The Yellow Brick Road of Internet Hysteria

Communities have a habit of obsessing over breadcrumb trails.  It’s an impulse within us that goes back far further than the internet.  However, with the advent of social media, this hysteria has been easier to track.  It’s impressive just how quickly these self-proclaimed “detectives” can get to work.  You can always count on teams of basement dwellers to decode any stray ARG.  As I’ve recently stated, this can be a great way of engaging a fan community.  That’s all just marketing though, in essence.  Deep in each of these explorers’ hearts must be a wish that something more hides in the folds of mystery.

This is summed up by the two-year slow burn of the “Eye Sigil” conspiracy.  A puzzle of incredible scope, it captivated an entire community.  It consisted of symbols hidden into over twenty independent video games, all released on Steam.  As it became more clear that they linked together, forming a hieroglyphic Megazoid, froth began to bubble at the mouths of the enigma-hunters.  In fact, it was probably the wide-reaching nature of the whole thing that led to such hysteria in the first place.  The logic was: there must be something huge in the wings with that kind of planning behind it.

eye sigil

Eventually, the detectives’ efforts came to fruition.  From months of hysteria and hard work came an answer.  It turned out the whole affair, which had taken the lives of those drawn into it for over two years, was essentially a troll.  In addition, the only apparent “reward” was access to an obscure, largely text-based, game, Frog Fractions 2.  It was a slap in the face, for the investigators.  Those late to the party could see it as the amusing jibe it is, and an interesting tactic.  Still, it wasn’t much more than a grandly orchestrated joke.  The point is just how intense the Game Detectives spirit became in unravelling it, and the weak payback it furnished.

"Frog Fractions 2", the reward for over two years of work.

“Frog Fractions 2”, the reward for over two years of work.

The “Eye Sigil” ARG and its results are only one of the latest in a string of examples.  In fact, while my next one jumps back to 1973, the compulsion within us probably goes back millennia; where ARGs mutate into mythical treasures and lost lands of lore.  The chase, at the core of these matters, seems to offer a rush we’ve found deeply attractive since our first evolutionary whines.  After all, as one final tangential missive, my dog always seems far more engaged running after a ball than when she eventually catches it.

So, wherever the impulse comes from, humanity finds itself in the solemn cool of the seventies.  Picking up the pieces of the previous decade, and musing on a post-moon landing future, what chase is left for Earth’s middle-class luftmensch?  Cue the invention of The Game in some Los Angeles think-tank.  It really wasn’t too different to the “Eye Sigil” ARG, either.  It just required a bit more movement.  This particular game saw teams put through a gauntlet of location-based puzzles, with a mere $100 as a prize.  The activities were the clear emphasis, over the carrot at the end of the stick.  It was a pretentious way for underground groups of artists to waste time, but would eventually spiral off into a frequent event of wider-reaching appeal.  When it finally caught the attention of journalists, it even culminated in a major motion picture – Midnight Madness.

It’s alive in countless forms today.  Different “games” have spread out all across North America, now so ubiquitous that they lose any elusive fangs their progenitors may have had.  It’s easy to assume that the rewards are similarly small beans, but some of the consequences can be quite dire.  Just wasting someone’s time on trolls like Eye Sigils is a bit cynical and unfair.  It takes a more sinister turn, however, when people turn quadriplegic in the wake of a glorified Easter Egg hunt.  Bob Lord, an admittedly foolish player of a Game spin-off, Shelby Logan’s Run, found himself tumbling down a mineshaft after a misleading clue confused him.

Of course, almost anything from hopscotch to lacrosse can cause injury.  I just feel it’s only right to mention such mishaps, so nobody can say these indulgent rat-races “don’t hurt anybody”.  In truth, The Game and its offshoots are some of the more intriguing and engaging examples of such ARGs.  What really strikes me as outright irresponsible is stringing out an aforementioned chase without ever relinquishing the ball.  If you caught somebody doing that to their dog you’d call them a teasing bastard and question their moralities.  With that said, why is it then okay for an affluent company to lead on their followers with no intention of a conclusion?


