Alternate InternetThis week, we look at the ways the internet could have been—and could be—different.
The quantum internet is coming sooner than you think—even sooner than quantum computing itself. When things change over, you might not even notice. But when they do, new rules will protect your data against attacks from computers that don’t even exist yet.
Despite the fancy name, the “quantum internet” won’t be some futuristic new way to navigate online. It won’t produce any mind-blowing new content, at least not for decades. The quantum internet will look more or less the same as the internet you’re using now, but scientists and cryptographers hope it could provide protection against not only theoretical threats but also those we haven’t dreamed up yet.
“The main contribution of a quantum internet is to allow encrypted communication in a perfectly secure fashion that can’t be broken in principle, even if in the future we develop a more fundamental theory of physics,” Ciarán Lee, a researcher at University College, London, explained to Gizmodo. In short, the quantum internet would hopefully protect us from planned new computers, along with every theoretical computer for the foreseeable future.
So what’s the quantum internet? It’s what happens when you apply the weird rules of quantum mechanics to the way computers communicate with one another.
Quantum mechanics says that the smallest things, like subatomic particles, are restricted to a list of distinct values for certain properties (their energy, for example). When you’re not looking at them, they might enter a superposition of states, meaning taking on several values simultaneously—both the lowest and the second-lowest energy states, for example. But once they are measured, they assume only one of the values. The value you see is determined based on some innate probability. But you can also entangle these particles’ states, meaning when you repeat the measurements many times, they seem more related than you’d expect from two independent things following the usual rules of probability.
Researchers are working toward incorporating these weird rules into computing and networking. Computers that rely on quantum processors, based on quantum bits that can take on a superposition of states or entangle, might quickly create accurate simulations of molecules, enhance artificial intelligence, and solve other problems faster than regular computers can. No company has yet experimentally demonstrated that quantum computers can beat classical computers at anything, though they’re trying and may do so soon. A quantum computer worth worrying about is likely decades away.
Some of the potential problems that researchers think a quantum computer would excel at solving form the very basis of present-day encryption. And that is concerning.
“If quantum computers are on the horizon, then we need to prepare the internet to be secure against quantum computers,” Lily Chen, project leader at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)’s Cryptographic Technology Group, told Gizmodo.
Today, internet communications are secured by algorithms like (Diffie–Hellman) key exchange or the RSA (Rivest–Shamir–Adleman) system. These algorithms scramble the message using a mathematical formula with some non-secret key number plugged in. Unscrambling the message requires plugging the ciphered text back into a formula and plugging in a private key, known only by the message recipient. The private key and the public key are mathematically related, but it’s incredibly difficult to figure out what the private key is.
Today’s encryption schemes would not be secure to quantum attacks, thanks to a quantum algorithm called Shor’s algorithm.No quantum computer exists that’s big enough to run Shor’s algorithm in a way that would crack present-day encryption, and there probably won’t be one for decades. But the fact that it could exist, in theory, means that it’s time for cryptographers to devise a new way to encrypt data so that we’re prepared. The first step toward a quantum internet will barely be visible to you; maybe, instead of secure web pages beginning with https, they’ll begin with httpq. But on the back end, a new algorithm not believed to be solvable by quantum computers will encrypt online communications.
These changes, called post-quantum cryptography, are coming soon. NIST received its first submissions for post-quantum cryptography strategies in late 2017. A month later, NIST scientists selected 69 “complete and proper” candidates, and then announced 26 second-round candidates in January of this year. Round 3 (or the final algorithm selection process) is scheduled for 2020 to 2021, and the new post-quantum standards will be available before 2024.
You’ll notice that this isn’t especially “quantum;” NIST is just looking for a classical algorithm that a quantum computer can’t crack. If this seems disappointing, just know that post-quantum cryptography could be the most important and relevant change that quantum computing will bring to your life. Even bitcoin’s encryption faces threats from quantum attacks.The change will be good for cybersecurity overall.
“On the one side, it’s like, gosh, we’re doing all of this work just to reestablish the status quo,” Michele Mosca, faculty and university research chair at the University of Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing, told Gizmodo. “Well, yeah, that’s life. We better do it or else. But there really is a positive aspect and it could be a blessing in disguise. What cryptographers are doing is rebuilding some of the foundational pieces [of cybersecurity]. This process of retooling our very fundamental cryptography across all of our digital platforms is good for our cyber health.”
Post-quantum cryptography is only the first step. Researchers have already put together a roadmap detailing what the addition of quantum technology to computer networks will actually entail. The Micius quantum satellite has already allowed researchers to pass encrypted messages by sending entangled photons between two locations, and upon confirming the entanglement, generating a quantum key for researchers to decode encrypted messages. One day, quantum repeaters might send entangled particles of light, called photons, to the computers on a network in order to set up a quantum link. This might allow users to access something akin to quantum-secured private Slack channels, where every entangled computer in the network can pass secret messages, with an icon based on entanglement measurements on the screen showing users that no one is eavesdropping into the network. Lee is working on a way to test such a network without having to trust its manufacturer or the manufacturer of the repeaters.
Ultimately, researchers hope a quantum internet will mean more than just a secure network. Anne Broadbent is a university research chair in quantum information processing at the University of Ottawa; Broadbent’s most recent research demonstrates a way for a server to certify that it really deleted a file using quantum mechanics.
Broadbent explained to Gizmodo that once quantum processors are more mature, the quantum internet would allow a way to access their power via a secure quantum link over the cloud. This is important because, as far as anyone can tell, quantum processors must be stored in conditions that make them impractical for home use (such as temperatures near absolute zero).
Quantum links to quantum processors could allow the public to reap the hypothetical benefits in the far future. There’s lots of speculation as to what those benefits might be, including some very cool things like quantum algorithms that would make searching for information online faster or maybe advances in gaming thanks to quantum computers’ potential improvements to AI. Maybe it will lead to a quantum blockchain where it’s impossible (as defined by the laws of physics) to doubt the authenticity of something thanks to the quantum no-cloning theorem, which says it is physically impossible to create a copy of an unknown quantum state. None of these are a given, and maybe they’ll never happen, but they definitely won’t happen without a quantum internet.
Quantum computers today don’t have any killer apps, yet, and probably won’t pose a threat to your computer experience for decades. But the internet will slowly incorporate quantum-inspired security protocols, then maybe actual quantum links. And then maybe one day, you’ll be running programs incorporating quantum algorithms. You might not realize once it’s already happening.
Alternate InternetThis week, we look at the ways the internet could have been—and could be—different.
