Thursday, 19 November 2015

Transferring Trauma: Understanding Internet monsters in American culture.

[Paper presented at the November 2015 Cine-Excess Conference at Brighton University-this research is a part of my PHD research on trauma, digital spaces and child abuse.]

CW: themes of csa

There are unspoken rules of the Internet: don’t post anything online you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see, the penis enlargement email in your spam box is almost certainly a scam, and the most socially active, in this hyper connected realm of the digital, are undoubtedly the most lonely of us all. Because, whilst seemingly rooted in the technical, the shame, viscera and banalities that define the digital world makes it, not post-human, but deeply human in all the creepy, ‘perverted’ ways we might not care to admit. (Though of course the very term human itself is a flabby, capricious and moveable one and certainly a concept to be picked apart with pliers another time).

As a result, in defining this amorphous concept of ‘the Internet’ I follow the findings of the Meme Factory collective, an American group of Internet researchers, who argue in their self-titled 2014 book that:

“The internet is people. Made by, used by, influenced by, and everything-else’d by people. In an atoms-to-quarks-style reduction, its smallest constituent part is the person…There is absolutely no aspect of the internet that does not have its origin in human intent.”[1]

This question of ‘human intent’ is of particular interest when applied to the subject of trauma, that blanket term to describe all manner of ills, which in my own research I have hinged on one specific ‘kind’ of ‘trauma’, childhood sexual abuse, which I have explored in two incarnations:

-The first, psychic trauma:
The effects of such incidences of abuse on the individual psyche.
(Again the very notion of the individual psyche poses its own questions, but a twenty-minute presentation has its limits).

-The second cultural trauma:
National anxieties in American English speaking communities on the subject of online child predators (as well as pre-existing ‘offline anxieties).

Because the Internet is not beyond the borders of geography or colonial history, the nuances, humor and interests of Syrian social media possess distinct, but not necessarily differing, signifiers than the average Minnesota Reddit user. This is not to offer a sense of cultural essentialism, itself a deeply colonial construct, but rather to question the notion that the English speaking Internet is the neutral default, for that presumption itself contributes to a white washing that it is important to not just simply avoid, but actively destroy.

So, with terms defined, we can progress to the focus of this paper, my Internet monster of choice, which I hope can help us understand questions of childhood sexual abuse and the traumatic imagination. 

This is Pedo Bear, who is considered by Meme Factory as “the characterization of pedophilia on the web.”[2] Originating on the Japanese message board 2chan, as a character created from key board symbols to signify an attention seeking user, it took on new meaning when it found its way to the largely unmoderated space of its American counterpart, 4chan. Here it was originally posted as a warning to moderators that child pornography was being, or about to be, posted and was also used to mock the issue of pedophilia as a whole. As American Internet academic Whitney Phillips explains: “Sometimes drooling, sometimes sweating, sometimes featuring a sombrero or the words “DO WANT,” Pedobear is always scrambling towards something. It is not until one realizes precisely what he is chasing after that his form takes on new significance.”[3]

Now, the very fact that the internet even has a humorously cartoonish incarnation of childhood sexual abuse is revealing in and of itself, and whilst ‘off colour’ humor and an ambiguous public interest in pedophilia certainly predates the Internet, it is clear that this figure is rooted in the realm of the digital. This highlights the popularity of what Meme Factory describes as ‘Transgressive Media’ in online spaces, which they define as: “acts or situations known by the poster to exceed the comfort level—or emotional, mental, or gastronomical tolerances of the intended audience.”[4] This notion of exceeding comfort levels is a revealing one with Meme Factory explaining that subversive and provocative images are not only intended to “shock and upset” but also “constitute a brag [for] the original poster” as if to say, “Look what terribleness I can endure”. [5]

This model of digital desensitization where “high tolerance is a hallmark of active community members” needs to be understood in terms of not just the blasé viewer seeking out gore and gross out videos, but also the unwilling spectator who accidentally views such content. Adrian Chen explains this process in the case of Goatse, a widely circulated pornographic meme. Chen says:

