Today, I read an incredible story in the New York Times Magazine online about the history of trolling on the Internet. Mattathias Schwartz’s “The Trolls Among Us” is the sort of story that makes me jealous when I read it. How did he get such a great assignment? How did he manage to talk to these people? The story is full of anecdotes of his interactions with people who function online as trolls:
On Monday we drove to the mall. I asked Fortuny how he could troll me if he so chose. He took out his cellphone. On the screen was a picture of my debit card with the numbers clearly legible. I had left it in plain view beside my laptop. “I took this while you were out,” he said. He pressed a button. The picture disappeared. “See? I just deleted it.”
And I admire Schwartz for his commitment to showing his subjects as complicated people. Not just villains or misunderstood innocents, but as people who hold difficult views that make others uncomfortable in part because there is a strange sort of logic to them. For example, Schwatrz is with one of his interview subjects at the time the seizure-inducing attacks were made on Websites for epileptics. The subjust, Jason Fortuny, has this to say about it:
Fortuny disagreed. In his mind, subjecting epileptic users to flashing lights was justified. “Hacks like this tell you to watch out by hitting you with a baseball bat,” he told me. “Demonstrating these kinds of exploits is usually the only way to get them fixed.”
“So the message is ‘buy a helmet,’ and the medium is a bat to the head?” I asked.
“No, it’s like a pitcher telling a batter to put on his helmet by beaning him from the mound. If you have this disease and you’re on the Internet, you need to take precautions.” A few days later, he wrote and posted a guide to safe Web surfing for epileptics.
So I read most of the story with a mixture of admiration and jealousy. How did Schwartz land the assignment, track down the right people, get in close enough to them, at an opportune time, and then write the story beautifully? However, there’s a major flaw in the story, and it’s been bothering me all day.
Schwartz transitions from following Fortuny to following another troll named Weev. His transition paragraph is here:
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 led me to expect Schwartz to follow a certain pattern with his writing. I thought he was going to tell us about Weev, and probably go into how frightening and ruthless he can be online, finally doubling back to DeGrippo and explaining how and why Weev helped her. The problem is that this never happens. The story creates an expectation (that we will hear the rest of the story) that is never fulfilled, and misses out on the chance to show Weev’s complexities the way Schwartz showed Fortuny’s, above.
I’m surprised that this oversight got through the NYT’s editing process, and, for me, it mars an otherwise fantastic story.