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Malice in Tickle land: down the rabbit hole with David Farrier’s Tickle Friends

An early participant in the saga that became Tickled, Joshua Drummond recounts the online comments, threats and shadow-boxing in the leadup to David Farrier and Dylan Reeve’s acclaimed documentary.

For me, it started with trolling.

David Farrier had just left a message on the Facebook page of Jane O’Brien Media, a company that seemed to exist solely to film and distribute videos of fit young men tickling each other while wearing Adidas gear. It looked like a quirky, fun story and David was hoping to interview the organisers and participants. So far, so Nightline. But the response he got was much weirder than the subject matter. “To be brutally frank, association with a homosexual journalist is not something that will embrace [sic],” the Facebook page replied.

David and I knew each other mostly from hanging out at Wintec Press Club, the Steve Braunias-curated thrice-yearly Hamilton gathering of media luminaries to which I get invited for some reason. We’d bonded over our similar Christian upbringings, a shared love of weird culture, and a passion for The Room. I was a bit offended on David’s behalf, and I do my best to annoy horrible people, so I left a snarky comment on the Jane O’Brien Facebook page, a bit below his.

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It might have ended there: a few comments on a Facebook page, a missed interview opportunity. But the response was just too strange for David to leave alone. It wasn’t just that it was bigoted and cruel; it was that whoever wrote it seemed to be in very deep denial about the stuff they were making. The videos were quite undeniably gay fetish material. That, on its own, wasn’t any kind of problem. Adults can consensually get tickled on camera to their heart’s content, if that’s what they’re into. It was the response that was so interesting. What sort of mind would think that the videos were totes normal, no-homo fun between straight guys, and then abuse an inquiring journo for being queer?

We were about to find out. David and I exchanged a few emails, he recruited some mates from Auckland. We formed an online group we called The Tickle Friends. Together we all started trying to find out what Jane O’Brien’s deal was. Who were they? And why were they so inexplicably homophobic?

It got weird very quickly. We soon realised we were chasing ghosts. It seemed impossible to pin down Jane O’Brien or her representative, Debbie Khun. The more we hunted, the stranger it got. What we found was a mystery involving harassment, abuse, secrets and lies, that stretched back decades to the very early days of the internet. 

Our online group became a way for David and Dylan to report back about the near-daily craziness they were experiencing, and for the rest of us to hunt up nuggets of information and theorise about what was going on. Each new piece of information, each new twist, would spark a new post. The theme of these is best described as “This is fucking mental.” None of us could ever quite believe what we were reading, even though we’d seen all the evidence – hell, we’d turned up a fair bit of it ourselves. It never, ever stopped being surreal. Now that Tickled is out and getting attention, David and Dylan have taken to tweeting screenshots of people who’ve decided that it’s fake.

This is nothing new – the internet has no shortage of people who think they have a special window into the truth because they’ve seen Loose Change or something – but in this case I can sympathise a bit. The story often does seem to be too crazy to be true. But it’s all real.

It was also genuinely frightening. It soon became clear that we were messing with people with near-infinite money and malice. When David started to post about the increasing darkness of the threats he and Dylan were getting, and the private investigators started showing up at his door, we all got pretty spooked. Our emails and forum messages to each other started to feature sign-offs like “be careful”. One of the forms of cyberbullying our invisible antagonists were fondest of was buying domain names relating to the names of people they didn’t like and creating websites filled with slander. A bunch of us took the precaution of buying our own before we could be beaten to it, which is why I have the vanity URL joshuadrummond.com, in case anyone was wondering.

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Tickling in Adidas gear

As we kept digging, I couldn’t be as involved as I’d have liked. My distance from Auckland and my day job proved infuriatingly limiting. I did manage to a do a bit of  investigation, including interviewing an (initially understandably suspicious, later incredibly helpful) American ex-journalist over Skype, and stumbling across a document that turned out to be fairly critical later in the piece. (There’s even a screenshot of it in Tickled – I involuntarily yelped with delight when I saw it on screen.) After a while I stepped back my involvement and became a story voyeur. It was fantastic – I got to see David and Dylan and the others piece all the bits together, and I watched the story get bigger and bigger. I thought it had reached its zenith when I was at a mate’s place and I saw a notification pop up on my phone.

“Holy shit!” I yelled. “Stephen Fry just backed the tickling doco on Kickstarter!”

Of course, it got much bigger than that. What we expected to be a view-on-demand doco for a few Kickstarter backers and interested randoms turned out to be a bona-fide smash-hit at Sundance, a critical darling now distributed around the world. And, excellently, my name is in the end credits. It’s a good feeling, and what makes it even better is that Tickled is a fantastic film, with all the twists and turns of a truly mad true story lovingly laid bare. You owe it to yourself to see it.

I’ve been thoroughly and deliberately vague about all the stuff the Tickle Friends discovered and talked and blogged about. If you really want, you can easily find nearly everything to do with Tickled in a few minutes on the internet. If you don’t already know what went down, you should definitely not do this. It’d be like reading the Wikipedia summary of Game of Thrones instead of watching the actual show. It’s a fantastic bit of investigative journalism, and an incredibly entertaining, pitch-dark tale, all in one. After you’ve done this, feel free to do a bit of digging yourself. Just don’t get stuck in the rabbit hole. It goes down a long, long way.