“The photo was the original Internet bait-and-switch: Share a link to a hot girl, a cute puppy, but— boom—it's Goatse instead. Goatse'ing someone without their consent is emotional assault. It's also funny as shit.”[6]

Whilst undoubtedly unwilling viewers precede the Internet, and certainly many individuals would have been pressured, or tricked into, an ill fated viewing of ‘Faces of Death’ and other ‘video nasties’ in the past, however this space of jump scares and shock links are a distinctly digital development in how we consume objects of horror. Meme Factory emphasize this online development, stating:

“More to the point, audiences of classical folklore are likely consuming horror stories of their own free will. Viewers of online transgressive media are often effectively being surprised by an unseen and malevolent source.”[7]

This question of virtual survivors and unwilling viewers begs the question that if scary movies operates as ‘safe’ terror are gross internet videos and rape joke memes ‘safe’ trauma? Because whilst this media is not created for the benefit of childhood sexual abuse survivors, the language of Internet interactions with its talk of ‘Facebook rape’ (a ‘humorous’ term for posting something embarrassing, unflattering or out of character on another person’s Facebook wall without their consent), catch phrases of ‘your resistance only makes my penis harder’ when engaging in trolling activities, the sordid browsing history to be deleted, incognito modes to go unseen, the popularity of jump scares (seemingly innocent videos with a frightening shock or loud noise at the end to alarm its unsuspecting viewer) all begs the question of whether trauma is not simply in the content but in the code itself.

 In this sense we could argue that on the Internet everyone is an abuser and everything is abuse. From the shadow web to Facebook in its talk of replication, desensitization, identity splitting and incoherent repetition we are presented with the childhood sexual abuse psyche. And much like a high school teacher might urge their students never to cite Wikipedia, our culture of victim blaming consistently reminds us never to trust a survivor of sexual violence. Because not only does the trauma as meme model exemplify the first as tragedy then as farce narrative so brilliantly-something I hope can be used to allow survivors to question notions of the authentic trauma and subvert oppressive notions of respectability- it also allows internet users to log in to these spaces of trauma on a casual basis-allowing non-survivors to be voluntarily (or involuntarily) traumatized by a horror they may not have experienced ‘irl’.

This brings us back to Pedo Bear where the predator is punch line and parody, an interactive space to ambiguously engage in an imagined, imminent assault. Let’s begin with the obvious, the figure is a cartoon teddy bear, a child’s toy, a potential Disney mascot, something coded as a friendly figure in the space of American capitalist culture, with the original teddy even being based on the benevolence of a former U.S. president. Hardly the collective image of child molestation, except paradoxically that it is, as I remind you that this meme has been described as “the characterization of pedophilia on the web”, making the creature both the antithesis and the embodiment of childhood sexual abuse.

This itself can serve as a cartoonish incarnation of Slavoj Žižek’s argument that “If something gets too traumatic, too violent, even too filled with enjoyment, it shatters the coordinates of our reality. We have to fictionalise it. ”[8] In Scott Heim’s 1995 novel Mysterious Skin and Gregg Araki’s 2005 film adaptation of the same name we find the fantastical figure of alien abduction becomes both signifier and stand in for the trauma of childhood sexual abuse. Pedo Bear in his shocking brutality and playful persona can be seen to operate on the same system.

