Ken M and the lost art of 'do no harm' trolling
It's Troll Week on Mashable. Join us as we explore the good, the bad, and the ugly of internet trolling.
As the internet tells it, the greatest troll of all time is Kenneth McCarthy, a copywriter in Brooklyn who has spent years leaving bewildering comments on news articles and brand pages under the name "Ken M."
Unlike many troll personas, Ken M is not a mean guy. In fact, the character is pretty harmless. He's just an ill-informed old dude who likes to hang around the Chef Boyardee Facebook page, do a few earnest posts, maybe confuse potatoes for lobster.
"He'd probably spend a large amount of time in his garage on his Dell computer, talking to people in the news comments section. He is oblivious to their hostility," McCarthy said in a phone interview. "He'd also spend a lot of time with his little grandson who, it's implied, is at least as dumb as he is."
And that oblivious Ken M personality has clearly resonated with people online. Over the years, the character amassed sizable followings on Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit. (He even has a dedicated subreddit.) From 2011 to 2014, he chronicled his trolling exploits in a CollegeHumor column called "The Troll."
Through all of this, the Ken M brand has remained remarkably strong. Despite the bleak state of online discourse in 2018, McCarthy has held fast to what he's called a "do no harm" trolling policy. Sure, Ken M is combative, and he never admits he's wrong, but he's so obviously ignorant that his comments can't really do any damage. At most, they make you feel bad for him, like you want to send him a kind DM explaining why it's unsafe to store magazines on your stovetop.
Of course, the way we conceptualize trolling has changed a lot since Ken M got his start, including what comes to mind when one thinks of the word "troll." Now, when we think of trolling, we're likely to think of the darkest sectors of the internet: bots, the alt-right, political subterfuge, death threats, Nazis, the Russian attack on the presidential election. On the lighter, less morally bankrupt end of things, we might think of someone like Pete Souza, who frequently "trolls" Donald Trump — but his trolling is still highly political.
McCarthy, on the other hand, said his favorite type of post is still as apolitical as its gets: The pseudo-clueless brand page comment that put him on the map. "I would occasionally do political stuff [before the 2016 election]," he said. Now, though, he mostly steers clear.
In fact, McCarthy would rather not be called a troll at all, although he concedes he'll probably be stuck with that label forever.
"The term has been expanded so widely that it's beginning to lose its meaning," he said. "I've never really been comfortable with it, especially since it's become associated with all of the grotesqueries of the alt-right ... the Milos and the Richard Spencer types and all that."
If he could change the narrative, he said, he'd want people to refer to his style as "bringing a banana to a gun fight."
Despite his steadfastness, however, the internet of 2018 has impacted the way Ken M operates. Brand accounts, for example, have become less "customer service hub" and more "cynical internet personality," which makes them more difficult to manipulate if you're using a goofy character like Ken M.
In the past, McCarthy has counted on the fact that mods would probably respond to his trolls collegially. They did, mostly — especially because there actually are people out there leaving Ken M-style comments in earnest.
"You do get these ... old people talking to a brand like it's a friendly neighbor down the street," McCarthy said. (In addition to spending a lot of time on brand pages, he used to moderate them professionally.)
These people, he explained, have long prompted brands to take the friendly, serviceable approach: they don't want to alienate their customers, and they really don't want to be stuck with a lawsuit if they stay mum about a customer misusing their product. (If Ken M really was cooking Chef Boyardee in an oven full of books and the moderator said nothing, for example, the inevitable disaster wouldn't be great brand PR.)
But a brand like, say, Steak-umm, which has been employing anti-consumerist principles on social media in order to attract an audience, is not likely to respond to a Ken M post in good faith. They probably know they're dealing with a troll — after all, they're operating like a troll themselves. (It's worth noting that McCarthy has engaged with Steak-umm before, but as himself, not as Ken M. He is not a fan.)
So is there a future for the do-no-harm troll? Can anyone survive a gun fight if they only have a banana, and can a good-faith troll operate in a bad-faith world? On an internet that has all but given up on fun and associates trolls primarily with attacking people online, it kind of seems like a tall order.
And yet Ken M's fanbase is as raucous as ever. The Ken M subreddit is thriving, with people sharing their favorite trolls at a clip comparable to that of his internet heyday. And Ken M himself is still, for the record, trolling away — less frequently than before, but with the same blissful ignorance that made people love the character in the first place. On this internet, that's no easy feat. Ken M, through sheer force of goofiness alone, might be one of the only ones who got away with it.
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October 22, 2018 at 11:02AM