How The Internet Failed Jessi Slaughter

The target of 4chan’s trolling became a viral video in 2010. Now, the person formerly known as Jessi Slaughter talks about life after viral infamy.

“You dun goofed!” was the line that turned Jessi Slaughter into a meme. It was the opening of a video that went accidentally viral, and was seen more than a million times in just a few weeks in 2010. Jessi was in elementary school. In the video, Jessi wears a zebra-striped T-shirt and cries while Gene Leonhardt (Jessi’s dad), down one one knee, screams into the camera, pointing his finger. “I know who it’s coming from, because I backtraced it… you’ve been reported to the cyberpolice… And if you come near my daughter, guess what? Consequences will never be the same.” Gene Leonhardt's malapropisms and bumbling misunderstanding of the internet only fanned the passions of the very trolls he was trying to ward off.

Jessi Slaughter now identifies as Damien Leonhardt and prefers they/them pronouns (the surname Slaughter was always sort of a nom de emo). Damien talked with BuzzFeed’s Internet Explorer podcast about how the video impacted their life and why the internet in 2010 was such a mean place.

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Leonhardt’s over-the-top rant made the video blow through the tiny corner of the internet that birthed it to find a more mainstream audience, one that was just happy to chuckle at a funny video during the office lunch break. The video was picked up by a number of blogs and websites (including a nascent BuzzFeed), and eventually the family even made an appearance on Good Morning America.

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However, the series of events that led up to the video was far more disturbing than people who got a mild laugh out of “you dun goofed” realized. Damien, as “Jessi Slaughter,” was a big emo music fan and was active on Myspace and Stickam, a streaming video platform popular with teens and emo scene kids (somewhat similar to today’s YouNow live-streaming platform). A site called StickyDrama acted as a sort of gossip page to discuss various popular live-streamers.

Someone on StickyDrama wrote a post claiming that Jessi Slaughter had hooked up with the singer of a popular emo band, Blood on the Dance Floor. It scolded and condemned the 11-year-old for promiscuity. It was spurious internet gossip meant to slut-shame a young girl. Jessi denied the allegations.

The singer, whose stage name is Dahvie Vanity, was about 25 at the time, and Damien was a child. This wasn’t a rumor about a groupie and a rock star; it was a suggestion of sexual assault. When BuzzFeed spoke with Damien, they told us they could not discuss this topic (persistent rumors still maintain that Vanity had sexual contact with other very young fans).

The allegation, along with Jessi's brash and profanity-laced YouTube videos, attracted the attention of 4chan, whose members began a trolling campaign. (Damien believes someone from school originally posted the video to 4chan.) It was this harassment — of a possible victim of a heinous crime — that led Damien’s father to scream into the camera.

The video came out over summer vacation, so the impact on Damien’s school life wasn’t immediate. However, when they came back that fall, things had changed. “I kind of lost all my friends and had to make new friends,” Damien says. “I had a clique of friends — the emo kids — in sixth grade, and none of them wanted anything to do with me after."

Life was not kind to Damien in the following years. Not long after the video, they were placed into foster care. “My dad was really abusive toward me and my mom,” says Damien. “You kind of saw the anger issues with him [in the video], and that put extra stress on the family, which made him even angrier.” In 2011, their father died of a heart attack, and in 2012, Damien moved back in with their mother in a small town in Florida.

In all that time, the harassment never totally stopped. “At first it was just comments on YouTube and stuff like that,” says Damien. “And that was like, well, it's public and people are dicks. But when people are actively seeking your stuff out to send you hateful messages and harass you, that's scarier to me.”

Six years later, Damien has some perspective on what happened. They have an active Tumblr, where despite occasional trolling, they have found a positive community. They get Tumblr messages from people asking for advice and help dealing with harassment. “I want to use my experiences to help other people, and also to help myself grow as a person and to get more involved with things that can help other people.”

The internet is a very different place now that it was in 2010. Somehow, in the years in between, it has become something of a more compassionate place. The way we understand patterns of harassment has completely changed. Cyberbullying isn’t just something you hear about on the news relating to teenagers — online harassment is a very real issue, even to many adults.

No one knows this better than Damien. “Nowadays, people are a lot more understanding that, yes, there's a person behind that photo, there's a person behind that video,” they say. “It’s not just a funny picture that has no meaning when you share things. It has a meaning to the person who put it there. We're connected; it's not just a cold screen. But even now, I feel like people still sort of don't understand completely that what they do has an impact. Even if you're not meaning it to be harassing or harmful, it still has an impact.”

Listen to BuzzFeed's Internet Explorer podcast's interview with Damien, part 1 of our series on years that changed the internet:

Subscribe to the Internet Explorer podcast on iTunes.


This post was updated to remove Damien Leonhardt's name at their request.

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