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The What You Are Afraid Of

There are a few biographical hints provided by The What, strewn like bread crumbs through the site. He’s said he’s 45. He’s claimed to hold a broker’s license and have bought and sold houses in the past. He’s black. He, like Jonathan Butler, lives in Clinton Hill. Of course, these details could be lies, or exaggerations, or just adjustments to the mask. There’s no way to verify them because there’s no way to get in touch with The What. You can try—you might, say, set your computer to send you Google Alerts every time the phrase “The What” appears elsewhere online, but all you’ll get are notices about “the what, the how, the where of your prostate problem,” or the What-a-Burger restaurant in Mount Pleasant, North Carolina, or Dave Eggers’s book What Is the What. (Oh, Mr. Eggers, I wish I knew.) You might lurk on Brownstoner for weeks on end, waiting day after day to catch The What posting, searching through the comment threads under items that you know are likely to excite him (recent foreclosures, stalled developments, the dimming prospects for the Atlantic Yards project). You might even finally catch him (he posts at 11:24 A.M.; you post at 11:36), and leave him a message in the thread asking him to e-mail you. You might even do this a few times. But you won’t hear back from him.

Because, really, what’s in it for The What? His microcelebrity in this hermetic forum is entirely reliant on mystery. If fame is a mask that eats into the face, then Internet fame is all mask, no face. So what does it matter who’s wearing The What mask? The What is a hobgoblin conjured by a hive mind. He’s a bogeyman who’s only scary because he reminds people of fears they already have. The What, no matter who he is, or where he lives, no matter how wrong (or right) he turns out to be, exists as a pure distillation of a fear that’s forever, distinctly New York: the fear that you’re too late, too slow, too dumb, too white, too black, too leveraged, too poor, priced out, left behind, not street smart, not sharp, stretched too far, freshly trapped, out of options, lost in debt, the end is nigh, the war is over, you lost, get out.

Jonathan Butler, for one, has no idea who The What is. Truth be told, Butler’s kind of tired of thinking about The What. He’s not sure why The What chose his particular punch bowl to shit in. All he can do to find out is track IP addresses—basically, an I.D. for a specific Internet connection—and he’s tried to ban The What’s IP, to no avail. The What pops up again. The What claims to post from everywhere. This month, Butler implemented a new commenting policy, by which any comment that contains one of a list of flagged words has to be vetted before it goes up. The list is made up of profanity, mostly. (One commenter suggested he also ban the phrase bitter renter.) And The What does seem to be posting less frequently of late. In a thread about a shooting on a Clinton Hill block, The What wrote “Damn Brownstoner, They missed you!!!” and the crowd turned against him. (“That’s it. I used to enjoy The What and sometimes even agree. His comment was above and beyond what is acceptable” was a typical response.) The What’s defense—“This Blog promotes covert Race/Class warfare everyday and I’m a coward?! I’m on the front lines of this thing”—didn’t find too many supporters, save for one commenter, who calls himself whatEver, a Robin to the What’s Batman, who wrote “The What Is The Sun that This Site Revolves Around.”

Then again, Butler’s got 150,000 readers, so why focus on one irritant? Sure, it gets under his skin—being called a racist, an elitist, the house organ of a yuppie movement to recolonize brownstone Brooklyn—but he figures there will always be naysayers. Frankly, on some days, he kind of respects The What. Well, respect is too strong a word—but at least The What is arguing about something. At least The What has a point of view. And ultimately The What is just a natural by-product of Butler’s idealistic vision of a free-for-all conversation: one with absolute anonymity and zero accountability. Both Butler and The What have made their relative reputations by identifying and tapping into exactly the same thing: a borough seething with anxiety. If The What was a super-villain, he’d probably say, “We’re not so different, Mr. Brownstoner, you and I.” Someone even e-mailed Butler recently and flat-out accused him of being The What. They said the whole thing was an ingenious plot to drive up traffic. If only I had that much time on my hands, Butler thought.

And he doesn’t have much extra time these days. He’s been consumed with his latest project, the Brooklyn Flea market, which takes place every Sunday in Fort Greene. He’s been getting up early to arrive at the Flea at 6 a.m., helping the vendors get organized, then spending a few hours wandering around, overseeing, worrying about the weather. It’s funny that Mr. Brownstoner can walk around pretty much unnoticed at his own event, but then he doesn’t get recognized much. Once a woman in a station wagon pulled up beside him and yelled, “You’re the Brownstoner guy!” But for the most part, he’s anonymous, like his commenters, all those neighbors without faces, some of whom, no doubt, are wandering the Flea as well.

The What had promised to come to the Flea, too. He was prodded by a commenter who wanted to sell SOME DAY THIS WAR IS GONNA END T-SHIRTS. (“You better be wearing a helmet! I will be there!” answered The What.) A few days later, he claimed he’d been there. “Hey Brownstoner, I stood right next to you,” The What wrote. Did he actually show up? No one knows—but then how would you, really? Out there, in a Fort Greene school yard, he would just be another guy (or woman), set loose in the real world, where identities aren’t quite as mutable and voices aren’t quite so unhindered. Just like Mr. Brownstoner, actually. They might even brush up against each other, neighbors, adversaries, unaware.


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