This Is Not A Game: How the legend of Ong’s Hat foretold the modern internet

In his newest podcast, This Is Not A Game, award-winning journalist and documentary maker Marc Fennell explores the internet’s first conspiracy theory – the legend of Ong’s Hat.

The six-episode documentary podcast investigates the unexplored world of tech hippies, eccentric web subcultures, and simmering paranoia, and follows Fennell as he uncovers how this tongue-in-cheek artistic experiment backfired on its creator and went on to influence much of what’s wrong with the internet today.

Podcast Week’s Tess Connery caught up with Fennell ahead of the Audible podcast’s launch.

What was it about the legend of Ong’s Hat that caught your attention? How did this whole project come about?

Fennell: “I’ve spent more than a decade covering the internet and technology through my other work, and it occurred to me that when it comes to technology, we often talk about the present and the future. We very rarely talk about how it is that we got here.

“It’s a bloody weird story. The basic gist of it is that in the early days of the Internet, you’ve got this engineer who starts a joke amongst nerds that in the middle of the woods is a shack where a bunch of renegade scientists attempt to build a portal to another world in the shape of an egg. It’s objectively crazy, but the thing is, everyone who was online at that point kind of got it.

“The thing that stood out to me is that it is a cautionary tale. You and I both know that the internet today is a complete trash fire – it’s never been easier to distrust each other. And it struck me that this was a cautionary tale, because everything bad about the incident today, we were warned with this story. This tale is absolutely a parable from the past that could have warned us about how we got here.”

How did you approach the research on this project? The early internet is a whole other beast, how much of it was still around for you to find?

Fennell: “One of the reasons this conspiracy theory was so intoxicating for people is that the puppet master, Joe, would put out little breadcrumbs of real and fake, and people who got sucked into it really felt like they had to investigate, they had to engage. They had to do a bit of work.

“That means they have a sense of engagement, they’re like, I discovered this, I did my own research, which meant that there was a sense of pride. So people kept a lot of stuff, people kept their memorabilia and the bits of pieces of information they’d acquired. That made it a little bit easier to keep track of.”

You have a few podcasts under your belt now. What is it that keeps you coming back to audio projects?

Fennell: “The really interesting thing with audio is that the listener is an active participant, because they are using their imagination to create the world. We’ve gone harder with sound design on This Is Not A Game than any other project I’ve ever been involved in. It’s easily the trippiest, most enveloping audio experience of anything I’ve ever made – the whole idea was to pull people into the rabbit hole.

“What was super important for this series more than any was to create that that sense of getting lost in the woods with you and your imagination. That’s one of those moments, one of those ways in which audio is just so powerful, because it employs your own imagination as a listener.”

What do you hope people take away from This Is Not A Game?

Fennell: “We all share responsibility for the internet, because it’s now so big and so ubiquitous, and it connects us all. It was built as a reflection of certain human tastes and certain human ideas about how we should interact, but now it belongs to all of us. If we want the internet to be less of a trash fire, if we want the internet to be a more trustworthy place, it is now it is no longer just the responsibility of tech companies and government – although they play a role.

“We also have to change how we behave and we treat other people online. There is a transference that’s occurred on our watch from theirs to ours. I think we all have a responsibility to cultivate the web that we want.”

[Listen to This Is Not A Game here]