The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld, by Jamie Bartlett, Melville House, 308 pages, $27.95
THE MOST PARANOID fantasy about what happens in the darkest corners when humanity is unsupervised online might look something like the assassination markets described in Jamie Bartlett's The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Under-world. The idea, hatched by the anarchist Jim Bell, is to allow anonymous digital cash donations toward the slaying of public figures. Correctly predicting the death date wins the bettor a payoff, based on the sly presumption that the reason you got it right was that you caused the death. The idea, Bartlett explains, was to exert "a populist pressure on elected representatives to be good." This grim technofantasy for angry dissidents has not, as far as we know, ever paid off.
Bartlett directs the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the British think tank Demos (not to be confused with the liberal American think tank of the same name). He began his breezy and humane book expecting to find more clear-cut cases of people and behaviors to condemn and proscribe. But what he ended up finding was just human beings: dedicated, troubled, incendiary, funny, craving to be heard and understood. Welcome to the Dark Net. Welcome to the human race.
Early in the book, Bartlett tackles the topic of "trolls," whose behavior ranges from flogging obscure running gags at sites where they are not welcome to outright harassment (comedically, they think, though they must know and not care that their targets might not find it funny). Especially when it consists of "doxing"--revealing the actual identities and addresses of the people behind the words on the Internet--trolling can and does sometimes lead to suicides, relationships destroyed, families split apart, careers ended.
Demonstrating the inevitability of the troll phenomenon, Bartlett traces it back to the earliest days of Arpanet, BBSes, and Usenet, long before there even was a World Wide Web. In 1987, when Usenet gatekeepers tried to scotch a "rec.drugs" board, the libertarian Sun Microsystems multimillionaire (and privacy advocate) John Gilmore invented the "alt" hierarchy to host it. The alt sector became an early home to a rich and awful ecosystem of trolling, some of it hilarious and some of it disturbing.
A fellow called Old Holborn, named Britain's "vilest troll" by the Daily Mail, serves as this chapter's linchpin, which Bartlett frames in libertarian terms. Holborn, as...