It may not have been EMI Records who orchestrated the famous Publius Enigma, but it probably was.  To explain, in 1994 Pink Floyd released their barely notable fourteenth album, The Division Bell.  With honesty, the band had been over the hill since The Wall and there isn’t too much to say about the music within.  It’s okay.  What’s truly of interest, to this article at least, is the elaborate game that somebody staged around it; a game that remains unsolved to this day.

The first rumblings of something happening came in form of an extravagant airship, aptly named named The Division Belle.  In and of itself, this is quite innocuous for a group well-known for ludicrous live antics.  What really pointed toward something else was some odd comments in an accompanying press release:

A spokesperson for Pink Floyd has issued the following statement: You have spotted the Pink Floyd Airship. Do not be alarmed. Pink Floyd have sent their airship to North America to deliver a message. The Pink Floyd Airship is headed towards a destination where all will be explained upon arrival. Pink Floyd will communicate.

Surely enough, by June of 1994, early net-surfers were met with the strange messages of the simply named “Publius”.  Whoever was behind these posts would eventually feel the need to clarify the vagueness of their challenge, spelling things out with a post that would have conspiracy Floydists pissing in their pants for years to come:

AS SOME OF YOU HAVE SUSPECTED, “The Division Bell” is not like its
predecessors. Although all great music is subject to multiple
interpretations, in this case there is a central purpose and a
designed solution. For the ingenious person (or group of persons)
who recognizes this – and where this information points to – a
unique prize has been secreted.
How and Where?
The Division Bell
Listen again
Look again
As your thoughts will steer you
Leading the blind while I stared out the steel
in your eyes.
Lyrics, artwork and music will take you there

What’s most interesting about the whole thing is its authenticity.  Several band members and collaborators have confirmed an official connection to these original posts.  That’s not even mentioning a prediction “Publius” made coming true, when the lighting of a concert shined the words “PUBLIUS ENIGMA” in stark white at the audience.  So where are we at with the Publius Enigma, well over 20 years on from its initial unveiling?  While I’ve already stated that it remains, technically, unsolved, there’s no denying that the facts of the matter are crystal clear in retrospect.


Guess what?  It was, almost certainly, nothing more than some overblown marketing idea kept afloat by the enthusiasm of one nutter.  In an interview for a 2005 book tour, Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason unashamedly alluded to this oddment:

They had a man working for them who adored puzzles. He was working for EMI and suggested that a puzzle be created that could be followed on the Web.  The prize was never given out. To this day it remains unresolved.

He even got pretty up front about the eventual quarry, claiming it to be a “crop of trees planted in a clear cut area of forest or something to that effect”.  Bearing all this in mind, it should be pretty obvious that the Publius Enigma is dead in the water as a fascinating challenge.  That would be so if someone, or perhaps several people enjoying in-jokes, didn’t keep slotting references to it in other official sources.  That way, no matter how many times David Gilmour calls it a “silly record company thing”, there will always be someone devoting too much time to, at its heart, nothing much at all.

Let me bring to the fore yet another example.  In 2015, the internet saw the arrival of a viral video by the name of 11B-X-1371.  It caused quite a stir for a while, in no small part due to its heaps of hidden messages within.  Some people even went as far as to claim it gave them headaches or made them feel nauseous.  Far-fetched conspiracies quickly birthed suggesting that the video was some omen for an impeding threat of “bioterrorism”.  Now, in all honesty, the video can be somewhat uncomfortable to watch.  As a result, I’ll try to give a simple breakdown for the faint of heart not looking for a Ringu experience today.  For those titillated by unsettling imagery, do gouge away:

It’s really only monochrome shots of some lunatic in a tribal gas-mask, set to the soundtrack of cutting white noise.  It’s edited in a twitchy, horror movie kind of way and at one point he holds his hand up to reveal a blinking third eye on his palm.  Described like that its rather laughable, and looking back on it that’s not inaccurate.  Some of the more hidden messages in the video include pictures of mutilated women and the message “you are already dead”.  It’s things like this, and a recurring aggression in the tone to other secrets within, that got people all up in a tizzy about it.  Hopefully by now, dear reader, you can guess what’s coming next.

