John and Me
I don't know John Meneses well. He was a listener to a podcast on which I read the news years ago, and we've been friendly over social media ever since.
I sometimes find that following strangers on social media can be like reading an interactive novel that never ends. And John's a real character. For a time, he was attempting to get and keep a job in sales — possibly telemarketing — and I'd passively enjoy reading his updates about what kind of day he'd had on the floor and how he was changing up his technique. There was another period where he was busking on the Las Vegas strip, showing off his impressive yo-yo skills.
So I was surprised to hear from him over Facebook Messenger, and intrigued when I read the message: "Hey, Lon as you may or may not be aware, I created /r/TheFappening on Reddit last Sunday and it got banned yesterday. If you'd like to chat about the sub and the leaks, PM me and I'll give you my number. I've known you for a long time and I trust you to tell the story without bias."
The Fappening sub-Reddit (or r/TheFappening in Reddit terms) was, of course, dedicated to sharing and discussing the deluge of photos stolen from the iCloud galleries of celebrities that had been posted to 4Chan on August 31. (For those unfamiliar with Reddit, it's one single site sub-divided into thousands of single-topic communities - large and small - known as sub-Reddits. Any user can create their own sub-Reddit, and then becomes "moderator," supervising discussions and able to eliminate certain posts that violate the sub-Reddit's rules and those of parent site, Reddit.com.)
r/TheFappening had been, for a time, the Internet's clearinghouse for the photos, and the most reliable place to find new ones without wading into the complex, hostile-to-outsiders message board 4Chan. The sub-Reddit scored an insane 100,000 followers in a single day, and remains one of the fastest-growing sub-Reddits of all time.
And then, just as quickly, it was gone. Reddit Administrator alienth explained that it was due to reports of photos depicting minors showing up. Reddit CEO Yishan Wong announced that sub-Reddits may be impacted if Reddit receives numerous DMCA requests from lawful copyright owners reporting unlawful reposts of their content.
John's endeavor was so newsworthy, Caitlin Dewey of the Washington Post wrote a whole piece about him on September 5th. Though Dewey gives away John's Reddit username, "Johnsmcjohn," she declined to give out his real name. (Revealing the actual identity of an anonymous Reddit user is a practice known as "doxxing," and it's very frowned-upon in the community.)
John responded with a Q&A on Reddit (called an AMA - Ask Me Anything) and by reaching out to me.
At first, I wasn't sure if I should get back to him. Just as it was wrong of him to find and then share these private, stolen photos with the world, was it wrong of me to listen to his story and share it with others? But I was also intensely curious about why he did what he did, and how he could defend himself. So, for the first time in our now years-long Facebook friendship, I gave him a call.
"I...Just Basically Rode the Wave"
On August 31, John was hanging out in r/All, where you can see every story being submitted to Reddit, across all the individual sub-Reddit communities. This was when he first noticed what was... and I apologize for this... fappening.
"There started being these pics coming up more and more. I read on a thread on r/celebs that somebody dubbed the whole event ‘The Fappening’ and a user replied to them with r/TheFappening. I liked the sub-Reddit name and clicked to see if it was registered, and when it wasn’t, I did it," he told me.
This made him not just the creator of the sub-Reddit, but also its first moderator. I'm surprised when he also reveals to me that he posted the first five photos to the sub-Reddit himself. (He later contradicts this, telling me, "I didn't even upload any of the pictures.")
At first, he didn't think it would all amount to much, and hadn't entered into the project with any real vision of what it could become.
“I just took it as it came and just basically rode the wave... Honestly, I just thought that it was going to be myself and a couple other moderators, just running a small community that would have these pics, talk about them, discuss what was happening. I certainly never thought it would be the fastest-growing sub-Reddit in history, which is what ended up happening.”
As more and more Redditors heard about the release of the celebrity photos, and started looking for them specifically, r/TheFappening was overwhelmed with new users, and fresh content.
Some people, upon seeing that their creation was exploding in popularity and becoming a resource for hundreds of thousands of people seeking stolen, sometimes pornographic photos, would probably shut it down. But John instead pursued the more arduous task of personally making r/TheFappening a high-quality resource for looking at naked celebrities.