When climate change comes for our coffee and our wine, we’ll moan about it on Twitter, read about it on our favorite websites, and watch diverting videos on YouTube to fill the icy hole in our hearts. We’ll do all this until the websites go dark and the networks go down because eventually, climate change will come for our internet, too.
That is, unless we can get the web ready for the coming storms.
Huge changes will be needed because right now, the internet is unsustainable. On the one hand, rising sea levels threaten to swamp the cables and stations that transmit the web to our homes; rising temperatures could make it more costly to run the data centers handling ever-increasing web traffic; wildfires could burn it all down. On the other, all of those data centers, computers, smartphones, and other internet-connected devices take a prodigious amount of energy to build and to run, thus contributing to global warming and hastening our collective demise.
To save the internet and ourselves, we’ll need to harden and relocate the infrastructure we’ve built, find cleaner ways to power the web, and reimagine how we interact with the digital world. Ultimately, we need to recognize that our tremendous consumption of online content isn’t free of consequences—if we’re not paying, the planet is.
You probably don’t think about it when you’re liking a photo or reading an article, but everything you do online is underpinned by a globe-spanning labyrinth of physical infrastructure. There are the data centers hosting the web and managing enormous flows of information on the daily. There are the fiber cables transmitting data to into our homes and offices, and even across oceans. There are cell towers sending and receiving countless calls and texts on the daily.
By and large, this infrastructure wasn’t built with a changing climate in mind. Researchers and companies are only now starting to explore how threatened it is, but what they’ve found so far is alarming.
Take a study published last year by researchers at the University of Oregon and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The authors decided to examine the internet’s vulnerability to sea level rise by overlaying projections of coastal inundation from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration with internet infrastructure data compiled by Internet Atlas. They found that within the next 15 years, in a scenario that projects about a foot of sea level rise by then, 4,067 miles of fiber conduit cables are likely to be permanently underwater. In New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle, the rising seas could drown roughly 20 percent of all metro fiber conduit. These are the lines that physically ferry our Internet traffic from place to place. Another 1,101 “nodes”—the buildings or places where cables rise out of the ground, which often house computer servers, routers, and network switches to move our data around—are also expected to be swamped.
And that’s just in the United States. As far as senior study author Paul Barford knows, this vulnerability hasn’t been systematically studied elsewhere. But he expects to find a similar situation around the world.
“There’s a huge amount of human population that lives within close proximity of coastlines, and communications infrastructure has been deployed to support their needs,” Barford told Gizmodo.
Barford was reluctant to speculate how big of an internet disruption the coming cable inundation could cause. Conduits are typically sheathed in a tough, water-resistant polyethylene tube, and unlike electrical wires, the fiber ribbons inside can handle some water intrusion. But, as the study puts it, “most of the deployed conduits are not designed to be under water permanently.” If water molecules work their way into fiber micro-cracks, that could cause their signal to degrade. Electrical connections to the fiber cables could be fried, and if a submerged cable froze, the fibers could physically break.
Nobody knows how long it would take the damage to unfold. But Barford suspects that much of the at-risk infrastructure ultimately will have to be hardened in place or redeployed on higher ground. “It’s gonna be a major amount of work,” he said.
Gizmodo reached out to telecommunications companies flagged by the study as having the most vulnerable infrastructure to learn if this issue was on their radar. Several didn’t respond, one said they aren’t doing anything about the threat, and another indicated their networks would be fine because of “proper redundancy and route diversity.”
Dave Schaeffer, CEO of telecommunications company Cogent, expressed confidence in the fortitude of the cables. But Schaeffer did say there’s reason to worry about those placeswhere the cables come out of the ground.
“Those would be impacted directly if those buildings came underwater,” he said, adding that while most nodes in their network sit least 20 feet above sea level, more powerful storm surges could pose a growing threat. The company got a taste of what may be to come during superstorm Sandy, when a network hub housed at 10 Pine Street in New York City was inundated by storm surge and the company was forced to move its generator and a fuel tank to a higher floor, a process that took several months.
At least one telecommunications company is now explicitly planning for future climate disruptions. Earlier this year AT&T partnered with Argonne National Labs to build a “Climate Change Analysis Tool,” which Chief Sustainability Officer Charlene Lake told Gizmodo will allow the company “to visualize the risks of sea-level rise—at the neighborhood level and 30 years into the future—so we can make the adaptations that are necessary today in order to help ensure resilience.” Lake added that A&T is also piloting the tool for high winds and storm surges, and in the future plans to incorporate other climate impacts, like drought and more severe wildfires.
Barford also flagged the threat of wildfires and storm surges as two areas of future investigation for his group. Then there’s the fact that climate change is driving temperatures up, which could increase the need for cooling at data centers, particularly those built in warm climates.
Ironically, in a world where these energy-intensive facilities have to draw even more power to stay cool during, say, a heat wave, local grids potentially could be placed at greater risk of brownouts, like the one that affected 50,000 customers in New York City last month. And while it’s purely hypothetical,if a major data center went dark, that could lead to widespread service disruptions.
As Barford put it, “there are cascading effects here that are complicated and deserve attention.”
Skyrocketing energy use
The internet may be threatened by climate change, but it’s hardly an innocent victim. Our collective addiction to the digital realm has an enormous climate impact.
“The digital mythology is built on words like cloud,” Maxime Efoui, an engineer and researcher at the French think-tank Shift Project, told Gizmodo. “Something that isn’t really real. That’s how we picture it.”
The reality, though, is that it takes loads of energy to stream all those on-demand videos and back up all those photos to the cloud. Anders Andrae, Senior Expert of Life Cycle Assessment at Huawei, told Gizmodo that the internet as a whole—including the energy used to power data centers, networks, and individual devices, as well as the energy used during the manufacturing of those devices—is responsible for about 7 percent of global electricity consumption, with power demands growing at around 8 percent per year. A report the Shift Project published in July found that digital technologies now accounts for 4 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions—more than the entire aviation sector. And that footprint could double to 8 percent by 2025.
Gary Cook, an IT sector analyst with Greenpeace, said this footprint is being driven by skyrocketing data demands, particularly in more affluent countries. There are numerous culprits here, including the shift to next-generation networks like 5G which will allow for greater data flows, the rise of artificial intelligence, the proliferation of an internet of things, all those energy-gobbling Bitcoin transactions, and online video streaming, which accounted for a full 60 percent of global web traffic in 2018, per the Shift Project. From storing the videos in data centers to transferring them to our computers and smartphones via cables and mobile networks, everything about watching videos online requires electricity, so much so that our collective streaming emitted as much carbon as all of Spain last year.
