Paranoia in Online Fandom: CMC, Girls' Aggression, and Overanalyzing the Texts

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Jul. 16th, 2006 | 09:40 pm

Polonius:  What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet:    Words, words, words.
Polonius:  What is the matter, my lord?
Hamlet:    Between who?
Polonius:  I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.
Hamlet:    Slanders, sir...


Lately I seem to be thinking a great deal about the particular type of paranoiac thinking that often seems to characterize fandom interactions, and which most particularly seems always to rear its head whenever people become involved in on-line kerfuffles or disputes.

For example, I've noticed in the past that whenever I find myself in an on-line circle in which there's a lot of hostility going on, I can sometimes get into this compulsive habit of reading and re-reading posts and emails, subjecting passages of text to a kind of hyperactive scrutiny, as if searching them for some hidden or coded meaning. I used to think that I was the only one neurotic and paranoid enough to find myself doing this from time to time, but after talking to so many other people who recognize this behavior in themselves, I've come to believe that it's actually quite a common reaction to internet kerfuffles.

I've also noticed that there's a distinct tendency for people embroiled in a dispute to act as if they believe that there are these vast and sinister on-line "conspiracies" going on, even when actually there aren't. We see this tendency even more in fandom, I think, where you sometimes hear people talking about "minions" and "Inner Circles" and "cadres" and things like that, or likening people's on-line social behavior to remarkably Godwin-ish things (Nazism, slavery, war-time resistance, war-time treachery, etc.), with no apparent sense of irony at all.

My assumption about this paranoia and the behavior that it engenders always used to be that it was simply a side-effect of the nature of CMC itself. The other week, however, while I was at the beach, I read a book someone had recommended to me on the subject of girls' particular modes of aggression--Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, by Rachel Simmons--and it was really shocking to me just how well many of the things that this book described were things that I strongly associate with online fandom dynamics. That in turn has made me wonder to what extent much of the "paranoiac" behavior that I've been seeing in on-line fandom might be an artifact not only of CMC, but also of the predominantly female demographics of the fandom circles in which I've travelled.

I also find myself wondering lately to what extent fandom itself, even aside from its gender demographics, might serve to reinforce certain types of paranoiac behavior due to nothing more than its own particular hermeneutics. It seems to me that fandom both valorizes and demands certain ways of interacting with source texts which may be inherently psychologically problematic once they are also extended to apply to the "text" of fandom and its participants, or to the "text" of the real world.

So if anyone really wants to hear it, here are some quite rambling thoughts on



Paranoia and CMC

Rosencrantz:   What are you playing at?
Guildenstern:  Words, words. They're all we have to go on.


One of the things that always comes up whenever people talk about computer-mediated communication is that it is what Media Richness Theory refers to as a "lean" medium, one in which many of the channels that ordinarily facilitate interpersonal communication are filtered out or absent. Face-to-face communication is considered a "rich" medium, because it offers a number of different channels along which meaning can be conveyed: verbal articulation, vocal intonation, body language, facial expression, etc. In CMC, on the other hand, only the channel of verbal articulation is available to carry meaning from one person to another.

Lean media present a number of well-known and often-discussed obstacles to communication, but I think that this aspect of CMC is likely to become even more greatly exaggerated whenever people quarrel, because when we're feeling adrenaline-charged - as we tend to be when we get into fights or feel ourselves to be under threat - then it's a fairly natural response for us to try to narrow down our focus, to hone in quite acutely on whatever the expected sources of danger might be. In an argument or fight, the expected sources of danger are the other people involved: they're what your attention is going to be focused on (which is part of why initiating aggression is so often labelled as an "attention-getting" behavior).

In face-to-face interaction, this heightened focus might manifest itself as a greater attentiveness to another person's facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, and so forth, as well as to the actual words they use. On the internet, however, the only thing that serves to represent that other person is text. The words have no competition, so to speak. In on-line disputes, the words become the sole focus available to the hyper-attentive combatant.

I think that the somewhat paranoiac over-analysis of internet texts which people often engage in while embroiled in on-line kerfuffles may be to some extent simply an inevitable response to this fact. I also think that when we are involved in disputes, and therefore feeling particularly desperate for knowledge, the limited meanings we can reasonably deduce from our texts are sometimes just not seen as enough, and that this can lead us into an even further manifestation of paranoiac behavior.

Guildenstern:
We only know what we're told, and that's little enough. And for all we know it isn't even true.


When the sole focus of the hyper-attentive combatant, the text, does not seem to suffice, when it does not seem to be carrying enough intrinsic meaning to satisfy the reader's desire for knowledge, then the reader may sometimes choose to compensate by...well, to put it bluntly, by making things up: imagined conspiracies, for example, or invented motives --anything to plug the inevitable gaps which always exist in text, gaps which while they ordinarily might not even register as significant, in the heat of battle can suddenly come to seem far too dangerous to allow to remain as lacunae. Uncertainty is very threatening - so threatening, in fact, that sometimes people prefer to contend even with imagined threats than to suffer the uncertainty of not knowing whether there's really any existing threat at all. That's the underlying paradox of the paranoiac delusion.

