Eron Gjoni, the 24-year-old whose incendiary blog post precipitated GamerGate, the explosive and controversial movement that has come to dominate internet culture over the last six weeks, says he doesn't really care about the medium at the heart of the conflict.
"I don't, like, have a passion for games or anything," he told BuzzFeed News.
Gjoni's apathy might surprise anyone who has followed the zealous, sometimes deeply disturbing efforts of GamerGate's true believers, all of which — from demands for the reformation of game journalism, to email campaigns bombarding companies that advertise against anti-GamerGate writing, to death threats against female game critics and designers — evince an all-consuming concern with games and game culture.
It was Gjoni's 9,000-word narrative blog post about the breakdown of his relationship with a game developer named Zoe Quinn, titled "thezoepost," that sparked the now-ubiquitous online movement, which has been described by turns as a hate group, an ethics crusade, and the template for all online culture wars of the future. And because GamerGate is characterized by anonymity above all, Gjoni is, aside from the outspoken actor Adam Baldwin, perhaps the best known figure associated with the movement.
In an extensive instant message conversation with BuzzFeed News, Gjoni cut a mercurial figure. He expressed deeply ambivalent feelings about the movement spawned by his writing, ranging from a sense of near-pride and ownership to disgust. Asked if he knew in advance that his writing would eventually lead to wide-scale harassment, particularly of women, Gjoni said he wouldn't have published. Later in the conversation, he clarified himself:
"If I could go back in time and tell myself not to do this. I wouldn't. That is, I wouldn't tell myself not to. Because it's for the best. Regardless of how the outcome is actually getting painted. As this giant harassment campaign against women filled with all sorts of death threats. On the ground the movement isn't barely like that."
This kind of recursive, contradictory, and sometimes confusing argumentation characterized much of the interview.
Gjoni repeatedly insisted that the segments of GamerGate making news for harassment are from members of a trollish fringe who are "ruining everything." Part of this belief seems to stem from his assertion that "thezoepost" was not a misogynistic character assassination, as it has been painted online, but a "callout post" detailing Quinn's purported misdeeds and hypocrisies as an emblem of social justice. Indeed, Gjoni told BuzzFeed News, as he has written elsewhere, that he considers himself a social justice advocate.
In the weeks leading up to the publication of "thezoepost," Gjoni said he consulted with more than a dozen friends and colleagues, mostly men and women in the Boston tech scene, about the content of the article and the potential fallout. One of them, Rachel Martin, is a 25-year-old freelance designer who described herself as a radical feminist. Martin described Gjoni as "gentle and conscientious" and said that she condoned the publication of "thezoepost" because of her own past as a victim of emotional abuse, which she felt Quinn had committed against her friend.
Gjoni also consulted his mother, a human resources manager who asked that her name not be used. Gjoni's mother, who trains workers in harassment avoidance, preached caution. "I advised him to cool off and not make a decision based on emotions," she told BuzzFeed News. "I was not very happy that he made the decision to publish. As a parent, my feeling is that what you put on the internet is for eternity."
And yet Gjoni, whose friends described as deliberate and calm, may not have fully taken that reality into account. "I spent the better part of a month planning all contingencies," he told BuzzFeed News. "I gave this outcome an exceedingly low probability."
That probability has taken its toll. Until last week, Gjoni worked as a computer scientist at a Boston hospital, where he specialized in robotics and artificial intelligence. Gjoni, who emigrated to the United States with his parents from Albania when he was 6, was recruited to the position while he was still in college. Recently, his supervisors noticed that he looked haggard and wasn't getting much work done, and asked him if he wanted to resign. Gjoni said yes.
"Internet warfare takes a surprising amount of dedication," he said. Indeed, Gjoni, despite his protestations that he wrote "thezoepost" for ethical reasons unrelated to gaming, seems unable to leave the cause his writing sparked alone. He admitted to regularly advising GamerGate leaders, and seems to take some pride in the power he claims to exert over the movement, as well as over the effect the movement has had on gaming journalism.
"I've had to ... keep it from splitting the earth in two," he said.
And even as he won't distance himself from GamerGate, Gjoni won't quite take responsibility for the terrifying harassment that women have faced as a result of "thezoepost," donwplaying its significance: "The scale is actually not that large. And gender doesn't seem to be what sets off those harassment bouts, political ideology does."
Martin, Gjoni's friend, thinks that blaming "thezoepost" for the woman-hating extremes of GamerGate is short-sighted. "It's terrifying," she said, "But misogynists would have found another reason."
But they didn't. And Gjoni's story ultimately may be the definitive example of the way latent — and hateful — cultural forces in the internet seek expression everywhere. That's a fact with which Gjoni himself seems to just be coming to terms.
Asked what he would say to women who have been terrified by death threats and anonymous harassment, Gjoni said, "I can't deny my letter was the spark. I guess I feel compelled to offer an apology to them. But also I don't know how to do that without taking the responsibility away from people who are actually doing the harassment. But, I guess, let me know how I can make it up to you?"
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.
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