Art-project.  The entire thing was one big, lumbering and heavy-handed fucking art-project.  It even turned out that the mutilated women dug deep into its creation were stills from violent films or, in one case, the victim of an already infamous killer.  It’s not even that well done really.  The beeps from his palm’s “third eye” are pathetically out of time and Boards of Canada have been telling us we’re already dead since 2002.  Yet again, something of tantalising chicanery would be proven to be a thin and unfulfilling indulgence.  The creator of 11B-X-1371 went as far as to bring out a sequel.  Far less people payed any attention with the knowledge of its underlying pointlessness.


It makes you think about the things yet to be completely disrobed.  Of all the wild theories surrounding Jack the Ripper, it’s far more likely that it was some racist madman with practised blade-skills than a Freemason hired by the Queen to silence royal infidelity.  The transmissions of number stations, well documented by the Conet Project, are probably just telling some lonely spy the best place to buy apples or something.  Yet still, people will throw their lives away in the pursuit of their own imaginations.  Since Forrest Fenn, an art-dealer with an apparent flare for theatrics, buried a reported million dollars-worth of treasure in the Rocky Mountains, four people have gone missing looking for it.  It was only last year that one Randy Bilyeu was found dead after a failed attempt to locate it.  Thing is, does it even really exist?  Did this Fenn fellow bury anything at all?

The most enduring modern myth is probably Cicada 3301.  These slippery bastards pose a bit more of a problem, mostly thanks to the frighteningly dense smokescreen they create around themselves.  Adding that to their relentless reliability at keeping the ball rolling (on an annual basis) and their intimidating scope makes them something to keep an eye on.  It doesn’t help when, unique among the examples I’ve mentioned, there are answers to the Cicada 3301 puzzle readily available to those simply intelligent enough to find them.  That the individuals who have passed these esoteric tests don’t later return to the community with their privileged knowledge is its own slice of remarkable too.


It will be difficult to summarise them in short, but I don’t really want to spend more than a paragraph on something that can easily accumulate volumes of paranoid reddit posts.  At its simplest, the output of Cicada 3301 represents an intricate recruitment tool for those they deem to be “highly intelligent”.  What we do know is that their riddles have focused on steganograpy, cryptography and a love affair with prime numbers that would make Euclid blush.  Those among us with the right inclinations and knowledge can eventually decode the fuck out of it.  Everyone else just searches “steganography” on Wikipedia and wonders if Cicada 3301 will actually form an army and attack anyone.

What’s of note about these elitist games-masters is how much they probably do mean something.  They really are the exception that proves the rule though; most things of its ilk end up in dull territory.  Even Cicada 3301 could meet a new member, fresh off the heels of their own intellectual hysteria, with a rounded lol and an assertion of the futility of it all.  All of this said, what does it really matter when we know the chase is what drives us?  Perhaps, for the moment, ultimate understandings and epiphanies of such salience aren’t meant for the soft fluff of human brains.  Maybe, on some level, it’s best that we skip along the yellow brick road with as much joy as possible.  The inevitable letdown of the Wizard at its end should never even be considered or anticipated.


Instead, find heart, exercise your brain and learn courage in your convictions from the enigmas we encounter.  In tandem with those as puzzled by existence as yourself, you’ll probably find more truths among the myrtle than imagined.  It doesn’t really matter what Publius was on about.  The Eye Sigils were never going to come to anything more than a hipster circle jerk.  Fenn’s million dollar treasure is fuck all really, even if it is genuine.  Whatever Cicada 3301 are up to, have fun exploring their annals, if that would interest you.  However, never break your back in some man-made maze for enlightenment’s sake – in the hysteria you’ll likely never find it.

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