TIME Social Networking

Meet the Brothers Behind the Web’s Most Controversial Social Network

Ask.fm founders and brothers Ilya Terebin and Mark Terebin photographed at the Hotel Alberts top floor terrace and rooftop bar in Riga, Latvia, overlooking the city, May 2014.
Ask.fm founders and brothers Ilya Terebin and Mark Terebin photographed at the Hotel Alberts top floor terrace and rooftop bar in Riga, Latvia, overlooking the city, May 2014. Rafal Milach for TIME

In their first extensive interview, Ask.fm's co-founders talk about the deaths of teenagers who used their site and what they are doing to keep the anonymous social network safe

Ask.fm is one of the Internet’s biggest social networks. It also happens to be one of the least understood. Since its founding in 2010, the site has grown to 120 million registered users around the world, with 15 million in the United States alone. But it is best known for unflattering attention. Its critics call it an incubator for cyberbullying and even suicide.

In this week’s magazine, I wrote about Ask.fm’s founders and the rise of anonymous, mobile-optimized social networking, an innovation that has within the last five years overturned the life of the average American teenager. As part of the reporting for that story, I visited brothers and Ask.fm cofounders Ilja and Mark Terebin in their home city of Riga, Latvia for their first-ever extensive interview. Over the two days we spent together in late April, the brothers talked about life, their business, and their responsibility for the adolescent and teen suicides for which the site is especially well known in Europe.

The site is especially popular with teenagers: 42% of its users are under the age of 17. On the site, you can anonymously ask questions of registered users, shrouding your own identity in hopes of getting the most honest answer with the least judgment. There, millions congregate trading mostly harmless gossip. But on some pages, the site teems with vitriol, as teenagers anonymously harass and insult their classmates and neighbors. Since 2012, press reports have described Ask.fm as a factor in at least 16 adolescent deaths.

In in their interview with TIME, the Terebin brothers pushed back against critics who say their site is dangerous for kids. “I know of no case of suicide because of bullying on Ask.fm,” Ilja said. Instead he blames society. “We teach people to bully. Look at the media. Do you have muscles? You’re a cool guy. Are you fat? You’re a loser. Do you f-ck girls? You’re a cool guy. Do you not f-ck girls? You’re a loser. We can’t do anything about it, if parents are drinking beer, watching TV and reading celebrity magazines.”

“The media takes this story and bullies us,” Ilja says.

The brothers, who are surrounded by a small handful of young executives, run their 58-employee company together. Ilja, 35, is the CEO. Mark, 29, is executive board member and co-founder. They share an office—and most everything else, really. (They both dress like French film students; they both turned vegetarian after watching a documentary together.) It’s been this way since their childhood in Jelgava, a small city 25 miles southwest of Riga. There the boys, their parents, and their grandmother squeezed into a two-room apartment, typical, they say, of the austere Soviet days. Midway through Mark and Ilja’s formative years, the family relocated, with elation, to a two-bedroom apartment. And a clunky PC powered by a Pentium 120 did eventually make its way into their home. But the Terebins weren’t young techies. They were entrepreneurs.

Ask.fm offices in Riga, Latvia. Rafal Milach for TIME

 

Here’s our interview with the Terebins. It has been edited and condensed from multiple conversations.

So how’d you wind up starting Ask.fm?

Ilja: Mark was spending all his time on the Internet. I can’t say the same about myself. When we started Ask.fm, I hadn’t even used a social network. But I was in about it, because it’s the present, and of course the future.

Mark: I’m not a tech guy at all. But in Bulgaria, when the [real-estate] crisis was beginning, we were thinking what’s next? And we thought the Internet was something we could participate in. We didn’t know how to code, but we knew we could find people who think like us.

Ilja: It’s not necessary to be a cook to like food, you know?

Do you feel responsible for the bullying on the site?

Ilja: It’s like with the police. You can’t put a policeman in each apartment. But you need to install police that people can call whenever they have an issue. This is our responsibility, to have this available for our users, if they have bullying issues, if they see someone else being bullied. They can press a button, and we can punish whoever sent the bad comment or question.

What do you make of people who say the site should be shut down?

Ilja: This website, if you close it down, you will not have stopped bullying. It’s everywhere. It’s offline. It’s in schools. The bullying is by SMS, too, other social networks. And of course it happens on Ask.fm as well. But you can’t just close everything. Even if you close everything, you take down the Internet, you take down mobile phones—if the child is going to school, there still will be the problem of bullying.

But there’s a difference, isn’t there, between bullying that ends at the end of the school day and bullying that goes on whenever?

Ilja: So what do you want to do? Close down the Internet? The bullying would still happen. Why would you think the bullying would stop? And people say anonymity is a problem. But don’t forget about the people who need anonymity. Teenagers, especially, are afraid that their opinions will be judged by others. It’s sometimes important that they can ask questions anonymously. So don’t forget about these people as well. They need it.

Mark: Our audience values anonymity a lot.

When you see coverage that says the site contributes to the problem, how do you react?

Ilja: We’re doing our job. We’re making the system more and more safe for the user. We can be unhappy about many things that are written in the press; we disagree with many of them. But for the last year, it’s been our priority No. 1, the thing we’ve spent the most time on. We take it very seriously, safety. But we understand that there will still be problems with Ask.fm or any other social network. The media will always make a lot of noise about it. Very often the things that are written are not really fair or not really true. It’s written that there’s no report button—it’s been there since day one. There’s always been the possibility to switch off anonymity, to block an abusive user.

Do you get tired of what people are writing about Ask.fm?

