1. I Doxxed Myself (Because I Am Just A Cloud)
My name is Jeb Lund, I am a 35-year-old married WASP, and it was never my plan to become a deceased African dictator.
I am childless, Godless and, when my friends want to bust on me, evidently chinless. I have all of my hair but can't grow a beard. A Californian by birth, I came to south Florida in 1997 to study history at New College and have essentially never left. I am neither Congolese, nor was I born in 1930. I have never received checks for hundreds of millions in the Oval Office from John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, or Ronald Reagan. I have never had a political dissident tortured in a soccer stadium in front of me. The only things I have in common with the late Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu waza Banga are a fondness for Elvis Costello's glasses and the occasional need to walk with a cane.
Unplanned events have been fairly good to me. I lucked into going to the ideal college for my temperament simply because it was extremely affordable and the only one in state whose application deadline hadn't elapsed. Much later, after years of writing hundreds of blog posts, I sat down one night, drank a six-pack of beer, wrote a new essay, went to sleep, woke up, edited and posted it, went back to sleep and awoke again to all hell breaking loose and three job offers.
But none of that—the blog, the dead monstrous moniker, the chance to be here today—would have happened if people I've never met hadn't tried to make me a Nazi pedophile. Also unplanned.
2. Take the Emotional Violence of High School and Remove Reason and Accountability
Jeb Lund was, within the context of the part of the Internet where he last routinely appeared, a dick. I was a dick. This was on several message boards, where I wasted thousands of hours, taking my ever-diminishing allotment of physical vitality, sunshine, and mental acuity, and pissing it all away on discussions like, "Is Ben Roethlisberger more morally repugnant than Ray Lewis?" (Trick question: Fire both of them into the sun.)
I wasn't a dick because I was trading insults and jokes all day. That doesn't make you a dick, by message-board standards. Short of sites like "Is Anyone Up?" or dedicated cyberbullying, joke/insult boards are probably the most sociopathic venues in a medium whose dissociative qualities already engender sociopathy. The point is to reduce people to posting styles, categorizable tropes, parades of strawmen and cutout-people set on fire to public delight—because, hey, there were no humans involved. Being an unempathetic prankster, malcontent, and gossip is doing it right.
In the name of having a spirited free-for-all, these boards operate on the conceit that to use proper spelling and punctuation, or to refrain from calling someone a "drizzling fuckstain" because they prefer Lou Reed solo to the Velvet Underground, presents something like an oppressive burden. While plenty of users are only there to give and get laughs, plenty of others embrace these boards because they conflate any tenuous and mildly inconvenient enforcement of human decency with oppression, censorship and the stifling of the spirit. These are angry people.
The boards I favored were the better ones of the type, where members were socially and politically liberal and unserious, devoted to a meritocracy of jokes. Thinking up a great one-liner—the briefer the better—kicked off an endorphin rush. But they were still closed systems. And when you see the same people, or representations of people, all the time, familiarity overpowers the anarchy. Power structures and cliques assert themselves; what would have been an innocuous burn gets added to a growing list of resentments, framed by an e-feudal caste structure. Are you up or down? What did that post mean? You now have a serious relationship with stupid shit.
And that relationship comes with implacable rules. One is that no matter who you are, in the hierarchy of the board, you will—through some terminally white version of the logic of The Wire—get got. If you are a bad and unfunny poster, they will come for you right away. If you are un-bad but still unfunny, they will tolerate your white noise for weeks or months, then get sick of you and come for you. If you are good and funny and popular, well, what goes up goddamn well has to come down again. People don't like being bested. Only a tiny set of people are so big-hearted and talented that they won't find themselves receiving more jabs than they have the gloves to block. I was not one of those.
The other rule is that there is a golden mean to online disclosure. You invite less ridicule by telling people your age, gender, and a general idea of your schooling, job type, and location. Oversharers are begging to be overanalyzed, but if you're too protective—disclosing virtually nothing of yourself while dishing out punishment to others—you provoke the desire among others to expose you and beat you down. You don't have the decency to meet people on a democratic level. You're cloistered, inhuman, privileged.
