ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Goatse II: The Widening —

Life drapes accolades and fame and celebrity on you with very little consultation beforehand. You might do crazy stuff for years and then you do it and a camera catches it and suddenly you’re all Mr. Crazy Guy, known worldwide. I’m definitely not the only computer historian, and I’m definitely not the only weblogging pundit, and most critically, I am not the only person who has dropped the sacred image of Goatse onto a hell of a lot of people. Granted, the fact the number is well over a quarter of a million IPs would probably get me a key and membership card to some relatively exclusive club, but none of it is unique. Right place, right time, right gaping ass.

And so instead of going “no, no, I have done so much else with my life”, I’ll handle the whole “Yes, I’m that guy who Goatse’d MySpace” mantle with pride and aplomb until I become famous for something else, like, “The guy who went across the table and strangled Brian Dear“. And to be honest, having Renderman, who I greatly respect, come up at the Shmoocon event to personally accolade me for it was a high point of my year so far. It’s good to be the king! Well, Goatse King, anyway.

So naturally people come to me with “somebody Goatse’d a lot of people!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” type letters, which happens a lot less than you would think. But it was definitely this thread on livejournal that caught my eye. Not so much for the new attack vector, which is quite interesting, but the unique livejournal-y responses it has garnered and what can be learned from that.

Quick Summary: Guy creates a “livejournal meme”, which is a slightly inaccurate term now in wide use that means “quiz or game or questionaire presented to people to try out, and which others can post as well”. This meme, however, eventually goatse’s you. Shock! Surprise! Gaping Ass!

Now, like a proper guide, I’m going to tell you to keep your hands in the goddamn boat – they bite! Also, I’ll be making use of my new favorite friend, WEBCITATION.ORG, which is most vital in this particular situation, as one of the things that happens when you shed light on something like people writing lots of stuff is that those people quickly hie up their bags and run out of town. Most won’t, but are there words more annoying than “This post deleted by author”?

As was mentioned in the entry that inspired me, the prank involved creating a fake quiz/questioning thing, which can be posted on a livejournal. First, you are presented the bait: the opportunity to indicate people you dated or people you’re interested in. Then, after you answer the questions, you are shown an image of Goatse. Pretty simple!

As a nice additional touch, the disclaimer for the page, before you enter anything, says “By participating in this quiz you agree we can do anything with the collected data and resulting result image we like, including publishing it publically or hotlinking to an image of goatse.

The prank is vaguely hilarious to me, but I want to get beyond that. Obviously you can come down on a “side” about this prank, about pranks in general, about levels of pranks, of what represents a good or bad prank, etc. Pranks are intended to get emotional reaction from the victim, and in doing that crazy deed, they often result in having completely crazy, unintended effects. So instead, let’s discuss context and result. HEY! HANDS! IN! THE! BOAT!

An important thing to note is that, based on observation, Myspace and Livejournal are very, very different environments. Part of this is the software; MySpace’s is horrible, and Livejournal’s is techy-wonky. On Myspace, you have to constantly, unendingly reload and try to negotiate things, and the main reason you’re on there is because your friend is on there or potential customers are on there. Since there’s a way to host “music” on your page, this works out for selling/promoting your music to your potential customers. And since you generally don’t know any better, you end up using MySpace for things that a weblog would do much better for you. It also encourages the leaving of beloved “hey how you doing” messages on other’s pages, so if you look at the average page, it’s mostly filled with one-liner HOW YA DOIN’ along with some sort of photo or web knick-knack. So basically, the whole place looks like a high-schooler’s ugly-ass bookbag.

Livejournal, on the other hand, was designed from the ground up for messages, specifically day to day postings of events, with the ability to handle multiple postings a day. It also has very simple ways to bind users into networks, either based on calling each other “friends” or creating “communities” that sets of user accounts can join. As referenced in my “shit-gun of terror” hypothesis in my Goatse entry, this means that you can both assemble groups of people who think like you do, or unintentionally link together people who would kill each other in the wild.