Ilja: A little tired, of course. They bully Ask.fm. For example, the Malta case. Did anyone read the profile of this girl Ask.fm supposedly killed? There was no bullying on the profile—there was no bullying at all. But the media takes this story and bullies us. We’re an easy target. I know of no case of suicide because of bullying on Ask.fm. The Hannah Smith case, the Izzy Dix case—we gave the inquests all the logs, all the information. And we were not found responsible in either case. Sometimes people just want attention. Some people don’t have enough people caring about them, and so they scream for help. Please help me. People don’t realize, this is good for parents and teachers. When you read the profile of your child or your student, you can find out information that you don’t know. If you take the site down, the child would still be bullied, and no one would be able to know.

You seem to think it’s a societal problem.

Ilja: It is. We teach people to bully. Look at the media. Do you have muscles? You’re a cool guy. Are you fat? You’re a loser. Do you f-ck girls? You’re a cool guy. Do you not f-ck girls? You’re a loser. We can’t do anything about it, if parents are drinking beer, watching TV and reading celebrity magazines.

What would you want to say to parents whose kids have killed themselves?

Ilja: There’s nothing we can say to them; it’s too late to bring their children back. But we cooperate with the police on a regular basis. Do the Internet, cellphones and social media make it easier to bully people? Yes. But the problem is not where it happens. It’s about the people who make it happen.

Do you worry about your reputation?

Ilja: The bad PR has hurt us a little bit. But a lot of it isn’t true. They say we’re like Russian playboys, buying sportscars and yachts. That we’re millionaires. It’s all bullsh-t.

When you have the Prime Minister of England saying something needs to be done about your website, that must make you feel strange.

Ilja: It’s not strange. We understand why it happened. People are looking for someone to blame all the time, and we look like an easy target. We’re in Eastern Europe, without a huge budget or proper lawyers. So why not bully us and get some credit?

Do you wish you had thought about safety more in the early days of the site?

Ilja: This is not a good way of thinking, I-wish-I-had. You should think about the present, not about the past.

So what is the present like?

Ilja: We have many people who enjoy our product. And we do a good job for them. We help them discover themselves—not others, but themselves. I think it’s very, very important.

Are you sure you’re having that impact?

Ilja: It’s Eastern philosophy. The human being has everything inside him. But he should discover himself. Ask.fm helps young people to discover themselves. They will become more open-minded, they will have more freedom in the future. It’s very, very important for the present society. Everything society is trying to do right now is put the person in the box. And this is also the reason society is so much against Ask.fm. Because Ask.fm helps people put their heads out of the box. Young users especially. Older people, they’re f-cked up already. They’re interested only in silly things. Who will be the next president of Russia? Who will be the next president of the U.S.? The discussion is a waste of time. And their opinion doesn’t matter at all. It will happen without them. And it will not change their lives. Most things people spend their time thinking about are like this.

When did you develop this philosophical notion about what the site was?

Ilja: Not from Day One. It came step by step.

Mark: When you see how people interact on the site, you see how they start discovering themselves. Even us. Sometimes you get questions you have never asked yourself before, and you start thinking about these things. You enjoy life more than when you’re watching TV or movies or reading magazines.

But aren’t websites part of the intellectual narrowing you’re talking about?

Ilja: Yes, but not Ask.fm! It’s a very important thing to go deeper inside yourself. Everything around you doesn’t make you think. Most of what’s around you is created to keep you from thinking. Eat chips, buy beer, and watch football! But when you answer a question, you have to think. You have to bring your own thoughts about a topic, not just share something someone else wrote, or a video from YouTube that someone else created. You create your own thoughts about important things. Like, “When was the last time you smiled?” That’s an important thing. It’s way more important than, When will the next iPhone come out? This is crap. That’s a very stupid thing to think about, when the next version of some computer or telephone will come out.

Let’s go back to the beginning, how’d you decide on the concept?

Ilja: There was this website, Formspring. The idea, uh, it was their idea. We just liked the idea. We thought we could do it even better.

Mark: It’s not only because there were a lot of users there. We liked the concept of asking questions. This is how you explore the world.

Did you have a sense of how you were going to grow the site?

Ilja: At the beginning, because we had so little experience, we didn’t think about many things you need to think about before you start an Internet company. But that also makes it easier to start. We had some ideas about what to do.

How much did you guys put into the company?

Ilja: Me, Mark, and our cofounder Oskars Liepins, we put in around half a million dollars. That was all we put in for the first year and a half. Then Rubylight, an investment firm, came in, and invested an amount I cannot disclose. And they helped us with technology, too.

As a business, how are you doing?

Ilja: We became profitable a couple months after Rubylight’s investment, two years after we started. That’s pretty fast when you compare with U.S. companies. But they’re in a different situation–they know that there are funds that will give them money. For us, it was more difficult. There’s not a lot of venture capital coming to Latvia. But we did some valuation with experts, and the company’s worth more than a hundred million dollars.

What do you make of the big valuations for American companies and the market conditions that allow Snapchat to turn down $3 billion from Facebook?

Ilja: The market’s overrated. Of course it’s good for us. But social media has not proven its success yet as a business. It’s too early.

What do you anticipate happening in the sector?

Ilja: There won’t be one all-encompassing social network, like Google is in search. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Ask.fm, we’ll all have places for different types of communication.

How have your lives changed since you started Ask.fm?

Ilja: Not a whole lot. It’s not like we woke up one day and had money; the process is very slow. We didn’t invent an application or anything.

Mark: Yes, It’s not like we created Flappy Bird.

