WIRED:Animal torture is posted online – and a maligned internet community helps catch the culprit, writes DANNY O'BRIEN
THE INTERNET can be a window to some dreadful cruelty: but physical cruelty always takes place elsewhere. When an anonymous teenager uploaded videos of himself mistreating a small household cat to YouTube, the crime was in what he had done, not that he’d shown the world the evidence. But what happened next was a direct result of that upload. It’s either an illustration that justice can be reached even in the less salubrious parts of the net; or it shows that sometimes the net reaches further into the real world than most people are comfortable with. The video that “Timmy” uploaded to YouTube is hard to watch: it shows two teenagers taking a cat into a bathroom (or “laboratory” as the on-camera teenager, disguised in a balaclava, calls it) and recording its yowling as they torture it. Presumably the kids thought that the video would only be seen by a few friends – or that their anonymity would be preserved.
While many people speak of the dangers of internet anonymity, the truth is that it’s a mask that’s impossible to maintain without a great deal of preparation and attention to detail. And when “Timmy’s” video was picked up by internet forum denizens of popular discussion site 4chan, his anonymity crumbled.
Outraged Net users found a link to an account on another site with a Lawton, Oklahoma zip code. Guessing that his YouTube account, glennspam1, might be connected to his surname, the online vigilantes tracked down a Facebook account of the teenager.
Photos on Facebook checked out with the blurred background in the video; a little more sleuthwork uncovered Kenny Glenn’s home address, parents’ workplaces, and the contact numbers for the local sheriff, Glenn’s school, and house.
Within two days, the teenager had been charged by the local authorities, and the cat removed to a vet until the case had completed.
Internet justice? Perhaps: but it’s worth knowing that 4chan is also a place that prides itself on posting the most disgusting pictures, including violent pornography and images of child abuse.
Infamously, another teenager overdosed on drugs while being egged on by its denizens. And the clumsy anonymity that briefly hid “Timmy” is used every day on 4chan to protects its users from their more extreme actions – including when hacking into Sarah Palins email account during last years election (that individual was eventually caught).
And, just to confuse matters even further, 4chan is also the origin for many of the most popular internet memes and harmless practical jokes, like “lolcats” (those funny pictures of cats that your friends repeatedly send you), and “rickrolling” (where someone will trick you into watching a video of nineties pop star Rick Astley singing Never Going to Give You Up).
The same anonymity that led “Timmy” to think he could post torture videos with impunity, lets 4chan posters post his home address and phone number (as well as, during their investigation, the address of another innocent Ken Glenn in Oklahoma), and others to co-ordinate and conduct their own planned revenges on the cat-abuser.
The 4chan site is barely a website at all. Its rough and ready code is almost literally the bare minimum of technology you need to allow someone to post online. But it’s enough to organize a worldwide protest against Scientology, brainstorm a new idea – or organize a lynchmob. And its simplicity provides its anonymity.
Instead of YouTube, with its usernames, and video hosting, or Facebook with its photo albums and constant requests to add your personal details, 4chan simply lets you write, link to images, and no more.
In a world where the internet is under increasing control, its cruelty like Timmy’s that will lead to increasing demands for censorship and the removal of anonymity. And if we ever move into that world of a moderated or filtered internet, it is sites like 4chan that will be the first to disappear. But will that solve anything? Without forums for disturbed individuals like Timmy to boast about their actions, we’d never know about the torture that goes on in Oklahoma suburbs – but we can predict it will continue unseen.
Sites like 4chan and YouTube may be opportunities for the worst instincts of humanity to show themselves, but they’re also the place where the world gets to say exactly what they think of those instincts.
Online, 4chan users struggle with its own reputation as both the fount of internet wonders, and the cesspit of the world.
In a lengthy image post called “How Not To Fail At Life” (clocking in at 11322 pixels long, or about ten screens worth of scrawled stick figure), one 4chan poster spelled out to others exactly how they should grow up and go out into the real world.
After many pages of theoretical plans on how to get girls, he ended with this advice: “Pretend to be what you want to be”.
While the teenagers and overgrown kids of the internet are learning that lesson, they and we get a chance to see what it’s like when adolescents pretend to be something else.
That’s always been a necessary part of growing up, and now it’s taking place online. It’s not a safe environment. There is no truly safe environment for that kind of experimentation.
But it’s safer than experimenting directly in the real world. At least on the internet, fewer cats get hurt.