That was the kind of dick I was. I admitted nothing but a vague age, matrimonial status, job and location. You couldn't find pictures of me or any other web presence. I had walled myself off like Montresor.
Meanwhile, I was obnoxious and vile to people. There was one guy kept posting despite being completely unable to recognize humor. It was like someone with no hands trying to build a bicycle by screaming at a cat. He would get dogpiled by people, delete his account, register a new one, and start posting again. Within days everyone would figure out who he was, and the dogpile would start again.
Unfortunately, he also looked unreal. Off the top of my head, I believe I probably described him, publicly, as "like the bob's big boy knocked up a cpr dummy and blew town the next day and mom drank during pregnancy" and "poor little dude got taken to mcdonalds every birthday to sit by the ronald statue and see what dad looked like" and "kid accidentally put his hand on the stove, got taken to the hospital for third-degree melting."
Eventually he sent me a long email, asking for advice. "Tell me how to become a great poster," he asked. It was a document of genuine human need for learning, understanding, and acceptance. I ignored it, and him. I assumed he was trolling, waiting to post whatever self-important reply I came up with. That was the prevailing value system. The only redeeming thing was that I didn't post his question myself and point and laugh.
I was funny enough for a while to get away with this kind of behavior, bolstered by whatever chops came from my relatively advanced age and maybe my years of writing. But I tore through other people who stepped to me (or simply appeared, oafishly, in the crossfire) with an ease that should have nauseated me and lamentably did not.
In the narcissistic spell of these interactions, I didn't consider the possibility that while other posters were hurting my feelings, I might be doing the same, or worse, to them. When everyone's trying to be a dick, you assume that you're the only one so candyassed as to still have feelings. All I cared about was revenging myself on anyone who made me look bad for the tiniest instant, because losing face in that environment is more important than it is to Japanese people in Michael Crichton novels.
Little did I know how bad I could be made to look. I had mistaken being circumspect about myself for real privacy and security. And I had given people enough motivation to get together and find answers on their own. Eventually they posted a dossier of personal information about me online: pictures of me, spanning a decade, from multiple sites. Below the pictures were links, personal correspondence, and details that could only have been collected by asking multiple people for transcripts of IM chats with me. Printed out, in real life, it would have been the sort of inches-thick legal manila folder, bound with a ribbon, that thwocks down on the prosecutor's desk in a crime drama.
I took one look at the abundance of the Jeb Lund file and signed out. I was scheduled to go on a big vacation in two days, anyway. I checked my dog and cat into a kennel, visited family, and my wife and I boarded a plane to Italy. Aside from one group email to three friends to assure them I wasn't dead, I ignored the Internet for two weeks.
3. "We Can Rape Her for Your Wholesale."
There were messages on the machine when I got back.
I'm not sure when it was that I even listened to them. We were exhausted when we got in, and nobody we cared about ever called our landline anymore. We'd given our friends and family the phone number in Florence, in case anyone had needed to reach us in an emergency. So we were in the habit of leaving the NEW MESSAGE number blinking for days, knowing it would be dial tones, canned political messages, and automated bill-collector calls for a person who, county records told us, hadn't lived at our address since 1994.
Whenever I did press play, I know I was alone. The first one was unintelligible yelling from what sounded like a lot of distant voices. I deleted it. Another was yelling, but with identifiable curse words, and I deleted that, too. My cell phone is apparently one digit off from that of a bad, cheap attorney, so I thought nothing of getting the occasional misdirected abusive drunk dial.
The third one was clear, though. It was the first and only instance where hearing words actually made me feel an icy flush cascade down my back and drain into my extremities.
Hey, [My Wife's Name], we know your fat fuck husband hasn't been able to get his microdick inside you in years, so if you need to feel a dick again, we'd be happy to come over and rape you.
I instinctively deleted the message, afraid my wife would hear it. It was one thing for her to have put up, mockingly, with my wasting hours on my foully stupid Internet entertainment. But to have to concede that my bozo hobby had brought the threat of violence into our home was too humiliating and horrible.
