Article first published as An Interview With David Thorne, Author of The Internet is a Playground: Irreverent Correspondences of an Evil Online Genius on Blogcritics.
I did not know what to expect with this book but I know what reaction I had as I read it and prepared for the interview: Fear. It's an understandable reaction, methinks, when doing an interview with a person best known for brilliant put-downs and messing with the heads of those who interact with him.
We deal in the interview with the semantics — most articles I found while researching this refer to him as a prankster, but he prefers to consider himself a satirist, someone more in the vein of Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal as opposed to the show Punk'd.
You may not recognize his name — he long went by the name 27bslash6, a reference to George Orwell explained in the interview, but you will probably have heard of some of his work, the most famous being the one about the spider which you can read here.
His invites to what turned out to be a fake "Kate's Party" drew much media attention including this article.
His fake McDonald's memo, in which it is suggested there's a policy of omitting items from customer's drive-through orders, while hilarious, cost him some legal hassle. Snopes, one of the best BS detectors on the internet, sums it all up nicely here.
He may be best known to catlovers for his missing cat poster emails which are hilarious.
So you can see why I asked, when setting up the interview, for a promise I'd not be messed with myself.
"How do I know you won't prank me if you don't like the interview? Do I get prank insurance?" I asked if any topics were off limits.
His response: "And there are no topics off limits; If I like the interview I will teet/facebook a link to it, if I don't, I will just link to youtube videos of cats jumping into boxes instead.
His book's introduction ends with this: "A big thank you also goes out to the people who link to, tweet, repost, and frequent the 27b/6 website. Without them, the hit counters would be only in the double digits"
And with that let's cut to the interview before I say anything that might get me rickrolled.
Do you consider yourself an "evil online genius" as per the book's title? How so?
I have no idea why the publisher decided to add that title to the book cover. Seeing the proof for the first time, I stated "people will think I have given myself that title." Having been in the design industry for over fifteen years, I almost had an aneurysm when I saw the pointy random blue starburst. Expressing this to the publishers, they declined my request for it to be removed. If anything, with every email I sent them, it became more pointy and random. It looks like it has been done by a child. With Palsy. Also, people will probably point and say, "Hey, there's that seven legged spider — welcome to the Internet... two years ago." which is quite hurtful. I have written quite a bit since the spider exchange. Mostly about cats because everyone loves cats.
What was your goal with this book? Put another way, do your pranks have goals or lessons or are they just for fun?
While the primary goal is to amuse, I do include points, hidden amongst the irreverence, in most of what I write. While these points are generally article specific, (such as religion in schools, discipline over education, homophobia or simply questioning authority) the situations are those that a lot of people seem to relate to. The title of the website, 27b/6, is a vague reference to Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty Four - which he wrote while living in 27B on floor 6 of his apartment building. Although what I write is not making a statement as grand as Orwell's, the site could be seen as an outlet for dealing with my own minor Orwellian nightmares. I do not have caged rats attempting to gnaw their way through my face, but working in the design industry is pretty much the same thing.
Do you think it's possible for a prank to go too far? Have any of yours gone too far and/or caused you any guilt?
I do not generally initiate email correspondences; I simply reply. While it may be juvenile to state "they started it," if my response is not to their liking, I can't be held responsible for failing to provide the response sought. I do, however, accept that the internet is serious business and for those upset by something they read, it is, in fact, the end of the world. I have been accused of irresponsibility when publishing content, in particular the emails, but I have never claimed that I am responsible or wish to be.
There are occasional repercussions though. I have learnt the hard way the difference between sarcasm from behind the safety of a computer screen and sarcasm within punching distance. I have had people attempt to resolve an issue or demand I remove an article, but it is the internet; articles generally have a two week lifespan and then everyone forgets. It is not necessary to attempt a resolution when it is self-resolving. I do get the odd legal threat though and have answered the door to police on more than one occasion.