But you do have more money, right? What do you spend it on?

Ilja: Vegetables, fruits. I have a nice apartment, too. The rent is about $2,500 a month.

Mark: I travel more than I used to. I went to Thailand, I go to the U.S. occasionally. It’s nice to escape yourself.

TIME

7 Ridiculous Exhibits the Redskins Invoked in Their Trademark Defense

Detroit Lions v Washington Redskins
A Washington Redskins flag on the field before the game against the Detroit Lions at FedExField on September 22, 2013 in Landover, Maryland. G Fiume—Getty Images

How do you defend the seemingly indefensible? The Washington Redskins' heavyweight lawyers tried everything from Philip Rahv to Lou Diamond Phillips

A decision on Wednesday from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board stripped Pro-Football Inc. (d/b/a the Washington Redskins) of its Redskins-related trademarks. This is not the first time Pro-Football Inc. has lost in this venue: The TTAB cancelled all Redskins trademarks in 1999, too. (A federal court later overturned that decision on procedural grounds.)

The board held both times that “Redskins” disparaged Native Americans and as such, under federal law, could not be trademarked. But the standard for disparagement isn’t what one would immediately expect. Wrote the Board, “[T]hese registrations must be cancelled because they were disparaging to Native Americans at the respective times they were registered…”

In other words, it’s not a question of whether “Redskins” is disparaging in 2014—a recent survey from Cal State-San Bernadino’s Center for Indigenous Peoples Studies reported that 67 percent of American Indians considered the team’s name racist—but whether the word was disparaging in 1967, 1974, 1978, and 1990 (this last year, for what it’s worth, concerns a registration for “Redskinettes,” which is kind of comprehensively tasteless). Asking the question that way introduces a bit of lightness to the proceedings, primarily into the appendix containing the defense’s exhibits.

After all, not only does the trademark case concern good taste in usage (a magnet for pedantry if ever there were one) but it does so for usage in the 1960s and 70s. The Redskins’ file, then, cooked up by the legal minds at Quinn Emanuel, teems with low and high culture. It’s Billy Jack meets the English departments of the mid-20th century. Below we’ve plucked a handful of highlights, ones we imagine had never before landed in federal records together until the first time the TTAB heard the case.

A two-page selection from James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). The relevant sentence: “Their mudcabins and their shielings by the roadside were laid low by the batteringram and the Times rubbed its hands and told the whitelivered Saxons there would soon be as few Irish in Ireland as redskins in America.” And then the following sentences: “Even the Grand Turk sent us his piastres. But the Sassenach tried to starve the nation at home while the land was full of crops that the British hyenas bought and sold in Rio de Janeiro. Ay, they drove out the peasants in hordes. Twenty thousand of them died in the coffinships. But those that came to the land of the free remember the land of bondage. And they will come again and with a vengeance, no cravens, the sons of Granuaile, the champions of Kathleen ni Houlihan.”

• This Land O’Lakes carton.

Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 11.46.22 AM

Mary McCarthy’s 1974 New York Times Book Review remembrance of Philip Rahv. Rahv (1908-73) was a critic and editor for Partisan Review during the ’40s and ’50s heyday of the literary left. McCarthy, the novelist and critic, ran in the same circles, and was once Rahv’s lover. Were they big football fans? Presumably not. We imagine it’s in there because Rahv wrote “Paleface and Redskin,” a celebrated 1939 essay on the American literary oeuvre, which turns up in Pro-Football Inc.’s exhibits too. Does the essay concern the appropriateness of the term, or the role of Native Americans in American fiction? It does not. But it does have a lot to say about a fundamental schism between Mark Twain’s school and Henry James’s, if that’s your bag.

A scene from Courage Under Fire (1996). The film stars Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan, a young Matt Damon and, most importantly, a young Lou Diamond Phillips. Why is it relevant? We’re not really sure. For what it’s worth, the appendix represents it like so:

Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 11.49.43 AM

A selection from Neo-Realism in Contemporary American Fiction. (Again, Rahv’s doing. An included essay from Sanford Pinsker, a now-emeritus professor of English at Franklin and Marshall College, riffs on Rahv.)

This Argo Corn Starch box. According to Argo’s website, the lady on there is a “corn maiden.”

Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 11.46.47 AM

A flyer for a Duke University campus event with then-Harvard president Derek Bok. Ronald R. Butters, who is now a professor emeritus of English at Duke, was retained by the team in 1996 as an expert witness on the English language. He produced many documents for the defense (at a cool $150 per hour, or $220 per in 2014 money). But somewhere along the line he must have run out of paper, resulting in the appearance of this flyer in evidence. So much time has passed since Bok’s talk that Duke now has a “new old chemistry” building, owing to the French Family Science Center, which opened in 2006.

Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 11.44.50 AM

Did we miss something silly? You can view the entire case file here.

TIME europe

Latvia Watches Nervously as Putin Seeks to Exert Power

The Baltic state's large Russian population could make it an attractive target for Russian President Vladimir Putin to further broaden his authority in the increasingly tense region, but he's unlikely to make an overt military move toward Latvia

Many residents of Riga, Latvia, will say their nation of a little more than 2 million people, nestled on the east coast of the Baltic Sea between Estonia and Lithuania, is not a particularly diverse one. Most everyone within the country has white skin and Caucasian ancestry. By the standards of old European capital cities, it’s far from cosmopolitan.

Yet in this small nation there is at least some increasingly notable heterogeneity. Latvia has a sizable Russian minority, more than a quarter of its population and far larger than the Russian contingents of neighboring Estonia and Lithuania.