If these numbers seem shocking to you, well, you’re not alone. “Every single time I speak to people who work in tech, people seem to be astonished by the fact that servers run on electricity and electricity comes often from fossil fuels,” Chris Adams, a director at the The Green Web Foundation, a group that helps companies shift to renewable web hosting, told Gizmodo.
Clearly, the internet’s reliance on fossil fuels needs to change if we’re to stave off climate change’s worst impacts. An obvious place to start greening the energy supply is at those data centers, a huge and fast-growing piece of the pie that currently accounts for about 2 percent of global electricity use, according to a recent white paper.
Encouragingly, some tech companies have begun to do so. Apple now runs all of its data centers on renewables that it either owns or purchases in local markets.Google and Microsoft Azure, two of the biggest cloud companies, are purchasing renewable energy credits to match their data center growth. This means as their electricity use rises, the companies are paying for an equal amount of renewable energy to be built elsewhere. While this so-called offsetting strategy doesn’t eliminate the use of fossil fuel energy to power the data centers directly, both Google and Microsoft Azure say they have a long term goal of getting there. Google told Gizmodo that many of the company’s data centers already see “a strong degree of hourly matching with regional carbon-free energy,” while Microsoft Azure said it expects to source 60 percent of its data center electricity needs directly from renewables by the end of the year.
Because it boosts their bottom line, tech companies are also constantly improving data centers’ power use efficiency, and there’s no shortage of ideas for how to push things further. Google is now using AI to automate data center cooling, while Alibaba Cloud, a major cloud service in China, boasts an “immersion liquid cooling technology” that it says can reduce data center cooling needs by up to 90 percent. Some researchers have even suggested new data centers be built in Greenland, where A.C. needs would be minimal and clean hydropower is abundant.
However,Anne Currie, an engineer, science fiction author, and advocate for greening data centers, cautioned that efficiency improvements alone won’t clean up the internet, because the more efficient things are, the more we use them.“We just need to make it socially unacceptable to be hosting the internet on fossil fuels,” Currie said.
And most experts Gizmodo spoke with agreed that the tech industry isn’t moving in that direction fast enough. Disturbingly, Amazon Web Services, the world’s largest cloud provider, has since late 2014 tripled its data center operations in Virginia, a state gets just a small fraction of its power from renewable wind and solar, according to a recent report by Greenpeace.AWS has also come under fire for its lack of transparency surrounding climate issues, including failing to report energy consumption and carbon emissions figures. (Amazon has said it will start reporting its carbon footprint this year.)
Reached for comment, Amazon Web Services called the Greenpeace report’s data on its energy consumption and renewables mix “inaccurate”, adding that the report overstates “both AWS’s current and projected energy use” and “does not properly highlight” the company’s investments in solar projects in Virginia. (Greenpeace asserts AWS’ data center growth in Virginia “far exceeds” these investments.) AWS added that it remains “firmly committed” to achieving its goal of 100 percent renewable energy for its global infrastructure, noting that it exceeded 50 percent renewable energy in 2018.
AWS has not stated when it aims to reach its 100 percent goal, and did not offer a target date, nor a date when one might be announced, when Gizmodo asked. Orion Stanger, a software engineer and member of Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, an employee-led organization that sprung up late last year to push Amazon to take more aggressive action on climate change, said Amazon’s continued failure to put a date on that goal is a problem.
“We could even go backwards to 20 percent [renewables] and then by some later date hit 100 percent and that would still qualify under the goal we’ve set,” Stanger told Gizmodo. He’d like to see his company set science-based targets around emissions reductions throughout its operation, including at data centers.
“We really want Amazon to lead on climate,” Stanger went on. “It’s been very much a follower in this space.”
Paul Johnston, a former AWS employee and green data center advocate,felt that unless companies are fined for their impact or otherwise incentivized to switch to renewables, the energy transition won’t keep pace with what science says is needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
“I don’t think there’s any way around it,” he said when asked if government regulation will be necessary to compel companies to make the necessary shifts.
For some data centers, more regulation finally may be on the horizon. In July, Amsterdam, reportedly the largest data center hub in Europe, placed a temporary moratorium on building new data centers until some ground rules could be established concerning their operation. The city wants to set requirements that data centers use clean energy, and it wants the facilities to capture the prodigious waste heat they produce—yet another way data centers contribute to warming—and provide it to local citizens for free.
Amsterdam’s decision to pump the brakes on new data centers comes after the city’s data center power usage grew by a staggering 20 percent last year. Cook was glad to see the city “stepping in and trying to do a reset on how to manage growth.”
“Voluntary stuff has taken us so far,” he said. “Ultimately we need to have government step in and level the playing field.”
Powering our data centers, networks, and cities with more renewable energy would go a long way toward reducing the internet’s climate impact. But the uncomfortable reality that it’s going to be hard to keep up in a world where we’re spending ever-increasing amounts of time watching videos and playing games online, browsing the web and scrolling our social media feeds (four activities that, together, make up nearly 90 percent of traffic downloaded from the web, according to a 2018 report by networking company Sandvine).
Some advocates say we need to pump the brakes on all this consumption. In its recent report about online video, the Shift Project is called for a revolution of “digital sobriety”, which Efoui described as implementing policies to constrain the internet’s growth in a world of finite resources.
“If we really understand the gravity of the constraints that are coming to us and to our systems that we built… we have to take them into account,” he said.
How we’d actually go about constraining the web is an open question. Should governments impose emissions limits on server farms and data centers, and fine companies that exceed them? Should streaming services like Netflix encourage us to watch in standard definition over HD? Will grassroots campaigns to unplug spring up around the world, similarly to the emerging movement to give up flying? Efoui thinks we will need to gather “a lot of solutions together” and that different places will adopt different strategies depending on their infrastructure and society’s needs.
The changes don’t all have to be huge. In fact, a burgeoning field of research known as sustainable interaction design is showing that small tweaks to apps and websites can have a serious impact on consumption. A recent study on YouTube found that simply allowing users to turn off video streaming when they’re listening to music could slash the service’s 11-million ton a year carbon footprint by up to 5 percent. As the researchers note, that’s “comparable in scale” to the climate benefits Google has achieved by purchasing renewables to power YouTube’s servers.
And it’s just one intervention. A notification that encourage social media users to take a break from feed-scrolling is another possibility. Or, websites could get rid of all those autoplay ads nobody asked for. Kelly Widdicks, a PhD student at Lancaster University whose studies the impact of internet-enabled device use on society and the environment, noted that Facebook’s decision to start autoplaying ads everywhere “increased traffic massively” for many users.
