I thought we could either gchat, then edit later, or meet in person and transcribe whatever happens w/o editing (including things like ["long pause"] and "[nervously laughs]." I think I kind of prefer the 2nd.
So began my interaction with author Tao Lin, a young author known as much for his self-promotional antics as for his several published novels. I wanted to interview Lin about his experiences with a popular image board called 4chan, known for being a playground for internet trolls and the birthplace of the "hacktivist" collective known as Anonymous. 4chan is a place where thousands of people gather for cheap thrills: porn, gore, and spontaneous collaborative pranks that range from harmlessly goofy to insidiously dangerous. 4chan trolls go after religious cults, white supremacists, scam artists, pedophiles, and animal abusers. They also seem to hate Tao Lin. I wanted to know why.
4chan is a collection of image boards that allows users to anonymously post messages that disappear quickly unless they contain content that inspires others to respond. It is marked by the presence of a geeky, insular cultural currency of internet-borne ephemera which we've now decided to collectively call "memes." For the most part, 4chan's users just want to kill time shooting the shit with other geeks. They talk about anime, mecha, papercraft and other mostly-geeky topics. I've been hanging out on 4chan pretty regularly since 2007—it's a fascinating Darwinian "meme-pool," from which much of internet culture derives. I wrote a book about 4chan last fall.
Two years ago, 4chan's administrator added a literature board, or, /lit/, to the fifty or so extant forums. It was an immediate personal thrill to see the often puerile tone of 4chan's boards used to describe Dostoyevsky, for instance. The content on the /lit/ board proved what I'd always suspected about 4chan in general— that it's populated by genuinely smart folks who feign stupidity in order to crack each other up. Being on 4chan is a sort of meta-game, a performance art in which everyone tries to be more offensive, funny, shocking, clever, or otherwise fascinating than everyone else in the room.
Still, the /lit/ board demonstrates 4chan's overwhelming geekiness, with sci-fi and fantasy discussion taking up much more of the board's pages than you might see anywhere else. Which is why I was caught off guard when I saw Tao Lin's name referenced there, as opposed to Ray Bradbury or Ayn Rand. According to the board's users, 4chan hates Tao Lin because they claim he uses the board to plug his work, which flies in the face of the site's culture of pure anonymity. They also hate him because he's an NYC hipster artfag.
When /lit/ launched two years ago, Tao Lin was an emerging indie literary icon with a reputation driven by Gawker-fueled haterade. In 2007, Gawker's Emily Gould wrote:
Tao Lin, I know you're reading this. I just want you to know that because of your ill-conceived self-marketing strategy, you have 100% guaranteed that I will never read your damned book with its oh-so-wacky title... Your publicity games aren't a play on fame-seeking or celebrity culture. Actually, you're maybe perhaps the single most irritating person we've ever had to deal with—and you wouldn't believe our in-box. Stop it. Stop it now. And now we will go back to never mentioning you again.
How did all this start? Why is Gawker picking on you? Is it because of your success as a young writer?
I emailed them probably like five times over like a year or two before my first two fiction books came out. But like I wanted thatI was happy that happened.
Do you think you'd be where you are today if that buzz hadn't been generated?
Umm, I don't know how big of an effect it had. I don't know some people might view me a lot differently I think. My books, they're like, conventional literary novels and short stories, so without all the internet stuff, a lot of people just view me as a normal literary writer, and that might've helped me in some way.
Would you encourage young writers to let their work speak for itself?
I never advise people on anything. But I think I let my work speak for itself. All that other stuff is its own project. I never respond to reviews saying my book is good or anything. I view negative reviews as another way for more people to find out about the book. So I think it's helpful for that.
Although much of the 4chan experience is built around role-playing, the crowd despises contrived cool. Being geeks, many of 4chan's users are likely kids who were or are currently getting picked on in high school. To them, the internet is a refuge, a place where one's reputation is only as good as his last post. Being good looking, rich, or in this case, a part of an ultra-cool literary elite means nothing on 4chan, and could even count against you if you're foolish enough to hang around there dropping your own name.
Which is why "Go to bed, Tao Lin" is a meme on /lit/. When someone brings up Lin's name, another will inevitably respond with this phrase, which basically means, "We know it's you Tao, doing more viral marketing for your stupid books." I became fascinated by /lit/'s vacillating fascination and hatred of this peculiar author, who would seem so far removed from 4chan geek culture. Despite the differences in environment and focus, 4chan and Lin may have something in common: trolling. It's a different kind of trolling, to be sure, and I believe Lin would cringe at the drawing of such a parallel, but at the heart of it, Lin's public-facing image is thoroughly marked by prankish stunts and apparently (given the self-awareness of the opening quote) put-on awkwardness that it can only be interpreted as a way to provoke a response, usually something along the lines of, "Is this motherfucker for real?"