That large Russian-speaking population could make Latvia an attractive target for ever acquisitive Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose ongoing actions in Ukraine — where Russians make up 17.3% of the population — have demonstrated what can happen if he covets a nation that has a strong, pro-Russian contingent.

And although Putin’s actions have caused tension through the entire Baltic region, there are indications the President does have a particular interest in Latvia. A Ukrainian scholar of the region says Putin plans on occupying Latvia in hopes of establishing Russian dominance over a part of the world that hasn’t experienced it in years.

Putin is unlikely to make an overt military move toward Latvia, though, as the consequences would be far greater than Russia’s incursion into Crimea. Unlike Ukraine, Latvia is a member of NATO — meaning that, under Article 5 of the treaty, member countries would be obligated to treat any Russian aggression against Latvia as aggression against themselves, and they would need to respond in kind.

But there are ways to destabilize a country without sending tanks across the border. Putin has exerted power in eastern Ukraine with a covert campaign to foment unrest: Russian intelligence officials or special-ops soldiers with unmarked uniforms aiding or encouraging separatist groups and criminal gangs in regions where support for the motherland runs deep.

The fear now is that Latvia would be ripe for a similar kind of shadow incursion. The country’s Defense Minister told Reuters last week that Russia has already deployed “specially trained, professional provocateurs” in hopes of destabilizing the nation.

Artis Pabriks, a Member of Parliament who was Latvia’s Minister of Defense from 2010 until January, tells TIME there should be cause for concern. “I’m sorry to sound so hawkish, but the Baltics are a litmus test. Putin will have crushed NATO if our eastern borders are not the redline.”

Latvia presents a compelling target for Putin to broaden his authority, beyond its demographics. Riga, for example, has plenty of Western trappings — the E.U. has named the city a Capital of Culture for 2014, and an esplanade has gone up in the park to showcase the designation — but odd Soviet-era eyesores stick out among the city’s renowned collection of Art Nouveau buildings. Latvia adopted the euro only at the start of this year. The Russian culture and media still have a strong foothold there.

And the Russian media’s prominence in Latvia gives it a shot at outmaneuvering the West, according to a handful of citizens TIME spoke to in a park in Riga this week. Vitaly Parshin, a 26-year-old ethnic Russian student, says most of his friends have been convinced by Russian TV that Putin is a force for good. “They think Putin is trying to free us from the Latvians who hate us.” This belief is particularly widespread in Russified eastern Latvia, close to the border, where a petition recently circulated on Facebook in favor of returning Daugavpils, a city of 100,000, to Russia.

The strife may be generational. The youngest Latvian adults, who have learned both Russian and Latvian in school and have enjoyed the benefits of E.U. membership, have little appreciation for Putin, says Alexander Puziy, a 24-year-old wedding photographer. Besides, he adds, this generation is just barely old enough to remember the unpleasantness of living in the Soviet Union, under Russia’s thumb.

And many Russians, despite their heritage, are predisposed to oppose Putin. According to Pabriks, Russians came to Latvia in four waves in the past five centuries. The first three came to escape Russia after religious persecution, military aggression and the Bolshevik Revolution. But the last wave — Soviet citizens who arrived in Latvia on business or military obligations — came to perpetuate Russia.

This last group, Pabriks says, are the ones Russia might enchant today. “After the fall of the Soviet Union, they had no experience with an independent Latvia. They don’t know what Latvia is. It’s not easy to explain to them that we had our own lives.” Pabriks estimates that 60% of this last class, which never learned to speak Latvian, might appreciate a Russian return.

Yet latent Latvian support for Putin has not yet manifested itself in the kind of widespread unrest now being seen in Ukraine. Pabriks thinks it wouldn’t happen unless the region was further destabilized, owing to the presently strong governments in the Baltic states. The people TIME spoke to in the park generally agreed, believing the country to be safe from regional turbulence for now.

But Pabriks says a stable Ukraine is crucial to what happens in Latvia. “Ukraine is burning, and we need firemen there. The Baltics are the nearby houses, and the wind might start blowing the wrong way.”

TIME Silicon Valley

Ed Norton’s Charity Company Doesn’t Sound So Charitable

Mat Hayward—Getty Images

How do you become a $23 million darling in Silicon Valley? By building a for-profit business that serves nonprofits, apparently

What’s one of the rare blessings of living in an era characterized by tremendous asset inequality and a chastened, hamstrung welfare state? Charitable giving has by some accounts reached an all-time high, both among the general public and among the American wealthy. What a time to be alive.

As has been the case with many a popular activity in our time, techies have now come along to philanthropy to offer the piggy-back ride they like to call disruption, claiming to fix something that may not have needed fixing while skimming a fee for doing business. The crowded crowdfunding field offers any number of sites that handle charitable donations, from Indiegogo to GoFundMe to Causes to JustGiving. All tend to follow the same basic formula, allowing users to register their own charitable causes and to donate to established ones. It’s hard for any one site to make a name for itself.

But on Monday one of the pack stepped forward from the others with big news: CrowdRise, a charity-specific crowdfunding venture, had landed $23 million in venture capital funding from a group including Twitter/Tumblr investors Spark Capital and Union Square Ventures, and Jeff Bezos’s personal investment fund, Bezos Expeditions. (This funding round followed an earlier seed round that included investment from Twitter founder Jack Dorsey.)

