What Kind of Literature Lives on the Dark Web?
An Interview with the Founders of The Torist
Depending on who you ask, the “Dark Web”—the Internet’s mysterious undercurrent accessible only through specialized software—is either a libertarian utopia or a criminal hellscape run by cryptoanarchists trading stolen bitcoins. Now it’s more than either. As of January 2016, it’s also a vehicle for publishing literary magazines.
Here’s how it happened: Robert W. Gehl, an associate professor at the University of Utah specializing in communication technology, met a person known only as “GMH” on an anonymous social network called Galaxy. Before it closed down, Galaxy was the Facebook of the Dark Web, accessible only through Tor, the browser needed to access websites hidden from the regular Internet. Both fans of literature, Gehl and GMH began to wonder what kind of literary art a Dark-Web community might produce. That question led to the creation of The Torist, the Dark Web’s first literary magazine. It features short fiction, poetry, and nonfiction essays by contributors who appear to have submitted work under their real names.
Reading through The Torist, you probably won’t find any reasons for why the writers wouldn’t want their identities known. Yes, the pieces share thematic concerns over individual privacy and the consequences of living under government surveillance. But there’s nothing illegal about their complaints. In fact, some of the work is quite good.
So why are these writers publishing in The Torist, anyway, a magazine accessible by only a fraction of Internet users, many of them presumably surfing the Dark Web for things other than literary discoveries? The whole project seems downright contrary to what most contemporary writers look for in a literary magazine—namely, an audience.
With this question and others (so many) in mind, I sought out the editors of The Torist to see if they could shed some light on their literary contribution to the Dark-Web world. Both agreed to chat, mercifully, via clear-web email. The only exposure this luddite has to encrypted online communication is whatever that hacker character Gavin Orsay was up to in the second season of House of Cards (though I did figure out how to download the magazine).
As it turns out, both editors are thoughtful proponents of personal privacy and literary art, dedicated as much to asking questions about what’s possible in literature as to finding solutions to what they see as massive infringements on human rights. They also have some impressive favorite reads.
Amy Brady: Why did you publish The Torist on the Dark Web?
Robert W. Gehl: We released it on the Dark Web in part because it was born on the Dark Web. We also wanted to make it clear to contributors that we welcome anonymous contributions. Putting The Torist on the Dark Web helps communicate that.
GMH: On Galaxy, I was struck by how pleasant the community was, how marked they were by a desire for something better than clear-web social networks like Facebook, which people have very frustrated feelings about. If Galaxy, being on Tor, had a different character than mainstream social networks, would Tor-users’ creative work also have a different character? It was a question of what the community would produce, as well as a question of wanting to positively contribute to that community, and help it grow in a desirable direction.
Also, I believe that private communication is an essential human right. You can’t have a democracy when all your communications are being intercepted by the government and your private life is being scanned by companies.
Brady: The media has portrayed the Dark Web as a pretty sinister place. Are you saying that this isn’t true?
GMH: Many hack journalists think the terms “darknet” and “Dark Web” refer to anything bad on the Internet. All these terms really refer to are different aspects of anonymizing networks.
Of course Tor hidden services are used for bad things, too. But so is the clear web. If the Internet were to vanish tomorrow, the bad things would carry on happening. When a sensationalist news story states that you can hire a hitman on a thing called the “Dark Web,” a substantial number of gullible readers are going to believe that story. In response, people set up websites claiming to be hitmen and presumably some fools actually send those people money. If someone falls for that, what are they going to do? Say, “Hello police, I tried to hire a hitman but they ran off with my bitcoins?” An enormous proportion of the scary stories you hear are urban myths, as well as people capitalizing on the fact that some people are gullible enough to fall for those urban myths.
Gehl: The Torist actually joins a host of other sites and services that challenge the dominant media narrative that the Dark Web is only useful to criminals and terrorists.
Brady: There are lots of ways to go about trying to change how people think. Why attempt it through a literature magazine?
GMH: I am a writer. I don’t think I’m very good, but I’d like to be one day. I do have a background in literature and I am a reader. I guess this makes a lit mag the format I know most about.
Brady: Robert, why did you decide to use your real name with this project?
Gehl: Over the past few years, I’ve made a lot of friends among academics and artists who share my concerns about surveillance and Internet culture. I figured it would be easier to tap into those networks with my real name and recruit potential contributors. But we could also keep the pseudonymous/anonymous angle with GMH remaining only known by that pseudonym. GMH set up an anonymous submission system, working multiple social networking sites to spread the word. It’s our way of bridging the worlds of “real” and “anonymous.” To my mind, GMH is the founder editor and the mastermind behind the project. I think The Torist is remarkable, and I’m honored to help.
Brady: Who are your ideal contributors? And who do you want to read your magazine?
GMH: We were careful to sketch out broad contours when drafting our statements. As much as we like Edward Snowden, we don’t want to be pigeon-holed as a “Snowden journal” because a large part of our point is that Tor can (and should) be used for ordinary things by ordinary people—not just intelligence whistleblowers. So, while a large part of our readership and contributor-base is going to be people interested in encryption phenomena, we want breadth as well.
