Updated: Dec 31, 2020
What is this?
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The language is there. Pastel pink background, umber block letters, and a slogan tastefully arranged in horizontal rows: all the urgency of a protest, all the insistence of a brand. Below the caption,
which mentions “eurocentric relationship standards” and “cultural insensitivity”, the correct hashtags have made their home: #lgbt, #girlpower, #humanrights. On any Instagram account, these are the aesthetics you recognize as markers of truth and justice — signalling a place you can read about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen or the subtleties of gaslighting in digestible slideshows.
But today, the message presented strikes you as a little odd, if not downright outrageous.
Fig. 1: “NORMALIZE INCEST,” screams @annoyedteenager, in chic block font.
A more in-depth perusal of the page will reveal thirteen more posts in this vein, some less flagrant (“it’s okay to only read news that you agree with”) and some just as offbeat (“men and womxn are biologically identical”).
To the discerning observer, these satirical headlines feel in spiritual fraternity with, say, the chyrons of Tucker Carlson Tonight or the thumbnails of alt-right Youtubers: a coordinated attempt at manufacturing outrage, the caricurization of leftist demands. In the comments, you can catch confused netizens who’ve been, as they say, “baited”; in the post about identical biology, a young commenter named Ben says: “the bone structure is not identical. Women (and that’s how you spell it) have a larger pelvis (childbirth) and men tend to have wider shoulders than women. Not due to going to the gym or whatever, but out of biological structure. Your posts are biased and misleading.” Others recognize the account as ironic: “this is my favourite account on instagram bro”.
But there are those rare few who accept the claims as truth. “yes!!! As a female who used to be a male I keep getting told about having “biological advantages” - NO I DON’T PERIODT. 🧚♀️” says one excited commenter. It is unclear how many of these commenters are in on the irony of the account and simply playing along — it does, however, highlight one of the flaws in this kind of reckless trolling, that which is defined by Poe’s Law.
According to Urban Dictionary, Poe’s Law originated in the farthest reaches of christianforums.com. The law is a simple adage for the Internet age that explains, without a clear indicator of the author's intent, satire of extreme views is indistinguishable from the extreme views themselves.
With the language (but not the content) of @annoyedteenager indistinguishable from other social justice accounts on Instagram, the satire becomes confused with the source content. In this case, it’s difficult to ascertain the motives of the creator, but it’d be possible to assign such an account to someone simply looking to cause a stir, someone without many distinct politics of their own but possessing a healthy dose of edge.
Yet today, the truth, whatever it is, is weirder.
On August 2nd, the account posted a succession of cryptic images and requests on their Instagram story highlight, titled “@?@?@?@?”. This was a break in character from the usual highlights, in the likes of “wnba” and “preferences”.
Fig. 2: Selected from the initial set of stories and images posted by @annoyedteenager
The third image referenced an album. “The time is soon. My album will reveal the next step,” the story declared. Clicking the link in the bio of the page will take you to a Youtube playlist titled “ALBUM1”. There are five videos, all under the username “annoyedteenager”, with bizarre caps-lock titles: “STT”, “ZDC”, “BW ...?”, “CTRL How”, and “Mrs”.
Fig. 3: The Youtube album released by AnnoyedTeenager.
The videos present us with the album cover (seen in the thumbnail) and an audio track each: roving electronic beats coupled with snippets of what seems to be garbled human speech.
What’s going on?
The prevailing theory among commenters: @annoyedteenager was the entry point to what is known as an web “ARG”, or alternate reality game.
Wikipedia defines: An alternate reality game (ARG) is an interactive networked narrative that uses the real world as a platform and employs transmedia storytelling to deliver a story that may be altered by players' ideas or actions.
A blend between geocaching and online puzzle games, ARGs often employ coded language and media across different location, a step-by-step scavenger hunt sometimes made sinister by the introduction of horror storytelling elements. If I’m correct in understanding this definition, classic Internet rabbit-holes such as alantutorial and This House Has People In It by Adult Swim could be considered near-ARGs.
Entering the Rabbit-Hole
So what kind of storytelling could be found within the album? The r/annoyedteenager subreddit was my next stop, where I found only a three-day-old Discord server invite link. I wavered over joining — the politics of the whole situation remained unclear — but eventually curiosity took over. After a brief verification process, I found myself in a community of around 280 other sleuthers, some with special roles such as “Lead Investigator” or “Knights of the Round Table”.
As the #rules channel explained, the creator of the ARG and Instagram account was present in the server but lurking only to dispense occasional advice, under the username @solopooguy. “Don’t insult him/her,” warned the server admin. They continued with a disclaimer: “All politics are banned here. WE ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH THE GAME CREATOR (Annoyed Teenagers) in any way.”
From the various #info channels, I was able to glean a rough sense of what people had found so far.