In fact, I see this phenomenon as very closely related to the operative dynamic of fandom itself. In fandom, people are similarly engaged in making things up in order to fill the gaps of some given text. Also in fandom, just as in internet disputes, the text in question is granted an unusually high degree of attention and focus by the reader -- often far more focus than the text in question can really properly sustain, which is a large part of what makes the insertion of fan-created meaning so appealing in the first place.

The difference, however, is that the hyper-attention of fandom is usually something that we enter into on purpose and as a means of pleasure, rather than subconsciously and as a defensive response to some (real or imagined) personal threat. It is therefore an enjoyable type of "delusion," unlike true paranoia, which is nearly always both frightening and stressful.





Paranoia and Feminine Modes of Aggression

OPHELIA: O you must wear your rue with a difference.


I also think that the predominantly female demographic of many on-line fandom circles might also play a role in this fandom tendency to paranoia due to the particular modes of aggression which girls and women are socialized to favor, modes which themselves tend to encourage a type of paranoid thinking.

One of the chief premises of Odd Girl Out is that because girls are so strongly socialized against showing aggression at all, they learn to display their aggression in ways designed to allow a very high degree of "plausible deniability," as well as to fly under the radar of both authority figures and uninvolved parties. In this way, Simmons argues, girls can both have their cake and eat it too: they can be as hostile and aggressive as they want to be, while still maintaining a facade of an appropriately "feminine" well-meaning innocence.

So instead of overt acts of aggression, like loud teasing and physical violence, instead you often see girls using things like anonymous letters, whispering and gossip campaigns, insinuation and innuendo, dirty looks (the "Stink-Eye"), subtle acts of exclusion, and physical attacks which can be very easily passed off as accidental, like foot-tripping, or knocking someone down by pretending to 'accidentally' bump into her in a crowded school corridor or cafeteria. All of these acts of aggression are ones which school authorities and uninvolved parties are unlikely even to notice (although their intended target most certainly will!), and which can also be readily and easily explained away as innocent misunderstandings by the perpetrator, should she ever be confronted directly about her behavior. ("What? I was just looking at her!" "I didn't say anything!" "Well, I didn't mean that!" "For heaven's sake, it's only a joke!" "I'm sorry, of course I would have invited you, but I thought that your mom didn't allow you to go roller skating and so I didn't want to make you feel bad!" And so forth.) When girls do engage in forthright aggression, they usually choose to do so by "ganging up," carefully mobilizing allied forces before they initiate hostilities. This may also be seen as a response to socialization against aggression: after all, if one only ever expresses hostility as a part of a large group, then no single individual ever needs to bear all that much responsibility for the aggressive behavior; those who engage in group hostility can also often rationalize their behavior as a kind of communal or populist endeavor, rather than as plain old-fashioned bullying.

One of the things that this book described really well, I thought, was how particularly emotionally damaging these kinds of deniable acts of aggression can be to their targets, for the very reason that they seem almost perfectly designed to instill paranoia in otherwise sane individuals.

There's definitely a "Gaslighting" effect to aggression which is so often denied: it serves to make the target doubt her own perception of reality. If it seems as if someone is trying to hurt you, but when confronted the person in question denies that this was at all the intent, then how do you respond? Whom do you trust? After all, you could have misinterpreted, or overreacted; and since it's quite often a purported "friend" aggressing against you in this fashion, you really wouldn't want to level a false accusation. Yet it's hard for the target of, say, an extended whispering campaign to avoid the conclusion that people really are out to get her because...well, because actually? They are.

"Even paranoids have enemies." --Golda Meir (attributed)


Of course, one can argue that it's not really paranoia if they really are out to get you -- but in the absence of any hard evidence that ones perceptions are correct, I think that the distinction between paranoid delusion and accurate perception can actually become quite hazy. To believe something in the absence of any proof, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, is still a mark of disordered thinking, whether the "delusion" turns out to be correct or not. Because it's often so hard to articulate what the "proof" of these feminine modes of aggression really is, while a denial is far more concrete and straight-forward, deniable modes of aggression act to make their targets doubt their own sanity.

Nor is this even necessarily an accidental side-effect of many of these acts of aggression. On the contrary, some of these acts are quite explicitly intended to foster paranoia in their targets. The reason that an anonymous letter, for example (or a comment on an "anonymeme," for that matter), is so devastating is precisely the suspicion it awakens in its target that perhaps the author might be someone known to her, maybe even someone who is pretending to be her friend even while secretly wishing her harm. That's not an incidental effect of the poison pen at all; it is precisely its intended purpose. Many stereotypically feminine forms of aggression are designed to operate in just this manner: they cause harm to their victims by instilling in them an unbearable sense of social unease, of social suspicion and mistrust. Of paranoia.