“Before you had to interact with the platform to watch something,” Efoui said. “Now you have to interact with the platform to stop watching. That’s actually a big change.”
Widdicks felt that companies might roll out some changes voluntarily if their customers made enough noise over, say, the health benefits of watching less. But she also saw value in thinking about what sorts of limits and restrictions ought to be imposed. Mike Hazas, a Reader at Lancaster University who studies the relationship between technology and sustainability, agreed, noting that researchers have estimated the internet could consume more than a fifth of the world’s electricity by 2030.
“If we were to double the airline industry by 2030, that’d be a major topic of discussion,” he said. (Indeed, it hasbeen, for years.)
No one can say what shape the future internet will take, but things can’t go on the way they are now. And while individual actions alone won’t get us out of this mess, if enough of us change our behavior it will make a difference. And there are plenty of places to start.
We can ease up on our social media use. We can think twice before letting that next episode autoplay, or kick it old school and return to broadcast, which Hazas described as “very efficient” compared to streaming. We can make sure to host websites and buy cloud space with companies that have demonstrated a real commitment to clean energy.
Most of all, Hazas said, it’s important that we “make a conscious decision” rather than allowing ourselves get swept along through an endless buffet of content. “These are very well designed services,” he said. “They keep us using them.”
Maddie Stone is a freelancer based in Philadelphia.
Qiaobiluo Dianxia, also known as “Your Highness Qiaobiluo,” was racking up followers and donations on DouYu, a Chinese live-streaming platform. The photos she uploaded and the short clips she posted showed a young woman, leading her growing number of fans to think this was her. It was not.
Here are some of the photos Qiaobiluo uploaded, leading to those assumptions:
As noted by Asia One, when she streamed, she would not show her face.
Your Highness Qiaobiluo had a following of 130,000 on DouYu, but some of them wanted to know more about the streamer. The Paper reports that she said she would meet her fans in real life for 100,000 yuan ($14,500).
Late last week, during a live-stream with a vlogger named Qingzi (on the left), Qiaobiluo’s face was covered with a cartoon image.
According to Global News, the 58-year-old said, “I can’t show my face until I receive gifts worth 100,000 yuan. After all, I’m a good-looking host.” Her fans started coughing up donations.
During the joint stream, the graphic covering her face vanished, and Qingzi seemed to be unsure what was going on, with the conversation awkwardly continuing.
Your Highness Qiaobiluo didn’t realize the glitch happened until her fans started bolting from the stream.
The incident made the TV news in China.
Some fans called this “fraud,” but others pointed out that it’s not uncommon for live streamers to enhance their looks, whether that’s makeup or advanced filters. Then, there were some who said that this is what people who donate to streamers deserve.
Your Highness Qiaobiluo ended up getting an outpouring of support after the incident, racking up well over half a million followers and becoming the most-searched streamer on DouYu. Fans now call her “Granny.” She’s back to streaming and says she’s becoming a rapper. Talk about hustle.
We finally have the major details on Stadia, Google’s big push into gaming and at a glance it looks great: Crossplay with Xbox and Windows 10, a wide variety of recent and upcoming games, and the ability to play those games on any device with a solid internet connection. I’m writing this on an 200 Mbps internet connection so Stadia’s requirement for just 35 Mbps for the highest quality stream seems wonderful.
But it might be a rough start for Stadia.
Just to be clear I haven’t tested Stadia out apart from a very controlled demo at GDC back in March, so there is the possibility Stadia could and will be everything Google has promised. A truly new era in gaming that finally untethers us from consoles and powerful PCs.
But the internet requirements for Stadia are a major red flag. Back at GDC Google Stadia chief Phil Harrison told our sister site Kotaku that you’d need just 25 Mbps download speeds be able to play games in the highest available quality (4K, 60fps, HDR, and 5.1 surround sound). This week Andrey Doronichev, Director of Product Management on Stadia, told me that the requirement for the highest quality had increased.
“We have an updated guidance here,” he said. “You actually need 10 Mbps to stream at least 720p, but actually, it could be higher depending on specific details of the kind of network situation or your game. And then to comfortably stream 4K—the best experience—we recommend 35Mbps.”
That means you need 10 Mbps more than originally anticipated for that top tier experience. That’s not good! Google didn’t improve performance since the announcement. It just got more realistic about what delivering high quality would require.
That, at least, is the experience I’ve had with the streaming services already available from Nvidia and French company Shadow. In ideal settings, they’re pretty good. But when I try to play when my roommate is home and watching Netflix, the experience rapidly deteriorates, and so far the only thing we’ve heard from Google on how it’s different is that it has a big infrastructure in place and algorithims that will make its game streaming platform better than competitors.
Maybe there’s something to those claims. Google having datacenters all over the U.S. will absolutely make the experience better, and as we’ve seen from Google Search (and sometimes YouTube) the company can perform wizardry with a well-designed algorithim. It could, theoretically, pull this off.
But I just don’t think it can completely get around the bandwidth requirements. There are a lot of Americans who just don’t have good internet access. Particularly those in rural areas where ISPs may only provide crummy 3 Mbps DSL for the majority of residents, or they may offer faster speeds, but the connection is much more inconsistent. So you might get 25Mbps down at 1 p.m. when everyone in a 5-mile radius is at work or school, but things slow to a crawl from 6 p.m. to midnight when all those folks saunter home and hit the Netflix button on their Rokus.
When I asked Doronichev how Stadia was supposed to work for that wide group of Americans who just don’t have the good stuff his response was wonderfully optimiostic, but also struck me as deeply naive.
The good news is that ISP have a long history of adjusting to the growing demands from users. And you know this has been happening over the history of the internet. As we move from text to web from web to video and now we’re moving to real-time gameplay we’re relying on incredible technical infrastructure by Google that’s been delivering billions of search queries and videos on YouTubeand have been evolving over many years. So you know I’m pretty sure we’re going to get there.
“Hi! I see you, but I’m focused on the reading right now. I can chat during the next break!” This message popped up on the stream from Ryan Blake Hall, better known as Storyteller Mars on Twitch.
He was busy reading from Henry Wysham Lanier’s A Book of Giants: Tales of Very Tall Men of Myth, Legend, History, and Science (published in 1922). Sitting in front of decoratively open books and teacups, he even did character voices—gruff, booming voices for the giants, a calm voice for narration. A few viewers chatted amongst themselves during Hall’s broadcast. Hall loves talking with his small, but growing community (his 242 followers, with about 20 tuning in on each stream), but he won’t interact with them until a break, when the chapter is over.
