The What You Are Afraid Of

Is Clinton Hill an okay place to move? It’s vibrant, diverse, and feels very safe. Clinton Hill is full of black people who have a chip on their shoulder and some white people who think themselves cool for living among them. It is a gorgeous little stretch of buildings. If you like the ghetto, you will love that area. I’m comfortable in Clinton Hill but my wife isn’t and she wants out. Go back to Kansas, asswipe. Crown Heights is one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in Brooklyn. If you are white, look for another area, unless you want to get attacked. Since moving into the neighborhood two years ago, I have already seen it change dramatically. Just so you know, “edgy” and “unsafe” means “black.” The new residents look at you as if you are a piece of ghetto trash. Every town in Brooklyn will be gentrified sooner or later. This is an awesome area. It’s disgusting and ugly. This is my neighborhood, motherfuckers, I was born and raised here. Jeez, you people are hateful. Please leave Brooklyn, you do not belong here, newcomer. The war is over. You lost. Get out.

Jonathan Butler, the founder and publisher of, is used to these kind of comments. When he started the site four years ago—back when he was still working a day job at a hedge-fund start-up and posting items furtively from his desk at work—he thought of his blog as an outlet for his interest in brownstones and his excitement about Brooklyn, as well as a way to start a conversation with his newfound neighbors. He didn’t imagine, at least not back then, that the conversation, which now takes place all day, every day in the comments left on his blog (like the ones above), would become quite so spirited, with his commenters functioning like a cross between a Greek chorus, a clamorous town-hall meeting, and a howling mob.

Butler, who’s 38 and wears a scruffy beard, seems to hum with excess energy, as though he’s both perpetually excited and anxious to find a way to put that excitement to immediate use. He grew up in Manhattan, on the Upper East Side, went to Princeton, and got an M.B.A. at NYU. He spent most of his adult life hopscotching between various apartments downtown before he and his wife, with their young child, did what many young families in the city were doing—they turned their eyes to Brooklyn. After renting in Williamsburg, they bought a brownstone for under a million dollars in Clinton Hill in 2004. It was a good house at a good price, with fourteen-foot ceilings and nine nonfunctioning fireplaces. His family waited for a year while the house was being renovated, during which time Butler thought about starting a blog. While he was house hunting, he’d been obsessively surfing a grocery list of Websites: Some, like Curbed, were fixated on the pan-city real-estate boom while others, like Apartment Therapy, collected tips on renovations and home design. At first he imagined his blog as a simple diary of his own renovation, but soon his vision expanded, so that the site would eventually function as part real-estate-scuttlebutt clearinghouse, part local bulletin board. He made a list of possible names and settled on the slightly patrician-sounding, slightly illicit-sounding Brownstoner. He bought the domain name and went live with the blog in late 2004.

Butler’s adopted borough has proved to be especially fertile soil for blogs, as many of its recent transplants have, like Butler, been eager to chronicle their experience in dispatches sent out to the world, like homesteaders mailing letters back from a new frontier. Among these sites, though, Brownstoner holds a distinct and exalted position, thanks largely to Butler’s acumen in staking out the happy middle ground between citywide Websites like Curbed and Gothamist and the dozens of Brooklyn microblogs and message boards where people gather to rant and rail and cheer and commiserate about the foibles and frustrations of their neighborhoods. Brownstoner covers the whole borough (although the objections here of residents of Bay Ridge, Canarsie, and other outlying regions are duly noted), but it covers the whole borough as though it were one big block, where everyone has gathered to gossip on their stoops.

As such, Butler’s become not only a fairly well-known blogger (the site draws 150,000 visitors a month, and he was introduced to the world in a 2007 Observer article headlined BROWNSTONER: IT’S ME!), but also a kind of virtual developer, someone who doesn’t literally rebuild neighborhoods but who has the power to shape the way those neighborhoods are perceived. By uncovering derelict architectural gems in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, or trumpeting the opening of an inviting new bar in Crown Heights, Butler has introduced Brooklyn’s far-flung neighborhoods to people who would otherwise never consider visiting them, let alone buying a house and settling there. On Brownstoner, the bridesmaid borough is now the bride. The site celebrates what’s sometimes called New Brooklyn: a vision of the borough as a diverse and lively enclave of flowering neighborhoods, all jammed with engaged homeowners, reborn blocks, and gorgeous and stately and (by Manhattan standards) bargain-priced real estate, waiting to be polished up under a tasteful eye. Brownstoner didn’t create the Brooklyn renaissance, of course, any more than a weatherman creates a storm. But, like a watchful forecaster, the site has tracked the course of the weather pattern—in this case, the vortex created by rising real-estate prices that sucked in a fresh batch of hopeful residents, drawn by the promise of more space and tree-lined blocks and safer streets and majestic brownstones and ample sunlight and the borough’s sudden, self-perpetuating cachet.