OK, now I just used the p word (prank) and I've noticed most media coverage — including the publicity material that accompanied your book — also calls your work pranks. But you said in an email you don't consider what you do pranks — You said you prefer the term satirist. can you explain what you dislike about the term "prank" and/or why you prefer the satire label. I can see where these email conversations are more satire than prank but the McDonalds letter and Kate's Party event seem, to my mind, pranks.
I was called "an idiot with an occasional vague point" once, which I quite liked. I don't consider what I write to be pranking per se as there is no punchline of "ha ha, got you." Whether you write or bake a cake, there will be some that hate it, some that love it and others that will have a piece because there is nothing else in the fridge to eat and they missed out on lunch. The term troll is thrown around a lot but is technically someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages with the primary intent of provoking other users into a desired emotional response. Which I will admit to, but like to think my efforts are without ill intent and constructed to amuse rather than disrupt. Providing content that encourages argument, discussion and factions based around humour, rather than simply offending, is preferable.
I can't believe you've never been fired considering all the pranks — sorry, satires — you seem to do at work — I bet you've had some interesting conversations with Human Resources, though, right?
"And you had better not use this on your stupid website" is a common footnote on many emails from co-workers these days. Some of the people featured in the book and on the site actually enjoy being a part of it. Others do not. Those that do not, regularly make requests such as "change my picture" or "remove that from the internet or I am going to come up the stairs and stab you with scissors."
Do you have suggestions on what people should do to avoid getting suckered by people like you when you are in "evil online genius" mode? Are you yourself the target of pranks because of your notoriety? Can you talk about that and any protections you've taken to avoid that?
Anonymity is the online version of a shark cage, so that is probably a good rule to follow, even though I don't. Up until recently, the concept that someone might take their anger out on me beyond the virtual world didn't concern me at all. I lived by myself on the eighth floor of a concrete fortress, and promises of retaliation were scoffed at. Having recently moved into a 'normal' house, I have become more wary. After I tried exchanging defective snowboard gloves and was rudely denied, I created a newspaper ad stating that the store was giving away 4,600 snowboard packages. Apparently, they received over 5000 calls that weekend which resulted in the owner turning up at my premises yelling, so I have bought a gun. It is a Nerf gun, but if you stick pins into the ends of the foam darts, they can do some serious damage.
Has it become harder to do these projects since your name and book has come out and people might know to be more suspicious?
To a degree. It was easier before the website became known, but at the same time, this has meant a larger number of people taking offence to the current content. I can usually tell when it is a constructed argument.
I see that you're now living in Virginia but many of these items in the book were from when you were living in Australia. What brought you to the states and is it perhaps related to court appearances and/or police visits in response to some of your satire? (I'm kidding — I'm pretty sure you didn't get extradited over satire) Incidentally, what did they charge you with regarding the McDonald's letter and what was the sentence?
A lot of interesting things have happened since I began the website and it has opened a few doors that I was not aware existed previously. One leads to Kronos-12, a planet orbiting Procyon in the Canis Minor constellation.
Possibly the nicest 'interesting things' occurred two years ago when I received an email from a strange American girl, in regards to the spider article, who eventually became a close friend and traveled to Australia to visit. She stayed for a year and we married last year.
Working from a laptop, both in regards to writing and the design work I do, has allowed me to travel back and forth between the US and Australia. Something I would never have dreamed of doing a few years back. I have fallen in love with the US and just a few weeks ago, received permanent resident status which allows me to spend more than just three months at a time here.
In regards to the fake McDonald's memo, outlining the implementation of short-changing customers as a procedure, I was arrested, questioned and had my laptop taken for evidence under e-crime legislation. I was hoping Ronald McDonald would appear in court but it was just an old guy in a bad suit (who was the one who called me "an idiot with an occasional vague point") and he dropped the charges.
Can you talk about this experience of giving up your Reddit account — was that a tough decision? — and of these readers change of opinion of you?