I talked to the cop who lived up the block from us, and he said it would be a tall order to figure out what had gone on—especially since a thunderstorm had interrupted the power while we were away, meaning the timestamps on the answering machine were meaningless. He was unsure about whether it might be the FBI's job, since I'd told him the calls probably came from out of state. Worse, the fragmenting noise on one of the messages had sounded like the dropped signal on a VOIP call, which is supposedly more difficult to trace. I didn't know if I wanted to try to do anything anyway; maybe it was a one-time drunken prank.
In the months that followed, the futility of trying to do anything about the calls was confirmed and reconfirmed. I got harassing and threatening messages from Facebook accounts obviously created solely to send them. I routinely got the same from burner email accounts—Yahoo and Hotmail addresses with gibberish names that appeared nowhere on Google searches—with IPs routing back to big public libraries or massive state colleges.
When Google Earth updated its pass above my house, I got an email notifying me of what kind of yardwork I needed to do to clean it up and stop being such a "lardass faggot." Apparently, I had "a real nigger lawn." I was even sent pictures of my house from the street, although not Google's street view. From the curb.
Maybe it was one of my own photos. I'd once had an open Photobucket account, which I mashed DELETE ALL on and closed (or however you emptied and deleted a Photobucket account). I had several pictures of my house on it that I had taken from the street, and because my house looked pretty much the same from the street for about six years, I had no way of knowing who'd taken them. The metadata didn't recognizably seem to be mine. Either way, the implication was obvious: We found you; we can come by anytime. "Clean up your nigger lawn, faggot."
4. Word on the Street Is This Guy Likes Hitler and Touches Kids
When I was 23—living and not-working in Gainesville, Florida, in a rathole apartment building where our neighbors occasionally fell out of windows to escape drug raids and where a stranger once walked up to me and, without provocation, beat me in the face with a beer bottle—I developed recurring panic attacks. Seemingly every other day, my blood would feel like it was being drawn out of my body; my hands would tremble; my voice would quaver; I'd sweat and shake on the couch for three hours till I fell asleep from exhaustion. I had shredded my right knee at age 14—the kneecap dislocated and shattered, ligaments torn, hobbling on a cane through months of rehab—and now I fixated on the Rice Krispies noises it still made and began looking at uneven ground with paralytic fear that it could all happen again.
Doctors had suggested calming exercises, explaining that panic attacks aren't unusual in people in their mid-20s and that they're essentially irrational. Practicing in a college town, they were leery of prescribing the tranquilizers that would stop the panic when it hit, preferring to suggest a menu of antidepressants. Numbed and sleepy from those, I eventually abandoned them, chugging whiskey or vodka or boxed wine whenever my legs started to spasm and my heart started thumping.
At this point, I started compulsively trying to do things on the internet. I went from posting on no message boards to dozens, just to constantly have stimuli (in addition to plowing through those books I kept meaning to get to in college). Politics, sports, TV, joking around on joke/insult boards—all of those things prevented my brain asking the wrong question, at the wrong time, about how I felt.
After a year of this, the panic stopped. For four years, I didn't have another attack. Until I found myself crawling out of bed, searching for the light, afraid the nightmares of coming home to discover my wife gang-raped and murdered were really true. I'd had a four-year period of calm in which I was no longer afraid of being myself, and now I had to start over again.
I couldn't even sit down to start writing this story now without my hands going white and shaking. Why tell about it, when it could only begin a humming, constant and incipient panic again? This is, after all, the Internet, home of the coward. While the threats were scary, they were written with the same chickenhawk spirit that wrote the script for the Iraq war: I might be attacked, but these weren't the sort of people who would administer violence with their own hands.
I started setting up Google alerts for variations on my name, my email addresses, usernames I'd had in the past, and so on. One day, a cluster of alerts appeared in my inbox notifying me of words that I had never written, on sites I had never visited, nonetheless authored by "Jeb Lund" anyway.
Many message boards will create and list your account on their membership rolls—and some even let you post—regardless of whether you register your username with a valid email address. There are places right now where you could register "Barack Obama" and the email address "Obama@WhiteHouse.gov," and start posting "Bill Ayers, Kiss the Devil! Kiss the Devil! KILL WHITEY," and all those posts will appear linked to Obama's name and email. Even boards that use email verification often have a loophole: They don't send a confirmation email about a newly created account until you try to log into it. So you can register an account under someone else's name and just leave it there unused, to be crawled and indexed by Google.
