For my last blog, I’m going to talk about something as old as the internet itself; something that, despite existing in the so-called ‘real world’, has been amplified by our instant interconnectivity, for better or for worse. I am, of course, talking about drama.
Internet drama has gone through many names and is a part of many internet subcultures. The one constant is the ridiculous and petty situations, the nasty, personal bullying, and just how fun it is to watch from the side-lines, soaking up the drama while posting popcorn_eating.gifs. Internet drama is the reality tv of the online world, as we wait with bated breath for the next development, name-calling, or opportunity to deploy a sassy reaction gif.
Internet drama is always indicative of the subculture it originates in, and provides an interesting insight into the politics, values, and ideals of a certain community. The ‘Ms Scribe’ saga of the 2004 Harry Potter fandom highlights this. A complex tale of fake accounts, lying about hospital visits, ship wars, and Joe Biden, the ‘Ms Scribe’ saga is far too intricate and detailed to full list here (although I suggest you read this account for more information – and a good laugh), but it does highlight how one person exploited a small community with existing tensions in order to gain popularity.
With big name fans such as Cassandra Clare (now a famous author with a film and a tv show under her belt) idolised by the fandom, one person manipulated, lied, and caused division within a community just to get into the so-called “inner circle”. Not only does this illustrate the ridiculous lengths people will go just to be liked, but also what was considered valuable within the early Harry Potter fandom.
A similar case of fake identity to gain popularity emerged recently in a popular fandom, and the story there is equally bizarre. Last year, it was revealed that a popular fanfiction writer for the musical Hamilton had been lying about who they really were. Posing as an Indian woman with HIV, it turned out this writer was really white, American, and did not have HIV, but had rather lied about their status to make their fanfiction (a High School version of the Hamilton cast where HIV played a prominent part) seem more authentic. This drama swept Tumblr, especially when the whistle-blower on this writer’s identity was not innocent themselves, having written cannibal mermaid Hamilton fanfiction. You can’t make this up.
When both sides of the argument were deemed flawed or problematic, there was nothing better to do than jeer from the side-lines. The actions taken by this hobbyist writer in order to seem more ‘credible’ on their Hamilton fanfiction shows how ideas of diversity can get warped into a popularity contest as certain identities are prized as ‘more valid’. As an anonymous person on the internet, it is easy to fake your identity to gain prestige in a community that values intersectionality and diversity. A community built on ideas of social justice and diversity can become warped through a quest for popularity and influence.
Drama isn’t limited to niche and not-so-niche fandoms. It occurs on every level of the internet, and, at its worse, it even over-spills into the “real” world with real world consequences. At what point is internet drama no longer drama, but something far more sinister and widespread? What may have started as a piece of criticism or argument can quickly spiral out of control into something far more toxic, exposing the worst elements of an internet subculture, and galvanising a group of people originally joined through their love of a certain medium into something more long-lasting, a political movement.
That was ‘Gamergate’.
I’m not sure if “drama” is really the right word for what happened. Conflict, maybe? Complete and utter hellfire of misogynistic harassment and abuse? Pretty much. The origins of ‘Gamergate’ don’t really matter, as the cries of “ethics in gaming journalism” never really mattered. It was a weak attempt to legitimise the ugly and disgusting bullying of women who dared occupied a space that was perceived as male. Prominent women like game designer Zoe Quinn and feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian were doxxed, stalked, sent rape and death threats, and in Sarkeesian’s case, chased out of her own home.
This incident highlighted how threatened men who strongly identified as “gamers” were when faced with those who critiqued the medium on which they had based their entire identity. Through cultivating a subculture where your knowledge of video games was your social capital, anyone who dared threaten that was not only criticising video games, they were criticising your sense of self. It was even more damaging when this was done by a woman.
‘Gamergate’ shows that fandoms, internet subcultures, and the like, are never limited to the online space. Their effects ripple out, and the emotions internet conflict and drama cause often have real world implications. It can range from someone feeling bad because they were tricked, to someone having to leave their home because they’re receiving death threats. We like to pretend that the internet is inconsequential and internet drama is just harmless fun, but the actors behind ‘Gamergate’ later mobilised and became part of the alt-right. ‘Gamergate’ proved to be a training ground for political ideologies and strategies that eventually are used in the formation and growth of the white supremacist movement both on and off the internet.
I’m not ending my blog about the internet with a call to just burn the entire World Wide Web down and start again. The internet is here to stay, both good parts and the bad parts. It brings people together but it also can tear people apart. Just like anywhere. It doesn’t have to be this way, but I’m not going to pretend that if we’re all just a little nicer to each other the internet will magically be fixed. There will always be toxic people on the internet, hiding behind the veil of anonymity and grasping at any power they can.
My advice is be critical, and be aware. No matter where you are, people will take advantage of the values your community holds dear, no matter how noble those ideals are. Be vigilant but be kind. Give people a second chance but don’t be afraid to expel those who are truly toxic. The internet isn’t its own bubble, it has real life ramifications. Whether those consequences are for good – education, healing, and community – or for bad – bullying and manipulation for power and prestige – is up to you, and whatever corner of the internet you carve out for yourself. The internet is a space, just like any other one. Make it one you actually want to be in.
[Jo Reid – @_jomreid]