The same goes for our readership: we want to reach people who are already invested in digital rights, as well as people who are not, have yet to become interested, and maybe those who have some negative
preconceptions about online anonymity so as to challenge them.
Brady: What social role do you think literary magazines have played, and do you think The Torist is changing that role?
GMH: In the grand scheme of things, I don’t think The Torist’s role is new per se, even if we are the first literary zine on the Dark Web. Zines are often used to give voice to specific communities or niches. One recent example is the journal Vetch which specializes in poetry and poetics by transgender writers, and which I highly recommend. Zooming in on a specific community is just what zines do.
Brady: You published The Torist under a Creative Commons license, so whoever finds it is free to distribute it. Why did you use this kind of copyright?
Gehl: I agree with Larry Lessig’s argument that we live in a “culture of permission,” where we are surrounded by cultural objects licensed to limit our ability to engage with them. Rather than contributing to that system, we use Creative Commons to signal to others that they are free to share The Torist with others and even use the content contained to make new creative works.
GMH: I’m a dedicated pirate. It’s not that I believe art should be free but that everything should be free. Everyone deserves a house, food, the Internet, and the arts whether they can pay for it or not. Copyright has led to some of the most awful attacks on everything that makes the Internet worth having, including expanded censorship regimes in ostensibly democratic countries.
Brady: Do you follow the activities of the PEN American Center? I realize that their mission to protect writers’ freedom of expression doesn’t exactly align with your beliefs about copyright and censorship, but it seems like both sets of ideas at least form a Venn diagram.
GMH: I have heard of PEN but never looked into them in any great detail. In terms of freedom of expression, I think there are important infringements against that that need resistance. However, it’s possible to agitate for free speech in quite an underhanded, even pernicious way. By that I mean there are some people who say that in order for a community to have “free speech” they have to open themselves to, for instance, white supremacists. For free expression to be an effective goal, I think you have to approach it knowing that free speech is impossible. Instead, approach it by dismantling oppression.
If PEN takes such an approach, I’m all for it.
Brady: More traditional lit mags, well, “traditional” meaning “not released on the Dark Web,” share some operational conventions: some pay their writers, some charge submission fees, many advertise in other lit mags, some even have a university affiliation. In what ways does The Torist match up with these conventions? How does it subvert them?
GMH: To me, the very idea of a submission fee is an outrage. It’s the writers who make the journal what it is; how dare anyone make them take on a financial penalty for attempting to be part of it. The arts already suffer too much from being the preserve of privileged classes, and that just entrenches it even more.
I appreciate we live in a world where, sadly, people need money to live. Therefore, I would like it if we could pay our contributors. Unfortunately, I’m poor and that would require me to run The Torist as a business, which—far from solving the problem—would simply shift it onto someone else, like the readership. I would prefer to just cut money out of the equation, as far as possible.
We’d be happy if another journal wanted to advertise us, though we wouldn’t pay for it.
As for whether we’re subverting any of these conventions? I don’t know, that may be a bit grandiose. I don’t think it’s the tradition of the zine we’re subverting, but more the way the Internet is used.
Brady: Did the writers contributing to your first issue understand that they’d be published under their (presumably) real names?
GMH: In our guidelines, we explain that if writers provide us with a name, we publish under that name, and if they don’t provide one, we publish under “Anonymous.” We didn’t provide any additional checking, though. Perhaps that’s something we should double-check in the future.
Brady: So you plan to have future issues?
GMH: Yes, in fact we’ve already received submissions for our second issue, though it’ll be a few months before we release. It’ll be on the Dark Web as well. We will be releasing our first issue on the clear web in a few weeks, and issue two will probably be the same way.
Brady: Now that Galaxy is closed, how will you put out your calls for submissions?
GMH: There is a replacement called Galaxy2, though it isn’t run with quite the same values that made Galaxy appeal to me. Nonetheless it is the best. Robert uses mailing lists to send our calls for submissions, and I use Twitter, Tumblr and Galaxy2.
Brady: What type of work are you looking for? Do you have aesthetic preferences?
GMH: I favor pieces that do something a little eccentric in form or style. Miriam Rasch’s Shadowbook, for example, was a long piece divided into little mini-stories—I like that idea. I don’t think of originality as a rejection of traditional forms in poetry though. In this day and age, free verse isn’t really more original than a sonnet. It’s about the only way people do it.
Brady: Which writers and/or works of literature do you admire most?
Gehl: For the past several years I’ve been going through science fiction and fantasy. Lately, I’ve been reading Ursula K. Le Guin. I’m enjoying her meditations on death, power, knowledge, and gender in the Earthsea stories. In writing this right now, I’m struck by her idea that to be able to know something’s true name is to have power over it—this is a thought-provoking idea in a time when we are expected to be totally transparent to those in power.
GMH: As it happens, my namesake is Gerard Manley Hopkins. He was a very private man himself and a repressed homosexual in Victorian Britain. Perhaps the obscurity of his verse was his own kind of encryption. People have said the same thing about John Ashbery being gay in pre-Stonewall New York. They are both writers who self-consciously did things differently, which is what The Torist does in being a hidden service. I like writers with a self-conscious unusualness and poems that I don’t understand. No supercomputer can decrypt a strange poem.