What I Learned From Near, an Emulation Legend and Real Person

Over several weeks of reporting, I came to know a person of immense talent who was also in constant, undeniable pain at the hands of the internet.

Jun 29 2021, 3:43pm

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text TALK to 741741, or visit https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org for more information.

There is no modern gaming emulation scene without Near, the programmer responsible for the historic bsnes emulator, which prized accuracy over performance. Near, who previously went by byuu online, wanted to preserve history. 

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On Monday morning, hacker and security engineer Hector "Marcan" Martin said he'd been in contact with the police department in charge of investigating the incident, confirming Near passed away sometime on June 27. Waypoint has been unable to independently verify this information.

Over the weekend, Near published a series of tweets implying a desire to end their own life after a targeted campaign of harassment by members of Kiwi Farms, the notoriously toxic message board forum whose members regularly engage in harassment campaigns. Kiwi Farms later, while under a DDoS attack that's briefly taken the site down, released a statement saying it had nothing to do with Near's death. The statement also said that some of the harassment Near mentioned happened on other platforms that its administrator says they cannot control.

"Every single person involved/aware did their best to save Near's life at every point in time given the information they had access to at the time," said Martin on Twitter. "We failed."

Near's weekend tweets, which remain online as of this writing, began with a simple declaration: "I've never been able to smile." Near went on to reveal and explain a lifetime of harassment and abuse that's lasted "from my earliest grade school memories to now." 

It's frequently difficult to point to a single cause that leads a person to kill themselves, and Near's problems started years ago. But the harassment that Near received recently has started a conversation about mental health and harassment, causing many to wonder what they could have done differently to support them. 

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As bad as the past was, Near said that Kiwi Farms "made the harassment orders of magnitude worse," as the doxing forum attacked Near for the mere fact of being autistic, and using the threat of doxing those they cared about as a means of eliciting a reaction. The harassment ultimately put Near into a place where panic attacks were frequent, with every day being full of "dread and worry."

I had the pleasure of writing a lengthy profile of Near this year, the result of several weeks of email communications with them, after Near released the conclusion of a 23-year journey in developing their own localization of Bahamut Lagoon, an old Squaresoft JRPG. It was a quest that started when they were 15 years old, and concluded when they were nearly 40.

(A side note about that story: it was written with he/him pronouns because that's what Near told me to use. Since then, it appears Near came out as nonbinary and used they/them pronouns. The story has been updated to reflect these changes since publication.)

"Perfection is a funny thing," Near told me during one of our many back-and-forth conversations. "It's an ideal you can chase to your grave and never attain.”

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I've written a lot of stories over the years, especially stories that fall in the bucket of person-working-on-niche-thing-for-many-years. It brings me great joy to try and translate the passions of frequently overlooked figures to a wider audience. I don't know that I've written a story that challenged me the same way this one did, as I tried to understand the hard and confusing work of a programmer, so I could help others appreciate all that hard work, too.

A graphic Near added to the end of Bahamut Lagoon.

Near was patient with their time, kind enough to walk me through everything step by step, and tolerant when I'd respond to hundreds of words with a blank stare and more questions.

"Ooooh excellent questions!" they wrote one time, when I asked them to explain what a "patching assembler" was, before they went on to write more than 1,000 words on the topic.

There was a point in that process where I asked Near about a subject we were dancing around: why was the year 2020 so traumatic? COVID-19 was ongoing and a source of anxiety, but it was clear that wasn't the whole story. That's when Near opened up about Kiwi Farms, the forum's harassment campaign, and the endless harm it had caused. I told Near that it would be hard to write a story about their life without, on some level, touching upon this, but I would only proceed in a way that made them comfortable and would not elevate the still-ongoing harassment. In the beginning, Near was reluctant and was not interested.

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"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have opened that door," Near wrote back to me in February. 

In response, I opened up about my own experiences with doxing and places like Kiwi Farms. How my online presence has, time and again, impacted my mental health and made me worried about how simply knowing me can have consequences for others in my life.