“There was this lovely couple when I was reading Treasure Island back in November,” Hall told Gizmodo. “They would do their nightly ritual of climbing into bed, turning off all the lights, and put me on [the TV] and listen to me read until they fall asleep. It makes me feel like what I’m doing is 157 percent worth my time and effort. Knowing that even if it’s one person who I’m helping deal with life better, just get through whatever difficulties they’re having, feels like I’m giving back to the world all the kindness and generosity I’ve been given in my life so far.”
Twitch is known primarily as a video game live-streaming site, where users broadcast a number of different video game streams: “Let’s Play”–style broadcasts that see a game through to completion, esports players streaming their practice, and later, tournaments and leagues showcasing official, competitive play. Most often, the streams with the most viewers are fast-paced, exciting, and, often, over-the-top. League of Legends, Fortnite, and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds are typically leading in viewership numbers for that reason. (Twitch users watched “tens of millions of hours of Fortnite on Twitch” in 2018, Kotaku reported last year. This month, the game brought in an average of 140,740 viewers, with more than 10,000 live channels broadcasting at any given time, according to Twitch Metrics.)
But there’s a quieter side of Twitch, with much less stimulation and shouting. There is joy and amusement to be found in the shrieks of loud, gregarious streamers, but an emerging sector of the platform—“Twitch for introverts,” as Hall called it—is offering up a different, more relaxed experience. These quieter places on Twitch are more evocative of a slower form of entertainment, not unlike Norway’s slow TV, which broadcasts long train rides or a 12-hour knitting marathon, and the holiday tradition of watching a yule log burn.
Now owned by Amazon, Twitch launched in 2011 as an off-shoot of broader live-streaming platform Justin.tv. These days, Twitch has a reported three million streamers broadcasting from the platform each month, the company announced in December 2018. On average, that’s nearly half a million users live-streaming on Twitch each day, reaching more than 15 million viewers every day—according to Twitch, each of those users spends around 95 minutes, on average, watching streams each day.
Most streams are focused primarily on video games, but there are also streams from musicians, knitters, storytellers, makeup artists, scientists, and photographers. There are streamers sewing costumes, snapping together LEGO bricks, and creating digital paintings of their favorite characters. Streamers like these have been on Twitch since the beginning, but the platform officially recognized these broadcasts under the “Creative” banner when it launched the new vertical in October 2015. It was kicked off with a week-long marathon of Bob Ross’ The Joy of Painting, setting a standard for what the Creative channels could be.
When 58-year-old Jennifer Chambers speaks about her channel, she isn’t talking about herself. Chambers, known on Twitch as JennyKnits, talks in we’s. We’re going into our fourth year of streaming. We applied to the partnership program. We earned partner status months after creating the channel, she told Gizmodo.(Partners on Twitch are an elite-level status, available to prollific streamers, that gives them benefits and community creation tools, like the ability to run ads and access to more custom emote slots.)
Chambers began streaming on Twitch in 2016, but had been watching others stream Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft for years prior. A lifelong knitter, she taught knitting classes at local craft stores. When the creative section of Twitch opened up in 2015, she realized that teaching knitting on Twitch was an option, too. “Honestly, I didn’t think 10 people would be interested,” Chambers said. Now, she’s got a modest, but steady group of viewers—around 100—who watch, knit, and chat with her every day. “It’s gotten so much bigger than just teaching knitting,” she added.
Not long after she began streaming, Chambers was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I got the email from Twitch saying, ‘Your hard work has been rewarded, and you’re going to become a partner,’” she said. “The very next day, I had surgery to have my port installed to start chemotherapy. [The next day] I had chemotherapy for the first time. I was pretty much sick from the moment I got my Twitch button.”
Chambers streamed all through the physical and psychological hardships of treatment, and now she’s cancer free. “It was an amazing process and journey,” she said. “I feel like by being open about what was happening in my real life, they’ve become like my family.”
It’s for that reason that streaming on Twitch, for Chambers, is less like a musician performing to a stadium-full of fans and more like a knitting club, naturally.
A streamer like Tyler Blevins—better known as Ninja, the rainbow-haired Fortnite streamer championed for his loud, goofy streams and rowdy gameplay—is attractive to viewers for a number of reasons, one of which is his ability to make fans feel connected to him. This is a phenomena digital anthropologist Dr. Crystal Abidin calls “perceived interconnectedness,” something close to parasocial relationships, but updated for the digital age. With a hundred thousand viewers tuned into each of Ninja’s streams, it’s impossible (and, likely, unsafe) for him to consider a personal relationship with his viewers. Consider the chaos of a typical stream, too—Fortnite is a fast-paced, loud, and colorful game to begin with. Often, Ninja is playing with other personality-heavy streamers, each putting on a show for their respective channels, creating an environment that’s both visually andaurally stimulating.
Instead of making personal connections with each of his viewers, which would be near impossible, he can practice perceived intimacy by opening up his life to viewers in calculated ways. Between matches, Ninja speaks directly to viewers, answering questions, sometimes personal, and individually thanking viewers that subscribe during the broadcast. He can’t speak directly to each of his estimated 23,000 subscribers (even more so at the height of his popularity, when he had around 200,000 subscribers), but the act of pulling out some viewers, of which he has thousands each stream, makes viewers feel like they could be one of them.
Creative channels are generally less visually overwhelming than the frantic, flashing gaming streams, taking away one distracting element to make way for more personal community-building. Relationships built in Chambers’ channel aren’t perceived. Chambers considers many in her community her friends, just folks she hangs out and knits with daily. (Chambers’ channel is much less crowded than Ninja’s, 3,760 followers to Ninja’s 14 million. Ninja typically streams to around 40,000 viewers, whereas Chambers has an average of 60 to 80 viewers. But Chambers doesn’t necessarily want to grow to Ninja levels of fame; a community that large can feel impersonal.)
“A bunch of [my viewers] decided to do this cool little project, which had me in tears when they sent it to me,” Chambers said. “A bunch of them all knitted and crocheted little pink ribbons. They did this without telling me, and they sent them all to one person who assembled all these ribbons hanging from strings. They all attached notes of encouragement to me. I was bawling.”
Among the millions of streamers that broadcast on Twitch, there certainly is a variance in video game streamers. There are Twitch stars, like Ninja, but there’s plenty of video game streamers nurturing smaller, quieter communities. Mainstream perception of Twitch, though, puts the Ninjas at the forefront. A glimpse into these larger streams’ chat—literally a chat room to the right of a broadcast—oftentimes documents the worst of the streaming community. Chat moves fast—often too fast to actually read—and is filled with inside jokes and memes. Depending on a streamer’s chat moderation, racist and sexist toxicity can, and does, get through.
