The internet knows Jace Connors as a gun-loving YouTube personality who last month became the latest symbol of GamerGate's escalating extremism when he released a bizarre, rambling video in which he claimed to have crashed his car while en route to the home of Brianna Wu, the game developer who has become, along with Anita Sarkeesian, the public face of GamerGate persecution.
"Jace Connors" is in fact Jan Rankowski, a 20-year-old living in Maine who is affiliated with Million Dollar Extreme, a provocative cult comedy group based in Rhode Island, and far from being the archfiend of GamerGate, Rankowski is himself now the subject of a campaign of harassment.
In an exclusive interview, Rankowski told BuzzFeed News that he intended to satirize "the over-the-top, super-hyper-macho armed GamerGater" but that harassment in recent days, as doxxing forums and GamerGate image boards have started to suspect he is behind the Connors character, has left him terrified.
"They realized I was making fun of them with those videos," Rankowski said. "I started it as a joke, but it's become far too real and I wish I could take it all back."
Rankowski verified his identity to BuzzFeed News by uploading an agreed-upon comment to the most recent video in his YouTube channel.
It was less than a month ago that Rankowski's video as Connors in front of his crashed car — according to Rankowski he really did crash his car and ad-libbed the video — convinced the internet that he was a dangerous creep nurturing a scary obsession with Wu. In a piece about the video, titled "The Psychopaths of GamerGate Are All That's Left, and They're Terrifying", Gawker's Sam Biddle described Connors as a man who:
...claims to be both a retired Marine and Navy Seal. It's unclear whether he has any real military affiliation, present or former, but his fantasy love of violence is clear, and he frequently shares images of himself posing with guns and knives. He can be seen here assaulting some guy over a stolen Xbox.
Jace Connors might've just been another wingnut who lets Call of Duty bleed into reality, but he's become a popular figure inside GamerGate, which has egged him on through increasingly bizarre and disturbing acts.
Through the lens of GamerGate — the now-depleted movement of aggrieved hardcore gamers that is characterized by harassment campaigns against female writers and developers — the video represented a scary new level of delusion. Here was an apparently deranged man — one who brandishes guns and knives in his YouTube videos and openly discusses his mental illness — who was obsessed with "meeting" one of the best known advocates of women in gaming. Here was a living, breathing manifestation of the kind of white male nerd-culture anger and frustration that seethes anonymously in subreddits and image boards and frightens a lot of people.
Here was proof, to a lot of people, that some kind of catastrophic act of violence was imminent.
And yet something about Connors' web presence was just a little bit too on the nose. Take just the custom banner of his YouTube channel, where he posts as Parkourdude91.
Mountain Dew, John Cena, an Xbox controller, "Guns, Games, and Ganja": That's a hell of a lot of sad, basement-dwelling "gamer" signifiers packed into one header. And consider the content of the Jace Connors videos: Usually shot in poorly lit, taupe-walled rooms, or occasionally against the backdrop of an American flag, they mostly consist of incoherent monologues by Connors, who resembles Guy Fieri on a starvation diet. The subject matter rambles from video games to guns to longboarding to Juggalos to Barack HUSSEIN Obama to Islamic extremism to Connors' clearly fake history as a Marine (he has scrawled Semper Fidelis in Sharpie on a plastic-looking knife that he brandishes in his videos), and the videos feature a cast of bizarre and colorful characters, including Jace's mom, Gail Connors, who, in the tradition of Phil Margera, just doesn't get it.
It was as if every shitty thing on the internet — every crummy and déclassé opinion, hobby, and identity — converged on one man. It was almost too bad to be true.
And of course, in our age of the viral hoax, it was.
After the car crash video brought a swarm of attention to the Connors character, users of obscure internet fora (4chan, 8chan, and something called Kiwi Farm), were able to trace the character to videos created by Rankowski and Sam Hyde, the comedian behind Million Dollar Extreme.
And then the phone calls started. "People have been calling my old high school calling my work," Rankowski told BuzzFeed News, "and saying these nasty things about me. I was made to sign a contract at my job saying I wouldn't make any of these videos again. I received a letter in the mail with a picture of me from my high school yearbook... It said I shouldn't have fucked with 8chan."
Hyde told BuzzFeed News that over the past two days he has also been harassed. "Some kid stood outside my window throwing pebbles. And someone knocked on my door — it's a closed apartment, you shouldn't be able to get in. And then there was no one there."
Two years ago, when Rankowski started uploading videos as Jace Connors, neither he nor Hyde could have imagined the character gaining this level of attention, negative or positive.
"The parkour dude guy was just a character he came up with," Hyde said. "I thought it was funny enough. For awhile there his videos would only have 200–300 views. He was doing his thing. It was innocuous enough — he was playing, like, a funny guy who was really into video games."
For Rankowski, the character was a catchall way to lampoon nerd culture. "The Jace character was just a lens through which I do satire," he said. "YouTube streamers; Call of Duty gamers. GamerGate was the next in a long line."
Satirizing nerd culture would have come easily to Rankowski, who cut his chops with Million Dollar Extreme videos like "An Inconvenient Anime," in which Hyde gave a trolling presentation to an anime convention as Rankowski blocked the door to prevent people from leaving. And that was probably mild compared to Million Dollar Extreme's best known stunt, in which Hyde hijacked a 2013 TedX symposium in Philadelphia with a long-winded and rambling speech entitled "2070 Paradigm Shift" while clad in battle armor. But their prank comedy frequently took a hostile edge: A Brooklyn comedy event at which Hyde recited a litany of homophobic pseudoscience resulted in audience boos and walkouts.
Even with those boundary-pushing bona fides, Hyde said he warned Rankowski after the car crash video that he had taken the act too far.
For Rankowski, though, who had already expanded the cast of characters in his videos to include a bizarro-world version of his mother (played by, yes, his unsuspecting mother) the advice was too little, too late.
"Part of the humor of MDE is pushing the boundaries, but we've never encountered actually being afraid for our own safety," Rankowski told BuzzFeed News. "This has ruined my life."
Rankowski says that the situation has given him a new appreciation for the people who were most upset by his actions.
"I didn't take this situation seriously, but I see what it means now to be in the other person's shoes. What her life must feel like. I have this newfound respect for the people who are having to deal with GamerGate, Brianna Wu and Anita [Sarkeesian]."
It's chastened not just Rankowski, but also Hyde, the Million Dollar Extreme impresario.
"My aim right now is to calm these people down," Hyde said. "I've learned my lesson."
Yet Rankowski has seen so far, at worst, just a fraction of the harassment and abuse that's been heaped on many of the women targeted by GamerGate — women whom he specifically targeted, harassed, and terrified in the service of satire.
It goes to show that sometimes the funniest jokes are the ones no one else gets. But usually, they're just the worst.
Joe Bernstein is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Bernstein reports on and writes about the gaming industry and web culture.
Contact Joseph Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.