The most influential man on the internet

Accessing deep forum lore to assess the relationship between hentai message boards in 2003 and the January 6 insurrection

I don't have a totally clear understanding of my subscriber demographics yet but my guess is that for about a quarter of you the above tweet acted like a Bourne Identity agent-activation control word — like you read it and immediately stood up from your desk and retrieved a hidden fake passport and bought a one-way ticket to Irkutsk. 

This edition of Read Max is, I think, for the other three quarters of you, who presumably lead relatively fulfilling lives but maybe would like to know some Forum Lore, and understand What Came Before this internet, why Twitter is the way it is, and what that has to do with the Jan. 6 insurrection. 

This is a Tuesday column from Read Max, a newsletter about Harrison Ford movies, 1960s science fiction, and Deep Forum Lore. If you find this explanation of some old internet bullshit useful or interesting, please share it with friends — it's the only way I get the word out. If you haven't yet, please subscribe.

Rich "Lowtax" Kyanka, the founder and longtime owner-operator of a website and message board called Something Awful, died last week at the age of 45. News of his death was made public to goons (as SA posters call themselves) in a post and video from Kevin "Fragmaster" Bowen, a former SA employee and moderator who left the site a decade ago. 

Lowtax founded Something Awful as a comedy site in 1999, after getting fired from the video game publication GameSpy, but what the site became "famous" for was its large and active forums. Some of what people like and most of what they hate about the internet descend, in some way or another, from the structure and culture of those forums, of which Kyanka set the terms, at least in the early days. 

As mixed a professional resume as "started the website that invented slenderman" is, his personal reputation was worse. Last year, goons learned that Kyanka's ex-wife had accused him of assault; the resulting anger essentially forced Kyanka to sell the site to a longtime moderator. Kyanka's ex-wife wrote a moving and complicated remembrance on the Something Awful thread about Kyanka's death. A GoFundMe set up for her and their child is about $7,000 away from its goal:

You could say he had a "complex" legacy, but I'm not sure how complex it really is when, in the wake of his death, almost everyone landed on more or less the same conclusion: He was an abusive asshole who hurt a lot of people, and he built, maybe accidentally, a lot of what we think of as "the internet."

Trying to Explain Lowtax to Normies

Who was Lowtax, in the cosmology of the internet? Here are some attempts at explaining who Lowtax was in terms that non-goons might understand.

Where this metaphor succeeds: Lowtax's sometimes well-intentioned, often deranged personal preferences helped shape internet culture on what feels like an infrastructural level. It’s not just that Lowtax made a website that directly created the starter pack of what we’d later call “internet culture” (see the list below), but also that he set the tone for the website that would go on to set the tone for Twitter, which is where politics and the media live now. Like Robert Moses, the long-tail effects of his initiatives have largely been negative: By driving anime fans from Something Awful, he inadvertently created a vacuum filled by 4chan. (Banning lolicon from ADTRW [see below] is his Cross-Bronx Expressway, I guess?) Like Robert Moses, Lowtax was famously a dick, both in harmless and in deeply harmful ways.

Where this metaphor fails: Robert Moses was powerful, ambitious, and acted with intention.

This gets us closer, though it requires you to know some medium-depth Twitter Lore. But I think be-robed Twitter founder Jack Dorsey is actually a pretty good comp for Lowtax, in the sense of "a pretty strange, often personally quite unpleasant guy, continually sidetracked by his own petty obsessions, who somehow built a machine that generated an astonishing amount of culture." And Aimee Terese, Twitter's favorite Australian fascoid kook, also works as a comp, in the sense of "omnipresent annoying character for whom you feel a strange kind of quasi-affection rooted in familiarity."

Yeah. This is about right, I think. Kyanka built Something Awful, which for the first decade of the 21st century played hose to a shockingly productive and influential community, and his particular combination of talents and flaws meant that he was able to make it just profitable enough that it ran continuously over two decades, but not so wildly attractive a business proposition that it would "scale" to the point of incoherence and disintegration, in the manner of the social-media platforms that would supplant it as the internet's main culture machines.

A Partial List of Things That Came Out of Something Awful, Directly or Indirectly, and Were Therefore Lowtax's Fault if You're Expansive in How You Assign Blame and Understand Causality

Also: Paywalls, sort of? It's pretty remarkable that, while the media industry flailed for 20 years trying to figure out a business model, Something Awful just chugged along on the strength of profits from charging a one-time, $10 fee to register accounts on the forums.

What Was Something Awful, Exactly?

Something Awful was a web forum that dates back to the "early modern" Internet era — the time that came after BBSes but before "social media" as we know it today. It was a large and influential member of a constellation of broadly culturally similar sites, some of which you might remember if you were born before, say, 1994: Ebaumsworld, Fark, LiveJournal, and Newgrounds, among others, and eventually SA spinoffs like 4chan and YTMND as well. At the time, the main activities online were pornography, libertarianism, illegally obtaining music and movies, gross/funny videos/images, and arguing. Most of these sites were places where you could do some of those things. Something Awful was a place where you could do all of those things.

