Journalist Paul Lukas runs a website called Uni Watch, which has a fairly active cadre of commenters, including at least one relentless troll. To his surprise, when Lukas asked the troll for an interview, the troll agreed. Bob talks to Lukas about his six year relationship with his website's most persistent, most creative troll.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield. There is a beast, rare in the analog world, that has run wild on the Internet, the troll. They use profanity, vulgarity, outrageous insults and all rhetorical means at their disposal to provoke bloggers and their readers. Conventional wisdom says the best thing you can do with the troll is ignore him, since reaction is what he seeks. That is just the strategy long employed by writer Paul Lukas on his blog Uni Watch. For six years, he grappled with a troll calling himself Joe Big [BLEEP] Johnson, a name bleeped over because it is itself over-the-top filthy.
But then one day, Lukas, who has also written for the New York Times, ESPN, the Wall Street Journal and many others, asked Joe Johnson for an interview, and the troll, to Lukas’ surprise, agreed. [LAUGHS] The results were eye-opening. Paul, welcome to On the Media.
PAUL LUKAS: Thanks Bob, glad to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: First, your blog is Uni Watch. It’s a blog not about politics, not about society but about - sports uniforms.
PAUL LUKAS: Yeah, it’s a very niche-specific blog about athletics aesthetics, as I like to call it, about uniform and logo design in the sports world.
BOB GARFIELD: And not necessarily the place that you would associate with like a hardened troll. When did he start appearing?
PAUL LUKAS: The Uni Watch blog debuted in May of 2006 and almost immediately Joe Johnson made his presence felt. He was extremely profane. He was sort of an equal opportunity misanthrope, insulting me, insulting other readers. This went on for a while, until I learned how to block his posts by flagging his IP address. But he continued to post, knowing that his posts would go into a moderation queue where only I would see them; my readers would no longer see them. And so, at that point it became a more private dialogue between him and me.
BOB GARFIELD: He was Ahab, you were the whale.
PAUL LUKAS: [LAUGHS] I don’t know if I’d put it quite that way, but it was definitely an unusual relationship. While I initially found him upsetting, I came to sort of appreciate his persistence and his devotion, if you will. And over the years, and this did stretch on for years, came to view what he was doing as a sort of online performance art, which I kind of liked. And, at some point, I decided it was time to interview him because after years of seeing his “Wizard of Oz,” so to speak, I wanted to see the man behind the curtain.
BOB GARFIELD: Right. Can you give me an idea of some of the things “the wizard: wrote”
PAUL LUKAS: Basically, it was a fairly endless stream of misogynistic commentary, coupled with basically the opposite of whatever my opinion was on anything related to my website. For example, I have issues with Nike and their marketing practices in the uniform world, and Joe would sort of sing the praises of Nike and say “Phil Knight for President.”
BOB GARFIELD: Founder of Nike.
PAUL LUKAS: Yeah. He would use email addresses like [BLEEPS] firstname.lastname@example.org, but it would often circle back to my girlfriend, who eventually became my ex-girlfriend, but Joe either didn't know or didn't care about that - kept referring to her by name - and so other friends of mine - basically anything close to me he would reference in a, a sort of violent and nasty way.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, Joe Johnson wasn't his real name. The pseudonym, is that of a personality and character very much like the real author or, or is he a different persona altogether?
PAUL LUKAS: I was actually hoping that Joe Johnson was gonna turn out to be like a middle-aged woman or a teenaged kid or something like that, because then the notion of it being a performance art project would be even better because the pose would be even more of a radical pose and the project with be [LAUGHS] more audacious.
But he was just a guy. He said he was about 30 years old and a financial advisor, living in the St. Louis area. He says that his wife has no idea that he's done this sort of trolling, and that she would be mortified if she did know.
BOB GARFIELD: He claimed to you not to actually harbor any of these horrible sentiments about race and sex.
PAUL LUKAS: Yeah, he said that's not him. And he actually said he loves Uni Watch, he loves what I do, and that really, this whole enterprise that he had created had nothing to do with me and it was just about his need to, I guess, indulge this sophomoric sense of humor, as he put it. And he turned out really to be, just like in the Wizard of Oz, a rather meek little man behind the curtain.
BOB GARFIELD: As our producer Chris Neary says, paraphrasing Hannah Arendt, the “banality of trolls.”
PAUL LUKAS: [LAUGHS] Yeah. Joe and I had kind of settled into these roles, like the roles in the old Warner Bros. cartoon where there's the sheepdog and the coyote, and they sort of punch into work at the time clock. The coyote tries to steal the sheep. The sheepdog boils him. And then they punch out and they say, “Good night, Ralph, good night, Sam.” And that's how Joe and I had shaped up. His role was to kind of mess with my website and mess with my head, and my role was to protect my website from him.
BOB GARFIELD: Has he continued to haunt the site?
PAUL LUKAS: Toward the end of the interview I actually said to him, what happens to us now? Is this the end of Joe Johnson? And he said, yeah, I think it is. And I think that felt about right. It felt like the relationship we had had kind of run its course. His heart hadn't been in it quite as much in recent months. The vitriol of his posts wasn't quite at the same level as it had once been.
He did promise to send me a photograph of himself for me to post along with the interview. I said it could be anything. You know, he could have a bag over his head. It could just be his extended middle finger in a sort of troll salute. And he never did send that, despite my repeated reminders. And I haven’t heard again from him, since then.
BOB GARFIELD: I said before that he was Ahab and you were the whale. Do you think I – might have had that in reverse?
PAUL LUKAS: Yeah, actually, I, I do think that was in reverse, because I really want to track him down. And frankly, I was very surprised when I put out a signal flare saying Joe Johnson, I want to talk to you and he agreed. And when I asked him why, you know, ‘cause I expressed that surprise to him and I said, why did you agree, and he said, well, I kind of thought I owed to you after all these years. And, and that was kind of sweet, actually.
BOB GARFIELD: When I see the work of trolls online, sometimes I get angry, sometimes I get irritated. Mostly I just think, ahh, it's just so pathetic. What a loser! Do you think Joe Johnson is a loser?
PAUL LUKAS: Oh, I think that's the wrong question. I think the notion that life is divided up into winners and losers is a false choice. I think I am lucky enough to get to express myself and say what I think for a living literally every day. Not everybody is that fortunate. And in the Internet age, there are other platforms available to people, and they may not get paid for it, but they're going to avail themselves of it. Joe used my website and the commenting functionality of my website as a way to express himself. I wouldn't say was the most productive form of expression, but I'm not gonna brand him a loser just because he was profane.
And, in fact, I have other trolls on my site who aren’t nearly as clever as he is. So I would say they are the losers, relative to him.
BOB GARFIELD: Paul, thank you very much.
PAUL LUKAS: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Paul Lukas authors the blog Uni Watch. He managed to keep his troll at bay by individually blocking him from public view. It turns out that is a solution, as they say in the online world that scales.