How do you solve a problem like Encyclopaedia Dramatica?
Created in 2004, ''Wikipedia's evil twin'' was intended to keep record of flame wars, 'famewhores,' and the feuds of blogging platform LiveJournal. In the years which followed, the site grew into a library of a burgeoning troll culture, encompassing and attacking online life in its entirety. Under the banner ' In lulz we trust,' users contributed and edited entries, archiving online drama and doling out mob justice in the form of unfavourable search results.
Encyclopaedia Dramatica, often abbreviated to 'ED,' stands today as a microcosm of the internet at its most feral, a gallery of villains and trolls and grotesques. But the site may not be around for much longer: it's very publicly being sued for copyright infringement by gaming entrepreneur Jonathan Monsarrat, who founded Lord of the Rings Online and Asheron's Call developer Turbine. While in the past ED has laughed off frivolous 'lolsuits,' this current one poses enough of a threat that it's added a banner to every page, asking for donations to its legal defense fund.
Encyclopaedia Dramatica has survived previous assassination plots. Its 'Taking Down ED' page details an elaborate history of the many times it has evaded closure, including cease-and-desist letters, organised hacks, and a 'blanking' (ie. page-deletion) spree staged by someone named 'VampiricSpektor.'
"The site won't be taken down, but the cost is extremely burdensome."
This new lawsuit, however, might be different. Monsarrat is seeking $750,000 in damages for copyright infringement, after users reposted a previously DMCA-ed entry on him, backed up from an old Google cache (Encyclopaedia Dramatica as a whole has been taken offline a number of times and restored its community—the site is, by its own count, now in its 3.5th iteration). The page in question quoted old forum posts made by Monsarrat, alongside an image of him in costume dressed as a beaver, which had been manipulated with Photoshop to look like the (very old) meme 'Pedobear.'
ED's mods are adamant Monsarrat will not kill the site.
"The site won't be taken down, but the cost is extremely burdensome," said ED moderator Brian Zaiger, speaking to Motherboard by email. Zaiger described Monsarrat as a "serial litigator," linking to coverage of a previous lawsuit taken against bloggers, where Monsarrat asked for $5.5 million. He added, "You can Google his name and see he has been filing lawsuits against anyone who writes anything about him online for at least a decade." The ED legal defence fund currently stands at $7,208.
Even among the ranks of its users, Encyclopaedia Dramatica has never been far from controversy.
"The site started in 2004 as an extension of the Livejournal.com community LJDrama," Zaiger said. "It was started by GirlVinyl (aka Sherrod DeGrippo) who in turn tried to kill ED in 2011 by turning it into a safe-for-work version called 'Oh Internet.' I took over in 2011 when the site was rebuilt by fans of the site from Google caches, after she took down the original .com domain."
Infamous among ED's community (despite the years of free work she gave to building and maintaining the site), DeGrippo and her team of volunteers can't have failed to notice ED's potential as a commercial venture, if only it could be rebranded as acceptable to 'normies.'
While the site occupied space as a grassroots archive of memes and troll culture, it had arrived during an online gold rush, with others cashing in on explaining internet culture to the uninformed. Urban Dictionary, founded in 1999, was among the earlier 'guides' to this world. Uncyclopedia, the much detested rival to ED, appeared in 2005. Buzzfeed was founded the following year, while ED's other, safe-for-work rival 'Know Your Meme,' was founded in 2008, and acquired by the Cheezburger Network in 2011 for a seven-figure sum.
Launched suddenly by taking ED offline and redirecting from the old domain to new one, 'Oh Internet' was almost instantly despised among ED's fans. The site was swiftly vandalised until it was forced to shut down, while ED's fanbase worked to rebuild the original site and restore it to its NSFW glory.
