The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Meet the unashamed 33-year-old who brought the stolen celebrity nudes to the masses

In /r/TheFappening, the forum he created and still moderates, “John” has rejoiced over the forum’s explosive growth and thanked users who upload particularly juicy troves. He’s proudly claimed that more people have viewed the nude photos than have viewed any other forum on Reddit.

And, in perhaps the loudest and most audacious statement of all, “John” has moderated /r/TheFappening not from a burner account, which would shield him from identification and controversy, but from his actual Reddit username.

John did not respond to messages on multiple social media platforms requesting comment on his role in the celebrity photo debacle. But The Washington Post was able to cross-reference multiple blogs, accounts and public records, as well as Johnsmcjohn’s three years of activity on Reddit, to construct a portrait of the the 33-year-old Nevadan who took J. Law’s nudes mainstream.

The Post originally chose not to reveal “John’s” real name, or accounts linked to his real name, out of concern for his privacy. (A concern that, notably, he hasn’t extended to the celebrities whose accounts were hacked.) But in an interview with Wired on Sept. 10, John publicly confirmed that his name was John Menese, and that he’s currently employed as a salesman at a Las Vegas call center.

“Memorable Labor Day weekend!” John tweeted Sunday evening as news of the celebrity photos started to spread.

To be clear, John is not the hacker of the photos, and it doesn’t appear that he belonged to the nude-trading ring that hacked dozens of celebrities over a period of months. But he is responsible for spotting the photos on 4Chan — a highly inaccessible, niche Internet community, inhabited largely by trolls — and promoting them on Reddit, where they promptly attracted an audience in the millions before spilling out into mainstream media. Since then, he’s also taken on the role of editor-in-chief of the free-for-all: policing for Photoshop jobs and underage photos, posting traffic statistics for the forum, and generally making sure that the photos remain publicly accessible on Reddit — the one mainstream network that has not moved to take them down — for as long as humanly possible.

In other words, John — by all accounts a normal Internet-dwelling dude, with no particular notoriety or qualifications — was the original gatekeeper of the celebrity nudes. If you’ve seen the photos, he is, to large degree, the person who made that possible.

According to his personal blog, Twitter and LinkedIn profile, John has spent much of the past five years ping-ponging through a smattering of short-term odd jobs on the West Coast. He played professional poker, he yo-yoed on the Vegas strip, he applied to be an Apple Genius (… without success).

In 2011, after getting laid off from a YouTube tech video series for which he was working, John lost his car, his laptop, and his phone. He applied for a trade license and failed the background check over unspecified “incidents” in Colorado. Undeterred, John registered a new Web site and claimed to be working on a startup to “monetize the common web.” Whatever that means, it doesn’t seem to have worked out.

“$100 needed to keep utilities on,” he posted on Reddit just last week, requesting a loan from a stranger to pay his gas bill. “Thank you for any help you can give me.”

John has — as the loan request might suggest — never shied away from discussing controversial or personal subjects online. Outside of /r/TheFappening, he’s also a moderator and active member of Reddit’s cocaine forum, where he advises other users on the intricacies of finding safe dealers, snorting lines and passing drug tests after you’ve used. He regularly discusses his financial problems on Reddit and Twitter. And on and — forums for people who are asexual and have autism, respectively — John has detailed his struggle with “undiagnosed Asperger’s” and his gradual realization that he wasn’t “attracted to anyone.”

“About two weeks ago some friends from back home came to town and the first thing they wanted to do was hit the strip club,” he wrote at one point. “I went and was bored to tears.”

It’s an odd confession, coming from the guy whose only claim to Internet infamy rests in a trove of naked photos. If he didn’t create the forum for his own personal titillation, then why exactly did he start it? Reddit karma? Kicks? The adulation of a million unprincipled “fappers” who, even as I write this, are cheering John’s moderation skills?

Or maybe, more likely, it’s something else: the extraordinary, unprecedented power of orchestrating the takedown of a hundred beautiful, famous women from the (dis?)comfort of one’s almost gas-less home.

And that’s striking, not only as part of the narrative on how this particular story went viral, but also as an illustration of how the Internet has upended traditional power structures more generally.

We’ve known for a long time that Reddit is something of a feeding ground for the Internet media — it is, as I put it in May, the “plankton of the digital information ecosystem,” the stuff on which the rest of the Internet feeds. But even within Reddit, there are hierarchies that include individuals who, like John, have enormous control over the flow of information. Because we never know most mods’ names, and because Reddit’s moderation policy is militantly hands-off, they rarely face the type of scrutiny common in other, traditional media structures.

Many would argue that’s a good thing. Reddit is, after all, a longtime corporate advocate of free speech and the open Internet, a platform founded on the principle that Internet users should be able to say and read and gawk at whatever the hell they want. Perhaps Lawrence and the other victims of “The Fappening” feel differently.

In either case, John’s social footprint seems to indicate a guy who falls on the radical transparency side of the spectrum — who believes in making personal information public, no matter how intimate or embarrassing it turns out to be.

At one point in 2011, John made his main Twitter handle private — perhaps to hide tweets about things like the 40 cents in his bank account and how many nights he gets drunk in a week. But before long, he put even that material back in the open again.

“Not going to hide who I am,” he tweeted. “Welcome back.”

Update, Sept. 10: This post was updated to include johnsmcjohn’s real name after he publicly revealed it in an interview with Wired.