One of the greatest commenters on the internet began his reign nearly on accident: in 2011 Ken McCarthy, a Brooklyn-based comedian, started to relieve his frustration with the cyclical arguments of comment sections by trolling them under the bumbling and clueless alter ego Ken M.
Since then, he has waded into the most toxic communities across the internet, expertly subverting ridiculous arguments on Yahoo and beyond with purposely anachronistic comments like, "Ben Franklin said politicians are like pampers, both stink and they act like babies," and the nonsensically antagonistic, "tell obama to plant more tree seeds cause trees convert sunlight into cool air."
He has been called "the most epic troll on the internet," a "fucking genius," and was listed as one of Time's most influential people on the internet. We talked to McCarthy about what these comment sections have taught him about the humans behind them.
MOTHERBOARD: Could you start by telling me a bit about how Ken M came to be? What made you start commenting?
McCarthy: I started doing this because I used to sincerely try to have serious and civil interactions online about news as an outlet for my frustration over the Bush years, I just wanted to have a conversation with people. It was very naive, and very stupid of me to do that.
Yahoo News especially is what prompted this because the comment section is insanely toxic. I discovered this depressing thing where no matter how civil and rational you are people will tell you to go kill yourself. So at a certain point the depressing nature of the comment section became funny to me so I decided to experiment, being as absurd as possible with my logic. It organically grew over time into this improv session where I would end up finding a strange surreal punchline I wouldn't be able to come up with myself. It was kind of therapeutic for me.
Your name is actually Ken McCarthy, why didn't you pick a pseudonym?
That was my Yahoo username at the time, I never expected any kind of notice just something I could show my friends for fun and it kind of accidentally got branded as Ken M––it's forever.
How do you feel about being associated with this persona or moniker of the 'most epic troll'?
I'm not sure how i feel about it, the word troll has all these nasty connotations associated with bullying and abuse and negativity and the whole drive behind what I'm doing is the opposite of that. I'm actually reacting to people and trolls who are for some reason obsessed with being negative or abusive online and using it as material to be funny and absurd. So I don't know how I feel about the troll thing, but if we can change the definition that's great.
There's a subreddit devoted to your comments––how did people know you were behind it? When did people start noticing your Ken M character across the internet?
So much of my internet fame ––sorry I find myself gagging just saying that –– is from pure luck. There are way funnier people who don't have any notice. So I give a little side eye to my internet fame on Reddit and stuff. But I sort of hit the jackpot but now there is all this expectation of me to create new content. But the Reddit people are very nice to me and I am glad they like Ken M.
Have you ever swindled someone and felt bad?
Yes, in my early days I did a couple things that were never abusive or anything but making jokes about overweight people or stuff I would never do now. I never thought anyone would see it because it was just between me and my nine friends on Tumblr. Now that I have a lot more visibility I have a 'do no harm' policy.
Do you ever feel bad for the poor social media staffers who have to earnestly reply to your comments on Facebook pages for brands?
No, because on Facebook pages for brands I always do the same character which is this geriatric well meaning moron who doesn't have any credibility on what he's saying. Anything I say just makes him look bad in a way that you want to hug him say, "I'm sorry you're so stupid."
But also I never feel bad about trolling brands because I used to work for brands in advertising and the way brands behave towards their customer base is extremely cynical and extremely intellectually insulting towards their consumers. They talk to people like children and also try to sound authentic and human but they are fucking brands. So, yeah, I like lampooning that idea. The whole idea of brands marketing on social media is ripe for sarcasm. It's like the cynicism of advertising on steroids.
How many comments do you think you've made at this point?
I post interactions on my blog, I have almost 900, and at least 3 comments per post. So it could be around 2,700.
What was your favorite troll? I'm partial your Chef Boyardee joke.
Oh yeah, that is one of my favorite ones because I have to rely on people as a huge variable and they set me up in the perfect way. Also, I'm more known with this old man voice but sometimes I like to be a hyper pretentious academic. I have a few favorites of that one. When I get to play with language a bit. when I get an opportunity to push my own boundaries a bit and play with language, and get a bit strange, those are the ones I love.
What is the worst comment section on the internet?
The Yahoo comment section is my favorite because it's the most insane. These aren't people being snarky or rolling their eyes and being dicks on purpose, it's just how they are. They are older people and this is how they choose to behave on the internet.
Gawker has what I would call a really healthy comment community because it's actually reasonable rational discourse going on, and I don't like snark aspect of Gawker or anything that's cynical, but I've got to say that is a functional community.
The Yahoo community is like the most fucked up and deranged. It's hilarious to me that this major website said, "we are going to give people the opportunity to continue the conversation" and what they get is an absolute sewer. That, to me, is hilarious.
Do you find that you learn a lot about human nature spending this much time in comment sections?
Yeah, that is the most interesting aspect to me: the way people misbehave, and they don't need to. They have the opportunity to connect with people and they choose instead to be dicks to each other. I find that really fascinating.
What has your biggest takeaway been after years of commenting?
I started doing out doing this from political frustration and then I moved away from political comments, but what's interesting to me is how people agree with you even if you say something stupid because you seem to be a member of their tribe. I think about American politics in general for the past probably 30 years that it's not so much about ideology as much as it is about sectarian tribal identification. So if I say something bad about Obama that makes no sense at all, people upvote it like crazy, even though I'm being totally a moron. I just find that, in a pathos-ridden way, fascinating.
It's sort of reflective of when you strip away the political debates about issues like "Republicans are for Tort reform and lower taxes, and democrats are for these other abstract things. Now we are seeing with Donald Trump that the mask is ripped off the Republican party and we are seeing it's, "No, we just don't like people who are not like us." And that's it.
Anything to add?
I should probably say something funny, right? I also want to say I don't really have any kind of mission. There have been a lot of articles saying I have some kind of altruistic mission to make things better, and it's not that at all. I like light, funny, absurdity. I'm not trying to change anything. I just think it's funny people are so shitty on the internet, because in real life they're probably not shitty at all.
For April Fools' Day, we're doing stories and interviews about trickery. Check 'em out here.