ED's rebirth as 'Oh Internet' is derided on the site to this day, often portrayed as a betrayal, an attempt to cash in on a community's hard-earned infamy before sanitising the lulz away. But over the years troll culture has successfully mainstreamed itself.While it's (fortunately) no longer popular to prey upon strangers with mental illnesses or developmental disabilities, the original troll instinct—that nihilistic, shit-stirring, 'drama'-inciting urge to go looking for attention in all the wrong places—occupies pride of place in today's 24-hour news cycle.
It hardly needs to be said that Encyclopaedia Dramatica has always been morally dubious at best. It has always been foul-mouthed, petty, and vicious. It has ruined more than a few people's lives. Clicking through the site, you'll traverse a map of the online underworld as imagined by Hieronymus Bosch, one populated with stolen nudes, gore, suicide pictures, grimly repetitive racial slurs, and rampant homophobia juxtaposed with the hypersexualisation of cartoon hedgehogs.
Stars of ED, over the years, have included Chris Chan (inventor of Sonic/Pikachu hybrid 'Sonichu'), 4chan's beloved icon Boxxy and her lesser-known descendents, and an anonymous man pictured wearing lingerie fellating himself. This self-described 'shitpost metropolis' exhausts every linguistic and photographic outrage, and every crude, derogatory trope. Sometimes the sentences are so dense with racial and homophobic slurs they stop making grammatical sense.
This is no country for the 'Personae Non Beefis:'As with 4chan and other fringe communities, there is an air of mutual damnation to every page. The subject of each article is grotesque, as is its author, and midway through reading the page you realise that you're pretty despicable too, just for being here. As with attendants of an AA meeting, or perhaps an orgy, ED must be approached with an implicit promise not to judge.
Still, today the site feels somehow less cutting; less offensive, even, and perhaps a little out of date. Subjects on the list of staff suggestions for new articles include vaporwave rap legend (and part-time real estate broker) Viper—he of You'll Cowards Don't Even Smoke Crack fame—and socialist 8chan board Leftypol. There are calls for pages on other, relatively forgotten memes, like seapunk, or Kellyanne Conway.
Tastes change, as do the things which offend us. Truth tea goes cold, prime beef turns stale, and as social media has accelerated, our taste for online drama has shifted. Today the term 'troll' carries a newly sinister undercurrent: where once the lulz were just that, now they've been politicised, luring typical 4chan users to the alt-right.
Has ED become politicised too, and in the process abandoned its purpose?
"I don't think we have become more political," said Zaiger. "We might cover more politics because having Donald Trump as president is hilarious. We covered George Dubya a lot too and Obama, though Trump is a meme machine so yeah, he is far more visible on the site. But I don't think we take any political side, other than what we find the funniest."
This is what makes ED so fascinating as a case study, a record of social media's awkward adolescence before it was marketed to more mainstream users as closely-monitored and Zuckerbergian. This is why, as a journalist, I cannot defend Encyclopaedia Dramatica, but I cannot wholly condemn it either. Without this record, writing about the history of internet culture would often be impossible.
I asked Zaiger if he has met others with similarly conflicted feelings towards the site. He replied, "A lot of people dislike the site for those reasons. But yes, we archive the side of social media that news sites don't. The personal interactions, the users...I think it is very important to archive these events. Things happen on social media and other places online that get a lot of attention from a lot of people, but are forgotten as quickly as they happen. Having someplace to be able to look it up is important."
While writing this piece I spoke to another member of ED's community, a long time admin on both the wiki and for the encyclopaedia Dramatica subreddit. Lulzkiller, as he's known on the site, explained his role as one of conservation—blocking vandals, protecting pages, and occasionally editing them.
Lulzkiller portrayed the site as mellowing somewhat over time, even as the online landscape around it has become more extreme. They no longer dox the subjects of ED entries, though it will link out to other sites which do, and will reveal a user's real name (called their 'power word'). Some editors have 'softened up' and take down pages when asked to, while others show less mercy. And while the site no longer hosts revenge porn, it will happily host embarrassing images uploaded by the subjects themselves. Lulzkiller explained, "I don't think ED has gotten more extreme, or—as some people have claimed—moved further to the right. Most of our users generally seem to fit into the centre-left."
