AskReddit asked recently: If you could only give an alien one thing to help them understand the human race, what would you give them?
At the time I had no good answer. Now I do. I would give them Charlotte Lennox’s write-up of how MsScribe took over Harry Potter fandom (warning: super-long but super-worth-it).
Ozy informs me that everyone else in the world read this story five years ago. Maybe I am hopelessly behind the times? Maybe all my blog readers are intimately familiar with it?
If not, read it. Read it like an anthropological text. Read it like you would a study of the Yanomamo. No, read it even better than that. Read it like you would a study of the Yanomamo if you knew that, statistically, some of your friends and co-workers covertly become Yanomamo after getting home every evening.
I hesitate to summarize it, because people will read my summary and ignore the much superior original. I would not recommend that. But if you insist on skipping the (admittedly super-long) link above, here is what happens:
In the early 2000s, Harry Potter fanfiction authors and readers get embroiled in an apocalyptic feud between people who think that Harry should be in a relationship with Ginny vs. people who think Harry should be in a relationship with Hermione. This devolves from debate to personal attacks to real world stalking and harassment to legal cases to them splitting the community into different sites that pretty much refuse to talk to each other and ban stories with their nonpreferred relationship.
These sites then sort themselves out into a status hierarchy with a few people called Big Name Fans at the top and everyone else competing to get their attention and affection, whether by praising them slavishly or by striking out in particularly cruel ways at people in the “enemy” relationship community.
A young woman named MsScribe joins the Harry/Hermione community. She proceeds to make herself popular and famous by use of sock-puppet accounts (a sockpuppet is when someone uses multiple internet nicknames to pretend to be multiple different people) that all praise her and talk about how great she is. Then she moves on to racist and sexist sockpuppet accounts who launch lots of slurs at her, so that everyone feels very sorry for her.
At the height of her power, she controls a small army of religious trolls who go around talking about the sinfulness of Harry Potter fanfiction authors and especially MsScribe and how much they hate gay people. All of these trolls drop hints about how they are supported by the Harry/Ginny community, and MsScribe leads the campaign to paint everyone who wants Harry and Ginny to be in a relationship as vile bigots and/or Christians. She classily cements her position by convincing everyone to call them “cockroaches” and post pictures of cockroaches whenever they make comments.
Throughout all this, a bunch of people are coming up with ironclad evidence that she is the one behind all of this (this is the Internet! They can just trace IPs!) Throughout all of it, MsScribe makes increasingly implausible denials. And throughout all of it, everyone supports MsScribe and ridicules her accusers. Because really, do you want to be on the side of a confirmed popular person, or a bunch of confirmed suspected racists whom we know are racist because they deny racism which is exactly what we would expect racists to do?
MsScribe writes negatively about a fan with cancer asking for money, and her comments get interpreted as being needlessly cruel to a cancer patient. Her popularity drops and everyone takes a second look at the evidence and realizes hey, she was obviously manipulating everyone all along. There is slight sheepishness but few apologies, because hey, we honestly thought the people we were bullying were unpopular.
MsScribe later ended up switching from Harry Potter fandom to blogging about social justice issues, which does not surprise me one bit. But let me do some social justice blogging of my own.
A lot of the comments I have seen discussing the issue say “Yeah, teenage girls will be teenage girls”.
Two responses seem relevant. First, quite a few of the people involved seem to have been in their late twenties or early thirties.
But second and more important, I am a guy and this story speaks to me because it is eerily similar to the story of my online life with a bunch of other guys when I was between about ages fifteen and twenty-two.
I’ve mentioned before how I spent long portions of my life in the interactive geofiction/”micronation” community. And because of the innate urge for self-presentation, I emphasized the part where we create amazing grand-scale fictional universes in which we enact epic battles and build civilizations from the ground up. And not the part where we behave like ridiculous little children having a hissy fit.
The first constructed country I was ever in, another guy named John from my school comes in and says that I am a bad leader and abusing my power. Because my online handle at the time was Giant_Squid314, he classily nicknames me “Squitler” and leads a bunch of his supporters to make “Squitler” related comments at everything I do. Then he and his friends secede to start their own country, named after a Red Hot Chili Peppers album. I retaliate by convincing his friends that he is oppressing them and they need to start a communist revolution to kick him out of the country, which works. Later he gets back in and convinces his friends to join my country under fake names, swelling the ranks of voters with people who are there just to vote for the worst policies in order to destroy the country. This becomes so bad that my friend Evan pulls a bloodless coup to abolish democracy and make himself sole leader, but then he cracks down so hard on John’s supporters that everyone gets upset and leaves (“emigrates”). This upsets my friend Bill, who somehow hacks John and tries to delete all his stuff; John counterhacks Bill and destroys his country. Then we all team up with a bunch of guys from Ireland, infiltrate John’s country and destroy it the same way he destroyed us as an act of revenge.
