Journal #5 – The Dark Side of Online Communities

Looking back from a place of hindsight, the internet has been both a blessing and a curse for me. Growing up as a fairly maladapted kid-turned-teenager, the internet provided me with a bastion of comfort during my adolescence. This isn't even getting into the sheer volume of close friends I made that I've gone on to meet IRL at some point. On the other hand, my very attachment to the internet as an outlet for my frustrations that I couldn't do anything about IRL meant that it became a newfound source of anxiety for me. I remember all the school nights where I stayed up to some obscene hour getting into flame wars in comments sections, forums, and other such places so vividly. Even worse, there were events that took place in those same online communities that would probably raise an alarming number of red flags if I were to look back at them as an adult.

The long-term consequences of online communities have yet to be studied in a proper, academic fashion (to my knowledge, anyway). However, I'm hoping that this long-winded diatribe on my experiences with a specific online community in the past would serve as a “case study” of sorts. I understand that my experiences aren't indicative of what everyone else went through. There are people just like me who've spent obscene amounts of time on the internet, and they went on to become fairly well-adjusted members of society in one way or another. This diatribe also isn't meant to disparage specific online communities either; it's solely meant to be a thorough analysis of my experiences. I don't mean to get so defensive this early into a post, but I just want to cover my bases.

When I got my first computer in the summer of 2007, I used it for two things: homework and RuneScape. In those days, the RuneScape “community” was in relative infancy. Sure, you had older teenagers and adults that were playing the game since 2001-2005 but the vast majority of the player base at that point in time were roughly my age (12-13 years old). If I wasn't playing RuneScape, I was watching PvP compilations made by the likes of legendary players to my preteen eyes, the most important of which was an Eastern European teenager (at the time) named Kids Ranqe. Kids Ranqe (aka Soz Owned/Sv3rige) was effectively a demigod that every intrepid PKer wanted to emulate because he was the first person (to my knowledge) that ever made a perfect “pure” character (as in, a character with maxed combat stats, but having only 1 Defence).

It's hard to underscore just how much of an achievement that was back in the day because modern RuneScape players have access to a plethora of resources documenting the most efficient ways to create specialised character builds. Back in 2005-2007, the only information we had access to was through word of mouth, fansites, forums, and poorly-made YouTube videos with that nostalgic “Unregistered Hypercam 2” logo. Seeing this teenager pour literal hours every single day just training his account for PvP, the videos that documented his journey set to mid-2000s emo music, and the “pwnage” that his maxed pure was able to dish out was something that literally everyone I knew tried and failed miserably at emulating (myself included).

It was precisely that level of idolisation from a bunch of kids much younger than he was at the time that propelled him to RuneScape stardom. There were countless videos on YouTube at the time that literally just showed him doing “normal” things that any other player would do... like buying supplies at Edgeville bank for his next PKing trip. Looking back, it's kind of surreal and even a little scary how much we were willing to gain his approval in any fashion we could. When his account got hacked and his bank was wiped, there were literally thousands of players who swarmed around him that were willing to donate stuff to him to get his account off the ground again. Seeing that level of generosity from the RuneScape community these days is practically unheard of.

Eventually, Kids Ranqe ended up quitting RuneScape altogether for one reason or another and his demigod status would slowly fade away into a fond memory for the vast majority of us players. The shift in RuneScape content on YouTube would also shift away from PvP-based videos to machinima sketches made by the likes of Excl, Dark Arm3, and Tehnoobshow. This shift in content, away from PvP coupled with the fact that many of the original Kids Ranqe videos that were uploaded ended up getting taken down due to copyright violations would only further serve to make his memory fade away faster. That is... until mid-2011.

In 2011, Jagex made the decision to bring back PvP-enabled Wilderness and free trade. This brought back a surge of PKers who quit the game otherwise that wanted to see if they still had the old black magic. Kids Ranqe (now Soz Owned) was one of those players. He saw a brief resurgence in popularity, but it was ultimately short-lived. The new PK videos weren't as well-received due to a number of different factors (i.e. overall power creep making older PKing methods inefficient, the music being starkly different compared to the mid-2000s emo that we were all familiar with, etc.). More than anything else though, Kids Ranqe himself admitted that the “new” Wildy just wasn't “fun” anymore. He stopped making RuneScape videos altogether in 2011, instead opting to focus on his personal channel that was geared toward his music blog. Considering how I had no interest in RuneScape but I the music blog caught my fancy, I made the conscious decision to join his IRC channel. This was the start of me entering a really deep rabbit hole that I'm not sure I ever wanted to go down, upon retrospect.

