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We Can't Fix The Internet

We Can't Fix The Internet
Illustration: Sam Woolley, Photo: Shutterstock
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As a teenager in the early 2000s, I was a member of a large, passionate, and loosely affiliated community of Harry Potter lovers (known, like other, similar communities, as a fandom), mostly gathered on LiveJournal. We discussed the books and characters; we wrote fanfiction and long diatribes about the movie adaptations; and we formed friendships and relationships with one another from behind our keyboards.

One particularly memorable community member was a poster named MsScribe. MsScribe was, like most of us, just one of the large group of fans who found a community on LiveJournal. But she wanted to be a Big Name Fan — a small-scale celebrity whose posts and stories would be read by hundreds, if not thousands, of Harry Potter fans online.

To accomplish this task, she created a web of fake accounts. Some were her biggest supporters; others endlessly harassed her. It was an incredibly delicate and involved ecosystem of sockpuppets that she developed over the course of four years, and it worked. By 2006, MsScribe was one of the best known contributors to the LiveJournal community.

And then it all came crashing down. My peers and I were getting sick of the months of MsScribe drama dominating an already dramatic fandom, and one anonymous user got fed up enough to take action: they posted an eleven-page document on her trickery. The evidence against MsScribe was exhaustive. Afterward, others came forward to fact-check the work. People checked IPs, cross-checked the journals she made and populated for her sock puppets, compared typing styles. The resultant post was filled with screenshots, links to specific overlooked journal entries, specific dates when specific blow-ups happened.

These days, that sort of post is called a “callout,” and it seems to happen every day.

Back in 2006, people were shocked and couldn’t figure out how it all had happened. How could everyone have been hoodwinked so badly? For me, the answer lay not in MsScribe’s skill as a liar and manipulator, but in the culture and structure of the community she’d taken advantage of. As one user commented at the time, “MsScribe started the ball rolling, but she didn’t do all her dirty work alone. She exploited things that already existed in fandom.”

MsScribe knew how people in the fandom talked, what controversies they would feed upon—so she manufactured it. Her narrative had the perfect twist ending, too: the callout post. We had never seen anything like it before.

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While the LiveJournal of Harry Potter fandom may have fallen, its insular, heavily policed culture has spread across the internet, taking root in social networks orders of magnitude larger than LiveJournal ever was. In fact, the story of MsScribe feels less like a weird moment on an older, smaller internet than an object lesson in the basic principles of how internet communities behave, even now, over a decade later.

The spirit of MsScribe—both her deception and her persecution—looms large in my memory. It now feels prophetic to me, a template for how conversations online happen: in bursts of anger, or in dramatic inquisition, or in obsessive vitriol bordering on harassment. Our online platforms reward drama; we love to deify people like MsScribe and other e-celebs of the modern day just as much as we love to see their destruction, their inevitable comebacks, and their takedowns, over and over again.

Tabloid journalist Rita Skeeter is a fitting an avatar of all of Online.
Tabloid journalist Rita Skeeter is a fitting an avatar of all of Online.
Screenshot: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Warner Brothers)

The primary tools of the ascent remain the same, and so do the tools used to orchestrate an e-celeb’s decline. They are the callout post—a list of evidence designed to get rid of somebody for good—and the shitpost—dank memes and good gags. These have been the behavioral ticks of fandom since the early days of the internet, and they persist on platforms that make everything we do feel like a matter of fandom, to this day.

But the celebrities that we deify and destroy aren’t just small-time fandom names like MsScribe. As we’ve witnessed the rise of the Tea Party and UKIP, watched black women on Twitter unmask hundreds of accounts impersonating black feminists to undermine them, elected Donald Trump, adopted the phrase “fake news” into our vocabularies, watched neo-Nazis run over protesters, and watched Twitter verify then un-verify the neo-Nazi rally’s organizer, it’s become more and more clear the extent to which discussion across the largest platforms for expression online is broken. Users across social media seem to treat political figures, neo-nazi organizers, and political issues in general like yet another problematic fandom to be dispatched by callouts and shitposts.

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I believe a lot of this goes back to two influential websites: LiveJournal, the home of MsScribe and her network of sockpuppets, and Something Awful, a humor site with an enormous and infamous forum. On the surface, these two communities couldn’t be more different: LiveJournal was a diary service that became a hub for fandom — especially around fantasy and sci-fi like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Harry Potter — where expressing enthusiasm and joy was the norm. Something Awful, on the other hand, was a humor site that became best known for its large and aggressive forum on which the dominating tone tended towards cruel mockery.

Something Awful was created by Richard “lowtax” Kyanka in 1999. By the early 2000s, it was where memes and internet celebrities got their start. In its heyday, people went to Something Awful’s forums to chat about their often nerdy interests — mostly videogames, sometimes anime, and as often as not, their lives. This was the place where You’re The Man Now Dog, All Your Base Belong to Us, and the Let’s Play was born.

One thing distinguished Something Awful from many other forums: In order to create an account, you needed to pay $10. The idea, beyond paying for the site’s upkeep, was that the fee stopped people from trolling or posting bad content. On Something Awful, shitposting, or posting without merit, was forbidden. Doing it enough could get you banned from the site, effectively losing you your ten bucks. It was a way of policing behavior and avoiding trolls.

