None of Us Are Safe From Getting ‘Owned’
By AMANDA HESS
Mar 28 2017
In the escalating rhetoric of public shaming, being embarrassed online is tantamount to being wiped from the face of the earth. Whenever a late-night host upbraids a public figure in a monologue or a pundit bests another in a Twitter fight, onlookers crowd around to declare the loser DESTROYED! or EVISCERATED! or ETHERED! or ANNIHILATED! But alongside these symbols of destruction has risen another, more apt metaphor for the dynamics of the modern media power play. In this one, the defeated party wasn’t killed, but possessed: They got OWNED.
When the white nationalist Richard Spencer approvingly posted a song from “Cabaret” on Twitter in March, former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander swooped in to say: “Hey, buddy, that song you love was written by my uncle. He’s been married to my other uncle for 40 years. And he’s a Jew.” A Twitter bystander waded into Spencer’s mentions and observed: “You get publicly owned with astonishing frequency, it’s really wonderful.”
Ownage can be politically urgent or purely irreverent. When the Slate editor Gabriel Roth complained about Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s overly laid-back attitude toward changes in usage — “I feel like @MerriamWebster is turning into the ‘chill’ parent who lets your friends come over and get high,” he wrote on Twitter — the account replied: “No one cares how you feel.” Dozens piled on to rub it in: “You got owned by the dictionary.” On the internet, where rhetorical victories are so fleeting, the phrase is oddly satisfying: It’s a passing but dramatic staking of argumentative ground.
“Owned” is borrowed from hacker slang. If you got owned, that meant some hacker jimmied the lock on a virtual back door, snooped around your property and rifled through your stuff. The word speaks of a literal possession: annexing another person’s virtual space and stealing private information. But “you got owned” also animates a simple theft with a violent spark. Owning someone isn’t just about taking his things; it’s about diminishing him as a person. With enough specialized technical knowledge, you can actually seize control of another human being, or at least the person’s virtual presence.
Among hackers, ownage often works as a form of community discipline. In the early aughts, underground online zines like Zero for Owned — ZF0 for short — emerged as sites for hackers to detail how they broke into the systems of prominent security professionals and fellow hackers to shame them for overstating their skills. “We believe actions speak louder than words,” the first issue of Zero for Owned announced. “While you were talking trash, we were sifting through your files, reading your conversations, owning more boxes” — computers — “on your networks, and you had no idea.” The zines spread around their targets’ website code and personal communications as punishment. By finding gaps in the technological skill of famous hackers, the creators of these zines justified the release of the private information the hackers had failed to protect.
Now, as information security has become increasingly central to both global politics and personal relationships, “owned” has migrated from the online underground to the mainstream. There has never been a stronger relationship between who we are perceived to be and what kind of information we have. Recent concerns over “filter bubbles,” “fake news” and political memes churned out by Russian trolls lay bare the fact that our beliefs are controlled by the data we consume. Information silos make us vulnerable to being owned not only because of our ignorance — the things we don’t know — but also because of how little control we have over the things we doknow. We’re constantly open to exposure. The hacking and release of emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, and from the Democratic National Committee didn’t reveal any bombshells, but they succeeded in scandalizing through the simple act of making the private public.