Those big names join the biggest one that had previously been attached to the site: Edward Norton, the actor and director. Norton and a band of cofounders launched the site in November 2009 after they raised a surprising $1.2 million for a wildlife preservation concern in eastern Africa. They figured, If we can raise good money like this, why shouldn’t we let everyone else do the same? That was a giving notion, and it’s of a piece with CrowdRise’s passionate and playful message. The site’s motto says its users will “have the most fun in the world” while fundraising, and little jokes pepper its official literature. To wit: “CrowdRise is way more fun than anything else aside from being all nervous about trying to kiss a girl for the first time and her not saying something like ‘you’ve got to be kidding me.'” Fun!

But what does altruistic fun have to do with a $23 million round of funding? That cash would do some good in the pockets of the charities CrowdRise users support. The site’s literature explains its business plan this way: “When a donation is made through Crowdrise, we deduct a transaction fee so we don’t go out of business (GOB).” No, ExxonMobil’s corporate communications team would never write such a plain thing. But perhaps what they would write would not fudge things, either. Those transaction fees not only kept CrowdRise from going under but made the business promising enough to land all that venture money. As TechCrunch put it: “[CrowdRise is] profitable and … viewed the Kickstarter goal of $1 billion raised on CrowdRise as very doable.” (CrowdRise had not responded to questions from TIME as of late Tuesday afternoon.)

Capitalist techniques have gained an increasingly stable foothold in the world of nonprofits. Universities, hospitals and big foundations are lousy with MBAs and executives who command (citing market logic) salaries close to what their for-profit counterparts make. CrowdRise’s big-bucks waltz into this moral vacuum might be a little brazen—but at least it’s clever. The opposite of clever is the spirit that accompanies any event like this. A perusal of the comments on TechCrunch’s post, and the Twitter response to the same, indicates an unflinchingly positive reaction to the news. “Great to see.” “Psyched.” “Congratulations.” That’s a whole lot of accolades for a common middleman who just got a whole lot richer.

TIME Television

Jimmy Fallon’s Clickbait Addiction

The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon - Season 1
Samuel L. Jackson and Jimmy Fallon NBC — Nathaniel Chadwick

Why late night TV's brand of ephemeral bite-sized entertainment is getting annoying

What’s funny, and what’s just pandering? The affable Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon toes this line more carefully than most. He’s trying to update an old genre for a new audience, one that’s less enamored of watching prolonged interviews with celebrities just before nodding off; the new viewership chooses instead to sneak bite-sized segments online at work the next day.

Sometimes Fallon strikes gold with these sketches. He recently mimicked Bruce Springsteen alongside the man himself, while roasting Gov. Chris Christie in the process. And he and Lindsay Lohan threw water on one another. Good, clean fun! The segments deservedly circulate throughout the internet’s favored corners, bringing joy to readers and traffic-conscious writers alike.

But then there are segments like last night’s self-contained “slam poem” “by” Samuel L. Jackson about Boy Meets World. For three minutes and forty-five seconds, Jackson performed his way through a written piece recapping the plot of the long-departed ABC show. There were references — were there ever references! — to memorable moments in the show’s plot that had long since left our minds. Jackson, affecting the Def Poetry aesthetic (with added bass accompaniment), quoted dialogue from the finale. After a commercial break, he sat down for an interview with the host. “Are you a fan of Boy Meets World?” Fallon asked, to which Jackson replied, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single episode of that show.”

Where are the bit’s laughs supposed to come from? The incongruity between Jackson’s style and the source material? (They’re both mid-1990s relics, albeit of different subcultures.) A great actor with high standards debasing himself? (LOL, says Capital One, which also counts Fallon as a spokesman.)

No, the humor, such as it is, springs forth from the goofy knowingness somehow still ascendant in the age of social media. Wait, you watched this show that averaged nearly 10 million weekly viewers during its seven-season run, and lived on long beyond that in syndication? No way, me too! It’s Dennis Miller’s old shtick, minus the jokes and the cultural capital.

Does this work? Hard to say. The amplification apparatus, those writers who love Jimmy Fallon in the good times and still need him in the bad, have gone about posting the video. “Samuel L. Jackson Performing Boy Meets World Slam Poetry Is Everything You Never Knew You Needed.” Samuel L. Jackson Delivers Epic ‘Boy Meets World’ Slam Poem. Samuel L. Jackson Proves He’s the Ultimate ‘Boy Meets World’ Fan. But it isn’t, it wasn’t, and he didn’t. And yet the YouTube count is at 155,224 views and counting.

Is this the new plan for late-night television? Viral segments with all the heft and permanence of a small bag of cheese puffs? ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel has headed down that road, too, with staged (and invariably viral) videos that derive much of their appeal from the viewer’s assumption that they reflect real, impromptu scenes. Only a lingering mild annoyance at Jimmy Kimmel, upon figuring out the true circumstances behind the videos’ production, makes them stick in the viewer’s mind. But Kimmel and Fallon have clearly seized on something something: web editors need to keep their mills turning, and web readers want to be entertained for free, and no one’s really in a position to complain.

A recent report claimed 36 percent of all internet traffic was fake — it comes from robots. What do you call the other 64 percent?