This poorly translated dialogue from the video game Zero Wing ended up being an enduring internet joke in the early 2000s.
This poorly translated dialogue from the video game Zero Wing ended up being an enduring internet joke in the early 2000s.
Screenshot: Zero Wing (Taoplan)

Shitposting was allowed in specific circumstances, and ironically, those circumstances still involved policing the Something Awful community. If a person on the board stepped out of line — if they broke the forum’s written or unwritten rules; if they demonstrated their unworthiness; if they revealed themselves to have values that placed them outside the group’s community — all bets were off. Shitposting was no longer forbidden. It became a fucking purge. You spammed and roasted maniacally and obsessively until the thread was dead and the original poster got shamed off the site. Shitposting was outlawed to improve day-to-day socializing, but it was also encouraged as a way to enforce the social rules of Something Awful — just as the callout post did for LiveJournal users.

The structures and mechanics of the endless purges and infighting of Something Awful could be vicious, but they were hardly unique. When MsScribe turned out to be a fraud, LJ users shitposted in their unique Harry Potter fandom way in the comments of the callout post. Some commenters rewrote the post as an epic poem; others wrote fanfiction. MsScribe had gotten called out, so she had to be shitposted out of existence.

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Something Awful has changed a lot since the early 2000s, and LiveJournal, now owned by a Russian company, is almost dead in the U.S. But it isn’t as if the people and cultures that defined those communities disappeared from the internet. They just moved websites.

In 2007, as LiveJournal started banning accounts that wrote pornographic fanfiction about characters that were under 18 (yes, this was a huge controversy), I started my first Tumblr account. It was where most of my friends were going, it had the same kind of journal-esque format, and it was the centerpoint for fannish activity on the internet. Around the same time, Something Awful Goons found that Twitter could provide them with an even bigger audience for the obscure deadpan-performance humor they loved. Meanwhile, 4chan’s founder also started out as a Something Awful Goon. For good and for ill, the refugees of LiveJournal and Something Awful set the tone for the newer websites they adopted.

The trappings of LiveJournal and Something Awful — the shitposting, the callout posts, and the self-made e-celebs who may or may not have created the accounts for their fans and haters — have become entrenched on modern-day social media platforms. The earliest adopters of Twitter were journalists, comedians and Something Awful refugees, and many of the people who gave Tumblr its staying power started out on LiveJournal. Whatever design decisions made on these platforms since then have only served to reinforce the values that these early adopters brought to the sites.

Twitter is perfect for disseminating breaking news or great new bits, but it’s also even easier to shitpost someone into oblivion, although there are no Something Awful-style rules about when you should or shouldn’t go in. Tumblr’s current design of its reblogging system allows callouts and infighting to spiral unchecked, lacking the contained dynamics of LJ’s small, self-policing communities. Neither of these platforms were built for conversation. When we try to make meaningful connections over these platforms, we’re all just ramming square pegs into round holes.

One reason it’s hard to give these behaviors up is that, well, they work — not always, but just often enough. Shitposting and callouts can be good ways to expel toxic people. The problem is that drawing lines around communities, keeping tally of who counts and who doesn’t, who’s in and who’s out, is useful only in a very limited way. As funny as it is to quote-tweet Donald Trump with a gag about his bizarre and erratic tweets, it accomplishes nothing. Mugs that say “covfefe” did not remove him from office, or protect marginalized communities, or raise the minimum wage. But they do demonstrate to other people what fandom you’re in. It isn’t advocacy, it isn’t activism, it’s pure performance. It’s fundamentally the equivalent of saying “you’re in my hopes and prayers,” after a national tragedy. To paraphrase comedian Anthony Jeselnik, all you’re really saying is, “There’s a lot of crazy distractions out there, but don’t forget about me.”

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Screenshot: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (Warner Brothers)

Some of this is a problem of social-network design, where everything is public, permanent, and free of context, a perfect storm of hyperbolic overreaction. But it wouldn’t have arisen like this if the audience for it didn’t exist. The audience was always there. Those old LJers and Goons were the architects of these faulty methods of communication. The saddest part is that, when you get swept up in it, it’s fun. Social media is a form of theater, where we are all simultaneously an audience and participants. We made this bed, and we’re lying in it.

A lot of this internet behavior echoes what we do in real life, but these social media platforms encourage users to take reasonable arguments and distill them into their most digestible and extreme talking points. It is normal try to police our own communities; it is normal to try to demonstrate who is part of an in-group or out-group. We do this to keep ourselves safe and to curate our friend groups, but it in aggregate, it has had the opposite effect.

There’s a difference between warning your friends that this guy who shows up at concerts in your city is a total creepazoid and to a callout post landing in your employer’s inbox because you pissed someone off on Twitter. But every post has been flattened out to the same level of urgency and, yet also, the same level of mundanity.

Much like MsScribe, social media seems to thrive on the endlessly renewable resources of drama and infighting, but there is no callout post big enough to take them down. Every callout, even this one, is just more content.

All forms of discourse on the Internet were born broken. I see no solution to this. You can ban Infowars from any platform you want, but it won’t stop the circular firing squad, nor the design of the platforms that encourages that cycle. If you want to know why looking at the bird site makes your stress levels rise, even when you’re just arguing about what color a dress is, remember: it’s the medium, not the message.