I'll never forget the day I first sat down in IRC with the demigod that made so much of my early adolescence enthralling. Despite being an obviously starstruck fan, he was incredibly welcoming to me and was more than willing to explain what he's been up to since his glory days of yesteryear. Sv3rige (no longer wanting anything to do with the Kids Ranqe/Soz Owned handles) had long since abandoned video games like RuneScape and Counterstrike because his life took several drastic turns. He moved away from his home country of Latvia several years prior over to the UK looking for work, and then eventually settled in Germany. During those times, he ended up developing an interest in music, cinema, photography, and esoteric conspiracy theories.

The IRC channel was also full of other people roughly my age at the time (16-17), most of us having met Sv3rige either through RuneScape or Counterstrike. We all went through struggles that he'd already gone through, so in many ways, he was like this older brother that we looked up to. We got some pretty cool underground music to listen to, foreign language film recommendations that we'd torrent to watch, and we'd spend hours talking about all kinds of things. Admittedly, they were more into the conspiracy stuff than I was at the time, but I'd be lying through my teeth if I said I didn't buy into any of it.

Between 2011-2014, Sv3rige would go on to make many videos about conspiracy theories, his views on life, how much video games and the internet in general are a waste of time, all the while still working on making music mixes to download on his blog. We'd all partake in those discussions as well, giving our own takes on the subjects at hand. As I was about to graduate high school, Sv3rige's videos about life started to resonate with me more and more as I became overwhelmed with anxiety over my future. I, like many other people in our little circle of friends, was pretty fucking disenfranchised at the thought of working a 9-5 for the rest of my life. Alternative lifestyles, like the one that Sv3rige led in Europe seemed like this exotic alternative where I could actually be happy.

Of course, my life ended up taking a drastic turn of its own. I was starting to focus more on my own life because I was in a relationship at that point in time and my life in college was gradually becoming more intense. As I got more wrapped up in my own reality, my internet life took a backseat. Most of the people that I actively talked to back then added me on Facebook, so it's not like we ever fell out of contact. Sv3rige on the other hand, had no social media to speak of so I eventually lost contact with him. Sure, there was the content on his YouTube channel that I could interact with but honestly? I was getting kind of sick of how much he meandered through his videos. Once I started working part-time while going to school, that more or less put a stop to any sort of free time I'd have to even bother engaging with his content in the first place.

The friends that I met through Sv3rige and I set up a Facebook group chat to stay in contact with one another, so we continued doing our own thing. We'd share music recommendations, talk about what foreign language films we watched, happenings in their parts of the world, and the occasional nod to a conspiracy theory that we still vaguely bought into. Surprising though it may seem, most of our conversations didn't involve Sv3rige at all. Rather, we took what we learned from him and applied it to our own lives. We were getting wrapped up in our own lives, but we still enjoyed the “new” genres of music and cinema that we were introduced to through him. We still vaguely bought into some conspiracy theories like the Illuminati, but we didn't obsess over it like we used to. I suppose the reason why this happened in the first place is because we were all growing up in one way or another; we weren't (as) impressionable as we once were, so we were capable of forming our own opinions on the world around us. Plus, they had ambitions for their own lives that flew directly in the face of the lifestyle that Sv3rige led. Some of them wanted to go to university, others decided to work so that they could move out of their families' houses, and others still wanted to carve out their own path in life by any means necessary.

If we did talk about Sv3rige, it would often involve the sheer lunacy that he would later go on to spout. In late 2016-early 2017, his content would take a shift away from discussing conspiracies and general life musings to outright antagonistic videos against veganism along with his newfound obsession involving raw meat. That was a drastic shift in the style of content that he was making, and virtually none of us had any idea where it came from. We knew that he was very rigid in his stances when it came down to where he got his information from. Any remotely popular news outlet or scientific journals that he came across were dismissed as Illuminati propaganda, so “alternative” news and journals, interviews from discredited scientists, among other such things were what he frequently consumed. At the time, we just dismissed it as something he'd grow out of (or at least, I'd like to think that's what the consensus was).

But no, that obsession with “alternative” media ended up fostering the vast majority of his lunacy that would come from that point forward. Aside from the nutritional stuff, he'd also go on to make videos about how the earth was flat, how he was superior to RuneScape players due to his “awareness” of the truth and why he'll never play again, and of course... sungazing. No, I'm not joking about that last one; it was something we actively discussed back when we were still in contact with him. Granted, I love me a good sunrise like any other person does. However, Sv3rige took it to a whole new level by actively making videos where he'd sit down and stare at the sun.