Something Awful had thousands of regular posters across dozens of forums and subforums devoted to specific topics. Or not devoted to anything at all: "General Bullshit" was and remains the main forum. At its start, it had the same kind of cruel, antisocial, transgressive humor that most of the sites of this era shared — the kind that was and to some extent still is very popular among young men, and that has generally aged poorly. But the site's size and scope meant that many subforums evolved their own tone, in-jokes, and internecine beefs, and by the late 2000s the overall culture of the forums was more complicated, and certainly more left-wing, than the blithe reactionary transgression that reigned at a place like 4chan.

Overall the site developed a reputation for mercilessness. All web forums have a hazing process, but Something Awful’s relatively long history and dedicated participants meant that it — and especially some of the more infamous subforums — could be a particularly forbidding place. If you didn't get its heavily ironized, sometimes unreadable sense of humor, if you transgressed its unwritten rules of etiquette and decorum, if you exposed yourself as vulnerable in the wrong way, if you built a fucked-up looking house and proudly posted pictures of it, if you just couldn't hang — you'd be relentlessly, ruthlessly bullied. (Sometimes this could happen even if you were the guy who founded the site.) Overall this kind of rigorous hazing was understood to be for the good of the site, if not for the target of bullying. It meant that dummies weren’t allowed to stick around clogging up threads, unless they were entertaining and shameless.

This is the culture that survives on Twitter, the biggest forum of them all. When the 2016 Democratic Primary tore Twitter apart, and establishment liberal journalists and political operatives complained of pile-ons by vicious BernieBros, anyone who’d been on a forum before could see that this was, simply, what happened when you made dumb posts. Imagine if, like, David Brooks had paid ten bucks and wandered onto FYAD: that was Twitter.

The Class Composition of Something Awful

I have neither the data to back this up, nor the analytical ability to say anything interesting about it, but my impression of Something Awful has always been that the people who populated the forums — at least the good, memorable posters — were often overeducated burnouts or autodidacts from the periphery: very smart people who had not "made it" and who were never going to succeed on a "career path," whether by accident of birth, or lack of resources, or inability. This is not, to be clear, a claim that goons were by and large "working class," but I do think that the intellectual and creative productivity of the forums was probably a function of the frustrated, unrecognized, and underutilized talent housed within them. This is likely the case for many other web forums, up to and including Twitter. I suppose my point here is: Imagine an economy or a society where the creativity and intelligence of people who for whatever reason didn't go to a top-40 college can't find a better outlet than a shitty webforum! 

It's also possible that I'm wrong and the vast majority of goons were insufferable and unfunny morons who had found their level. Certainly, many of them were.

The Airport Video

This video, of Lowtax and his then-girlfriend Angela being greeted at the airport by a bunch of young goon dorks, is not for the faint of heart or the easily embarrassed, but I think it sort of gives you a flavor of what the early modern internet was like:

In retrospect, Lowtax was an early "internet celebrity," in a very loose sense of the term. "The weirdest thing to me" about meeting Lowtax in 2001, user "bewbies" posted on the announcement thread, "was there were several people at the party who were basically his entourage. It was seriously like he was the heavyweight champ: he had the 2000s internet equivalents of hype men and ring girls and everything."

Did Lowtax Cause the Insurrection of January 6?

So, this theory is not inconceivable, but it's a little muddled. Lowtax didn't "ban hentai" entirely. He banned "lolicon," that is, underage-girl hentai; more generally, Lowtax hated the anime subforum on Something Awful, and the anime fans who populated the subforum hated him back. (The subforum was called "Anime Death Tentacle Rape Whorehouse," not because it was devoted to tentacle rape, but because Lowtax's contempt for anime nerds meant he thought it would be funny to call the general anime board that. One punishment for misbehavior on the forums was to be banned so you could only read or post to ADTRW.)

Separately from the ban on lolicon, an ADTRW poster named Chris Poole had built a copy of the Japanese imageboard 2chan. Poole, a.k.a. Moot, named his clone 4chan. ADTRW posters — both those who wanted to post lolicon, and those who were sick of Kyanka's contempt and heavy-handed moderation — began to slowly move to 4chan, as did some of Something Awful's more antisocial posters, who appreciated 4chan's anonymity and lighter touch on moderation. The world turned, seasons passed, and then someone on 4chan convinced a bunch of baby boomers that JFK Jr. was going to rise from the grave to join Donald Trump on a quest to rid the world of pedophiles.

Further Reading

If you want a more detailed account, and are interested in Even Deeper Forum Lore, check out Dale Beran’s book It Came from Something Awful, which emerged from this essay.