‘We were actually warned’: Marc Fennell says internet horrors could have been avoided

We don’t often talk about the history of the Internet, notes Marc Fennell. As someone who has covered technology for most of his working life, he is well-versed in providing this insight.

We talk about the present, it continues, we talk about the future, we rarely ask ourselves: how did we get here?’

Fennells’ new Audible Originals podcast series, This Is Not A Game, asks that question, covering the nascent days of the web and the birth of the first conspiracy theory born on the internet, the Ongs Hat legend.

In the early days of the web, there was this young engineer who started a joke, Fennell explains. This was in the 1980s, long before anything resembling the World Wide Web as we know it.


This joke was that, in the middle of the woods in New Jersey, there was a shack, and in the 1960s, a bunch of renegade scientists went in there and built or at least tried to build a portal to another dimension.

By the time it caught on that it was a prank, everyone online was already some kind of nerd, Fennell reasons, but what the young engineer, Joseph Matheny, couldn’t have predicted is that eventually most of the world would go online, and some of them would find this story and not realize it was a joke and actually take it very seriously.

Now, normally, at that point, Fennell reasons, a normal person would go, OK, let’s be honest with people, tell them it’s a joke and let them upgrade.

As you might guess, Matheny didn’t do that.

What she actually started doing was she started feeding him, Fennell explains. And he really began to enjoy being a puppet master, and so he began to put testimonies of people who had passed to the other side, and real science alongside fake science, and real scientific discoveries alongside fake scientific discoveries to the point where people couldn’t tell what was real and what wasn’t, and eventually it got out of hand and when he tried to shut it down, it went horribly, horribly wrong.

Fennell wanted to tell this story, in part, because of the cautionary tale it offers.

We know the Internet is a garbage fire, he explains. We know that he has never given us more reason to distrust what we see, what we hear, to argue with each other and I was surprised, when we started looking at this story, that we were actually warned.

That this has happened before. This was a cautionary tale, and there was a kind of turning point in the history of the web where we could have made a more civil Internet. We could have made a different culture, and we missed it.

As much as this is an incredibly weird story where I’m in the woods following conspiracy theorists, there’s also a story that helps make sense of the web we have today.

An understandably reclusive Matheny agreed to speak with Fennell for the podcast, whose difficulty could almost be a six-part series in itself.

Because he had this really comprehensive experience, he won’t give out his home address unless he’s known someone for two years, laughs Fennell.

So we had to arrange to interview him at this neutral location, in a somewhat seedy studio somewhere in the middle of the Oregon region.

You go out there and set up the mics, and it’s like a shack, right? It’s nice, but it’s a shack and you sit there, and you’re like, I hope these guys show up.

Matheny did appear; an older, grumpier guy in an Extinction Rebellion T-shirt. Sit back and go, I don’t know how these things are going to go, Fennell recalls.

Fortunately, Matheny was super gregarious and willing to leave it all on the puck. Despite having given the odd media interview over the years, he struck Fennell as someone who just wanted out of the story, noting that the whole saga started before Fennell was even born.

It’s a story that’s been with him for decades, and I think he wants to put it to bed, he said. When he sat down with me, he said, This is the last time I will tell this story. I will explain it in full, and finally. In researching this story, Fennell drew similarities between the way people latched onto Ongs Hat and the way QAnon conspiracies ignited.

Part of the reason they’re embraced is because they’re not just given away, Fennell suspects, of followers of these web-born theories. They have to go get crumbs. They have to go find pieces, and when you have to do some research yourself, you feel a sense of ownership over the information, and I think he pioneered that with Ongs Hat, and that same playbook is has used for things like QAnon. , and a whole host of other conspiracies over the years.

This Is Not A Game is Fennells’ fourth Audible Originals podcast, and this long-standing relationship with the company will see Amazon’s major studio MGM adapt his Nut Jobs podcast into an eight-part drama series and a hour, which will be directed by Suits executive producers Aaron Korsh and Rick Muirragui.

It had been talked about for so long that I wasn’t actually sure it would ever happen, Fennell admits, and it’s obviously still in development, so who knows what happens from here? Fennell suspected the writers’ strike had killed him, and was surprised to receive an email from Amazon earlier this year saying they finally wanted to announce the project.

Many of Fennells’ projects have been commissioned for series, which he says is exciting, but uncertain.

I guess, to be honest with you, I’m just as interested as anyone. “I don’t have the answers, and I don’t have any bright predictions about where it’s going,” he said of the TV adaptation.

I just know it’s lovely when the things we’ve worked hard on, people recognize and walk away, there’s another life to it.

Fennell is used to balancing a number of projects in various stages of completion. The secret, he says, is to stagger the different jobs.

I’ve always had that situation, where I like to be in pre-production on something, production on something, and publishing something at the same time.

This is how I generally approach my work. And that I find really helps me creatively.

Fennell says he spent part of last year overseas filming the second season of his ABC documentary series Stuff The British Stole, which saw him visit 11 countries while filming and directing the series.

At the same time, every night I was closing the edits and sound mixes for This Is Not A Game. We were also looking at edits of The Mission, which is a three-part art heist series I did for SBS that came out late last year.

Fennell stresses that he’s just the most visible member of a number of hard-working teams, which helps with balance.

On a pure creative level, there’s something really useful, at night, listening to a sound mix or seeing an edit of something, Yeah, wouldn’t it have been great if we’d recorded it like that? The beauty of it is that the next day, I go back out on location, shoot something, and I can take those ideas and I can apply them.

Some people think it sounds confusing to be in pre, post and production at the same time, but I actually find it creatively stimulating. I feel like it keeps you from being stagnant. Each project can infuse each other.

Listen This is not a game here.

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