Jim Sullivan and Kepler
By analyzing the beats of the five “songs” in the album, investigators had derived two sets of letters: IDPOL and IATPA. One was found by reversing the track and listening for a spoken letter; — the other was found by converting the beeps at the end of each track to Morse code. Another crucial element of the mystery: a Reddit user who had been investigating from the start of the account accessed an Instagram Live held by the @annoyedteenager account, where a text-to-speech bot said only this: “Jim Sullivan is still alive”.
Speculation on the narrative began to revolve around Jim Sullivan, a singer-songwriter who disappeared under mysterious circumstances into New Mexico, in 1975. He had written and released an album titled “U.F.O.”, and a cult following developed around the obscurity of his work and the circumstances of his disappearance.
Fig. 4: Singer-songwriter Jim Sullivan, missing under mysterious circumstances.
At this point, the server found themselves stuck until more evidence arrived. A week after the initial images and songs, the @annoyedteenager account posted the following story:
Fig. 5: Announcement of stages two and three by the creator.
By taking the first letter of each previous story, investigators were able to find 3434helpat: the name of a previously undiscovered account on Twitter. As @annoyedteenager remarked, stages two and three were now online, with stage two being the Twitter account itself, and stage three being the cryptic URL in the bio of the Twitter account.
Fig. 6: The second account, on Twitter.
Discussion now centered around the link in the bio of that account: https://xx-x-xx-xx-xxxxx.boards.net/. The community quickly understood that the “x”s were placeholders, to be filled in from existing clues. The obvious part was the end: five letters that could be replaced with either IDPOL or IAPTA from earlier.
The rest was more difficult. Set 1 (two “x”s) was found to be NM, after the State (STT) of New Mexico, where Jim Sullivan had disappeared. Set 2 (one “x”) was found to be “a”, as the video “ZDC” (Zodiac) had suggested a zodiac sign, and Aries or ram related imagery was found throughout the satirical posts.
One of the posts cited, as a source, the link to a website: http://burymewithmymoney.com/. With that and the video titled “BW...?” in mind, investigators found set 3 (two “x”s) was “MM”, after “My Money”.
The final set, Set 4, was only found through brute forcing (a technique in which one attempts all possible iterations of a passcode) to be “sp”.
This resulted in the full link:
The site yielded a couple of discussion posts, each a link to a new clue.
Fig. 7A: The discussion posts with clues for Stage Three.
The first post, the Imgur link, took us to the following picture:
Fig. 7B: The Imgur link from the discussion board.
The second post clearly brought more “x”s to solve, but also new information in the form of a Youtube link. This led to a private link on the annoyedteenager Youtube channel.
The video appeared at first glance to be the same eerie music as the other five, but without voices or morse code. However, putting the beeps in the music under spectrogram analysis revealed a thrilling discovery:
Fig. 8: A spectrogram representation of the “bonus” song, done within Audacity audio software.
The graph read Kepler, as in the NASA telescope mission, or the 17th century astronomer. This confirmed that the ARG would center around aliens, or alien abduction.
The broken link from the second post was easier to solve this time around.
A clever community member was able to find an anagram for the unused set of five letters from the initial audio analysis of the five songs: IAPTA became AATIP, or Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program. Replacing the ‘x’s in the broken link yielded the working link:
Fig. 9: Stage Three message.
This diary entry marked a breakthrough: the first substantial piece of narrative writing.
A few days after Stage Three was cracked, the creator of @annoyedteenager appeared on a right-wing commentator’s podcast — a moment of relative unease for the community. The commentator Josh Lekach, also known as Sadwater, bookended AnnoyedTeenager’s appearance with references to the high abortion rates in the black community and compared a sex worker to an expiring carton of milk. I found myself questioning the motives of the creator once more: in a game where the boundaries between the participants and the characters remained unclear, what was the purpose of appearing on a genuinely hateful podcast? And what implications would this have on an otherwise apolitical narrative about aliens in New Mexico? Some members of the server shared my discomfort: “most of this podcast is such bullsh*t lmao” wrote one member. Another member was more devoted to the game: “yeah AT seems like a d*ckhead but I wanna see what this leads to”.
"I practice art."
~ The Annoyed Teenager, when asked about the cryptic album
The interview opens with a disclaimer from a male voice, who claims to be AnnoyedTeenager’s “counselor” and warns of their mental health problems. Then, a higher-pitched, voice comes in, ostensibly female but clearly unnatural. This new voice begins discussing politics in character as the progressive teenage account owner AnnoyedTeenager (Lekach, apparently playing along, nevertheless decides to debate some of the content on the account). At different points in the interview, AnnoyedTeenager incorrectly calls the abbreviation “BIPOC” “bisexual people of color”, mixes up the nuclear family and the nuclear bomb, and reiterates their support for widespread acceptance of incest — appearing insecure and confused throughout.