Also, there seems to be a natural lack of awareness of just how public each posting is. More aware/burnt-fingered users know about the “friends-only” posting ability, where only those in your trust networks can add messages, and some are additionally aware of “filters” that can be applied to sets of livejournal users so only they can read your messages. But a pretty large number don’t.

Subsequently, I’ve had lots of fun finding someone discussing the BBS Documentary on a livejournal posting, dropping in with my account, and commenting on their accolades or criticism. Sometimes people say “Wow, I can’t believe you’ve been reading my journal”, or its evil twin “Surely you have no life to be posting a response to my criticism of your suck-ass movie.” In both cases, I’ve merely taken advantage of a RSS feed on My little client occasionally goes “Hey, someone said something with BBS and Documentary in the entry” and off I go, simple as that. Believe me, we’re not taking many cycles in the Jason Operating System for that one. Either way, the shock that something posted public is in fact publically posted gets some neat reactions.

One of those, unfortunately, is the re-discovery of the “friends-only” option, or even worse, deletion of the entry in question altogether, making future references to Dumb-Ass(tm) a little more difficult. But not impossible.

So, speaking of Dumb-Ass(tm), the debate raged hard and fast on the whole Livejournal-Goatse situation, many of the usual positions being taken up. For a quick recap, here’s all the usual positions:

  • Ha ha!
  • I spilled hot coffee in my lap YOU BASTARD
  • Good one, mate, I used it immediately on everyone including my sister!
  • This is illegal!
  • This is horrible and I will now speculate for paragraphs about you and who you are for doing this.
  • How do I do this myself, preferably using copy and paste functions?
  • Dick-suck cock-bear fuck-bag ass-munch douche-licker

All in all, the perpetrators claim 60,000 goatses throughtout the prank. By the way, I goatse’d 29,000 sites in April and we’re somewhere around 14,000 this month. Unlike them, I kept it going; they chose to instead link back from the prank to their explanatory livejournal entry. This has two consequences worth mentioning: it encourages the curious to investigate and then let them comment, and it throws together a mass of variant sub-networks/cultures within Livejournal.

Again, Livejournal encourages creation of networks, but in doing so, it also encourages closed-circle networks that might recruit or might not but end up not growing after an initial burst. So it is possible for you to use Livejournal and not bump into anyone else outside your little group of comment-y friends. Until something like this enters your stream, and suddenly you’re given a journal in which it is now your chance to bitch.

This is covered, within livejournal and weblog culture with the all-encompassing term “drama”. I don’t like the term at all, never have. It’s way too general a paintbrush to paint any heated discussion. Sometimes you have two people who will never agree locked in a message base like two cats in a bathroom. The only way things are going to simmer down is to distract them with shiny things, kill one, intervene as a system operator (mere insults from other users won’t do it) or close down that discussion area (locking down or deleting the topic). That’s certainly dramatic, but I wouldn’t call it drama. On the other hand, a situation where the discussion topic is augmented by a there’s-no-way-you-could-know-it ancillary event that is the actual problem at hand is definitely drama. Without the “reveal”, it’s just heated. But if you find out the two participants used to sleep with each other, and broke up over the subject being discussed…. well, then you got something.

Drama is also now thrown at any heated soliloquy, before any discussion begins: you’re causing drama to potentially begin. It’s a great term, “drama”… once you put it in there, people say “well, to engage in further discussion would make me appear to be a person incapable of rational interaction and so I will not be involved”. So while I am sure it is shocking when someone launches into an over-the-top manuver in the middle of a debate or topic discussion, I have a hard time using the “drama” label. So let’s go with a more accurate term: goes completely bugfuck.

When someone goes completely bugfuck, now you have something worth watching. Light and heat. Because of the nature of online communication, and assuming the person does not realize how crazy they just went and deletes/attempts to delete all evidence they did something, you can have a pretty nifty show.