Twitch co-founder Kevin Lin told GamesIndustry.biz in 2017 that smaller channels on Twitch are creating foundational communities that self-police toxic behavior, something that has the potential to spread outward into Twitch’s larger channels and chats. “If you go to smaller channels with hundreds of concurrents rather than tens of thousands, you’ll see a lot less [toxic behavior,]” Lin continued. Streamers with smaller communities are able to interact more directly with viewers, allowing them to manage the environment of a stream more effectively.
“At times the slower pace and ability of the broadcaster to turn their attention more readily to the chat window can produce a more conversational quality,” T.L. Taylor, professor of Comparative Media Studies at MIT and author of Watch Me Play: Twitch and the Rise of Game Living Streaming,said. “Unlike watching a large esports match alongside tens of thousands of people where the crowd experience dominates, creative channels often boast smaller communities with rich histories and more attention to the maintenance of the group around the broadcaster.”
Dr. Pamela L. Gay is an astronomer, podcast host, and Planetary Scientist Institute scientist who reads books and paints planets on Twitch. Dr. Gay uses a super fluid paint technique that mimics how different atmospheres mix “due to differences in [paint] density,” she explained. As paint is poured and layered over circular boards, the colors spread into each other to create patterns and textures. Dr. Gay uses fire to apply different effects on the paint’s surface, depending on the look she’s going for with a specific project, like if she’s painting gaseous giant planets or dark, cratered moons. Each of her planets is designed to look relatively realistic—i.e, planets that are scientifically possible—but she takes some liberties with color, she said.
When she’s not painting planets or reading science stories, Dr. Gay’s broadcasting a daily space news show, aptly named Daily Space, through her day job with CosmoQuest and the Planetary Science Institute.
When the program, which helps citizen scientists work on NASA projects, lost funding. Dr. Gay and her team set up a 40-hour marathon fundraiser on Twitch. “Suddenly my entire staff was unemployed just in time for Christmas,” Dr. Gay said. “But we were able to raise enough money to keep my team at least part-time employed, and we’re continuing to bring in funding so that people can do science.”
“We’re leveraging the Twitch platform to communicate what we’re doing to say, ‘We’re here to do science with you, to explain what we’re doing and make you part of it. Can you support us?’”
The camaraderie of a shared activity brings people back together on Twitch regularly. “The reason I keep doing it is because it’s just become such a fun part of my life,” Chambers said. “I can’t wait to spend time with everybody.” Conversation flows depending on the day; sometimes, Chambers tells her viewers about her current World of Warcraft game. Other times, she answers questions about her knitting technique. On a recent stream, she explained to her viewers how to do a thing called planned pooling, which uses variegated yarn to create patterns.
An interest in knitting and learning brings viewers in, but they stay for the community. After all, knitting isn’t all that exciting to watch, Chambers said. Knitting is a series of small, repetitive movements. A garment is knit together with thousands of stitches. Projects take hours. “Knitting is like fishing,” Chambers said. “It’s fun for the person who’s doing it, but it’s not always that much entertainment to sit and watch somebody do it.” The interactive element of it all, like you’re knitting with a group of friends, changes the dynamic.
Sometimes, Chambers looks up at her computer, where the chat is displayed, and though there’s a hundred or so folks in the channel, the chat’s dead. “I’ll say, ‘Hello? Is anybody still there?’ and they’re like, ‘Yes, we’re still here. We’re knitting!’ A few of them will usually start typing again [after those moments,] but I know they’re just doing their craft while they hang out with me.”
“There can be something not only compelling, but comforting, in watching creative streams,” MIT sociologist Taylor said. “Sometimes it’s the slow unfolding of seeing an imaginative work emerge. The sound of a channel can also draw you in, with the alternation between quiet moments and then hearing the broadcaster describe their process as they work with their hands. These channels offer a kind of aesthetic pleasure that is slightly different from traditional gaming channels.”
Creating an environment on Twitch like this isn’t a conscious effort by all streamers, but Chambers, Hall, and Gay all expressed a desire to create safe, calm spaces where viewers can step out of an otherwise overly-stimulating world.
Hall creates this environment by reading free e-books available by Project Gutenberg, an online initiative designed as a reservoir for books in the public domain. Hall starts and ends his streams with at least 15 minutes delegated to talking with his community. He’s creating a calm space, but is also making a more explicit effort to talk about mental health—a topic he’s found not discussed enough, on Twitch or elsewhere.
“I had this idea to [start this channel] for over a year, but my depression and anxiety made me too afraid,” Hall said. “It made me feel like it was a pointless effort. I defeated myself before I even started.”
Once he got help, including medication and therapy, the anxiety of starting a Twitch channel was no longer an obstacle. “I just did the darn thing and found success almost immediately,” he added. “I want so desperately to help other people not fall into the darkness as I once did.”
For many, that kind of support resonates deeply.
“I love that aspect of Twitch where there are Twitch streamers that tag themselves as being all about positivity,” Dr. Gay said. “They provide a safe place to be an introvert, to be someone struggling who just wants to consume content and know they’re not alone, even if they’re just lurking in the chat. The people on Twitch really take care of each other.”
Nicole Carpenter is a writer and reporter based in Massachusetts.
It keeps happening. Recently, there has been a rash of clips uploaded to Twitter and Instagram, showing part-timers licking or spitting out food intended for customers. In Japanese, this is called baito tero (バイトテロ) or “part-timer terrorism.”
FNN reports that most recently, it was an alien mask-wearing staff at the Ootoya restaurant chain was filmed at work as his covered his privates with a tray before exposing himself (above). The clip ended up on Twitter—and the evening news.
There are other clips of part-timers playing with food, raising hygiene concerns. For example, another clip showed an Ootoya part-timer sticking pudding it his mouth, letting it dribble out while in the kitchen.
According to Tokyo Reporter, earlier this month, a 7-Eleven part-timer was shown being fed oden (a type of hot pot) and then spitting it back into the pot, which was intended for customers. This was not the first part-timer to do this.
Also this month, footage of a Family Mart staffer licking packaged food, including sticking bottle tops in his mouth, circulated online.
This clip shows yet another part-timer at a Big Echo karaoke chain taking chicken nuggets, rubbing them on the ground and then frying them.
The companies that own these restaurants and convenience stores have been apologizing for the actions shown in the clips, and part-time workers are getting fired. For some, however, things have gotten more serious.
