In the hacking context, owning someone is all about a display of superior technological abilities. When the word migrated from hacking to gaming, “owned” became a mantra for those who had mastered the game play or bested opponents. Now it extends to rhetorical force — a well-timed and withering joke or an irrefutable debate line. After the “Saturday Night Live” comedian Leslie Jones was hacked — her private photographs were stolen and spread across the web — Complex magazine’s Daniel Barna said that she “owned her hackers” in an “S.N.L.” monologue.
Ownage radiates power. “Owned” and its derivative, “pwned” (pronounced any number of ways, but mostly “poned”), are bits of leetspeak — “leet” as in “elite.” If pidgin languages create a simplified slang to foster cross-cultural communication, leetspeak deliberately complicates the root language, replacing letters with numbers and symbols and swapping characters. It’s an ideal code for people who believe their mastery of the internet has raised them to a higher plane of existence. “Pwnage” creates an in-group and an out-group, and furthers the fetishization of specialized knowledge down to the level of casual conversation.
The mainstreaming of “owned” has always come with a bit of a wink, an acknowledgment that those most eager to lord their superior knowledge over others often have the biggest blind spots. That was the dynamic that fueled the hacker zines, in which the owners got owned. As the usage of “owned” spread, it also was mixed with stereotypes of hackers and gamers as being socially awkward. That underlying paradox of the gamer persona fueled the long-running web series “Pure Pwnage,” which followed a kid named Jeremy who was highly skilled at video games but a failure at real life. Now ownage communicates dominance, but it also belies an underlying impotence.
Amanda Hess, “Identity Theft”, The New York Times Magazine (2 April 2017), 13.