TIME March Madness

Blowing the Whistle on the End of Iowa State–UNC

Iowa State v North Carolina
Kennedy Meeks of the North Carolina Tar Heels, center, reacts as DeAndre Kane of the Iowa State Cyclones falls underneath the basket at the AT&T Center in San Antonio on March 23, 2014 Ronald Martinez—Getty Images

Iowa State (3) had the lead after a shot with 1.6 seconds left on the game clock. North Carolina (6) played the ball and sought a time-out, which it got, but the refs said after a video review that the arena's clock wasn't accurate and the game was over

There was a lot to like from Sunday’s NCAA-tournament slate, with Stanford’s upset of Kansas leading into the nail-biter between Wichita State’s undefeated veterans and Kentucky’s heretofore underwhelming upstarts. Third on the docket was Iowa State against North Carolina, with young Fred Hoiberg and his surprisingly successful Cyclones favored to beat the esteemed Roy Williams and his erratic Tar Heels squad to land in the Sweet 16. That game didn’t disappoint, either, until it did, with an ending that ought to go down as an officiating debacle and a blow against instant replay’s credibility.

The two teams nipped at each other throughout, with North Carolina falling behind early and Iowa State down as much as eight points late. With a little more than two seconds left on the clock and the score tied, Iowa State’s DeAndre Kane, taking on two powder blue defenders, hoisted a shot off the glass. The ball fell through the hoop for the final two of his 24 points, and the Cyclones had the lead, 85 to 83. The clock temporarily froze — as it does after any made basket in the last minute of the second half — at 1.6 seconds remaining.

North Carolina’s Jackson Simmons grabbed the bouncing ball and heaved it to Nate Britt, who sprinted down the court, past the centerline and called timeout, as Williams had requested from the sidelines. The clock, once Britt had grabbed the referee’s attention and earned his whistle, showed 0.3 seconds left.

After the whistle, the officials went to the monitor to check the situation out. Had there indeed been 0.3 seconds left on the clock? Could there have been more? Or maybe even less? After a protracted huddle, they emerged with a wretched decision, which should make sense only to those who watch the games with their own stopwatches and reject the decisions of the oh-so-fallible in-arena timers. The game, the officials told both coaches, was over.

Their reasoning, as deduced by CBS’s Steve Kerr, was that the clock had started far too long after Britt received the inbounds pass. And it had: Deadspin’s Tim Burke counted that 1.73 seconds elapsed between Britt’s touch and the referee’s whistle, which means the timer’s trigger finger was about four-tenths slow, at best. Kerr said the refs made the right decision.

Perhaps they had — in a world where the clocks on the court should be expected to signal precisely nothing to players, where the numbers on the clock at which Britt stared were in fact indecipherable hieroglyphs. But no: they were numbers, meant to tell the players playing in the game how much time was left in it.

This is not to blame the particular officials working on Sunday evening in San Antonio; they followed their sport’s code to the letter. This is only to ask in what possible way a technology purportedly implemented to increase precision can get away with an unprovable assertion in response to an in-fact unanswerable question.

Would Britt have called time-out had the clock started on time? There’s no way of knowing. Under instant replay’s presumptuous pedantry, there can be only guesswork.

TIME Books

Dupe Tells All

Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter
Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter during his sentencing in 2013. Nick Ut—AP

In a new book, the journalist Walter Kirn writes of his friendship with the murderer Clark Rockefeller. In the end, the killer's con says more about his victims than himself

Crime can be funny. I swear. Readers and viewers may struggle to come by those laughs, thanks to the dominant, hackneyed style of crime storytelling that has soaked through cable television and discount-book racks like a liter of fresh blood. But somewhere in many of the darkest outcomes lie brilliant, cutting bits of whimsy in need only of a good polish. And their presence in a larger saga can whip a plodding, didactic tale into something rich and vivid.

Take the story of 53-year-old German-born grifter Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, whose U.S. aliases included Christopher Chichester, Christopher Rider, Christopher Crowe, Chip Smith, and, most memorably, Clark Rockefeller. Gerhartsreiter, then hastily posing as Chip Smith, was arrested in 2008 after a weeklong FBI hunt for him and his daughter, whom he had abducted during a scheduled custody visit. Within days of his arrest, news of Rockefeller’s true identity emerged, and with it word that he (then Chichester) was the primary suspect in an unsolved 1985 murder in California. By August 2013, Gerhartsreiter had been convicted of both the kidnapping and the murder and sentenced to 27 years to life for the latter offense. If California governors and parole boards of the future behave as California governors and parole boards have long behaved, Gerhartsreiter will never again see the light of day. This seems like an appropriately serious response to a set of serious crimes.

And yet seriousness is an odd choice for a default register when chronicling the life of a fine-art-forging phony aristocrat, one who learned his comportment from Gilligan’s Island’s foppish Thurston Howell III and ate Boston Cream Pie daily to prove he truly came from there. Unstinting bleakness does not quite fit when the man and his marks shared profoundly goofy traits.

The Gerhartsreiter-Chichester-Rockefeller case has found its way back into the news in recent weeks, owing to the publication of Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade, Walter Kirn’s recounting of his friendship with the man he knew as Clark Rockefeller. A terrific elevator pitch for publishers: A well-known author knew a killer well—where to sign? But Kirn’s book makes the mistake of rendering Rockefeller as an unforgivable terror, history’s greatest monster. For all the sociopathic acts now forever on his criminal record—what might, broadly, be called evil—the legacy of Rockefeller’s social conduct, the context in which Kirn knew him, is substantially bigger than all that.

***

The man who would become Clark Rockefeller was born in Bavaria in 1961 to Simon and Irmengard Gerhartsreiter, a carpenter and a housewife. As a child he was smart, a troublemaker, determined to make it out of his gloomy and small hometown. Before his 18th birthday, he had fashioned himself a ticket to Connecticut as an exchange student. He had told his parents that a New York radio station had hired him as a DJ. In Connecticut, he hopped from host family to host family, along the way ingratiating himself with his good looks and worldly charm but irritating each with his arrogance and quirks.