Most people don't know you can set up these dummy accounts in someone else's name. The people harassing me did know it, and evidently someone had started registering my name and email address on message boards dedicated to white supremacy or to taking photos of preteen girls bathing in public pools and talking about "unblemished angels."
Thankfully, these results appeared usually on page two or three of a search for myself, well after alumni stuff and some acceptable bylines. I had sent off various short literary-gag stories to places like McSweeney's (where you can monetize those 20 Jacobean drama puns that six figures' worth of postgraduate education filled you with!), whenever a flicker of creativity overcame my indolence, and been routinely rejected. Now I'd written a more ambitious short story, which had a political bent, and which I sent on to those same twee lit-gag outlets as well as a few serious "current affairs" magazines. (No, not the New Yorker.) It seemed to me that it had enough heft to at least merit a rejection. But I heard nothing at all. Maybe my submission truly did suck. Or maybe some sub-editor sifting through pitches Googled my name and said, "This dude is a Nazi who fucks children."
5. Going to Ground
People always say that you can't delete anything from the internet forever, but part of the problem for most people is that they have no genuine interest in doing so. Vanity and security clash, and usually the former wins, because people want to be seen and have material relating to them available. But, if you're determined to, you can smudge yourself out pretty thoroughly.
I simply stopped talking to scores of people: emails unanswered, all signals dead. I created all new email addresses and IM handles. I deleted all picture-hosting accounts and social media profiles, save Facebook, which I reset to only the most paranoid of security settings. I asked message board administrators to change my username and then hit the DELETE ALL button on my posts. I wrote to ask that articles I'd written be taken down. I unfriended anyone whose feelings toward me I questioned. For the remaining friends and family, I created firewalls between myself and my other online presences.
I've watched as people I drank with in college have posted links to my Gawker articles in their Facebook timelines to praise or argue with someone they didn't know was me. It wasn't until a few months ago that I sent my father, a gregarious man who would only be too happy to praise his son to countless strangers, a link revealing my blog's existence. When discussing my life online, I've deliberately made multiple contradictory claims and cultivated telling the truth so vaguely and with levels of obfuscation only a war criminal like Henry Kissinger would actually respect. I've made scores of new friends and colleagues on Twitter that I've been, by necessity, withholding, deceitful, and unavailable to. I have met only one co-worker, and only because someone sent him to the Republican National Convention.
But if building a pseudonymous existence is essentially a lonely business, trying to undo your own namejacking is particularly dispiriting. Writing white supremacists and pedophiles is a journey of personal discovery I wish on no one. Your natural inclination is to hurl invective at these people—your life is being ruined by being associated with their registries—but you need them to help you. Yet being patiently civil and even thankful to these people feels like swaddling yourself in oily and diseased rags.
There was no way to have fun with the experience:
Heil, Kyle, 1488!
Look, my buddies kinda signed me up for your site as a prank. Here's my username and a link. I was wondering if you could delete that account for me? It's not mine and I have no intention of using it. In fact, I just got a BA in Communications, and I gotta send out some resumes for a few jobs in the Jew-controlled media, and those guys would shit a brick if they Googled me and found me posting here.
Even the idea of joking about it felt disgusting. Instead, I copied and pasted the same form letters over and over. I was still receiving random Google alerts for months.
To this day, I have no idea who did any of this. If asked to name people who had a right to dislike me, I could guess dozens or hundreds, but now I can't remember the usernames of most of them. That I hurt people is enough to remember. That I might be able to blame some of them after the fact seems like a distinction without pardon.
After the first online fury passes, what's left are a few people caring, maybe burning the person over and over in a milieu already moving on from that episode. Maybe it's just one or two people with a problem severe enough to start fucking with people on different boards, in real life, with phone numbers and email addresses. I doubt that anybody who fucked with me and my life for months on end was anything other than a severe minority of people I hurt. In terms of scope and impact, they more than outstripped their population.
