My name is Paul Lukas. I run a website called Uni Watch, which is about sports uniforms and logos and has developed a bit of a following. For many years that site was plagued by an extremely abusive and persistent troll, whose presence I had to police on a constant basis. In the spring of 2013, I decided to confront the troll and asked if he would consent to be interviewed. To my surprise, he agreed. To my even greater surprise, the interview developed into a very interesting discussion between the troll and myself.
In April of 2013 I posted the transcript of that interview on Uni Watch, along with lots of background information about the troll's history on the site. The post generated strong reaction in the media world and was later featured on the public radio program On the Media. It also inspired a rebuttal of sorts by my ex-girlfriend, who had often been a target of the troll's vitriol and wanted to have her say about all this. I posted her rebuttal as a separate page on Uni Watch.
About three months later, for reasons not worth explaining here, I had to take down the entry about the troll, along with my ex's rebuttal. My original plan was to restore both of them to Uni Watch once a certain storm had blown over, but now I've decided to create a separate website — this site — for all the troll-related content.
What follows is the original text of the Uni Watch entry that appeared on April 15, 2013. Nothing has been changed or amended. Following the text you'll find embedded audio for the On the Media segment that was inspired by the troll interview, along with a link to my former girlfriend's rebuttal.
Should further developments warrant, I'll post additional troll-related news here on this site, although I don’t expect that to happen. The purpose of this site is simply to serve as a repository for some interesting content that I wasn't able to maintain where it was originally published.
Ready? Here we go.
Trolling Right Along: An Interview with Joe ‘Big Cock’ Johnson
By Paul Lukas
Every business or creative enterprise has a behind-the-scenes aspect that most of us never get to see. We never know all the little dramas that are unfolding in a restaurant kitchen, or a supermarket stock room, or a company's back office.
Here at Uni Watch, one of the behind-the-scenes dramas is that I have my own private troll. For the past half-dozen years or so I've been dealing with a series of extremely profane and abusive comments posted to the site by a guy who calls himself Joe "Big Cock" Johnson. Although most of you aren't aware of his existence (I'll explain why in a sec), he's become a fixture on the site, sort of like an off-Broadway heckler who shows up for every performance and shouts insults and lobs spitballs from the back row. Except the rest of the audience can't see or hear him — only the actors can.
Joe's comments are mostly about his 12-inch penis and the massive loads of semen that spew from it ("What did y'all do during the presidential debate last night? I reamed a bitch’s fuckhole and filled her with my seed"). He's particularly fond of referencing my ex-girlfriend Kirsten, constantly referring to how he was fucking "that slut, Kirsten" last night, or how he blew a load in her face, or how "you might notice that her twat's a lot looser now that I'm done with her." He's also directed a lot of personal invective at me, insulting me in every way imaginable (and several unimaginable) and taking pretty much the opposite stance from me on every conceivable issue, uni-related and otherwise. In Joe's world, Nike is king, stirrups are "for fags," and Native Americans "deserved to be wiped out, too bad we didn't finish the job." He'll occasionally insult other Uni Watch commenters and contributors, too. Joe is an equal-opportunity misanthrope.
If you're thinking to yourself, "Wait a minute, I've never seen this guy's comments on the site," you're right — you probably haven't. When Joe first started posting on the site years ago, I'd never had a troll before, and I didn't know how to deal with it, so I just deleted his comments as he posted them. (There was one memorable morning when he kept posting and I kept deleting over and over again, creating this real-time cat-and-mouse dance, until he finally gave up.) But if I wasn't home or wasn't sitting at the computer when he posted, his comments would be there for everyone to see, and they usually caused a stir. Then webmaster John Ekdahl showed me how to flag Joe's name and his computer's IP address. Ever since then, Joe's comments have gone into the moderation queue, where I can see them and then, usually, delete them. (On a few occasions, I've gone ahead and approved his comments for publication just so I can reply to them, as I did here.)
Joe will occasionally get through this dragnet by posting from different computers (which have different IP addresses), presumably when he's traveling. For the most part, though, I'm the only one who sees his comments, and he knows that. So what began as a form of public exhibitionism has now become a private dance. He's like this shadow that follows me around, a shadow that only I can see. Remember the old Warner Bros. cartoons about the wolf and the sheepdog who'd clock in to work, fight each other all day long, and then clock out again and say, "G'night, Sam" and "G'night Ralph"? That's kind of how I've come to view my relationship with Joe. His job is to fuck with my head and try to pollute the site with his nonsense, and my job is to protect the site from him and not let him get under my skin. We've both settled into our roles nicely.