He next lit out for Wisconsin, where a satellite campus of the state university had offered him enrollment. There he anglicized his name, becoming Chris Gerhart, and convinced a local woman to marry him for a green card. Gerhart married her on Feb. 20, 1981, with a college acquaintance enlisted as his best man. And that was it for the couple. He would not see his first wife again until his kidnapping trial in 2009.

It was in Gerhart’s next haunt, San Marino, Calif., where he began aiming higher with his deceptions. He slapped himself with new identities, first becoming cardiologist Dr. Christopher Rider, then becoming movie producer and aristocrat Christopher Mountbatten Chichester. Chichester would ride through town in a beat-up Plymouth, when he had a car at all. He was also moonlighting as a student at USC’s prestigious film school. He had fine (if a little tattered) clothes and an upright manner, and he had no trouble charming the wealthy older women who filled the churches and social clubs of San Marino. He was routinely written up in the local papers as a man about town. He would invent family members or connections to renowned nobles. He would often talk of improbable financial transactions—he once suggested uprooting a Medieval church, because he owned it, of course, and transporting it to San Marino—but he would never pick up a check. The eccentricities of the truly wealthy. Chichester no longer wanted a home within America’s mass culture. He wanted to belong to its ruling class.

San Marino was the kind of place that might ache for a Thirteenth Baronet, as Chichester’s business cards put it then. According to the most recent American Community Survey data from 2012, San Marino has a median household income of nearly $140,000, more than double California’s statewide figure. The town has long been home to retired actors and entertainers, and an even more elevated old-money caste. General George S. Patton’s father had once been the town’s mayor. But in Chichester’s days, working-class Asian Americans had recently begin moving in from neighboring communities—the city is now more than half Asian-American. The town’s wealthy longtime residents evidently cast their lot with the paler interloper. Chichester soon found a rent-free dwelling with Ruth “Didi” Sohus, a widow with a drinking problem and a guest house.

He mentioned a visit from Britney Spears. He said he was friends with J.D. Salinger.He soon found, too, the first obstacle to his climb, in the form of John Sohus, Didi’s son. John and his wife, Linda, went missing in 1985, more than two years after Chichester had moved into their guest house. They had told their friends and Didi that they had been dispatched to New York on top-secret government work. A few postcards sent from overseas to friends and family at first seemed to confirm that they were alive. But the postcards stopped, and Didi, now worried, called the police to report her son and daughter-in-law missing. She told the police that they had been doing top-secret government work, but that her go-between at the federal level—one Christopher Chichester—had vanished, too. By her lights, he really had disappeared. But he had by that point headed back to Connecticut, this time to its ritzier southwestern coast, and taken on a new name, Christopher Crowe.

As Christopher Crowe, a film producer switching careers, he went about plying his old con in an even more fertile atmosphere. (This stage of the con is chronicled most ably in Mark Seal’s The Man in the Rockefeller Suit, which is essential reading on the case.) The cash spigot in Greenwich, Conn., had not begun to dry up like San Marino’s, and Crowe was able to take advantage of not only its preppy parties and welcoming guest houses but its residents’ connections in the banking world. Despite having no verifiable qualifications, he landed no fewer than three jobs in the securities field. He’d wear ascots; he’d talk of his massive Mountbatten family foundation (it didn’t exist); he’d pretend to trade bonds. At one gig, he gave as his Social Security number one that belonged to David Berkowitz, New York’s legendary Son of Sam killer. The joke was dark, but what a joke nonetheless.

But while in Connecticut, Crowe had made the mistake of trying to sell a 1985 Nissan pickup that belonged to John and Linda Sohus. In late 1988, a Greenwich detective went to find him at his workplace for questioning, but he had vanished again. He wouldn’t resurface until 1992—by which point he had become Clark Rockefeller.

His method as Rockefeller looked a lot like his method as Crowe. But he took the trappings of wealth even further. He didn’t bother trying to hold a job this time around; he told the people he met that he was a freelance central banker focused on Third World debt and living off family money. He had an apartment filled with fine modern art (all forgeries, we would later learn) he had apparently inherited, but he made a show of disdaining his Pollocks, Mondrians and Rothkos. He had entered Yale at 14, despite having been mute for most of his childhood. The flaw in his prior plan, he seemed to have reasoned, was its adherence to some kind of familiar reality. Dada was the solution.

Rockefeller’s big mark was Sandra Boss, a 26-year-old Harvard business student he met in the summer of 1993. Rockefeller had made himself a presence around old-guard Episcopal churches as Chichester and Crowe had before him, and through Saint Thomas Church, he befriended Boss’s sister. Soon she landed gigs at Merrill Lynch and later McKinsey and Company. He landed her steady income. They married on Nantucket in 1995.

Earlier that year, the NBC show Unsolved Mysteries, which averaged nine million viewers per week, had aired a segment on the discovery of the bones of John Sohus underground on his late mother’s former property. The segment told of Didi’s delusions, and John’s mysterious job offer, and the strange boarder who lived in the guest house. It closed with a photo of Christopher Chichester, noting that he happened also to be Christopher Crowe, the man who tried to hawk John’s truck, Christopher Mountbatten, and “Christian Gerhartsreiter, a native of Germany.” The manhunt was on, but police had no idea how far up the social ladder they’d have to climb.

