By Matt Hanson
The Most Hated Man on the Internet tells a legitimate story in which the good guys win, but there is no attempt to answer to any of the larger, uncomfortable, social questions the series raises.
Not long ago, a young woman in California decided to take a topless picture of herself. She then emailed it to her own private email account. Quite reasonably, she assumed that would be that. She had no idea what was about to happen. Unbeknownst to her, her privately taken photograph has been made available for public consumption at a now-defunct website called isanyoneup.com that specialized in “revenge porn,” a self-explanatory term. Her story of abuse, and of those like her, is told in this engagingly put together but sadly superficial new three-part Netflix series, The Most Hated Man On The Internet.
The website’s rancid set-up: people sent pictures of their exes or of any private photograph they could get their hands on. isanyoneup.com would post them for the titillation of viewers (and there were plenty of those). Snide and spiteful comments were encouraged. The site was run by a scummy computer-addicted young man whose name is best not repeated because why give him any more notoriety. Besides, even though he has spent time in jail, he currently walks (or would that be slithers) among us.
Let’s just stick to his initials and say the eponymous most hated man was a Horny Moster, a Hungry Manipulator, who was Horrifyingly Mendacious. The kid ran his site like his own private online attack club and made lots of money by taking evident delight in trashing strangers while getting his fans to join in the sadistic hazing.
Luckily, the young woman in question had a fiercely protective mother and a lawyer father with a spine of steel to come to her aid. Not everyone whose private photos were either hacked, stolen, or shared without permission had such powerful advocates. We get the story of the sick website and the creep who ran it, but the series wisely focuses on is the admirable tenacity of the woman’s mother, who indomitably defended her own daughter’s privacy while deciding entirely on her own to advocate for the alarmingly high number of the website’s victims. The series ends up being a homage to filial devotion: an admiring look at the lengths to which a parent will go in order to protect and defend their child. That adds something of a feel-good angle to the narrative arc, an unexpectedly heartwarming approach given the icky subject matter.
Of course, the story of a young woman who agreed to do some painful things live on camera is upsetting to hear about. Ironically, she appears to regret the end of her fifteen minutes of fame, even though it consisted of humiliating herself in public. In a culture that worships celebrity, visibility is everything. The Most Hated Man On The Internet touches on the situation’s murky moral implications, it hasn’t the nerve to explore too deeply, and that is a loss.
It’s not just that there happened to be a website where people had their private information put on display without their consent. That’s bad enough. We all know we’re taking a risk when we do anything online; there are myriad hackers and shady websites across the boundless vista of the internet. It’s not uncommon to be stung by malware as you innocently surf through the world wide web. It’s happened to everyone.
What’s much more disturbing is how long Hateful Meathead got away with it, and how many people relished his relentless spite, exploitation, and sleaze. Yes, the site offered illicit kicks empowered by the anonymity of cyberspace. Plenty of sites do that anyway. Shocking isn’t the right word, necessarily, but you can’t help but wonder why the site became so popular. Why did so many people love a person everyone else hated so much? Bullies and creeps will always be around; that’s nothing new and nothing special.
The crucial point here is that a bully is energized when he is handed a crew who encourages his cruelty. He is given a team to root for and conspire with. And those groups are what made up the army commanded by the king of revenge porn, who developed a Manson-like online cult called The Family. The beleaguered mother was constantly harassed, threatened, and made to fight even harder and longer than she should have in order to attain justice for her daughter and other victims like her. We meet an ex-Marine — with a lifelong disgust for bullying — who helped recruit the radical hacker community Anonymous to force the site to turn from revenge porn into an anti-bullying website.
That is all to the good, but the crucial question the film doesn’t explore is what is it about our society that spawns such fetid online ooze? If it’s true, as some claim, that the internet is the place where people go to be their real selves, liberated from the restrictions of everyday life, then revenge porn as a phenomenon might be more than just a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hacker Monster wasn’t just some kid living in his mom’s basement: he was proudly DJing raves all over the country and sending videotapes of himself partying out to his legions of adoring fans. The filmmakers offered to interview him for the film but he refused.
Is the success of a site like this, however brief, just the sucker-born-every-minute hustle of a born charlatan? The triumph of a brutal Social Darwinist mentality in a country that celebrates the winner — but is just as happy to watch a foot planted firmly on the loser’s neck? Are we talking vicarious kicks because of sexual repression? Or just bored, insecure teenagers who can’t resist a chance to pounce on the vulnerabilities of others? The series tells a legitimate story in which the good guys win, but there is no attempt to answer any of these larger, uncomfortable, social questions. And that kind of honest conversation is what we need to address the problem — along with stiffer regulations from Congress regarding the internet and its mandarins. Ways must be found to keep the freaks and sleazes away from other people’s sensitive information. Otherwise, prepare for a future in which the world wide web is an amoral free-for-all.
Matt Hanson is a contributing editor at the Arts Fuse whose work has also appeared in American Interest, Baffler, Guardian, Millions, New Yorker, Smart Set, and elsewhere. A longtime resident of Boston, he now lives in New Orleans.
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