The site’s comment section, however, has been tracking a different kind of storm. Brownstoner’s posts tend to read like the reportage of a particularly smart and opinionated community paper. The comment section, by contrast, has become a rolling transcript of the borough’s new anxieties, shameful prejudices, and secret fears. For a long time, those anxieties centered on being left out or pushed out—hopeful buyers or displaced renters thwarted by prices rising out of control. Butler was pleased to find that the site drew not only people who could afford to buy $3 million mansions but also the people who could no longer afford to stay in the neighborhoods where those $3 million mansions were being bought up. His commenters argued and griped about issues that no one was addressing anywhere else, at least not directly, at least not honestly, at least not with each other. Issues like, How much higher can these prices go? Or, is that neighborhood really safe? Or, where did all these strollers come from? Or, get out, we were here first.

And lately these anxieties have been shifting course. If the fears once centered on the Brooklyn renaissance’s going too far, too fast, now the worry is that the renaissance won’t go far enough; that it will suddenly recede like a fickle tide that strands a fleet of errant ships. And the people who bought in to the fringes of the New Brooklyn will wind up trapped—in a bad neighborhood, a stifling mortgage, a failing block.

But one commenter has been gleefully forecasting just such a collapse. In July 2007, in a comment thread under an item about a painted doorway on a landmarked block in Clinton Hill (this is a fairly typical Brownstoner story: Homeowner on landmarked block paints his doorway in violation of local regulations; outrage ensues), a commenter calling himself The What left a simple message. Referring to Butler, who goes by Mr. Brownstoner on the site, The What wrote: “Mr. B, go kill yourself.”

The lack of affordable housing in New York affects everyone. You, renting loser, have a lot to learn about how things work. When you are upside down on your jumbo loan a few years from now, you can talk to me about throwing money away. People in million-dollar condos will be surprised when their $8-an-hour doorman will not protect them from the unwashed masses. Renters in this city are fucked. I wish I would have bought years ago. These wonderful new “Brooklynites” can’t possibly imagine why people would be angry enough to fight back. You are just renters who can’t handle that Brooklyn is changing and you were left behind. Fuck off—I own. Being house-poor sucks. You are an idiot and have no idea what you’re talking about. My only options are to hope and dream that you disgusting hipsters, yuppies, and gentrifiers leave New York. I’m tired of this. You don’t deserve to live in this city. You are dumb and lazy, and now you are paying the price.

Brownstoner is not, of course, the only Website with spirited, occasionally combative, and reflexively profane commenters. (That’s every Website.) But if you read through the comments regularly—if, say, you spend a few weeks in your apartment in Brooklyn reading through hundreds of pages of back comments—you will notice an undertow of anger. You might start to suspect that all your neighbors are harboring something angry and unsaid. You might start to feel like everyone in your borough is outside your window, in the street, screaming at each other.

And then there is The What.

The What often posts several times a day. He ends each comment with a quote apparently borrowed from Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now: “Someday this war’s gonna end.” If you were to cast the site’s commenters in a kind of school-pageant play, you’d costume The What in ashes and sackcloth, hand him a sign reading THE END IS NIGH (or, more accurately, SOMEDAY THIS WAR’S GONNA END), then send him to the street corner to rant. The What’s favorite—and possibly only—subject of interest is the coming Brooklyn Apocalypse. He calls it the Mutant Real Estate Bubble. From the beginning, he has contended vehemently, and repetitiously, and often profanely, that there’s a massive correction coming to the real-estate market that will swallow the borough’s fresh-faced transplants and their artfully renovated brownstones as surely as if a chasm had opened up in the earth. Which, of course, means an end to the whole happy vision of recent Brooklyn: the flowering neighborhoods, the skyrocketing prices, the dissipating crime. To The What, Mr. Brownstoner and his readers are snoozing blissfully, lost in this intoxicating dream. And The What is the alarm clock.