A clip from earlier this month showed a part-time worker at Kura Sushi, the revolving sushi chain, toss fish into the trash and then take it out, appearing to prepare it for customers. As Itai News (via Sora News) reports, after the clip made national news, it caused stock prices to drop and resulted in a market value loss of $24 million. This might be why Kura Sushi began moving forward with legal and criminal action against the part-timers.
While there does appear to be a recent rash of social networking stupidity, it’s not new in Japan. Back in 2013, a Japanese word was coined to described idiotic Twitter users: bakattaa (バカッター). It’s a play on words for how Twitter is written in Japanese, but with baka meaning “dumb.”
Increasingly, the majority of people are content to experience the online world through the warm, blue-white glow of Facebook. But beyond the closed ecosystems of giant tech companies, the open web remains populous, anonymous, strange and sometimes, very unpleasant.
Take 4chan, which launched in the mid-2000s describing itself as “a simple image-based bulletin board where anyone can post comments and share images anonymously.” The site’s sparse moderation and almost-anything-goes policy attracted disaffected teens, video game lovers, internet pranksters, hackers, and a sizable number of virulent racists. Best known as an incubator of memes—think Pepe the Frog or Rickrolling—it came onto the radar of the national media when members of the hacking group Anonymous started gathering there to plan pranks. By 2009 Fox News was (absurdly) referring to 4chan as the home of “the most powerful people on the Internet.”
But a couple of years ago, when 4chan decided to ban Gamergate threads because they were being used to post personal information and plan attacks, some of those “powerful people” started leaving. They moved on to 8chan, a site with even looser moderation policies. It became the new digital home for some of the most offensive people on the internet, people who really believe in white-supremacy and the inferiority of women.
It’s a cesspool that helps make the rest of the internet a scary place. Almost no one posting on 8chan would hand over their credit card and let their identity be known. Posters thrive on anonymity and the things it enables them to say, endorse, and do. Because it doesn’t have paying users, it would have collapsed under its own weight and died out years ago if it wasn’t bankrolled by a man named Jim Watkins, a 52-year old U.S. Army veteran who has a pig farm in the Philippines.
Jim Watkins first heard about 8chan from his 28-year old son, who had watched a short Al Jazeera America documentary about its founder, Fredrick Brennan. Brennan had been a 4chan user for years and says he came up with the idea for 8chan while on mushrooms. The documentary followed Brennan for a few days and focused on how he deals with osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic condition that’s characterized by brittle, deformed bones.
“They showed up at his house in the morning, and he was still in his pajamas, and now he’s famous for his Super Mario Pajamas,” Watkins says of the segment. “[It was] a little bit rude. They made him a little more pathetic than he is.”
Brennan, who uses the moniker ‘hotwheels’ online, started 8chan in October 2013—but it didn’t really take off until Gamergate, an online war over sexism and progressivism in the video game industry.
In September 2014, 4chan founder Christopher Poole (a.k.a. “moot”) banned Gamergate threads on 4chan because users kept doxing prominent women in the video game community, posting their personal information, from addresses to social security numbers, and encouraging people to use it to harass them. Brennan started advertising 8chan as a “Free Speech Friendly 4chan Alternative.” Brennan, who did not respond to multiple requests for an interview, previously told Ars Technica that the site “went from around 100 posts per hour to over 4,000 posts per hour” that month.
Brennan started working full-time on 8chan, setting up a Patreon site for donations. Nearly 150 patrons signed up, donating over $1000 a month, but it wasn’t enough to cover his time and server costs. And within three months, Patreon kicked 8chan off its service for violating community guidelines.
8chan kept going offline because it exceeded bandwidth limits or, because of its offensive content, got kicked off various ISPs. Brennan needed stable financial support and a reliable hosting service to keep it alive.
That was when Jim Watkins got involved.
Watkins contacted Brennan, who was then living in New York City, to offer assistance. Despite a roughly 30-year age difference, the two hit it off immediately. Watkins describes Brennan as “a good guy [and] a brave man.” At the end of October 2014, Brennan went with Gamergaters to a strip club in Queens to celebrate 8chan’s first birthday as well as his decision to move to the Philippines to work with Watkins.
According to Tom Riedel, the former president and current secretary of Watkin’s company, N.T. Technology, Brennan and Watkins formed a business partnership.
“N.T. Tech provided the domain name and hardware, [Brennan] is responsible for software and growing the community,” said Riedel by email. “Right now it doesn’t make enough to pay for itself, but hopefully someday it will.”
Watkins is an American in his 50s who picked up computer skills while in the military. He described himself in his first email to me as “a very boring person.” He wears glasses and a greying beard, though his hair remains brown. He doesn’t have a large online presence, but does maintain a blog on 8chan, where he sporadically posts photos of his family and his animals.
If photos and video of him online are any indicator, he almost always wears shorts and a graphic tee. He splits his time between Manila and the pig farm he owns outside the city. But his main business is web hosting and advertising.
Watkins told me on the phone that he wanted to protect 8chan because he’s seen “all these other sites that have big potential and then they go away.” As for concern about or responsibility for the actions of his digital tenants, he argues that it’s all just free speech.
“As long as they are not making imminent threats of harm against someone, their speech is protected political speech,” he told me. “No different than Trump or Clinton or Mr. Smith or or anyone else.”
Watkins isn’t the first message board owner to strike this stance. Reddit’s founders famously held a strong free speech position initially as did 4chan’s Poole. But they all backed off over time. Reddit now bans revenge porn and hate speech. Poole eventually told Rolling Stone that 4chan never had free speech “in the absolutely sense.”
The only free speech Watkins rejects concerns copyright violations, which would result in large fines for the site thanks to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act or DMCA. Over all, Watkins holds a hodgepodge of expediently adopted political ideals in service to one very clear motivation: extracting cash from the internet.
8chan is far from the only online community of bad actors that are underwritten by people like Watkins. Financial backers usually remain insulated from any attention or consequences for owning the sites they do. It’s no secret that Watkins owns 8chan, but much of the reporting on the site has, understandably, focused on its users or Brennan. However, Watkins is the site’s foundation, and has been since late 2014, and I wanted to know why he plays the role he does.
Jim Watkins was raised on a family farm in Mukilteo, Washington, about an hour north of Seattle. His mother worked for Boeing and his father worked for the local phone company.He has one sibling and several half-siblings. Karen Sansaver, his elder sister, has kept the books for N.T. Tech since 2001.
Watkins says that he joined the U.S. Army when he was 18, first serving as a helicopter mechanic and then a recruiter. He emphasized to me, unprompted, that he didn’t work for the CIA though he’s “noticed some people guessing that.”