Consider, then, the reaction of two individuals, kenjr and beckyzoole, who go about things a most interesting (but done before) way:

  • First, become completely horrified that this was done to 60,000 people.
  • Then, speculate on the possible laws or rules broken by this act. Kenjr postulates that people who end up with goatse in their browsers or cache will either be fired, or worse, go to jail. That’d be quite the bail hearing, let me tell you. There is also the theory that were these people to be subject to termination and/or arrest, the perpetrators of the prank would be immediately subject to the exact same punishment.
  • Next, assume that something must be done. This is key, because otherwise you are simply being a sympathy tourist, reading about something and not lifting a finger to correct the action. Along one school of thought, inaction to a perceived wrong is the same as not just supporting that wrong, but letting the wrong use your couch and eat your TV dinners until the wrong is back on its feet.

  • Since you’re not a Sympathy Tourist, you can instead be an Internet Hero. An Internet Hero uses the Internet to do heroic acts.
  • Beckyzoole then writes to LiveJournal to complain about this situation. This may or may not work, but Internet Heroism is very easy to do (hence the lack of will you show by not doing it) and so it is done.
  • Naturally, Beckyzoole insists that the New Zealand Authorities get involved. This is an interesting, “take it out of town” solution. She also goes far enough to link to a “HOWTO” to get the personal information of the pranksters, with only the “dun dun DUN” missing from her “and you’ll know what to do” kind of message.
  • Finally, she sits back, opens up a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, and wonders what new adventures will come down the way to the Internet Heroes’ League.

This is all spectacularly fucking fantastic, but the days of when you could get someone banninated from the Internet are mostly over. You might be able to get them arrested, but you’re going to have to show them a crime was committed. You’re especially going to have trouble if the crime being committed was others linking to your site, as in my case of Goatse’ing, or where people are voluntarily visiting the site in question. Oh, sure, they could probably have found some way to commit this “crime” so that they might actually be criminally liable, like shooting a baby every time someone hit the website. But that didn’t happen.

Anyway, the point is, this situation highlights the “dark mirror” I’ve spoken of before, where this networking facility allows people to go from 0-60,000 displays of a stretched rectum in just a couple days, where that same period of time can lead to hundreds of people “discussing” what is essentially a prank, and the bell-curve of likelihood of “Internet Heroes” reaching out in all directions until finally, ultimately, someone’s calling the Kiwi Kops to get you booted off the Web.

This is new compared to BBSes because we never had that critical mass. It’s worth exploring, in a future posting, the situation of the Mars Hotel and other Internet BBSes when they came on the scene in the early/late non-commercial Internet and what amazing stuff happened then…

..but not today. I’m almost done watching the third season of House. Now that’s drama.

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  1. Tria says:

    Hey Jason,

    Just a little clarification (Caleb’s a good friend and the other perpetrator was my boyfriend Pete) – the LJ meme didn’t originally link to goatse, indeed it displayed a cute little pseudo graph that showed a person’s “LJ Mojo”, all fictitious of course but which many believed was a direct result of the info they’d submitted. The shock value when Caleb replaced the image was beautiful (and irritiating because we were on holiday when the emails came floodong in but hey).

    The purpose was twofold and you haven’t really talked about the one closest to my heart (so I feel the need to comment!). It was designed to remind people that anything they do online is open for exploitation and is certainly not anonymous. In my experience anyone with a clue realises this but I guess people ignore whatever they feel like when they’re distracted by the thrill of taking a new quiz, OMG!!

    I’m just waiting for Facebook apps to explode…


  2. sneak says:

    Dear Sober Segway-riding Sycophant Scenester,

    Paragraph text should never be set in in a font sans serifs. Serifs exist for creating horizontal lines that one’s eye can track to reduce eyestrain and increase readability, and your high-contrast retro-hacker theme makes your pages hard enough on the eyes as-is. Without serifs, it’s basically unreadable.

    As we all know how much you love the ol’ input/output (of text, that is), consider updating your choice in fonts to something a bit more ergonomic.

    PS: Feel free to continue using serif-free fonts for the headlines, navigation, etc. It’s just paragraph text I’m speaking of.


  3. DaVince says:

    Oops sneak, you haven’t done your homework. Fact is, sans-serif text turns out to be more easily readable on the screen than serif text, where sans-serif is better suited for reading on paper. This has been known for years, by the way.

    This stuff’s totally off-topic anyway. The article was interesting.