I took a job at a decent-sized website that catered to middle-aged and elderly readers, which also allowed me to earn money writing reviews of history and public-policy books. Aside from facts about current events, the only thing I learned from this experience is that older people are just as ready to argue in bad faith, form cliques, and snitch to the moderator by lying about others' conduct. They favored passive-aggression over calling anyone "faggot," but this was what trolls would be in 40 years. On the internet, nobody grows out of high school.
What I couldn't erase of the picture of me online, I opted to further distort. There were nasty people out there willing to believe anything. Why not use them? About a month after I'd discovered my new pen pals, I signed into an old AIM account that had been listed in that infodump about me. Almost instantly someone greeted me—I didn't know this person, but I recognized him as a creep because his AIM handle had appeared in the user profile of a gossipy, unfunny person registered on one of the boards I'd posted on.
He asked me where I'd been. I replied with an instant mashup of every dating horror story I'd ever heard, swapping "girlfriend" with "wife": My wife drank constantly and hit me. She went out at night and fucked other dudes. She brought them home and fucked them in our bed, but they were bigger than I was, so I couldn't fight them. When I got mad, she threatened to cut off electricity to the house, which was in her name. I slept in the guest room, behind a locked door, wrapped around a baseball bat, my only savior from her lunatic abuse.
I was told a year later that this story was now gospel, and that it had metastasized into my skinny useless frame being beaten with coffee mugs whenever I complained about her having revoked my Internet privileges and repeatedly cuckolding me. How my being too thin to defend myself accorded with my supposedly being too morbidly obese to have sex with my wife never made sense to me, but I later found out that I supposedly also beat her, so you do the math. She says, "Hi, haters," by the way.
6. Conduct Unbecoming Yourself: or, So You Want to Be One of History's Great Monsters
By essentially quitting the internet, I had made myself go stir-crazy. Our local friends, the people I'd written and argued with, had gradually dispersed, in the inevitable post-collegiate way—taking jobs in Portland or Brooklyn or the Bay Area. I realized that I'd been using the internet to ameliorate this slow erosion of community. The boards had been a way to sit around on invisible couches, giving one another grief or having emphatic political conversations.
I still wanted to share things I'd read or news that upset me with the friends I missed. So I started over with a new blog Et tu, Mr. Destructo?, and a new name, Mobutu Sese Seko.
As the years went on, I started to get questions about it. The two most common were, "Why Mobutu?" and "What does, Et tu, Mr. Destructo? mean?"
The answers were unavoidably silly. In college, I wrote zines. They are, with only one exception, miserable to read now. (The Swiss Missile Crisis is still pretty good. There aren't a lot of reviews of Chelnov: The Atomic Runner out there.) When your zine consists of sheets of 8 1/2 x 22 paper folded over and stapled in the middle, you end up with page counts in multiples of 4. When you're a college student who has written 22 pages' worth of zine, you never consider editing yourself down to 20. You decide to come up with two more pages of stuff.
So to pad out an issue, my buddy and zine partner, Josh, came up with a short play about a BDSM policewoman feeding psychotropic drugs to students. Somehow, we decided it would work better if we attributed it to Mobutu Sese Seko—it was part of his senior thesis, from a time the dictator had secretly attended our college, seeking an education in oppression and monstrosity. Over the next two years, we published two more plays, each wrapping up with Mobutu narcissistically writing himself into the story as a deus ex machina. His final work, which involved counterfeit Tommy Jeans, Team Rocket, and an American diplomat, was titled "Et tu, Mr. Destructo?"
That was all I could think of, starting over, staring at the "NAME YOUR BLOG" field. It was an in-joke to remind friends of something fun we once did. And Mobutu Sese Seko was about the most SEO-unfriendly memorable name imaginable, short of "the," which I'd also considered blogging under. After two years, my blog had risen no higher than the third page of Google results for "Mobutu blog." The whole enterprise was meant to cast away scrutiny, with great force.
It didn't work. People started reading it. It was a thrill to see the interest per piece climb from "12" to "1,000" in two years, with no favors called in and no plugs given. But after people started taking it seriously, the name was still there: "Mobutu Sese Seko," which is awful. Let's be honest.