As I have over twenty established Reddit accounts, I couldn't care less about losing one. At least ten of the people stating, "Let's hang David Thorne" were me. Initiating outrage, argument and factions is the easiest way of making front page on these sites and sales grew by 300% during that time. Environments that are solely based on hive mentalities are the easiest to manipulate.
The recent debut of the new book at #4 on The New York Times Best-Seller list is, in part, thanks to playing sites like Reddit. In regards to the issue of distribution, a POD version of the book was distributed a while back by a dodgy Australian publisher, named Fontaine Press, which contained only half the articles and was plagued with rights ownership and delivery issues.
After receiving complaints, we ended our relationship with them and they refused to provide us with final accounts. As such, 116 orders out of 9,846 units were not delivered. The problem was identifying which 116 of the 9,846 it was and we had to wait for those people to contact us and then cross reference with online orders. Once established, a new book was sent out. Unfortunately, two individuals of the 116 declared on a social networking site that they had not received their book and it was a scam. Although both of those people had already had their orders processed, when they stated otherwise, Kimberly, a staff member, posted evidence to the contrary. While this error in judgement followed abusive emails to her, from one of the individuals calling himself ozh, Kimberly no longer represents 27b/6. A reputable publisher, Penguin, has taken over printing and distribution of the new book which contains more emails, more articles and content that has not been published previously.
Which is your favorite prank/hoax/satire? The Mcdonalds one was pretty good as was Kate's Party.
Kate's Party was an interesting social networking exercise, but if I were being honest, I would say my favourite article from the book is 'Flight Commander' as it provided justification for me to photoshop my head onto an astronaut's EVA suit. My second favourite part of the book is where Richard and Emmeline are shipwrecked on a tropical island and without either the guidance or restrictions of society, emotional feelings and physical changes arise as they reach puberty and fall in love. Later, on page 144, where Richard moves with his mother to a neighbourhood in the San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles, their new apartment's handyman, an eccentric but kindly Okinawan immigrant, teaches Richard not only martial arts, but also important life lessons such as balancing on a boat.
I liked the collection included in the book of hilarious statements your son, Seb, has made over time. He seems like quite a wit and satirist himself. What does he think of what you do and does he ever help you? I particularly like his comments on cleaning and shoplifting.
His son wrote of shoplifting: "If we went into a shop and I put a stereo on and danced, you could run out with a different stereo while everyone is looking at me." Of cleaning he wrote, "It will just get messy again. I like it like this; it shows we have better things to do than cleaning."
Seb reads all the material I write and is generally amused. He is also usually the first to tell me when something I have written is not funny.
Can you tell me about the Oprah "interview"? Has Oprah, to your knowledge, commented on it? What made you choose to make that video?
I tend to create most of my content, including the Oprah interview, when I am bored or procrastinating. I started writing as a distraction to working in the design industry, which one might assume is a creative field but is actually not unlike any other form of cubicle prostitution. Writing and creating online content to amuse myself is an escape from filling out time sheets, making type larger and explaining to clients that animated gifs will not work on business cards. I doubt Oprah has seen the interview video as I have not received any legal letters from Harpo Productions to remove it.
Are other interviewers, like me, worried that by engaging you it's a bit like poking a spider, a bit concerned if I say the wrong thing I'll be the target of some future thing?
Let's see how it goes.
What's the biggest misconception about you?
People assume, all the time, that I am ridiculously good looking. And brave. No, I can't tell you which people. You don't know them. Also, I think people often misconstrue apathy for humour. People also assume that there is money to be made from websites and publishing — which isn't the case. My wife's friend Mandy expects free meals and beer whenever we go out, so she is not invited next time. The last time I heard her say something interesting was in 2009, so it's not as if she will be missed.
Lastly what I call my freebie or bonus question: What question do you wish you were asked in interviews? Here's your chance to ask and answer it.
That's a nice watch. What kind is it?
Thanks for noticing. It is an Omega Speedmaster Professional. The only watch certified for NASA space missions. Yes, I am a massive geek.