In spreading his dire message, he favors colorful curses like “asshat” and “fucktard” as well as the enthusiastic application of exclamation!!!! marks!!!!!!!!! and the twitchy overuse of childish acronyms like ROTFLMMFAO (i.e., rolling on the floor laughing my motherfucking ass off). He likes to cut and paste from The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News. He’ll insert a lengthy list of 192 financial institutions that have recently gone under, along with the message, “Boy crack is tasty!” He is prone to writing sentences like, “Look at M1, M2 and M3 FED money supply. They have gone parabolic for the last 6 years,” as well as sentences like, “Y’all are fucking finished and the asshole Brokers who pumped this shit up will get ass-raped!” He went through a period in March 2008 during which he promised to “reframe from using profanity.” (Short-lived.) He’s posted comments such as “First order of Business: Citigroup is planing to sell 400 Billion dollars of their assets. I find this very scary. I think they need to raise their capital base…. The upcoming Depression will prove we overstepped out boundaries. And out children will pay for our folly.” And he’s posted comments such as, “Real Estate is fucking over!!!!! Real Estate is fucking over!!!!! Real Estate is fucking over!!!!! Real Estate is fucking over!!!!!” His posting style is so schizophrenic that one might suspect he is either (a) several very different people posting under the same name or (b) schizophrenic. He sometimes sounds like he’s locked in a basement somewhere, surrounded by newspaper clippings on all four walls. He touches down in comment threads like a rhetorical Tasmanian devil, huffing and puffing in such a hysterical manner as to become, well, kind of hysterical—as when he wrote this (and I’ve made every effort to retain the integrity of the punctuation), in response to an item about Clinton Hill titled “Price Cuts at 936 Fulton Street”:

WHAT?!!!!! Already?!!!! NO!!!!!!! Everyone wants to live on Fulton St. This can’t be happening…… Please help me.… please.….

****Sobs into sleep*********

Chuckie getting ass-raped.

(Chuckie, for the record, appears to be The What’s generic name for the average white Brooklynite. Either that, or it’s a reference to Chuck Schumer. Or possibly Chuck E. Cheese, though it’s not clear why anyone would want to ass-rape Chuck E. Cheese.)

The What also likes to quote Arthur Schopenhauer: “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” And, sure enough, in the claustrophobic biosphere of Brownstoner, The What, like the truth, has passed through Schopenhauer’s three phases. He’s been ridiculed (particularly in the go-go days of the peaking Brooklyn market, when no brownstone was too dilapidated, no block too dangerous, no renovation too gut, and prices couldn’t possibly go anywhere but up, up, up). He’s been violently opposed (a sampling: “To the subprime mortgage doomsayer, I have no idea what motivates people like you”; “Dear Brownstoner, I am asking sincerely that the ‘What’ be eliminated from posting”; “Crying wolf does nothing but make you look more and more ignorant with each passing post”; “You simplistic old dimbulb. Stick to your Chicken Little Bloomberg linked diatribes”; “sad skullfucker”; “crackhead Kevorkian”; “cumguzzling guttersnipe”; “Fuck The What”). To which criticism, The What, in his signature style, offered this generalized retort: “Go to the happy happy joy joy websites about housing. This used to be one of them but The What came along. I took a shit in the Brownstoner’s punch bowl, man it’s fells good. Look at the log floating by, that’s you equity going down the drain.”

The What’s in the latte,
And cucumber soup.
He hides in the stroller,
And under the stoop!

And, of late, as economic events have, somewhat inconveniently, lent at least a little credence to The What’s erratic raving—when, last fall, the subprime market failed; when, in March, Bear Stearns went in the tank; when, over the past few months, even the sunniest forecasters have put hankies to their foreheads and admitted that, yes, that might be a gray cloud on the horizon, or even a few gray clouds—The What has been, if not vindicated, then at least accepted. Even occasionally lauded. Even occasionally embraced.

On January 16, under an item headlined “Foreclosures in New and Unusual Places,” the comment: I can’t wait to see what The What says about this.

On March 20, under an item headlined “Closing Bell: Architect of Subprime Crisis Dies,” the comment: I can’t believe I am saying this, but I agree with The What.

On January 17, under an item about a house for sale in Clinton Hill, this comment, like a comic-book exclamation, like the bright sweep of the Bat Signal across a shrouded sky: Where is The What when we need him?

To be fair, reading through the Brownstoner comments, you won’t just find animosity. You won’t just find acrimony, aggression, name-calling, neighborhood-bashing, exotic new curse words employed in inventive combinations, race-baiting, and naked hate. You will also find fear. It’s the drumbeat beneath the symphony. This fear is expressed in different ways, on many different topics. This fear, like a resilient parasite, attaches itself to a variety of hosts. There is fear that your old neighborhood is changing. Fear that your new neighborhood is unsafe. Fear that you waited too long, or got in too late, that you bought at the peak, that your savings are worthless. Fear that your school district is substandard, your block on the decline, your choices were the wrong ones, you can’t go back and fix it now. Fear of roving packs of kids, or rolling herds of strollers. Fear that this isn’t turning out how you thought it would.