In the beginning, I confess, I found Joe's comments somewhat upsetting. Over the years, though, I've become amused by, and even respectful of, his devotion to trolling me. I mean, it's not often that someone dislikes you enough to keep expressing it over and over, right? Sometimes Joe will go silent for a month or two and I'll actually find myself missing him. Then he'll reappear and I'll be oddly pleased to have him back, as if my world has come back into alignment.
Joe can be clever, too. When I recently ran that entry about how I make the Uni Watch membership cards, Joe noticed that I'd given a photo credit to my neighbor Heather McCabe and promptly posted, "Who's this Heather McCabe chick? Must be who's pity-fucking you now that Kirsten got tired of your tiny dick." I laughed at that one. (So did Heather, when I told her about it.)
Joe's persona is so over the top, so extreme, that I long ago decided it had to be a pose. I eventually came to think of it as a sort of online performance art project. I secretly hoped Joe was actually gay, or a teen-ager, or a middle-aged woman, because that would make the pose, and therefore the project, even better.
I recently decided it was time to interview Joe. After years of dealing with his Wizard of Oz, I wanted to see his man behind the curtain. I didn't think he'd actually agree to it, but I wanted to try. Naturally, he always posts from phony email addresses (usually something like firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, that kind of thing), so there was no way for me to get in touch with him except to post a signal flare on the site, asking him to email me, which I recently did. To my surprise, he got in touch right away, at which point I proposed doing a phone interview with him. To my even greater surprise, he agreed, although he seemed a little reticent about it.
Joe had one stipulation: He would not say or reveal anything that would expose his true identity, and he asked me to respect that. I in turn had a stipulation of my own: He could decline to answer any of my questions, but I didn't want him to lie. Answer truthfully or just don't answer at all. We both agreed to honor these terms. I also told him he could say anything he wanted about me, and that I wouldn't censor any of it.
When Joe first emailed in response to my signal flare, I asked him to tell me a few things that only he and I would know, just so I could be sure I was dealing with the real Big Cock Johnson and not some hoaxer pretending to be him. I did something similar when we spoke on the phone, just in case he was using a surrogate for the interview. He was able to convince me that I was indeed dealing with the genuine article.
There are some things you can't tell from an interview transcript like the one you're about to read. For example, you can't tell that Joe is fairly soft-spoken, and very "normal"-sounding. He also sounds reasonably introspective. As for the rest, you can read that for yourself. Here we go:
Uni Watch: Let's start with a simple yes-or-no question: Is your name really Joe Johnson?
Joe "Big Cock" Johnson: No.
UW: Is your first name even Joe?
UW: Aside from our emails over the past two weeks, have you ever corresponded with me under your real name, without my realizing that you were actually Joe "Big Cock" Johnson?
JJ: I've sent in a Ticker item or two. I don't recall specifically, but I assume I sent them under my real name. I don't think they ever ran in the Ticker, though. I don't even recall what they were.
UW: Where do you live, roughly speaking?
JJ: St. Louis.
UW: How old are you, roughly speaking?
UW: What sort of work do you do, roughly speaking?
JJ: I work in finance, financial advising. I used to be in public accounting and then recently made the jump. That's why I moved back to St. Louis, which is where I'm from. I was in Memphis for 11 years. Went to college there, and grad school. Worked there, too. And then recently moved back to St. Louis to switch careers.
UW: When did you start reading Uni Watch?
JJ: It definitely predated the start of the blog. It was when you were writing sort of ad hoc for ESPN.
UW: That would have been 2004 or ’05.
JJ: Yeah, that sounds right. I was still in college.
UW: And then you started reading the blog when I started it up in 2006?
JJ: Yeah. Which I still read daily.
UW: So you are indeed a big fan of uniforms and logos and such.
JJ: Absolutely. That's always what drew me toward watching sports. Like, I'm a sports fan, but I wouldn't ordinarily watch something that didn't involve the Cardinals or the Blues, or some other favorite team of mine.
Sometimes my Dad would have a game on, and I'd ask who he was rooting for, and he'd say, "I don't care," because the game didn't involve one of his favorite teams. I didn't really understand that, so I rooted according to which uniform I liked better.
Later on, I ended up playing baseball through college, and I was a catcher, because of the equipment….
UW: Wait — you chose to be a catcher specifically because you liked all the gear?
JJ: Yeah. And I started playing ice hockey because of all the equipment...
UW: That's pretty cool!
JJ: My parents wouldn't let me play goalie, which is what I really wanted, obviously, because of the additional equipment. So yeah, I've always been drawn to uniforms, equipment, that kind of stuff.
UW: When and why did you decide to create the Joe Johnson persona, and to start posting under that identity?
