Chasing the Cicada

The text I’ve chosen has been one of my favorite long-form articles for a while, in part because I don’t think it wouldn’t work nearly as well as a print narrative.

Chasing the Cicada,” an article from magazine Mentalfloss, follows how one Jeff Kinkle got caught up in a mysterious trail of online clues likely planted by the NSA or the amorphous hacker entity, Anonymous, in order to recruit and suss out talented hackers and codebreakers.

The subject matter itself is interesting, and makes an extremely compelling story.   However, what draws me to read this particular text over and over again is how well the author, Jed Lipinski, crafts the narrative, as well as how appropriate it is to read it online as opposed to in print.

The article flows between sections describing Kinkle’s descent into the underworld of the internet and sections providing background on the different elements of his deep web journey- 4chan, /b/, Tor, Anonymous, and reddit.  While it’s not considered particularly good form to constantly interrupt a narrative with large chunks of background information, the author showcases brief yet informative glimpses into the online life of these internet entities (internetities?  New word, anyone?) and how they are involved in Kinkle’s story.  Although it’s not particularly linear, the story reads like instructions for a recipe- keep adding information and resources to the argument until it all comes together and makes a structured, fascinating article.

When I first read this story several months ago, I was also very impressed with the breadth of research.  While not a formally researched essay, the author draws on sources as varied as Gawker, Carnegie Mellon reports, interviews, and memes and message boards themselves.  He also includes some of the actual coded images that were part of the breadcrumbs that Kinkle followed to the next clue.

Ducks make everything, even deep web hacking trails, more fun.

There’s something particularly meta and through-provoking about reading an article on Anonymous and the deep web on the internet.  It also brings to mind how the web itself, with all of its layers, functions as a constantly evolving digital text.  Lipinsk spends a fair amount of time describing how Kinkle and other 4chan commenters following the trail worked together within comment threads to track and solve clues.  As a sort of open-source conversation, the problem-solving exercise allowed for multiple voices to contribute to the development and construction of the code-breaking exercise.

This is one of the articles I send people who want recommendations for excellent long-form feature stories.  I know it’s not technically about writing and creating texts, but I think that it’s a great example of how texts about the internet can exist online, and are all the stronger for doing so.

3 thoughts on “Chasing the Cicada”

  1. That sounds amazing, I hope to find a chance (chance means time these days) to read it. By the way Kinkle sounds like Kindle , is it intentional?!

  2. I somehow missed this article–I was wondering how the 3301 riddle had ended up, since it caused something of a fuss at the time.

    I do like that this article takes advantage of the medium both in topic and form–it *is* really hard to include informational passages in longform articles conventionally, but this does a fairly good job. Of course, like all articles about 4chan and Anonymous, some of it is (perhaps deliberately?) inaccurate, which is yet another one of those interesting things about digital writing–there’s some way that being semi-correct is the best we can ever do with internet-ey things, and a way that this imagines an active reader who can venture onto the web themselves for more accurate information (something that isn’t assumed, in a way, in paper essays).

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