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July 19-25, 2006

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Technology News - Annalee Newitz

Technology News

Microconspiracies

By Annalee Newitz


IN THE INTERNET AGE, conspiracies are niche phenomena. All the classic conspiracies of yesteryear—the Kennedy assassination, ZOG and Pink Floyd's album Dark Side of the Moon—had mass appeal. And frankly, they're not nearly as juicy as obscure, narrow-band obsessions plucked from the glowing pages of LiveJournal. That's why I'm unable to stop reading about the Ms. Scribe Harry Potter fanfic sock puppet conspiracy of 2003.

The whole thing has been chronicled in an anonymously written book about Ms. Scribe's rise and fall: The Ms. Scribe Story: An Unauthorized Fandom Biography (www.journalfen.net/users/charlottelennox/). There are fake identities! Homophobia and racism! Flame wars! Sex! Long explanations of how IP addresses work! Plus many obscure acronyms and internecine battles between said acronyms! It's just like reading a history of the CIA, only with less cross-dressing.

The Ms. Scribe conspiracy unfolded in the lively world of Harry Potter fandom online, where many people write stories (called fanfic) based on the J.K. Rowling books they love. Some of these writers are known as "shippers," people who write about certain characters falling in love and having sex. (The word "shipper" comes from "relationship.")

Three years ago, before the novels had touched on any romantic entanglements between the main characters, Ms. Scribe masterminded a covert campaign to dominate and destroy the shipper community. She did it by playing two rival camps of shippers off each other: the Harry/Hermione shippers of FictionAlley.org and the Harry/Ginny shippers of the Gryffindor Tower community. These groups weren't just separated by their ships—they also had moral differences. Denizens of FictionAlley were comfortable with overtly erotic stories that involved homosexuality, while the Gryffindor Tower fans tended to be strictly het and PG-rated. According to The Ms. Scribe Story, its eponymous anti-heroine began her campaign by inventing a set of fake identities online who were Ms. Scribe fans. These so-called sock puppets would spend all their time praising Ms. Scribe's fanfic and linking to it in shipper forums. When that didn't get Ms. Scribe the attention that she seemed to crave, she would post anonymous comments in her LiveJournal attacking herself for being a depraved homo lover and for being mixed race. The more she was attacked, the more she could bravely defend herself—and the more attention she got from the FictionAlley community, whose members rushed to her aid against the bigoted "attackers."

Eventually, she created several "Christian" sock puppets who made anti-gay, racist comments on Ms. Scribe's LiveJournal. They also claimed to be from the rival Gryffindor Tower group. The more this went on, the more allies Ms. Scribe had; she eventually gained about 200 LiveJournal friends, including elite members of the FictionAlley inner circle. Although relations between FictionAlley and Gryffindor Tower had always been strained, the Ms. Scribe controversies turned the two groups into outright enemies. Friends of the Gryffindor Tower crowd made a series of posts revealing that the IP addresses on Ms. Scribe's posts matched those of her alleged Christian attackers and fans, but the FictionAlley fans were so incensed by the "persecution" of Ms. Scribe that they ignored the evidence.

Whenever things started to unravel, Ms. Scribe would whip her supporters into a frenzy by pretending to be in the hospital (one of the sock puppets posted worried LiveJournal entries from the passed-out Ms. Scribe's "bedside"), or claiming to be stalked by one of the Christians (she even said that she had had one arrested for breaking into her computer). The author of Ms. Scribe believes that she made her last appearance in 2005, when she stirred up trouble in the LiveJournal fanfic community yet again. She accused the fans of being racist for jokingly comparing the fight between shippers to the Civil War. Not surprisingly, the comment thread was filled with mysterious posts from racists who had never shown up before (or since) and whose entire histories on LiveJournal consisted of that particular thread.

Nobody knows what Ms. Scribe is doing now. Unlike a popular conspiracy, full of exotic double agents, Ms. Scribe and her sock puppets' microconspiracy occurs on an everyday scale. And it's more intriguing for that. It's not hard to understand why secret societies might scheme to kill a president. But why would one woman spend so much time trying to bring down a group of Harry Potter fans? There are many theories: that she wanted attention; that she adored a fight; that she was nuts and unemployed.

All we know for sure is that she is one step away from being us, one lonely morning, when all we want are a few online friends.


Annalee Newitz (H/Hrpwned@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd.


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