JJ: Um, yeah, that's a good question. I don't remember exactly when I started, but it was definitely early in the blog's existence. The identity was random. Obviously, I wasn't gonna use my real name. Once I came up with this identity and posted a comment, and then you or another commenter referred to it or responded or whatever, then it seemed obvious to stick with it, so I did.
UW: But what led you to do it in the first place? Like, why post abusive, trolling commentary? What was the motivation?
JJ: Really just to amuse myself. I still have a very sophomoric, immature sense of humor. I've always found cuss words to be funny. I find it particularly amusing when there's a lot of shock value. Like, if you're in front of a bunch of old people, or people from another generation, and you say something shocking, I find that amusing. And that's a character flaw, I'm sure. But nevertheless, it was mostly about shocking people, mostly with vulgarities. When people see "cunt" or "twat" or something like that, those go beyond the typical "fuck" or "shit."
UW: Right, they're more transgressive. And you like that.
JJ: Yeah. I think that's funny, to think about someone's reaction. I never intended to be malicious, although I'm sure I said some things that sounded that way. But it was never my intent.
And then you would sometimes respond in a way that gave me the impression that you were at least somewhat amused by what I was doing, so I figured I wasn't, you know, injuring you or anything like that. But I don't know, maybe I was. That was never my intent, though.
UW: You said the name "Joe Johnson" was random, but is Joe's whole persona based on anyone in particular?
JJ: No. Again, it was just based on amusing myself.
UW: Had you ever done anything like that before, acting as a troll on a web site?
JJ: Yeah, absolutely. I used to do it a lot. I don't so much anymore. Uni Watch is really the end of it, the last one...
UW: Really? I've been, like, your last hurrah, your farewell tour?
JJ: Well, it's sort of my last release. I'm 30, I'm married, I've grown up — some. I still have that same sense of humor, but I don’t indulge it as often. There was a point in time when I would troll web sites. Like there's this site, ApartmentRatings.com, and I would review apartments by saying things so outlandish, so over the top, that nobody would ever believe it. I wasn't trying to stop anyone from living in a particular apartment, but it was just fun to say, "There's a prostitution operation being run out of this apartment" or whatever, and I took great amusement in going back and seeing if someone had responded to it. So yeah, I've done it, but I've had to curtail it somewhat as I've become a quote-unquote adult.
UW: When you did it before, on those other sites, did you use the Big Cock Johnson identity, or was that a Uni Watch exclusive?
JJ: I think Joe was a Uni Watch exclusive.
UW: Okay, so you did all this for your own amusement. But some of the stuff you said about me was pretty nasty. Was there something about me that you found so annoying, and is that still the case?
JJ: No. Actually, I love the web site. I mean, obviously, I come to the site frequently.
UW: Yeah, but you could come because it's the site you "love to hate," or something like that.
JJ: No, it's nothing like that. I love Uni Watch. It's a must-read every morning for me. And I have no ill will toward you at all. I don't think you and I would be close friends, necessarily — I think we probably have some different worldviews...
UW: Sure, but I'm not asking if you're my best buddy. I'm asking if you dislike me. I mean, quite a few readers disagree with me about lots of things, or find me annoying, or whatever. Some of them get pretty angry. But most of them express that anger by posting comments or sending me emails. And even though they're angry, those comments and emails are still relatively civil, or at least leave room for some kind of constructive dialogue. You could have done that too, but instead you chose to troll. How come?
JJ: I don't actually dislike you. It's not coming from any malice or ill will at all. Again, it was all strictly for my amusement.
UW: So this thing you've been doing for all these years, it really had nothing to do with me. It had to do with you.
JJ: Yes. Exactly. But it was urged on by the fact that you'd occasionally engage with what I said. If you had just ignored me for a long period of time, I probably would have said, "Fuck it" and that would've been that.
UW: So I've been your enabler.
JJ: Yeah, sort of. Once my comments started going into moderation, I wasn't even sure if you were still seeing them.
UW: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that. I assumed you knew I was seeing your comments in the moderation queue.
JJ: Yeah, I figured that was probably the case. And I thought maybe some of the other people who work on the site had seen them too.
UW: Yeah, Phil has sometimes seen your posts. He knows about you.
JJ: But mostly I figured if anyone was seeing them, it was you.
UW: Did that change things from your perspective? Did it make trolling less fun? More fun?
JJ: Some of both. You lose the whole shock value deal, because you no longer have a big audience. But at the same time, I felt like I had your attention, and I had the feeling that you were sometimes amused by it. And sure, you probably email back and forth with lots of people who send in Ticker material, but I felt like we had, you know, a sort of special communication going on. Even if it was one-sided.