How did you first hear about 4chan?
Uhhh, sometime in college, probably 2003 or 2004. Probably just from reading some news thing. I remember looking at it briefly in a computer lab. I think I was looking at /b/ and had like, I don't know it was like, dead babies or something, so I closed it.
Did you continue looking at it semi-regularly?
No. Not until I got Google alerts from people talking about me. Every thread from the beginning, the second or third comment would be like, "Get out of here, Tao." and it wasn't me.
At what point did you start responding to this chatter?
I never really responded. Maybe for like 30% of the threads I'll say something. Like if they're talking about Muumuu house, I'll put a link to Mummu house and say, "Hey, it's Tao, go here."
Tao Lin wrote a book called, "EEEEE EEE EEEE." He has a blog located at "http://heheheheheheheeheheheehehe.tumblr.com/." He can be viewed on YouTube giving a reading in which he repeats the words "the next night we ate whale," ad nauseum for several minutes, provoking his audience to laughter, then confusion, then laughter again. The performance seems designed to test the willingness of his audience to put up with his contrived oddness, like Andy Kaufman reading The Great Gatsby in its entirety to a disbelieving audience that showed up for comedy. These and other bizarre publicity stunts have engendered as much love as hate. Bloggers, eager to demonstrate that they are in on the joke, describe Lin as the first author to really figure out how to harness the viral potential of the web, while his detractors see him as just another boring publicity hound whose actual work doesn't stand up to scrutiny from those who are able to look past his trollish antics.
What's different about the chatter on the /lit/ board than some other board? Is it all trollish or is there actually interesting commentary?
[long pause]. I like the tone more, usually.
Is it interesting because it comes from outside a media elite world?
[long pause] I think it's more of a joke. That's what I like reading.
Do you think of yourself as a meme on 4chan?
Do people Photoshop you?
They take images and write stuff on it. There's an image of me and my dad and it says, like, some stereotypical Asian thing about a dad being disappointed in his son. I like that one.
Why do you think you became a known entity on the /lit/ board?
Some of it...some of it's probably because I would write about it on Twitter. Probably cuz of that.
Do you think it has anything to do with some of the information on the internet about you that they might perceive as antagonistic or prankish?
Yeah. I think a lot of what I do is easy to talk about. To make jokes out of. Like almost everything I do that isn't a book is [long pause] has that in mind, to be interesting in that way. So it's just easy for them to talk about me.
I first became aware of the author through Hipster Runoff, a pseudonymous cultural criticism blog written satirically in the voice of an achingly self-aware, self-hating hipster who can't bear taking any official stance on any subject without couching his views within ironic scare quotes. The character behind Hipster Runoff delights in skewering self-promoters within various creative industries. His most recent target is Elizabeth Grant, a young woman who has similarly parlayed internet vitriol into a successful career under the name Lana del Ray.
Riding a wave of negative feedback, and encouraging its continued churn is nothing new in the arts. Think the aforementioned Andy Kaufman, Steve Albini, or Andy Warhol. Think Salvador Dali walking an anteater around Lower Manhattan on a leash, seemingly oblivious to the shock he's inspiring from every angle. We can agree that he knew what he was doing, right? These guys were patron saints of modern day internet trolling, which we'll broadly define as deriving enjoyment or personal gain from upsetting someone's emotional equilibrium.
Last November Village Voice music critic Maura Johnston coined this practice within the music industry "trollgaze," a clever riff on last year's music journo trend in which bloggers devised acrobatic new ways to describe emerging, trendy music genres (chillwave, rapegaze, shitgaze, etc). I'll let her define the term, with some wonderful examples:
2011 has been the year of "trollgaze," a media-agnostic genre name for those pieces of pop culture as designed for maximum Internet attention as they are pieces of art that can stand (or at least wobble) on their own. The ways to get inducted into the trollgaze pantheon are as plentiful as self-congratulatory Lil B retweets; in music alone, they can involve dropping songs chock-full of easy ways to laugh at them (extra points if you're being dead serious about doing so), acting like an entitled punkass brat, complaining about people saying that you're acting like an e.p.b., or somewhat ineptly playing on the already-existent prejudices possessed by critical-mass online audiences, among other things. With so many things these days vying for the masses' increasingly divided attention, though, it's becoming tougher and tougher to gauge whether or not a piece of cultural ephemera is actually trying to double as its social-media strategy.