In 1987, the U.S. Army set Watkins on his path to becoming a financial backer of the web’s underbelly by sending him to computing school in Virginia. After that, in the mid-90s, while still serving in the military, increasingly working with computers, he co-founded a porn site called “The Asian Bikini Bar” and formed a company called N.T. Technology Inc. (He insists that the “N.T.” doesn’t stand for anything.) He says he told the Army he was starting an online business but didn’t tell them it was erotica.
“He really came in on the ground floor of the porn industry,” said Sansaver.
The company made money by selling advertising and eventually expanded to web hosting services. In particular, it helped skirt regulation, hosting Japanese adult sites that couldn’t be hosted in Japan because of the country’s anti-obscenity laws which were quite strict in the late 90s.
“They figured out a loophole in Japanese censorship rules,” Riedel explained in an email. “Adult material in Japan has to be censored, but…Japanese people could access content that resides outside of Japan. Bingo. The work we did in the following years was really just marketing uncensored Japanese content to users in Japan.”
Riedel has been an employee since the early days of N.T. Tech. He met Watkins in 1997 at age 19, while he was an art student living in Pittsburgh.
“One day in the summer of 1997, my roommates ran in and told me they met the ‘king of porn’ in the park, walking his poodle,” said Riedel. Watkins was looking for artists to design banner ads, and gave Riedel and his roommate some freelance work. “After that I started working full time, and the next summer I drove with him and his family across country to Seattle where we set up an office.”
They moved when Watkins left the army in 1998, after 16 years. He was only a few years shy of being eligible for a pension, but he wanted to focus on his web business. The tech world was booming, with dot-coms attracting massive funding and IPOs. “It was an adult website,” said Watkins. “Probably the army was happy to see me go.”
In 2004, after the tech boom turned bust, Watkins moved to the Philippines, a place to which he and his family had vacationed.
Watkins is blasé about those who are concerned about the type of content and behavior that 8chan encourages, but he insists he doesn’t hold the racist views espoused there. He explained this to me by way of a bizarre comparison between the lives of black Americans in the 20th century and his living situation in the Philippines.
“I am obviously not a white supremacist. I go for days without seeing another white face,” he told me. “I put up with racial problems similar to that of colored people in the 1960s, the black people of the 1970s, the African Americans of the 1980s, the people of color of the 1990s, and I am not sure what the politically correct term in the 21st century is…. I have lived here in the same place longer than anywhere else in my adult life. I love my home. As I am sure those people did in the 1960s. I don’t have a problem with white supremacists talking on 8chan. They have reasons for their beliefs. I don’t need to justify their reasons.”
8chan is not the only anonymous, messaging board owned by N.T. Tech. In 2000, it added a client to its hosting roster that would turn out to be one of its most profitable as well as its most tumultuous: 2channel.
Created in 1999 by Hiroyuki Nishimura, 2channel (also called 2ch) was a text-only web board that became a hub of Japanese web culture by allowing users to express themselves anonymously, candidly and sometimes rudely with little fear of consequence. In 2008, Wired said the “ugly, lo-res site [got] about 500 million pageviews a month.”
It sounds familiar because 2channel is the forebear of all the other “chan” sites. It inspired a similarly-named imageboard called 2chan, that in turn inspired a 15-year old Poole to create 4chan in 2003. And then 4chan gave birth to 8chan. Such is the way of the internet: easily copied ideas and constant, but shallow, innovation.
Nishimura was said to be making a million dollars a year off of 2channel in 2008, both from ads and from members who subscribed to the site’s premium service, which let them browse its archives. “The only person who gets money from 2channel is me,” Nishimura told Wired. “Well, I guess I pay for the servers.”
Those servers were N.T. Tech’s.
Things have since gone sour. In 2013, the site had a data breach that exposed the credit cards of more than 30,000 otherwise anonymous users. In 2014, N.T. Tech, which was already hosting 2channel on its servers, took control of the site and the domain, because, according to Riedel, the 2013 data breach meant that the revenue that paid for 2channel’s hosting was gone. Regardless of the breach, 2channel remains popular: In September of last year Watkins said it received “between 15 and 16 million unique visitors a day.”
Nishimura is now suing Watkins and N.T. Tech, alleging they stole the site from him. He, unsurprisingly, had nothing positive to say about Watkins. “All his businesses have failed,” Nishimura told me by email. “Even his hosting service was not good.”
Nishimura remains in the message board business: when Christopher Poole, who is now at Google, sold 4chan late last year, the buyer was Nishimura.
The world of irreverent, anonymous message boards is an incestuous one.
You might expect some procedural difficulties to result from owning free-wheeling sites like 2channel and 8chan: Law enforcement requests, DMCAs, annoyed posters, and so on. But when I asked Watkins about the major difficulties he’s faced as the owner of 8chan his first complaint was about so-called Social Justice Warriors.
“They call them SJWs… they troll me by email,” he said. “They try to embarrass you into turning off the channel. It’s like ‘oh there’s a horrible post here.’ Well great, report the post and we’ll delete it…Then they send it to ICANN, and the FBI, and all of these people. And it’s like, come on.”
Watkins, of course, is the owner of a site whose members regularly engage in swatting (using false reports to send SWAT teams after victims) and other forms of law enforcement-involved harassment. If the irony of his complaining about fruitless emails to the FBI occurred to him, he didn’t show it.
He also suggested that those who complain to him are creating the posts they’re upset about. There’s no evidence of this sort of sock-puppet account creation, though it is a tactic used by 8chan and 4chan’s right-wing groups.
I asked whether he feels any obligation to victims of harassment campaigns organized in part on 8chan.
“I am not sure what this is,” he responded. “If we have a DMCA request we comply.”
Watkins lives an ocean away from many of 8chan’s users and their targets, and it seems he doesn’t fully understand the effects it has on them. Or, even worse, he’s fully aware of what the hordes on his site are up to, and simply doesn’t care as long as it doesn’t violate the DMCA.
A note on the site admits that 8chan has yet to make a profit, but it’s clear that Watkins hopes it will. That hope and his friendship with Brennan are keeping the site alive.
Watkins is still hopeful and eager that 8chan’s advertising business will take off. As we got off the phone, he half-jokingly tried to sell me on buying ads there, in order to boost Fusion’s profile.
“Buy some advertising on 8chan. It’s only 5 dollars” he said, briefly adopting a mock accent and pronouncing his Ls as Rs: “Five dollar! five dollar!”
Ethan Chiel is a reporter for Fusion, writing mostly about the internet and technology. You can (and should) email him at [email protected]