Where Encyclopaedia Dramatica fits, within our current climate of politicized trolling, might be a question central to keeping the site alive. As with much trolling pre-Gamergate and pre-2016, ED staff consider themselves apolitical and equal-opportunity offensive, but this ambiguity has not aged well in our polarised times. Lulzkiller wrote, "ED is not SJW, or alt-right, (although) we've been called both. We satirise and roast everyone, we're deliberately not sympathetic to any side."
To many, the site's appeal lies in its old-web values. Lulzkiller said, "You get challenged on ED, and you can challenge on ED. That's something you often don't get on other platforms. That's something that gets you banned on other platforms, particularly on social media…It is associated with the old-school at this point, sites like Something Awful or 4chan. It's from that era. This has natural positives and downsides."
One such downside might be that the site is frequently assumed to side with the alt-right, an idea Lulzkiller protested. "This false notion that I have been seeing increasingly that ED is somehow becoming more conservative or even alt-right is absolute bollocks, quite a lot of our staff have left-leaning views, a smaller number (of them) are also homosexual."
ED seems to freely embrace its own conflicted nature in the two pages its users have built for Donald Trump, written from perspectives for and against him. For the record, they're equally cynical, foul-mouthed and visually cluttered, designed to mock those who care too much about Trump from either side of the political spectrum. At the top of the pro-Trump page is a warning: "This Man has generated more butthurt than the rest of our political establishment, mass media and the one percent combined."
The same could be said for Encyclopaedia Dramatica. After Trump, will trolling ever be the same, and can arguing the cause of 'free speech' be read as anything other than a right-wing rallying call?
ED might not even live long enough to see this question resolved. "I won't lie and say that our finances are great, they're shit," Lulzkiller said, explaining that this month the sysadmin let their server bill go unpaid. Nor can they depend much on crowdfunding: "A lot of people in general do not value the perspective of the likes of ED; the old-school internet is slowly being blocked out. Even some of our own long-time users don't truly value the place ED really has, in my opinion…I'm noticing that people are beginning to see ED more as a relic than anything else, and it's saddening."
For a time, ED loomed large in the tradition of the shock site, the online descendent of the video nasty. Users collected infamous pictures and videos there, including Goatse, Tubgirl, Lemon Party and, inevitably, scatological classic 2 Girls 1 Cup.
It's difficult to know whether the purpose of ED is still to shock, whether it ever really was, or whether it only exists after the fact, as a record of someone else's outrage.
As with Wikipedia, it's easy to fall down a black hole on Encyclopaedia Dramatica by following links. You idly click from page to page, travesty to travesty, wondering if you're becoming slowly inured to what you see, until you arrive at the notorious 'Offended?' page.
The title is a cruel trick: the page sets out to offend you even more. Suddenly you find yourself scrolling through images of viscera and porn, and that ancient horror, Goatse. A pixelated herd of Goatses.
Suddenly 4chan is empty, and all the devils are here.
'Offended?' is repulsive, an altar to all that is disturbing and eyeball-searing and wrong. But it is fascinating as an anthology of meme-horror, a page which is more than the sum of its (disturbing) parts. 'Offended?' has a transformative effect upon its viewers: it works as indoctrination tool and hazing ritual, by traumatising new ED users into existence. It casts the troll as a martyr and a witness, someone who has seen things you people wouldn't believe.
When I ask Zaiger if ED has stepped up its many horrors to match the times, his answer was coy. "I don't think we are necessarily looking to shock people, we just write about what we think is funny, and what we think is funny is shocking to some people." He said. "If we have become more extreme it is only because the internet has become more extreme."
It's difficult to know whether the purpose of ED is still to shock, whether it ever really was, or whether it only exists after the fact, as a record of someone else's outrage. In either case, what exactly is the site's worth? Should we preserve it, or decry it entirely? Or can Encyclopaedia Dramatica be redeemed, by archiving the unarchivable?