherein tim thorne, grubor, boursey, s. p., hipcrime and the rest of the gang plot the demise of usenet on a private mailing list that happened to be infiltrated by one of the good guys ...
posted by pyramid termite at 10:28 PM on September 25, 2006

"... boursey ..."

Funny you should mention that particular a**wipe...

In '95-'97, I was reading news mainly off the farm, which was pretty good then, thanks to the services of some dedicated admins. One of those guys subsequently got an admin job at Emory University, for a number of reasons, not least because it afforded him latitude to run boursey cancel-bots more effectively than he could from his vantage point.

boursey netcopped him to Emory, on grounds that running cancel bots constituted "censorship," for chrissake (!), and Emory's administration wanted to avoid noise of a "lawsuit" boursey and grubor threatened. The admin guy, a quiet Usenet stalwart, who worked hard to run great news, and believed in the power of Usenet, got canned by Emory.

I've still got labeled bullets for those f**ktards.

And I miss, terribly, the days when you could politely ask the world a well framed question in the right places, and the world would write you a helpful book, for free, the next day...
posted by paulsc at 11:00 PM on September 25, 2006

i think the decline of usenet has been exaggerated though ... there are still places where one can get answers and decent conversation, although there are threads and posters in some groups that one does well to ignore ... sometimes, i search for an answer to a computer tech question and i often find good answers, even dealing with recent stuff ... even an alt group like has decent, ontopic conversation ... (i still use a newsreader to lurk there)

still, there's a lot of groups that got utterly trashed in the late 90s and abandoned ... and it wasn't meowers, flame groups or the net.kook cabal that did most of that, it was pretty much individuals getting into obsessive flame wars with each other ... for every group that was "destroyed" by outsiders, there were 10 or 20 that self-destructed

i always felt that the people on news.* gave the net.kooks way too much attention and relished verbally fighting them too much ... (fighting their netcopping and their net.abuse was another matter) ... s p totally owned those guys when he was trolling them ... in fact, he was one of the most effective trolls i've ever seen, in a newsgroup where those hooked knew better than damn near anyone else that they shouldn't bite ... and yet, they bit anyway

*looks at nanau just to see what's going on there these days*

god, how depressing ... but the old net.kooks seem to be gone
posted by pyramid termite at 6:22 AM on September 26, 2006

Loving the Usenet memories, thanks. The shift from the relatively level playing field of Usenet to bloggers shouting at one another from their personal mountaintops still makes me kind of sad.

I'm a bit weirded out that he quoted me

You're weirded out? I provided his punchline. It really was a lame troll attempt.
posted by mediareport at 6:54 AM on September 26, 2006

pyramid termite: I agree with you about "Is Your Son a Computer Hacker," and the very best part of it, to me, was the fact that it was posted on Adequacy, a site virtually no one read which was entirely dedicated to the art of trolling. If it had been usenet, it would have been like posting only to and still getting 6k replies. Just a fabulous accomplishment, all around.
posted by rusty at 9:05 AM on September 26, 2006

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