Thanks to the fact that, on the Internet, no one can see your face, and everyone knows only as much about you as you choose to reveal (or they choose to believe), the Brownstoner comments are divided most obviously not along race or class, or even Old Brooklyn versus New Brooklyn (because, let’s face it, Old Brooklyn—by which we mean Carroll Gardens lifers, not people who arrived in 1998—aren’t spending all their time on a Website about Brooklyn), but instead are divided along a simple schism: owners versus renters. There is no greater put-down on the Brownstoner boards than to call someone “a bitter renter.” To be branded a bitter renter is to be exiled to the lowest caste. The implication is that you dawdled when others were decisive; you slept while others moved swiftly; you missed out while others struck gold.

All the streams and tributaries of complaint on the site reliably run back into this ocean of anxiety. And The What is just noisily splashing about in these waters; he’s certainly not the only one drinking it up. Other commenters complain that the site is too optimistic. Or they complain that anyone predicting a downturn is only sore because they’re throwing their money away on rent, and so they’re hoping for a crash so they can buy in, too. Or they moan that a million dollars for a fixer-upper in Bed-Stuy is sheer lunacy. Or they sneer that if you can’t make money in this market, it’s because you don’t know how to make money in real estate, as evidenced by the fact that you are a renter. A bitter, bitter renter.

Among these streams, though, you will also find stories, like little pebbles shaped by fear, that you can pick up and examine. Again, you can’t know these commenters’ exact histories. And yet, despite this, or because of it, there these stories are: a thousand daily dramas played out in the comment threads in telling detail, like tiny passion plays of the everyday.

Sometimes the stories are straightforward and transparent. Sometimes they come in impassioned response to an anodyne comment, like the person who wrote, under an item about foreclosures, “I cannot imagine how it feels to know you are losing your home.” To which another commenter responded:

“Can’t imagine what it feels like to know you are losing your home? Why, I imagine it sort of feels like being priced out (i.e., kicked out) of an apartment you’ve lived in for years, and a neighborhood you’ve invested in by shopping there, perhaps planting flowers at the park or joining the PTA or starting a business. But for whatever reason, you couldn’t get a down payment together (maybe you work in a service profession and don’t have family money), and though you worked with acorn and Neighbors Helping Neighbors, and signed up for every housing lottery, the fact is that you couldn’t afford to buy, and you didn’t get lucky, so you rent. Yes, I imagine not being able to pay the mortgage feels, to some extent, like being told that your rent is going up $500 a month because the market has changed, and that you’ll just have to move, and too bad, so move it along. Probably it feels sort of like that.”

Bitter renter.

Other stories are more abstract, sketched out in a sentence or two. Yet they paint the portrait of a neighborhood, or a block, or a wordless exchange at a bodega, better than any newspaper item could hope to do. Like the story, let’s imagine, of a person who, let’s say, paid about $2 million for a brownstone in Boerum Hill (an average price), because she and her husband were told it was getting better and all their friends are moving to Brooklyn anyway. But they’re not too far from the projects and, you know, there are people in the neighborhood who seem kind of shady. She’d prefer not to say exactly why. She understands, and is victim of, what we might call the Gentrifier’s Dilemma: that the people most likely to be acutely aware of the ethical complexities and itchy racial politics of gentrification are also, ironically, the exact same people (white, moneyed, liberal) most likely to be gentrifiers themselves. After all, if you’re a raging right-wing bigot, you’re not going to move to the funky new neighborhood three blocks from a housing project because you love nineteenth-century architecture. No, that’s going to be a person like her—and again, this is all speculation, we can’t know who these faceless voices are—who’s likely to feel slightly uneasy about the men who hang out in front of the corner deli, the one she pops into occasionally if she needs to buy milk but where the selection is pretty terrible, as if they’re not even trying, yet still she smiles and does her best to be courteous, but, truth be told, those people are kind of cold to her (though she would never say this to anyone, not even her husband). She is exactly the kind of person who, when stumbling onto an item on Brownstoner headlined “StreetLevel: Bodega Goes Up in Smoke,” about a deli shut down for selling untaxed cigarettes, might find herself posting in the comments: “I live around the corner from this place and can say it will not be missed. There are always a bunch of sketchy-types hanging out in front.” Or maybe she was the one who wrote, “I live on this block a few houses down and all I can say is good riddance. There are always people hanging around outside that are obviously up to something illegal. No one will miss this place!”