“When something blows up like that, the first people that are going to come are going to be the spammers, and the second ones are going to be people trying to get underage pics on there. And I wanted to prevent both... When it started taking off, my initial reaction was to get as many high-quality moderators on this as I could, to make sure the pics that were posted were in line with Reddit’s rules.”
Rules of Reddit
Specifically, John was concerned about Reddit's rules against child pornography. Because some of the stolen photos had been taken of celebrities when they were under the age of 18, John and his fellow mods were on a constant battle against these pictures finding their way on to his sub-Reddit.
“My focus running the sub-Reddit was just making sure that Reddit’s site-wide rules were followed," he told me. "We were getting a huge flood of content and we needed to manually approve every single submission to make sure that everything that was approved was in line with Reddit’s rules.”
John will come back to this point again and again during our talk. Though he concedes that, overall, hacking a celebrity's iCloud and posting their private photos was wrong (more on this later), he maintains that the dissemination of the photos was inevitable. Therefore, shouldn't we choose to display them somewhere that is safe from photos of underage girls? And also spam?
In John's words: "We needed a place that was well-moderated to post them and now they’re being posted anywhere people like… It’s a bad situation, but the fact is, the best thing for us to have...is a place that respects Reddit’s site-wide rules and makes sure underage pics aren’t on there."
To verify his story, John also sent me a screenshot of his "moderator view" of r/TheFappening. One of the stories on the front page in his own screenshot leads to Imgur (an image-hosting site) and features an NSFW tag. It promises photos of Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney, who claims she was 16 when her photos were taken.
Maybe John was about to remove this image before he took the screenshot. I can't be sure. If nothing else, it verifies what he was saying — r/TheFappening was constantly at risk for promoting child pornography. But then why not just shut it down?
“If we don’t do it, then obviously somebody else will," John responds.
I ask him, in addition to spammers and people posting "underage pics," if he was worried about any other Reddit rules being broken. He responds that he was concerned about posts trying to identify and doxx the original hacker who leaked the photos on 4Chan.
“There were people Sunday night into Monday morning trying to doxx the person they thought was behind the leaks themselves," he repots. "And I made a lot of effort to try to keep that guy’s name and information off the sub."
I ask him why that was so important? Why does he prize the privacy of a potential hacker and not the dozens of women whose private, revealing photos were posted on his sub-Reddit?
“I didn’t want the guy to have what happened to the Boston Bomber debacle happen to him," John replies. (He's referring to the case of Sunil Tripathi, a Brown University student who had been wrongly accused by Redditors of planning the bombing incident at the Boston Marathon.) "He’s innocent until proven guilty and I didn’t want Reddit witch-hunting him.”
I press John a bit more. "What if, hypothetically, you KNEW the hacker was guilty. Would you still be worried about his privacy?"
John refuses to take on the hypothetical: “The fact is that I didn’t do the hacking and these pictures were out and they were going to be released anyway, so there was nothing I could do about that. What I could do is prevent this guy from getting doxxed and that’s what I tried to do.”
This will basically be the pattern for the rest of our discussion. I'll challenge John's decision to share and spread around naked photos of non-consenting women, and he'll extoll his virtues as spam-killer, kiddie porn-deleter and doxx-preventer.
I want to move on to the Washington Post piece, headlined "Meet the unashamed 33-year-old who brought the stolen celebrity nudes to the masses." What does John think of the article?
“I was disappointed that she [writer Caitlin Dewey] chose to use character assassination and a lot of my posts on other websites…to illustrate what a horrible person I am."
Based on his AMA answers and our discussion, John really seems to take two issues with the article:
(1) Dewey looked him up on other social networks, like Twitter and Facebook, and imparts some personal information he had shared with those communities.
(2) Dewey declines to give out John's real name, claiming to respect his privacy. He sees this as a meaningless technicality.
"The thing is, if you Google my username, you can get my real name. so the idea that they were trying to protect my privacy is laughable," he tells me.
But by John's own admission, he was operating r/TheFappening from his primary Reddit account, the same one that Dewey identifies in the Washington Post piece. So his argument really boils down to semantics — Dewey shouldn't take credit for protecting his privacy when he was already being so blatantly transparent about his identity.
