In the span of one week, a user of the highly influential social news website Reddit, a man who goes by the internet handle BadgerMatt, experienced the extreme highs and lows of going viral. At a moment when the internet’s nerdiest, and often ugliest, underbelly is gaining mainstream attention — from 4chan’s antics, both sour and sweet, to the giant Gawker hack to Anonymous’ targeting of Scientology — BadgerMatt’s tale encompasses it all: the power of a crowd, “vigilante e-justice,” piles of goodwill and then — just like that — how quickly the hive mind can turn on you, leading to harassment and threats. His whole story is below.
It all started with a posting on eBay. Matt sold four tickets he couldn’t use for a bid of $600, but the woman backed out, refusing to pay, and it was too late for Matt to resell. He was left in a lurch, angry and decided to scam the woman who screwed him over. Pretending to be a third party, Matt anonymously emailed the woman saying he noticed she won an auction and eventually decided on giving her $1,100 for the tickets. She agreed, contacted Matt (not knowing he was on both ends of the deal) and eventually paid him the $600. When she tried to arrange to meet the third party (also Matt) for the $1,100, he stood her up. Predictably, she flipped out. Matt posted his whole tale to Reddit and the story went viral (and so on).
The spread of Matt’s story shows the power of Reddit — and similar sites like Digg and, tangentially, 4chan — where a compelling tale can take off, resulting in loads of attention, back-patting and vindication.
Riding high on his sudden burst of online fame, and recognizing the power of a site like Reddit, Matt attempted to make the best of the eyes on him and added a link at the bottom of his initial Reddit post to JustGive.org, in order to donate to the American Cancer Society. “My father-in-law has cancer so I thought it’d be neat to use the publicity from the story to drum up donations in his name,” Matt explained to Runnin’ Scared. “I got $218 and was thrilled.”
Then he attempted to repeat his viral success. Under the headline “My story as an anonymous kidney donor and my plea for your help,” Matt told the story of his own kidney donation to solicit for more for the American Cancer Society. “I wrote out my experience (it was filled with medical complications) and made my request for charity. Everything was going perfectly,” he said. “I was answering a lot of good questions and people seemed interested. The post included actual pictures of my kidney in the operating room, my open wound from a second surgery because of an infection and my current scar.”
But someone got suspicious. Some Reddit users, most of whom have since deleted all of their posts on the matter, questioned Matt’s story and wondered if he was pocketing the donations, despite the link directly to the ACS. Despite a huge wave of positive reactions, Reddit works on a voting system and the disbelievers picked up steam. Then it started to get scary.
“A few individuals then started calling me at home and hanging up,” said Matt. “People were sending me messages telling me to die and that I was a crook, a scammer and scum. I had a family member who was called and harassed.” An additional Reddit post, entitled “DO NOT DONATE TO THE KIDNEY PERSON. IT IS FAKE,” became the most popular post on the website. (The content of that post has since been deleted.)
“I had dozens of private messages telling me how horrible of a person I was and that I should be killed,” said Matt. Voicemails suggested Matt would go “straight to hell for stealing from good people.” Another said: “Fuck you, you piece of shit.” Matt was then banned from commenting on his original Reddit post.
In order to explain, Matt started a new thread called “Redeeming Myself.” He then piled on more proof: “I took pictures of numerous documents related to my donation last August including lab reports, letters confirming my surgery date, pictures from the scope inside my body, and a picture of the bloody wound vac I was attached to for 3 weeks.”
The post claiming fraud changed its tune: “Looks like it’s real after all. Sorry about that,” read the update.
“People began apologizing at that point,” said Matt. But not everyone: the user who started the witch hunt sent Matt a message reading, “Sorry, but it’s not that big of a deal, it’s just the internet.” Cue the talk about online accountability.
Some harassing phone calls kept coming, but the goodwill came back in a big way. “I did well with donations after that,” said Matt. One person donated $782 to get him to the $1,000 mark. When he hit $1,300, an attorney in Texas donated $3,700 to reach $5,000.
“It’s pretty cool,” said Matt.