UW: Sometimes you'll also manage to post a comment from a different computer with a different IP address. I assume you do that when you're traveling or something like that, right?
JJ: Yeah. I traveled a lot for my last job, so I had more opportunities to do that. Since I've moved, I don't do it so much.
UW: Do you enjoy the whole cloak-and-dagger aspect of it? You know, trying to outwit me, outsmart me? Or was it more of a pain in the ass?
JJ: I didn't especially get off on it, if that's what you mean. But it was nice to be able to get a comment onto the site now and then, instead of having it go into moderation. And then I'd check back to see if anyone had been shocked or appalled by it.
UW: You've been at this for years now. At this point you're not exactly saying anything new. Why do you keep at it?
JJ: Well, I don't do it as often as I used to. I used to do it fairly regularly; now it's pretty intermittent. There isn't a whole lot more to say, really. I only do it now if something particularly moves me, or if I see a particular opportunity. One time recently, someone in the comments was criticizing you for something you'd written, and I went in and basically said, "Yeah, excellent review" or something like that. But there's not much left to do.
The thing is, your site doesn't have registration, which is the obvious step that eliminates most trolling. I can just invent a new fake email address, use a variation on my name, or whatever. That's why I don't troll as much as I used to, because more sites require registration now, and I don't have time to screw around with everything that's necessary to get around that. Your site is one of the few where I can just post and go.
UW: Yeah, I've never wanted to have registered users. I like things a bit more open. If it means I occasionally have to deal with a troll, that's okay, especially since there's occasionally an interesting troll, like you.
JJ: Yeah, if you ever went to a registration situation, I wouldn't fool with that.
UW: You've probably seen that I've occasionally referred to your trolling as "online performance art." What do you think of that?
JJ: I don't view it that way, mostly because I think performance art requires a larger audience than I have. So I don't think that's an accurate portrayal. I certainly don't view myself as a performer. But if you see it that way, that's fine.
UW: You particularly like to mention my ex-girlfriend, Kirsten. You'll call her a slut, or say you were fucking her last night, or whatever. She and I broke up a few years ago, but we're still friends and she still reads Uni Watch. I imagine she'll see the transcript of this interview when I eventually publish it. Is there anything you'd like to say to her, now that you're not in Joe Johnson mode?
JJ: First of all, I tried to say things that were over the top, that you and her would know weren't true. I mean, I assume you knew they weren't true...
UW [laughing]: Yeah, I knew you weren't actually fucking her last night, if that's what you mean.
JJ: Right. So I knew the people I was potentially offending were limited to the two of you. Other people might think, "Oh, that's so inappropriate," but I didn't see how they could take personal offense to it. Only you and she could do that, and I figured you weren't too offended by anything I was doing. I didn't give much consideration to what she thought about it, honestly. [Note: Kirsten's thoughts about this whole episode can be found here.]
UW: Would you like to say anything to her now?
JJ: Yeah. I'm sure I did offend her, and I'd like to apologize. There was no malice intended for her, although I'm sure it may have sounded that way. Again, it was totally for my amusement. It was just something I latched onto — you mentioned her a lot, so she was a convenient target.
UW: There are a few other Uni Watch trolls who pop up now and then. There's this one guy, for example, who'll say something abusive and then always conclude by calling me a hayseed, which I actually think is pretty funny. And there are a few others. All of their comments go into the moderation queue, just like yours. Are any of those other trolls actually you? Are all of them you?
JJ: No, none of them. I've only been Joe Johnson.
UW: You've mentioned that you're married. Does your wife know that about your trolling?
JJ: No. She would be mortified. I mean, she knows I have an immature sense of humor. And she knows I trolled some sites in college. But she has no idea I've continued doing it with Uni Watch all these years.
UW: Do you have kids?
UW: Is there, like, a trolling community? I picture you all sitting around at the end of the day, hoisting a few beers, or maybe just convening on a message board, and saying, "Yeah, I messed with this one guy pretty good today."
JJ: No, nothing like that. Or if there's something like that, I'm not part of it.
UW: When I put out that signal flare a few weeks ago, saying I wanted to hear from you, I didn't really expect you to respond, but you did. And when I then proposed doing this interview, I didn't expect you to say yes, but you did, and here we are. Why did you agree to do this?
JJ: I did it, I guess, in part because I feel like you and I have had this odd relationship over the last several years, so I guess I felt this would be sort of a good conclusion to that. But also, I kind of felt, I guess, that I owed you an explanation. Again, I never really thought you were offended by anything I wrote, but I would hate it if you told me that I had actually injured you in some way. And so I did feel the need to sort of explain myself to you.