7. What Kind of Piece-of-Shit Legacy Is This?
I was Mobutu, and now he's dead. I went to an extremely liberal school, the kind of place where my Northern California pinko attitude was viewed with dangerous suspicion as just to the left of Nixon by people who were 100 percent unironic about their anarcho-syndicalism. Glenn Beck named it the second-worst college in the nation, if I remember correctly.
Not many people there knew who the actual Mobutu was. You don't hear about Mobutu Sese Seko in high school, and unless you study Africa, you probably will not hear about him in college. Yes, he was a monster, but he was our monster: our man in Kinshasa, installed by the CIA, fattened for decades on our aid—to the point that the term kleptocracy was invented to describe his theft—our happy sometime-satellite in a stupid proxy war with the Soviet Union. Most of us don't give a shit about the Congo unless the stuff we mine there to make cell phones suddenly gets scarce or expensive.
In college, our shitty plays got some people asking who this person was. Now, at least once a week, I receive emails or tweets from people who've been prompted to look it up. They're glad to have learned the history. Those people outnumber the ones who voice offense by almost two orders of magnitude.
Then again, my personal Facebook page for Mobutu gets about half a dozen friend requests per week from fans of the actual murderous piece of shit himself. (Please read my archive and get fucked.) Maybe I'm rationalizing a white man's privilege. People who've been angered by the name, you have my heartiest apologies. If I'd thought using the name could seriously be taken as praise for the man himself, I don't know if I could have used it.
Things were a bit different on my blog, I suppose, when the discussion wasn't solely political, when it was more difficult to see what the fuck the literal Mobute Sese Seko could possibly have to do with the fact that Transformers was unwatchable trash, or with making fun of Hoobastank, or with a Law & Order: SVU fan script titled "Murder My Balls."
Now I suppose it's time to lose the leopard-print toque. To those who may have disliked me in the past and wound up following me online, believing me to be someone else, I apologize, too. By sheer dumb chance, I've been retweeted and reblogged and praised by people who directed names from my past my way. Having earned their dislike on one guise, I suppose it's fundamentally dishonest to appear to have tried to win them over in a different guise. I can't begrudge anyone their original opinions.
As for being Mobutu Sese Seko, I will miss it dearly. Not only for the very real sense of security it offered—just writing this sent me into a panic again multiple times, getting up and pacing around the room and trying to control my breath, my hands feeling like ice—but because the name had a power to conjure up whatever people wanted to project on it. Very often, it presented a pass-fail test in ad hominem that people flunked over and over: "Why should we listen to you? You're named Mobutu Sese Seko!" Presumably these are the same people who believe everything said by Ezra Klein because it's being said by Ezra Klein.
The projections were endless. I had to be in my early 20s. I had to be being "ironical." (If you wanted to ironically critique the GOP over and over you'd be better off calling yourself Lee Atwater, or Barry Goldberg, or Ghengis Neocon. Ronald the Headless Thompson Gunner. Whatever).
Mostly, it's been a blast being called a young Brooklynite hipster while sitting in my 30-year-old cinder-block Florida home, wearing dad jeans and a blazer, fretting about my parents getting old, playing old Motown records to drown out the shitfaced meth dealer one block over who's days away from robbing his parents again. Yeaaaaah, fixies!
Ultimately, I bring all this up because it would have been dishonest of me not to eventually come clean. When I took this job, I assumed it would be expected of me to write under my own name from day one, but A.J. Daulerio thought the Mobutu name had much more of a Q-rating and a kind of intrinsic interest. I kept meaning to get around to doxxing myself here—A.J. later encouraged that, too—but today is my last day at Gawker. I probably should have mentioned that somewhere up top.
I'd say where I'm going, but I have no idea. Hopefully somewhere fun. Hopefully someone and something fun intervenes. I'd be delighted.
If nothing comes of it, nothing comes of it. I've been dead before.
Jeb Lund has written for The Awl, Deadspin, GQ, The New Republic, and Vice, though only rarely as himself.
He'd like to thank AJ Daulerio and Nick Denton for the opportunity to write here, Emma Carmichael and Leah Beckmann for their patience, John Cook for his indulgence, and all the Gawker readers who didn't mind a pseudonym.
He now has all kinds of time to appear on your podcast. [All images by Jim Cooke.]