Because as technology writer Nick Douglas observes in his essay ‘A Beginner's Guide to Pedobear, the Internet's Favorite Pervert’ he explains: “The brilliance of the Pedobear mythos is that none of it is apparent in the picture of this innocent picture of a teddy.”[9] Here the theme is not evident in the image, the wide eyed bear, but in the text, or rather the second part of the text, as the Pedo Bear meme structure relies on a pedophilic punch line. Much like a knock-knock joke relies on a reply of ‘who’s there’ Pedo Bear’s innocent set up of a teddy bear image and a familiar opening line requires a grotesque twist. For instance, line one: ‘stay in school’, line two: ‘it would be easier for me to find you’, and so on. This acts in support of horror and trauma theorist Adam Lowenstein’s point that “Walter Benjamin’s claims that the caption may be “the most important component of the shot”. For Benjamin, “the caption is related to the photographer’s guilt to “uncover guilt and name the guilty in his pictures.”[10] This sense of guilt, naming, revelation and projection are developed further by Douglas when he states: “Pedobear's like a curse word: A picture of a teddy bear is only as offensive as the meaning it's given.”[11]

This push and pull relationship between the simple and the complicated, the mocking and the affirming, the innocent and the degraded draws parallels with other models of transgressive social interaction, most notably the act of trolling, the art of willfully exposing or mocking an unsuspecting user through playfully devious forms of off topic interactions. As Whitney Phillips explains, online trolling work “is simultaneously cruel and amusing and aggressive and playful and real and pretend and hurtful and harmless, as are the trolls themselves. It really is as simple and as complicated as that.”[12]

Many frustrated internet users would argue that it is Pedo Bear himself who is simple and the offline audiences, unaware of online norms and transgressive tastes, who are making it complicated. As Douglas argues “Pedobear is just a character made to mock pedophilia. And like anything interesting on the Internet, he's often feared and grossly misunderstood.”[13] Examples of these offline misunderstandings are numerous and due to limits of time I shall only cite one example.

This is Pedo Bear in a primary school. Pedo Bear’s inconspicuous nature has already been highlighted, and it is this very nature that has resulted in him popping up in unexpected places, the creator unaware of his meaning, when stripped of the unsavoury text that serves as his revelation. As a result, the bear has been unintentionally included in a range of mainstream media from a front-page cover story on the 2010 Olympics to a Conservative column on Barack Obama. 

However, as stated before, a particularly striking example, due to its setting, is when Pedo Bear found its way into a New Zealand primary school in 2012, displayed on a poster for an extended period of time. “No-one on our staff had any idea what this thing represented," states the school’s head master, Paul Irving, in a statement to the New Zealand Herald, serving as a revealing parallel to the anxiety inducing idea that real abusers often insidiously position themselves in plain sight as heads of families and pillars of communities.[14]

In this sense, Pedo Bear in all his contradictions, misunderstandings and constant movements serves as a bridge between all manner of online media, mapping the seemingly unconnected spaces, from cute cat memes to illegal snuff videos, Pedo Bear occupies it all, and I believe this peculiar character can help us better understand both national and individual issues of childhood sexual abuse, both online and off.

[1] Stephen Bruckert, Patrick Davison, Mike Rugnetta, The Meme Factory Book, Beta Version, 2014,
[2] Know Your Meme: Pedo Bear by KnowYourMeme, posted on YouTube on the 22nd of November 2011
[3] Whitney Phillips, The House That Fox Built: Anonymous, Spectacle and Cycles of Amplification, 2012

[4] Meme Factory Book
[5] Meme Factory Book
[6] Adrian Chen, Finding Goatse: The Mystery Man Behind the Most Disturbing Internet Meme in History, Gawker, 4th of October 2012
[7] Meme Factory Book
[8] Slavoj Žižek, The Perverts Guide to Cinema

[9] Nick Douglas, ‘A Beginner's Guide to Pedobear, the Internet's Favorite Pervert’, urlesque, 11th June 2009 

[10] Adam Lowenstein, Shocking Representation: Historical Trauma, National Cinema, and the Modern Horror Film, p.126

[11] Nick Douglas, ‘A Beginner's Guide to Pedobear’
[12] Whitney Phillips, LOLing at tragedy: Facebook trolls, memorial pages and resistance to grief online, First Monday, Volume 16, Number 12, December 2011
[13] Douglas, ‘A Beginner's Guide to Pedobear’
[14] Quoted in: Russell Blackstock, Pedobear pops up at school, New Zealand Herald, Mar 4, 2012