Basically, this strain of trolling means being outrageously obnoxious and/or odd in order to develop an inscrutable public persona, which ostensibly will lead to increased exposure courtesy of head-scratching and/or facepalming journalists and subsequently, fame and/or fortune. The goal is to leave everyone scrambling to figure out your public-facing image, your actual self, and (last and probably least) your art — and where the three meet and diverge.
When I pitched this piece around, I got the following response back from one editor:
Well, this is an interesting piece... But there's no way to cover Tao Lin without feeding his endlessly ongoing machinations of public relations, so we don't like to do it. Having been the victim of years of his fake emails from "interns" and "friends," I don't have any interest in supporting his gross striving, which I find really offputting (and, to be fair, appropriate for the times). He's a fascinating social experiment, to be sure! But really also just the most craven and I can't even deal with it.
I had initially envisioned this piece as an article about Lin's relationship with 4chan. I wanted to figure out if he really is trolling /lit/ as viral marketing as the board claims, or if he really just happened to achieved memehood on the site through no active engagement of his own. I wanted to see if 4chan had conjured an image of Lin that was based more on hype and lazy readings than reality, and draw parallels to the often silly and unfair way the mainstream media has recently portrayed 4chan's Anonymous, routinely reporting sensationalized linkbait stories about the culture without conducting the slightest bit of fact-checking. I wanted to explore how the internet encourages shallow interpretations of strange and complex phenomena.
When I met Lin for drinks I honestly wasn't sure if he was going to behave like an actual human or some kind of Martian, given his reputation and online persona. Clearly this guy realizes that some people see him as an awkward weirdo, and heseems to enjoys cultivating that image. He must know what he's doing, to some extent. It's possible that he's been so deeply dedicated to his public persona (It's worked out for him so far, I would hardly blame him) that he is at this point oblivious of a distinction between the two.
You said once that you view your microcelebrity like a video game, in which the goal is to have as much fun while racking up points. I think the way people behave on 4chan is like a video game, where they're trying to manipulate the system. Is that similar to what you're trying to do with marketing your personal brand?
[10 second pause] I think I'm just trying to do things that are interesting to me. And to avoid anything that is [long pause] just only promoting something without itself being something that would be interesting even if it wasn't promoting anything. And that makes it so [ten second pause]. The things I do [ten second pause]. I don't know. Can we talk more about the game aspect?
I see the hacking and trolling and pranking like a video game. People start playing a game they're figuring a way to break the boundaries of the system and master it to the point where they've broken the game. That's how people on 4chan treat the internet. Like how they try to find pedophiles and bring them to the attention of law enforcement. They see themselves as heroes in a video game almost. I see similarities with you because you're testing the boundaries of what people will find acceptable and playing with people's preconceived notions. I think you must be aware of what's going to cause rage on 4chan, but also Tumblr and Twitter and elsewhere.
I'm not interested in doing things that are going to intentionally cause outrage or arguments. When I do something [long pause] I don't want what I do to cause a discussion about what's good or bad. [fifteen second pause] I just make an effort not to engage in [long pause] saying controversial things about politics or race or sex or making grandiose statements like "this is the best whatever" or "top ten best whatever" or saying anything's bad to cause a reaction. I try to avoid all those things. But to still do things that will get like, attention.
On the evening of February 20, I went to a reading hosted by Tao Lin featuring mostly young writers from his MuuMuu house collective. When I watched him and a half dozen of his friends on-stage, staring at the floor, picking at their hair, and laughing nervously into the mic, part of me wanted to call them out. But the crowd adored them. With every stutter, every "uh, I lost my place," the crowd clapped for more. The event seemed engineered to satisfy a certain type of beret-wearing NYU student (I counted four). They came to see people so deeply artistic, just overflowing with Imagination and Truth and Beauty, that they can't be bothered to present themselves to the crowd like functioning adults. It's as if these artists want to possess the mystery of the social outcast without having to suffer any actual social ostracism.
But maybe there’s something deeper to this contrived faux awkwardness. Maybe it's a defense mechanism. It could be a method of dealing with a legit social anxiety disorder. If I lay all my [nervous laughs] and all my [long pauses] out there in the open for everyone to see, and preemptively undermine myself, that robs my critics of their ammunition when they try to attack the integrity of my actual work.