Fair enough, but it seems like a minor quibble.
John might have taken issue with the fact that Dewey identifies him as proud and boastful about r/TheFappening, seeing as he claims to have only started it as "a goof" and paints its creation as "just making the best of a bad situation." But he doesn't bring this up.
And I note a few other times during our interview when he seems kind of proud of his accomplishment. There's that remark early on about r/TheFappening being the fastest-growing sub-Reddit in history. Plus there's the name of the screenshot he sends me as proof of his identity: 60,000_users_and_30,000_subs!!!.jpg
"I'm Not a Bad Person"
I ask John if he has any regrets about starting the sub-Reddit. He responds: "I’d have started it on an alt account. Other than that, I don’t really regret much."
This is a peculiar answer on a number of levels, but mainly because John does, at other times, seem to recognize that leaking and sharing naked photos celebrities did not want the public to see is inherently wrong.
When I ask him point blank if he supports what the hacker or hackers did, he quickly answers: “It’s bad that these photos got released. I feel bad for the celebrities behind it." When I bring up the people on Twitter blaming the victims — women who had private photos stolen — for misunderstanding iCloud or simply taking naked photos in the first place, he's quick to jump to their defense.
"Everybody has things on their computers that they’d rather not get out. The idea that, if you don’t want these to be released then don’t put them in the cloud… the fact of the matter is, the cloud is advertised as a secure place to store your things. Either you can trust to be in the cloud, and you do that, or you can’t and you don’t. These women trusted iCloud with their personal information and it got released."
If you listen to the full audio of our interview, you can hear the moment when this contradiction actually breaks my brain. How can John, on the one hand, understand the pain this incident has caused these women, and sympathize with the fact that they are blameless victims, yet still want to actively take part in disseminating their photos?
He somehow has managed to compartmentalize. It's wrong that these photos were hacked, and it's wrong that they're being shared... but hey, someone was going to share them, so why not me?
"The fact of the matter is that this thing went incredibly viral. I just tried to make the best of the situation I had. The Internet would be a better place if these pics weren’t there. The fact of the matter is, they are. There’s no taking them back."
John finishes by emphasizing that he did not personally profit off of his actions. I think he intends this as further defense, but I'm not sure what it proves:
“I’m not a bad person. I’m not trying to profit from this. I haven’t made a cent off of the sub-Reddit. I only got 6 months worth of Reddit Gold for it and it’s not like I can cash that back in. I just tried to make this a community in line with Reddit’s rules and Reddit decided to ban it anyway.”
"I Just Posted Links That Were Already on Reddit"
In her Washington Post article, Caitlin Dewey writes: “If you’ve seen the [leaked nude celebrity] photos, [John] is, to large degree, the person who made that possible." John calls this sentiment "hilariously inaccurate," though he is not laughing when he says it.
But what makes it inaccurate? He posted the photos to one of the most popular websites in the world, the so-called "front page of the Internet." Pressing the question only gets the same answers in response: They were already out there. All of Reddit's rules were followed. It was a bad situation.
It's all so depersonalized, as if John at no point actually made a real decision. Yishin Wong refers to his company and team as "the government of a new type of community." But a community, and a government, requires human interaction. And, for John anyway, Reddit seems to have taken other people out of the equation entirely. He's not violating women's privacy — he's just moving image files from one place to another. In his words, "I just posted links that were already on Reddit."
In such a situation, it's not surprising that upholding "community guidelines" outweighs simple respect for your fellow human beings. I find it exceedingly unlikely John would walk into a conference room and personally hand out naked photos of Jennifer Lawrence, so long as the practice was not specifically against the place's posted rules. Yet he constantly refers to that as a shield on Reddit — nothing he was doing specifically violated the rules, so therefore it is okay.
The anonymity and ease of disseminating any content you like makes it appealing to adopt the view that "the Internet will out," that anything crossing your screen is naturally fair game for you to share with anyone, any time. But now, with his anonymity slowly stripped away, John is faced with consequences he couldn't have predicted.
“I didn’t think that far ahead, that it was going to end up in the press. I just created it because I liked the name.”