I cannot overstate the depth of pain in Near's words that followed. Reading it now, I cannot get through most of the emails without tears, knowing the end result only a few months later. This was an individual failed by society's inability to reckon with and enact consequences for the internet's worst elements, and history suggests they will not be the final victim, either.

This was a person who wanted to live and thrive, but found themselves constantly struggling under the weight of intense forces beyond their control and without obvious means of pushing back against the tidal wave of harassment sent at them.

One of the last steps in the process of writing that piece was running a few details about the harassment by Near. I wanted to make sure that we were on the same page. The story ended up very well received, and Near seemed happy.

“I cannot overstate the depth of pain in Near's words that followed. This was an individual failed by society's inability to reckon with and enact consequences for the internet's worst elements, and history suggests they will not be the final victim, either.”

After it went live, Near, as meticulous as ever, sent me a series of tiny corrections. It was very much appreciated, and if that was the most I got wrong, I felt like I'd passed a test. I asked Near to keep in touch, and to let me know if they got up to anything more interesting. 

Near told me they were hoping to lead an even more private life. The less online, the less likely the harassment would rear its head and cause more strife. Near seemed optimistic about the future. I was optimistic for their future, too, as much as a relative stranger can be.

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"It'll mostly be emulation stuff from here on out, but if something's particularly interesting," said Near. "I'll let you know."

The next time I would think about Near would be this Saturday night, as I settled into bed. I briefly looked at Twitter, upon which I found a number of people contacting me about Near, wondering if I could get in touch with them. The concerning tweets had gone out, and at the time, there was still optimism that the tragic fate suggested in them could maybe be avoided.

I only had an email address for Near, and so I wrote a quick note, hoping against hope.

"Hey, I saw your tweets, and I’m really concerned," I wrote at 12:06 am on Saturday night. "Are you okay? What can I do to help?"

I never heard back. My heart breaks, and you're left with the question of: "OK, what now?"

Kiwi Farms has, so far, proven unshakable because the nature of the web makes taking anything down difficult. The platform was last in the news for hosting and refusing to take down videos of the 2019 Christchurch mass shooting in New Zealand that left 51 dead and injured 41 more. New Zealand ISPs ended up blocking Kiwi Farms, but that does little for the rest of the world.

"Near did not commit suicide," wrote an anonymous friend of Near, whose story was shared by the aforementioned hacker Hector Martin. "Near was murdered. Victim of a lifetime of harassment. After an abusive childhood, and followed by community toxicity, Near was eventually targeted by Kiwi Farms. Members of that website make a sport of preying on the less fortunate, on those in positions liable to being emotionally abused. And they do so relentlessly. From the comfort of anonymity, of sitting in front of their computer thousands of kilometers away, they take glee in slowly destroying the psyche of others, bit by bit. To death, if possible."

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That same friend called on places like DreamHost, the domain registrar of Kiwi Farms, and Cloudflare, a service for preventing DDoS attacks, to take action. Cloudflare did not respond to a request for comment to Waypoint, but DreamHost did. The company said it was the registrar for Kiwi Farms, but said it does "not host this website or its content on our servers."

A DreamHost representative pointed out that Kiwi Farms uses Cloudflare's technology to hide its actual hosting company, and noted it would "review and forward any abuse reports submitted at https://www.cloudflare.com/abuse to the site's current web host and website owner."

The catch-22 here, of course, is that Cloudflare would be explicitly promising that another company will forward your report of abuse to the owner of a website whose entire purpose is to enact abuse. Even going through the motions of attempting to report Kiwi Farms could open people to harassment.

DreamHost also recommended people contact the FBI, and said it works "regularly with law enforcement on a variety of issues pertaining to user-generated content."

That might be true, but Kiwi Farms is still alive and Near is dead.

"The internet is not a game," wrote Near. "It's real life. I'm a real person. This stuff really hurts."

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561)

Tagged:

suicide, Emulation, Kiwi Farms

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