UW: Wow. So you felt a sense of responsibility.
JJ: Yeah. I'm actually not really like th — I mean, I'm pretty mild-mannered, and I do try hard to be a good person. This has sort of been my one outlet, the one departure. I would hate to think you actually believed — I mean, it would bother me a great deal if I had actually caused any harm to you. Also, I posted some stuff regarding the Braves' BP cap that was pretty offensive.
UW: Yes, you did.
JJ: I'd never say stuff like that to a Native American. I did that knowing that you'd be the only one to see it and that you'd never let that get through to the site. It was just another target, just like your ex-girlfriend. It was like a last gasp. But I actually do agree with you on a lot of that stuff. What I posted, obviously, was very racist stuff. But that doesn't reflect my actual view. I share your view more than I do Joe Johnson's.
UW: Interesting. Now that we've spoken, what does this mean for Joe Johnson? Will he keep trolling, or has this phone conversation essentially brought the whole enterprise to an end?
JJ: It's probably brought it to an end. I mean, having this conversation with you, removing that level of anonymity, it takes the humor out of it, frankly.
UW: I agree. And I have to tell you, I feel a little foolish, maybe even a little guilty. I've ruined something of yours, and in a way I've ruined something of mine. I knew this was a possibility when I got in touch with you.
JJ: Yeah. But I had been posting less frequently anyway, so it had probably run its course. It's not a big loss for me. I'll continue to read the site, obviously. But maybe I'll find a different outlet.
UW: Last question: Do you really have a 12-inch dick?
JJ: No, no. I'd say it's average. Nothing that I'm ashamed of, and nothing that's setting records or anything like that.
UW: I think we're done. Anything you want to add?
JJ: Just that I do love Uni Watch. I just got done reading your MLB preview. The one thing that kind of drives me up the wall in terms of your perspective on things is this: I generally agree with you on Nike and corporations in general — not just in sports, but in our society. But my contention is that Adidas and Under Armour do the same shit but usually don't do it anywhere near as well, yet your wrath is mainly directed at Nike. I suspect that's because Nike was kind of the first, and they do it more than anyone else. But I think they deserve some credit for doing it better. I mean, Adidas is horrible. Horrible! They're like amateurs.
UW: That's fair. If that's your biggest criticism, I can live with that.
Joe promised to send along a photo of himself (one that wouldn't compromise his identity, natch) but then never followed through on that. His final act of trolling, perhaps.
I'm sure there are some of you who are thinking, "Paul, you idiot, you just gave him more attention! That's what he's looking for!!" But I think you're wrong. As I mentioned earlier, Joe was reticent about doing the interview to begin with. Once it was over, he said, "That probably wasn't what you expected, right? If you don't want to run it, I understand," as if he'd let me down.
My take is that Joe's probably relieved that I called him out. His heart wasn't really in it anymore (some of his recent posts were beneath his usual standards of belligerence), and he was looking for an exit strategy, sort of like the compulsive criminal who finally gets arrested and tells the cops, "What took you so long?"
As for me, I've really enjoyed this encounter, but I'm also a little wistful about killing the goose that laid the golden troll. It's like when you pull down Santa's fake beard — once you see who it is, you can't un-see it, and then the spell is forever broken. So now one of the more interesting chapters in Uni Watch history — even if it's one that most of you never knew about — is over.
One final time, then: "G'night, Sam." "G'night Ralph."
So that's the infamous Big Cock Johnson interview. Here are a few follow-ups:
1. About a month after I published the entry devoted to Joe, I was contacted by the public radio show On the Media. They were intrigued by the whole story and wanted to interview me about it. (They also wanted interview Joe, so I sent word to him, but he never responded.) The audio from the resulting On the Media segment can be streamed here:
2. There are a few sections of the interview that refer to my former girlfiend, Kirsten Hively, whom Joe frequently trash-talked as a way of trying to get under my skin. Shortly after I published the transcript of my interview with Joe, Kirsten asked if I would publish something she'd written about the whole experience. I readily agreed, and her essay was posted on Uni Watch. When I had to take down the original interview transcript, I also took down Kirsten's rebuttal. Now that I've restored the transcript on this site, I'm also restoring Kirsten's piece, which you can read here.
3. Several readers have asked if I've had any additional contact with Joe in the months since the interview was originally published. No, I have not. Joe, if you're reading this — and I assume you are — thanks for an unusual experience. It wasn't always pleasurable, but it was usually interesting, and I appreciate that.
Questions, feedback, or anything of that nature? Contact me. Thanks for reading. — Paul Lukas