As time went on, Sv3rige's lunacy ended up becoming common knowledge around the older members of the RuneScape community. So he more or less became a meme, rather than a figure that everyone else once idolised. While this was happening, he'd go on to generate a following of flat earth believers and raw meat enthusiasts who just so happened to have a massive hate boner toward vegans. He'd later go on to make a Patreon account where the people who bought into his doctrines more closely could actively fund his lifestyle. The irony behind this isn't lost on me, because Sv3rige used to espouse the idea that the internet, in general, was a waste of time and that there's a whole world out there worth experiencing. My friends that I met through him took that advice to heart, so we all tried to advance with our own lives without letting the internet and video games consume us. However, we never would've anticipated that he'd go this far into the metaphorical abyss.

However, that's not where this rabbit hole ends. No, it gets much worse. In 2019, Metro published an article about him as he made a spectacle of himself in the UK while eating a raw pig's head that delved into his past in Latvia. Sv3rige, real name Gatis Lagzdins, wasn't just a lunatic who makes a spectacle of himself at vegan gatherings; he was an attempted serial killer. In 2006, shortly before the apex of his RuneScape glory days, Gatis (then 16 years old) attempted a mass stabbing spree against his classmates in high school.  His name was anonymised in reports at the time, but considering how high-profile he's become in recent years, that shroud of anonymity ended up collapsing in on itself.

To say that I was shocked would be a gross understatement; it was like finding out the older brother figure you once looked up to was an irredeemable monster. The rabbit hole went even deeper, as there were countless Reddit threads and YouTube videos made about him that explored the deeper implications of the videos that he made, his past, his obsession with Eric Harris and Dylan Kleebold, among countless other things that I was completely unaware of at the time. I've already spent too much time writing this entry, so I'll leave the research up to you.

So here we are, at the crux of this long-winded diatribe about an insane Latvian man that I once looked up to. It was because of this man that I developed a love of late 80s/early 90s hardcore punk music. It was because of this man that I developed a vested interest in learning Persian, as he was the person who introduced me to Abbas Kiarostami (an Iranian film director that I still love and mourn to this day). My skepticism toward the mainstream media was engendered in no small part by this man. Granted, I can't attribute all of my quirks and interests to Gatis; I'm my own person, after all. However, there's no denying that in one way or another, Gatis was a huge influence in my life and it's a fact that I still struggle with to this day.

Granted, my story isn't necessarily the worst to ever come out of an online community. I wasn't indoctrinated into some weird sex cult like William Control and Onision tried to do with their fans. I wasn't groomed, I wasn't radicalised into a belief system that I wouldn't have considered joining beforehand, nor was I ever in a position where I got blackmailed and was coerced into doing something that I didn't want any part of. With that in mind, I shudder at the broader implications of my interactions with Gatis way back when. I wasn't necessarily that young when I first started interacting with him, but there was a time when my belief system was heavily influenced by this man because I was an impressionable teenager seeking validation from one of my childhood idols. Sure, I grew out of it as did many other people that I knew through him, but Gatis still has a following of dedicated true believers that buy into way worse shit than what we were getting into. I could go on, but I think you get my point.

When I hear all these stories about the horrors of certain online communities (i.e. grooming allegations, indoctrination, doxing, bullying, etc), I get viscerally angry because I was once an impressionable child on the internet who desperately sought validation from the people that I idolised. Conversely, I'm wrought with the grim realisation that this type of thing could happen to my own children (if I ever decide to have kids, that is). It's so surreal to think that I've gone through an experience like this and that there was so much going on behind the scenes that I was blissfully unaware of at that point in time. I still shudder to think what could've happened if I had actually made it into Gatis's inner circle during the apex of his glory days in RuneScape. There are times when I wonder if there was anything we could've done to snap him out of his idiocy, but then I remember that he was well into his 20s by the time that I started interacting with him.

I know that Gatis is too far gone at this point. He was a deeply disturbed teenager who'd grow up and become a deeply disturbed adult. Yet despite these grim realisations, I still have fond memories of the times I spent with him and our little circle of friends. Everyone else that I met through Gatis has more or less decided to cut him off, so there is a silver lining amid all the darkness. Would I say that I regret any of it? Eh, kinda? I regret ever looking up to a man like him in the first place, but I don't regret the people that I met through him. I also don't regret the music, movies, and travel recommendations either. Even so, there's a high likelihood that I probably won't be visiting Latvia any time soon. Not until I can fully make peace with the fact that I once looked up to one of their most prolific internet personalities.