Once upon a time, New Zealand journalist David Farrier, who specializes in human interest and oddball pop culture stories, came upon weird clips online of young athletic males tickling each other while tied up, and decided to investigate it as a possible story to cover. Then it got weird. (OK, more weird.) The result is the documentary Tickled.

As soon as Farrier and his sidekick Dylan Reeve make innocent inquiries at the website where the videos seem to originate, they are warned away, insulted, and harassed by the alleged owner of the company making the videos—“Jane O’Brien”—as well as a “Debbie Kuhn” who is apparently some assistant or someone else in the organization. Then lawyers are sicced on them, and finally three representatives of some kind from the organization fly all the way to New Zealand for a “good cop/bad cop” meeting with Farrier and Reeve wherein they alternately assure them how they’re on their side and just want to help them avoid getting hurt, and harshly let them know that “Jane” has the deep pockets to ruin their lives through lawsuit harassment if they don’t walk away from this story immediately.

(“Jane” and “Debbie,” by the way, are never seen, but are just names on the Internet. “Jane” seems to be a new name for a “Terri DiSisto” or “TerriTickle” who previously produced similar videos, but that person too was never seen except for one photo of a college-age blonde that was claimed to be her. If you have any experience with the Internet at all, you already know that the chances that “Jane,” “Debbie,” of for that matter “Terri” are actually a woman or women, and not some guy or a group of crooked businesspeople/pornographers, are less than 1%.)

The journalists are now more curious than ever what the heck is going on with these tickle videos that is so worth hiding, not to mention they are offended by the insulting and bullying, so they move forward with their investigation.

But they find that virtually no one is willing to talk to them. Not “Jane” and “Debbie” obviously, but almost no one else involved either. It sounds like they contacted dozens if not hundreds of young men who participated in the videos, as well as others involved in the enterprise in one way or another, but they can make very little progress because person after person is evidently too scared to talk to them.

Why are they so scared? Because apparently “Jane” and company are every bit as aggressive and threatening toward those who ever made the mistake of getting involved in these videos as they are toward these journalists.

Their specialty is cyber harassment. They blackmail the participants to not quit and to certainly never talk about what they experienced by threatening to flood the Internet with their tickle videos and to send them to their family members, employers, etc., as well as to use other tactics such as identity theft to get them in a great deal of trouble.

The thing about blackmail, though, is that typically the threat is a lot more powerful than the action. Once you actually carry out the threat, you’ve lost your leverage. The victims no longer have the incentive to do what you want them to do, because doing so will no longer prevent what you were threatening (since you’ve already done it). Not to mention, now you’re the one who could get in trouble for whatever harm you’ve caused.

But “Jane,” et al, seem to be very quick on the trigger. They don’t just threaten to ruin people’s lives through this kind of cyber harassment, but in multiple cases they actually did it. Yet with few exceptions the victims are still afraid to speak out. (Perhaps as bad as what they suffered is, they believe that “Jane” and company have remaining weapons they haven’t yet used that would be even more harmful.)

So, Tickled is the story of this investigation. Who is “Jane” really? How does this entity make money? (A great deal of money is spent on the participants in the videos, yet no one ever seems to be charged to see the videos. Most are supposedly for “Jane’s” private collection, whereas those of the people who cross “Jane” are plastered all over the Internet for free.) Is there instead some non-monetary explanation for why these videos are being made? How far has the harassment and abuse of non-cooperative ex-participants gone, and how much more has been threatened? Will the journalists themselves be harmed?

Eventually the journalists find someone making similar videos who is totally cooperative about explaining what he does, and why and how he does it, and we get a taste of what the story was expected to be at the beginning: Let’s take a look at an oddball practice, apparently a sexual fetish of some kind, and the people who practice it, in order to better understand an unusual part of our culture and to have a few laughs in the process.

What’s interesting is that in the context of this movie I felt that slowed things down noticeably. That is, if indeed that was all the story had ever developed into then it might have made a somewhat engaging documentary (or more likely short film or print piece), but here it means stepping away from telling the story of the investigation right as it is becoming the most compelling.

I won’t give away all that the investigation reveals, but I will say that most or all of the main questions are eventually answered, so it’s satisfying in that sense. Ironically, the case is cracked when the perpetrator(s) commit a major cyber blunder and inadvertently upload a massive amount of incriminating evidence. Then some supplementary information is provided by a surprisingly talkative relative.

Tickled is well put together. The story is told effectively, it is suspenseful without being artificially sensationalized, and there’s a little humor or whimsy thrown in here and there.

It provokes plenty of thought, mostly about just how vulnerable people are nowadays to cyber bullies and cyber terrorists like this.

It really is fairly easy now to obtain information, photos, videos, whatever that will embarrass or hurt someone if disseminated, and that dissemination itself has become massively easier due to the Internet.

I’ve thought about this, and I wonder if the one saving grace is that because it’s so damn easy it’s constantly being done, and thus the harm is being watered down.

That is, if you’re a middle-aged woman and someone has an incriminating photo of you giving a blow job when you were a drunk high school or college kid, as much as you don’t want that displayed, wouldn’t you rather it happen when there are about a million such things being displayed than when yours would be pretty much the only one?

I’m not at all saying there’s no longer any harm in having your privacy invaded by someone intent on embarrassing and humiliating you, but I think the harm has been mitigated modestly by the ubiquity of this form of harassment.

Anyway, Tickled is decidedly weird, occasionally funny, scary at times, satisfying in its denouement, and overall a worthwhile documentary.

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