Welcome to How I Got Radicalized, a series from GEN that tells the story of a cultural moment that made you drastically rethink how society works.
I remember being on autopilot as I went through my process of wiping my identity on Tor, an open-source browser dedicated to maintaining internet anonymity. I exited the browser, double-checking that everything related to it was closed and triple-checking before finally turning off my VPN. I then slammed my laptop shut and sunk back into my bed, exhausted.
It was a weird liminal time of night. If I went to bed right away, I would get at least three and a half hours of sleep before school. But if I couldn’t force myself to relax, it would be another day functioning on burnt espresso from the Starbucks on 49th Street in midtown Manhattan.
My bones felt tired. All I wanted was the sweet reprieve of unconsciousness, but every time I closed my eyes, all I could see were fucked-up images of dead Black people. Eric Garner, who had been killed a couple months prior, was tattooed to the backs of my eyelids.
I had just turned 16 and started my junior year of high school in New York. But unlike most teens, I was spiraling down an existential crisis at 3 a.m., questioning whether my role as an anonymous vigilante against online trolls every night was worth it.
What was I really doing?
That was the last night I logged onto 4chan, a toxic site fueled by anonymous image-based message boards, to troll the trolls.
If you had asked the average person what an online troll or 4chan user in 2012 looked like, you’d probably hear every possible stereotype of a disillusioned, single bro. They’d likely have a fedora, maybe even a neckbeard, and pasty skin covered by a graphic T-shirt that featured some gross “go make me a sandwich” joke. Most people would never suspect a 13-year-old Black girl with a pink Dell laptop.
Tumblr became my entryway into the dark recesses of the internet. I was a punk/emo kid who was highly stressed but somehow extremely bored with everything. And like most angsty early teens, I didn’t want to be myself. (Adele and LMFAO dominated music charts at the time, and honestly, few dichotomies better describe my then-undiagnosed depression and ADHD.) I created a new Tumblr in July 2012 for no reason other than I’d learned how to do rudimentary coding and wanted to customize a Tumblr theme. I thought the username “paranormal-cvntivity” was peak pun creation. Armed with a sick-ass new online profile, I was ready to become a real Tumblr-er.
Tumblr at its peak was the place to be on the internet. Users could be anything they wanted: completely anonymous or extremely candid. The culture of Tumblr in 2012 was rife with politics, fandoms, and Lana Del Rey edits. Text posts would exist on spectrums between discourse-filled feeding frenzies and ravenous fandom interactions (which would later influence a lot of modern internet culture). Image posts would be filled with fan-made compilations of the Tumblr patron saints. And up until the great porn purge of 2018, it was completely uncensored content. But like most of the internet in the early 2010s, Tumblr was also needlessly cruel.
My introduction to trolling was on Tumblr, where I would occasionally see warnings of “incel bombs.” It was often men, those dubbed at the time as “involuntary celibates,” who would post the most graphic and explicit images under innocent tags like #puppies. I was an anime-obsessed 13-year-old on the internet, so of course I peeked in the NSFW and Rule 34 tags, and I’d already seen my fair share of chaotic content on sites like DamnLOL. Still, it was extremely jarring to seek out images of cute kittens but instead find the site plagued by images of cats being killed.
I started to discreetly research 4chan and quickly learned it was an anonymous cesspit. Incels were the creatures that traversed the sludge. The veil of online anonymity lulled these users into thinking they were safe from any type of critique. I wondered what would happen if I, too, dropped into the sludge and made them question that safety. I downloaded Tor and installed a free VPN I found from one of my Tumblr friends. Hands quivering with a combination of anticipation and anxiety, I logged onto 4chan for the first time.
Bullying them anonymously offered me gratuitous amounts of serotonin that I was severely lacking.
This may sound like a femcel (female incel) indoctrination story about a young girl falling down the incel rabbit hole, but it’s not. Indoctrination, especially one that skews toward alt-right extremism, requires a certain amount of privilege and ignorance of one’s place in the world. I knew at a very young age that my Blackness, my fatness, and my womanness pushed me very far from the center of the paper, somewhere deep into its margins.
We have all gone through a “pick me” phase where we craved some type of approval from the white cis-hetero patriarchy at some point in our lives, but I didn’t crave approval from men who spent their days trolling teens on a microblogging app dominated by the SuperWhoLock fandom. Bullying them anonymously offered me gratuitous amounts of serotonin that I was severely lacking.
The entire point was to “do it for the lulz.” I quickly realized trolling is not fun unless you’re eliciting some type of response from a stranger.
There are two rules for navigating the internet, and rules one and two are the same for good reason: Do not speak about /b/ on 4chan. /b/ is the site’s “no rules” random message board. Anything can be posted on /b/ as long as it doesn’t overtly break any U.S. laws; however, that is an extremely loose boundary. Animal abuse is illegal, and yet images of graphic animal abuse, gore, and porn frequently populated the boards.
I thought I saw some weird shit after accidentally stumbling into the vore tag on Tumblr, but nothing compared to the things I saw on the /b/ board. The only “rule” that seemed to stand in the “no rules” land was that one could be banned from the board for any reason, including no reason at all. I never got banned, which is surprising considering how much I stayed on the necks of /b/ and /pol/ users. I still wonder if the “moderators” of the board were also laughing at the key smashing and mouth foaming that occurred during my hours of trolling.
I learned how to be a troll from /b/. The entire point of the board was to “do it for the lulz,” and I quickly realized trolling is not fun unless you’re eliciting some type of response from a stranger. Perhaps my success at doing just that was the reason I never got banned.
Another board I populated was the /pol/ (politically incorrect) board, where I had a lot of my fun. The users on that board were a lot more sensitive and easier to rile up. Where /b/ was sheer debauchery, 2012–2014 /pol/ was a white supremacist’s wet dream. It tickled me whenever I accused users of being simps for the women and ethnicities they hated. The amount of death threats and doxxing attempts I got on /pol/ only fueled my joy.
The symbiotic relationship between feeling empty sparks of joy while simultaneously subjecting my young psyche to violence for hours every day was unsustainable. By the end of my trolling career, I was just a lurker on 4chan, there to see when users were planning to invade Tumblr and also secretly praying that every allegedly planned attack I saw was just another hoax. Seeing the constant replays of Eric Garner’s dying breaths, along with constant images of Black death, broke me from the site completely.
The internet is a blessing and a curse. Though many successful social movements flourished online, I learned at a very young age that the internet is not made for people like me to thrive. In many ways, it’s used to beat down and exhaust those who want liberation and equity. It makes them complacent. After 4chan, I learned that it didn’t matter how many trolls I harassed in a day if safe spaces would still be attacked, if Dylann Roofs would still be born, and if Black death and trauma continued to be trafficked across the internet.
What was I doing as an anonymous David fighting a xenophobic, queerphobic, and misogynistic Goliath?
I now hold a deeper understanding of what I got out of trolling trolls anonymously. Not to sound like Liam Neeson, but I had acquired a particular set of skills that allowed me to use my knowledge about trolls and toxic spaces on the internet as a means to support and protect marginalized people. It also taught me how to monitor these spaces for future interference. But most of all, I learned that if I was going to bark back at an incel, I wanted to be known for it, not a vigilante hiding behind a series of randomized numbers.