Grey Goose Partners With The Young Literati's 3rd Annual Toast
Author Walter Kirn in Santa Monica, Calif., in 2010. AP

Kirn’s book picks up in 1998, five years into Gerhartsreiter’s Clark Rockefeller phase. His wife’s McKinsey career was waxing, and while she worked, he walked the dog, Yates, and made friends. He’d go sockless, with a worn-out Yale ball cap atop his head. He’d dine with acquaintances at tweedy New York clubs, flaunting whatever he pretended to have. Sometimes he’d mention “the family building” (Rockefeller Center, you see), and would gesture toward it, with the supposed master key in hand. Later he presented Kirn, who was fretting over unpaid federal taxes, with a private line belonging to “George.” (W. Bush, you know.) He told many stories about investments in Mexican aerospace technology, and he suggested to Kirn that he had some interest in purchasing one of the magazines that employed him, even though Rockefeller had registered a blank look when he first heard the words, “The Atlantic Monthly.” He mentioned visits to his New Hampshire country home from Britney Spears and German chancellor Helmut Kohl; he said he was friends with J.D. Salinger. He still refused to pick up checks. And yet none of this spooked anyone in his retinue, not even the journalist. Worse, none of this horsepucky seemed to prompt the guffaws it deserved.

The author (in 1998, a contributor to TIME) first met the grifter through a strange canine errand. Rockefeller had set his sights on adopting Shelby, a wheelchair-bound Gordon Setter, from a couple in Montana, where Kirn lived. Kirn and Rockefeller spoke over the phone, and Rockefeller eventually implored Kirn to chauffeur the dog himself cross-country. The book’s opening chapters, which chronicle this journey, read as doggie-lit for masochists.

While confined along with Shelby to a motel in Forsyth, Mont., Kirn cracked open John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, because, he writes, “Preserving a sense of literary purpose was crucial to my self-respect tonight.” It’d be a laugh line in a different book, the neurotic author worrying about the aesthetic futility of his prose while sitting in a Montana motel with a dog who can’t use her hind legs or control her bowels. But in a book of modest length where the author nevertheless finds the space to mention his two alma maters, Princeton and Oxford, a combined 25 times, it reads just as pretense. (The active reader cannot help but count.) And what pretense! It’s fitting—if impossibly annoying to this devoted viewer—that Kirn’s book mentions the Unsolved Mysteries segment while confusing Robert Stack, the show’s host, with the actual Robert Culp. (Culp was on I Spy, paired with Bill Cosby. Stack was Eliot Ness, paired with no one.) Blood Will Out has plenty of cultural references, but all trade firmly above middlebrow. Kirn likes Hitchcock films and Dostoevsky.

He doesn’t care much for pulp. Forget true-crime: Kirn seems to orient himself above even Frasier, the witty NBC sitcom about two psychiatrists. But it pops into the story because Rockefeller tells Kirn of his resemblance to David Hyde Pierce, one of its leads. And then: “The first time my mother made me watch the show with her, my impression was that Niles was gay because the script portrayed him as an opera buff, but later in the program he mentioned a girlfriend. Because I’d been called gay at Princeton for writing poetry, and at Oxford for writing plays, I abhorred any stirrings of bigotry in myself, but when Clark compared himself to Niles, his tone of voice conspicuously pleased, I’d wondered if he were testing me sexually as other gay men whom I’d known had when I met them.” Being made by his mother, a humble nurse, to watch television? Princeton? Oxford? His irresistability to members of both sexes? Congratulations, you’ve hit Walter Kirn bingo!

Kirn later goes on to fashion himself a potential murder victim of Rockefeller’s, imagining in hindsight that his onetime friend may have been a little too desirous of Kirn’s Montana acreage and pickup truck. But this too is a bit of self-flattery, shoehorning his own circumstances into some modus operandi of a killer with just one victim to his ledger, nearly 30 years ago. (Not to mention: John Sohus was not a mark of Gerhartsreiter’s—he simply stood between the con man and an old woman’s estate.)

Powerful people fell for a man who said he had a master key to Rockefeller Center.Kirn was targeted for something else. At certain moments of lucidity, Kirn self-flagellates over his phony pal, and the reader feels a little sorry for him. (Yeah, yeah, but first: “In 1975, when I was twelve, my family packed a U-Haul van, snapped a Yale padlock on its rear loading door, and left predictable rural Minnesota for burgeoning, anarchic Phoenix.” Even Walter Kirn’s hardware is pedigreed.) Kirn writes, “Maybe my egotism was a homing beacon. Maybe it made me a more attractive mark.”

This was the central characteristic of Rockefeller’s frauds—and Crowe’s, and Chichester’s, if not Gerhart’s: their puffed-up prey. The prey who needed some insecurity polished by having nobility, American or otherwise, within their lives. There were the wealthy old ladies threatened by the middle-class-ification of their town. There were the Wall Street men who wanted to employ a broker who was to-the-manor-born and had connections in Hollywood. Then there was the management consultant who wound up leading her firm’s work for Michael Bloomberg and Charles Schumer; her Rockefeller connection could not have hurt her there. And of course there was the educated, snobby journalist on the make, looking for a story and an entrée into society. The people who accepted Gerhartsreiter in his various grandiose guises had hustles of their own. Powerful people within a nation ostensibly impervious to aristocracy fell for a man who said he had a master key to Rockefeller Center. Gerhartsreiter’s joke was on them.

That’s the funny thing about grifters. When their schemes work, they always say more about the targets than the perpetrators. In a jailhouse interview, Kirn asks Gerhartsreiter what he looked for in the people he manipulated. “Vanity, vanity, vanity,” he replies. What did the murderer do, according to Kirn, before he answered the question? “He almost laughed.”

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