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.
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.