In any case, we can be pretty sure she’s not the person who wrote: “U talk about shady people hanging out in front of the bodega. What makes them shady, because there jus hanging in front. BUT WHEN U FREGAN YUPPIE ARE HANGING OUT IN FRONT OF THE BARS SMOKIN UR F!@#KIN CIGS> NOT CARING ABOUT THE PEOPLE THAT HAVE TO WAKE UP AT 7 AM TO GO TO WORK. KEEP THE NOISE DOWN CAUSE WHEN GET WATER THROWN ON YOU THEN YOU HAVE A REASON TO BE LOUD”—and on and on, so that it’s easy to imagine these angry words encased in a thought bubble that’s rising from a strange neighbor’s window like a burst of scalding steam.

Yeah, we can be pretty sure she’s not the person who wrote that. In fact, she’s probably never met that person, or talked to that person face-to-face, except here, in the comments on Brownstoner.

The What is a bitter, bitter renter. The What is a ghetto ass punk bitch. The What is a white boy from Idaho. The What is an alien. I have it on good authority that The What is actually a woman. The What is obviously my sister-in-law. The What sees the area around him changing and he can’t handle it. The What is a broker from Lodi, New Jersey, who has been trolling Brownstoner for nearly a year, trying to scare people in Brooklyn to move to the suburbs. The What is missing a chromosome. The What used to work on Wall Street. The What looks like Mickey Rourke before the plastic surgery. The What is on vacation in Orlando with the wife and kids. The What is not one person. The What is online performance art. On the weekends, he serves as a stunt double in porno mags. The What is officially MIA. The What is dead. The What is back. The What is not seeming so psycho now.

The What is our hero.

I am literally bursting with juvenile excitement—I have seen ‘the What.’ ” So started a comment posted on March 27, in the middle, incongruously, of a discussion about an item titled “Atlantic’s Successful Antics.” The comment continued: “I opened up a Bloomberg video story about Neighborhood Assistance Corp. protestors invading Bear Stearns lobby yesterday and there was a pudgy, middle-aged white dude with a ‘Someday This War Is Going to End’ sign held over his head … the disconnect between the guy and his posting style is just hysterical and highlights just what a terribly conflicted medium blogs can be.”

He startled the neighbors,
He gave them a fright.
But soon they were crying,
“What if The What’s right?”

Naturally, this discovery incited some interest among other commenters, who’ve made a sport of trying to create a portrait of The What, like FBI profilers feverishly assembling scraps of clues to trap a serial killer. When word of the video spread—and the same poster, apparently, sowed news of it all over various threads—other readers scrambled to examine the evidence, dissecting it as though it were the Zapruder film. Only to find that … well … if you squint … there is this one guy, though not really …

“ARGH!! I have been looking for the story, but I only find a report (not video) and a different man with another sign. I guess The What has friends in high places and got it taken down…?”

“The only such sign I can make out in the video says, ‘This War Isn’t Over.’ ”

“Can someone point me to the thread where The What was outed?”

“No, because it never actually happened.”

And then The What chimed in with a long comment on equity loans, ending with, “Last but not lease, I was not at Bear Sterns yesterday. I wish I was there. That shows you how bad thing are. Wake up!”

The What, ever elusive, had slipped their grasp again.

Of the many theories floated about The What, a few seem like wishful thinking (the oft-repeated speculation that he’s a white broker in Lodi, New Jersey) and a few seem more credible (that multiple people now post as The What). After all, there’s nothing to stop anyone from simply signing their post “The What.” This multiple-What theory would explain the extraordinary swings in posting style. (An alternate explanation for this, offered by The What himself: He goes on and off his meds.) The What has even claimed other people are stealing his name: When he was confronted about some over-the-top personal attacks against Brownstoner (since deleted), he cried foul, claiming impostors, and reminded everyone that authentic What posts can always be identified by the signer: ”Someday this war is gonna end,” which those posts omitted. Yet if you read through enough of his comments, you’ll notice even this signature changes subtly—“Someday this war will end”; “Someday this war is going to end”; “Someday this war gonna end”—which wouldn’t be notable, especially from someone who writes “reframe from profanity,” except that it is, after all, his signature.

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.

The What You Are Afraid Of