~ The Annoyed Teenager, when questioned on the meaning of life.
The interview cuts out at multiple times, including when AnnoyedTeenager talks about their family. Unfortunately, it provides scarce talking points for players, as far as solving the next stage went. However, AnnoyedTeenager mentions they do not believe in the Christian God, that they have a mission in New Mexico to find “J” (Jim Sullivan), and ends the interview with the Jewish salutation “Shalom”.
"I have chores and tasks and important missions to take and do."
~ The Annoyed Teenager
After the podcast, another post appeared on the /AATIP board, still in character:
Fig. 10: Stage Three follow-up.
The character revealed a few things in this new post.
First their family worked in the “Kep Family Business”. However, their main work was acting against the government and against the AATIP.
Jim Sullivan was a candidate for AATIP for some kind of experiment. But, before they were finished, AT's family kidnapped him, shot and buried him. Somehow, his consciousness is in AT taking control at different points.
Every year AT's family performs a ritual in which they choose a new 'Jim' and their family.(Could someone elaborate on this?).
AT has been a teenager for 45 years.
“Kimball” was a family member of AT, who they had to abandon (might be a pet too).
Finally, the notation at the bottom appeared to be Rubik’s Cube Notation. Server member orangejuice was eventually able to solve it by converting each move to a single letter of the alphabet and using a basic letter-to-number cipher. This led the investigators to a phone number: (705)-713-8080.
After taking the leap of calling the number, the investigators were directed to a new website, and told to look for a “cousin”:
The next step was to figure out the password for the employee portal. The URL, containing the sequence “plnt-bpm”, pointed to the word “planet”, and remembering the spectrogram, “Kepler”. By searching Google, investigators found that Kepler 452b, a potentially rocky exoplanet in the constellation Cygnus, was often referred to as “Earth’s Cousin” for being in a similar orbit around a similar star as our own. Its corresponding KOI number or "Kepler Object of Interest Number" was: KOI-7016.01-114, which proved to be the password to the employee portal.
Fig. 11: Selected from employee portal on Kep Family Business website.
The key to the next stage appeared to lie in a blurry video at the bottom of the page, passed off as “home footage” from the “Sudbury Compound”.
Fig. 12: “Recovered home footage of previous years”.
Nine segments of QR code were spliced into the video, which were reconstructed into a code that led to the URL https://nm-a-mm-sp-idpol.boards.net/page/e4c5.
Fig. 13: The message “e4c5”, an apparent continuation of Stage Three.
It is here that the narrative ends, or is cut off, at least until more information is released.
Now, we can only guess at the intention or identity of the creator. But to me, if the Instagram account was made to “troll” the cultural left, the presence of the ARG game itself indicts the right.
The original account @annoyedteenager demonstrates contempt towards what the creator sees as unreasonable and hysterical leftist demands, through extreme satire. Such parody could be construed as an apolitical response of disgust, and it’s possible that the creator sees themself as speaking out for those who are simply “fed up”, or that they just want to stir the pot. But conspiracy theories such as qAnon and PizzaGate are championed by some Trump supporters, those who insinuate that a wealthy Democratic elite is secretly a cabal of Satan-worshipping baby eaters and pedophiles. Theories like qAnon or Pizzagate, when coupled with the well-documented identity crisis plaguing young white men — represent a right-wing need to reclaim moral authority, in this case through a fight against the indefensible evil of pedophilia.
In the podcast, Lekach and AnnoyedTeenager agree on one thing at first: pedophilia should not be allowed. But then, the character AnnoyedTeenager threatens to push those boundaries, asking "Is 16 okay? Is 15? Love is love". The ARG itself (featuring an older man taking control of a younger girl through possession and widespread government coverup) may serve to fulfill a desperate need in the otherwise mundane lives of its players: a fantasy of heroism and discovery, of the secret world of evil that lies just below the demands of their left-wing persecutors.
These parallels are compelling, even amid the protests of the Discord server admin who insists that @annoyedteenager “is just a game, and we are the players.”
Victor is a high school senior from Seattle, WA. His writing has appeared in Sine Theta Quarterly, Crashtest Mag, and the Eunoia Review, among others, and he is a first session alum of Kenyon Young Writers '19. He's also a dedicated filmmaker and believes storytellers should not limit themselves to one form; catch up with him (@vlctir) or his latest work (@lplne) on Instagram.
Helen Liu is a seventeen-year-old Chinese-American from Basking Ridge, New Jersey. When she isn't swamped in schoolwork, she likes writing late into the night, playing piano, trying her best at watercolor, and spending time with friends. Also, at any given time, it's more likely she's listening to music than not. Though her stories and poems are often focused on her personal passions and struggles, she also takes inspiration from her favorite pieces of literature and important current issues.