All this happened within about three months real-time, and I was in this hobby for ten years. Ten years.
There was an entire era when people would accuse other people of having said racist things on IRC (where logs were often unavailable, and context was absent). This would then be followed with the demand that every political ally of the affected person shun him forever and kick him out of the country and destroy every institution he had built, or else obviously they were secretly racist themselves. This was met with the only possible response: “actually, no, you’re the one who said racist things on the chat!”. These accusations often resembled the MsScribe story in their sheer not-entirely-social-justice-movement-approved incongruity: “You’re racist, and you’re a fat lardass!” “Oh yeah? Well you’re a f**king homophobic autistic Aspie who will never get laid!” Inevitably the more popular person would win and anyone so foolish as to defend the unpopular person (which I kept doing, because I never learn) was banished to Racist Hell. As for Actual Hell, there was a guy named Archbishop Fenton who kept saying really extreme Christian stuff about how we were all going there, and although we all suspected he was a sockpuppet I was never able to figure out whose.
So MsScribe? I’ll give her this: she was a gifted amateur. That is it. An amateur. We had frickin’ decade-old “intelligence organizations” whose entire job was to collect a network of spies – some real people, some sock puppets – who would join other people’s countries under fake (or real!) identities, get information on their secret plans, and throw important elections in favor of the parties we supported. I’m not even ashamed of my role leading one of the largest of these organizations, Shireroth’s spy bureau S.H.I.N.E. – if we had unilaterally disengaged from these kinds of games, we would have been demolished by people who didn’t.
I remember our scandals. We would build up “dossiers” on various individuals, then publicize them at times calculated to cause maximum damage. One of my favorite was when a prominent female politician was revealed to in fact be male – causing her support to plummet among the key “people who do whatever a girl says in the hopes that she will like them” demographic. In another, which happened a bit after my semi-retirement, the micronational world’s largest communist country, with thirty highly active citizens and a prominent international role, was found to be just one guy posting under thirty different names.
As leader of an espionage organization, I was expected to be able to avoid these damaging revelations, advise my countrymen on how to do the same, and run circles around my enemies. Without tooting my own horn too much, I maintained my most successful character for the better part of a year. This was a guy named Yvain, who infiltrated a Celtic-themed fantasy state called the Duchy of Goldenmoon, took it over, took over its largest neighbor, and was halfway to ultimate power over the entire continent before I got accepted to medical school and decided I should probably reassess how I was using my time.
(to create a paper trail and avoid breaking character, I used the nick “Yvain” for a lot of the websites I joined around this period, which is why half the Internet still knows me by that name. I am suitably embarassed by this)
Now I will say this for us boys – and we were boys, like 95% of us, and even the girls were usually found to be boys after careful investigation. We did it with class, we did it with cool names like “Paramountgate” and “The Three Hours’ War”, we wrote up our petty scandals into epic history books with bibliographies and appendices, and we backstabbed each other so elegantly it would make Machiavelli shed a single tear of pure joy. But in the end? We behaved exactly like teenage girls in a Harry Potter fandom.
It is hard at this point not to be reminded of the Robbers’ Cave experiment. Social psychologists divided boys at a camp into two groups, intending to do some experiments in order to figure out what they needed to do to make the groups hate each other, only to learn that the boys had already started hating each other with the burning fire of a thousand suns while they were busy planning the experiments. They boys had even formed little group identities, like “Our group are the rough and street-smart ones, the other group is a bunch of holier-than-thou goody-goodies” (the groups were chosen at random).
I read a lot of psychology even as a teenager, so it never surprised me that separating people out into different fictional countries would have the same effect.
But it did kind of surprise me that you could get quite those depths of hatred between people who thought that a fictional wizard should hook up with his best friend, versus other people who who thought he should hook up with his other best friend’s little sister. Every time I feel like my opinion of people is sufficiently low, I get new evidence making me bump it lower.
Anyway, once those depths of hatred are established, they will proceed in the same way among twenty-somethings trying to discuss Harry Potter romantic pairings, teenagers trying to run fictional countries, and Senators trying to pass vitally important legislation. And that’s why, if aliens ever requested exactly one item to teach them about the human race, I would give them the MsScribe story.
They’d kill us all, of course. They would sterilize Earth so thoroughly that not even the archaeobacteria would remain. But in the moment before I was vaporized, I would feel like our species had finally been understood.