My interview with Tao Lin tells us little about what drives him to maybe-troll 4chan nerds or the lit and art publications who write features about him. The interview was at least thirty percent [long pause]. Lin gave me bare responses tomany of my questions, and when presented with follow-up questions attempting to wring juice from his stony replies, he responded with yes, [nervous laughter] and if I was lucky, [slightly reworded repetitions]. Given the way Lin suggested that we frame the interview, I am inclined to believe that Lin wanted it to be this way.
You once said that people think of you as a gimmicky asshole. Where do you think that perception comes from if you're not out there actively trolling?
[fifteen-second pause] Let's just take the example of me selling shares of Richard Yates. I sold six shares for 10% each and made $12,000. That was covered in a lot of places and a lot of places put in their headline that I'd sold shares of a book that I hadn't written yet, but in the blog post I'd said that it was 98 or 95% written. But I knew Gawker and other places would do whatever they needed to seem most outrageous so I just like encouraged, or didn't like make a strong effort to like say, "Actually, this book is almost finished." I think that's typical of coverage of anything. It's just angled to make it seem most outrageous. [10 second pause] I always am in, like, support of the person who's getting shit-talked now, whenever I read anything anywhere pretty much, but that's just because I've been through like so much of it.
When I initially decided to write about Tao Lin I wanted to figure out who is trolling whom among Lin, 4chan, Gawker, Hipster Runoff, and linkbaity mainstream media outlets, and yes, myself. I know this article is going to generate some controversy, so one could argue that I'm trolling Lin, here. And maybe if Lin or other influencers tweet the URL of this article, some of his social capital will rub off on me.
This is how we get attention in 2012 — we're all trolls, trying to upset our audience's emotional equilibrium. We're aiming for some visceral response that drives controversy, eventually leading to increased social standing or financial gain. The internet rewards weirdness. One of meme-centric content aggregator Buzzfeed's eight content categories is "WTF?" We love the internet because it tells us that there's always a freak out there more broken than we are. But standing out in this crowded space requires one to role-play at oddness. We're all so rich and beautiful and educated and fashionable, the only remaining way to differentiate oneself in the status game is to come off as just super real, man. What shall we call it? Awkwave? Weirdgaze?
Lin insists that his motives are pure, that he's not interested in provocation. I'm not sure if I buy this defense. I think his persona is ultimately a reaction against the hyper-self-aware blogosphere and its ironic distance. To be publicly awkward is to reject social norms is to "not give a shit" is to be vulnerable is to be authentic: that ever-elusive ideal of the age. We put ourselves out there, warts and all, desperately hoping that someone will recognize us as real, when really, our awkwardness and hyper-sincerity is just an additional layer of pretense.
I genuinely like Tao Lin. He's an awfully nice and polite guy. His Twitter is sometimes hilarious. I think his writing is interesting and occasionally even genius. He's had nice things to say about my writing. Sometimes he even "likes" my Tumblr posts. This observation isn't directed solely at him, rather a broader trend among young creatives. I'm not trying to pick on Lin -- maybe he actually does suffer from social anxiety disorder. I'm using him as a lens through which to analyze this widespread phenomenon. I'm certainly not suggesting, when accusing him of trolling, that Lin is doing anything mean, like kind of troll who writes, "lol someone should rape that slut" on some poor 11-year old's YouTube video.
But with MuuMuu house, Lin seems to be training a growing generation of otherwise bright writers and artists to troll for press (or are we to buy any narrative that describes publishing a photo of a famous editor's semen on one's face as something other than a naked publicity grab exchanging female sexual self-sabotage for mad pageviews?). And I can't help but feel like this is a road to artistic irrelevance. My generation is one that appears to be devoting tremendous amounts of creative energy into the development of a personal brand at the expense of its artistic production. I wish Lin and his acolytes would let their talent speak for itself, without the spectacle of eccentricity. This approach might not generate as much hype, but perhaps man cannot live on buzz alone.
During our interview, I fielded some questions from /lit/ and asked Lin to respond.
"Ask him how he has overcome his autism."
I really like the autism meme. It's really funny.
"Is his next novel about 4chan?"
No. Though I had an idea to title it 4chan as a complete non sequiter.
"Ask him why he just doesn't come out and say: 'Hey /lit/! Tao here! Let's talk about books!' and instead has made no less than a thousand threads here more along the lines of: 'heehee no one knows it's me but if I keep posting it I'll be the Jeff Mangum of /lit/ heehee, hey Megan Boyle you make threads too and you too intern heeheehee I'm a fucking faggot.'