Because of this, and also because these modes of aggression are often so very subtle, their use actively encourages people to hyper-analyze their social environments, to try to "read things into" all of their social interactions. There's not nearly as much room for misunderstanding in a fistfight as there is in a dirty look, or in the slight turning away of bodies when a girl who has been targeted for exclusion enters a room. These are shows of aggression which already need to be 'translated' in order to be properly understood; if you can't perform this act of translation, then you will have no idea what is really going on. Girls learn to spend a lot of their time and mental energy trying to analyze and to second-guess the behavior of the people around them precisely because within their social milieus, this is often a relevant social skill. In the world of the girls' clique, somebody who takes things at face value, who does not engage in that kind of constant analysis, isn't really "normal" at all; she's a social moron.

I think paranoia can be instructive in the right doses. Paranoia is a skill. -John Shirley


So I think that this, too, is likely a huge contributing factor to the development of paranoia within those fandom circles in which the social mechanics of "girl clique dynamics" hold sway. Certainly my experience with people's behavior within the Harry Potter fandom bears remarkable similarity to the way that Simmons describes the dynamics she observed in adolescent girls' social milieus: the cliques, the back-biting, the obsession with 'popularity,' the power-grubbing and its attendant sycophancy, the faction-forming, the preference for expressing aggression in groups rather than individually, the anonymous attacks, even the "eating our own"...it's all there. So it is perhaps unsurprising that the paranoia which Simmons describes as the natural result of these feminine modes of aggression should come to colonize the thinking of those who engage with fandom subcultures in which these sorts of aggressive behaviors run rampant.





Paranoia and the Hermeneutics of Fandom

“Fandom celebrates not exceptional texts but rather exceptional readings (though its interpretive practices make it impossible to maintain a clear or precise distinction between the two).” -Henry Jenkins


Another thing I've been thinking about lately, when it comes to paranoia within fandom circles, is the extent to which many of the behaviors which seem so dysfunctional when they are applied to other fans, or to fandom in general, are actually very much the same as the expected ways in which we relate to the source text and its characters when we engage in fannish activity.

I already mentioned up above the way that filling the gaps in the text by means of imagination and invention--something which is often taken to a rather neurotic extreme when it is done to other fans' letters or posts--is actually a fundamental part of what fandom is all about. That's what we do in fandom. We "read too much into" the text. We "over-analyse" it. We invent, we create, we insert, we recontextualize. We speculate. These are the modes of engaging with text that fandom both values and valorizes.

All of these playful ways of interacting with a text can be quite enjoyable when they're applied to a work of fiction. When applied to the real world, however, that same approach can all too easily become dysfunctional, damaging. It is, after all, one which bears a remarkable family relationship to the particular cognitive patterns of paranoid schizophrenia.

Indeed, I think that there's often a decidedly paranoiac tinge even to the kind of things that fans often most enjoy reading into their texts. Speculation about seemingly-innocuous characters actually being Ever So Evil seem popular across fandoms; fanwank about elaborate conspiratorial plots going on behind the scenes also frequently pop up in many different fandoms. Even good old slash, I think, can to some extent be viewed as a slightly paranoid way of reading a text: fans put on their "slash goggles" to enable them to see previously hidden "subtext." This entire idea--that What You See Is Not All That's Really There, that there is in fact an entire universe of hidden meaning embedded or coded in the source text--is quite similar to the way that the real world often starts to appear to people who are on the verge of a schizoid psychotic break (or who are the protagonists of a Philip K. Dick novel -- the difference between schizophrenic delusion and gnostic revelation can also be a rather shaky one, at times).

Again, I'm not saying that fan engagement is itself psychotic or unhealthy, by any means. It isn't, any more than any form of imaginative engagement is psychotic. But I think that there's a significant difference between entering into this kind of cognitive functioning deliberately, for pleasure (or to achieve revelatory insight, for that matter), and entering into it unconsciously and without intent, as an instinctive and defensive reaction to some perceived threat.

I also think that there's a significant difference between applying this sort of thinking to a fictional text and applying it to the real world, and this is where I believe that the hyper-performative nature of on-line fandom identity can play a significant role in leading to fandom dysfunction. In the wake of the MsScribe incident, I saw a lot of commentary along the lines of "We're all sockpuppets here!"...except that the problem is that we aren't really completely, are we? A cyborg isn't the same thing as a robot: our on-line identities are not utterly artificial, but are hybrids of the fictional and the real. "Elkins" may not be precisely the same construct as the actual person who is typing these words, yet what you are reading are nonetheless that real person's opinions, not merely the opinions of her persona.

Yet just as fandom's interpretive practices sometimes make it impossible to "maintain a clear or precise distinction" between text and reading, so I think that the fandom subculture's performative practices can often make it difficult for us to maintain clear or precise distinctions between our fictional and our real selves. A few days ago, I remarked in a comment elsewhere that:

Many of the disputes involving "fandom gossip" often seem to me to be quite similar to the sort of interpretative disputes we have over characters in fandom, even down to the detail of people quoting X's published words at each other to "prove" that X is Ever So Evil, or Totally A Wanker, or Really Well-Intentioned and Good At Heart, or whatever. The big difference, of course, is that unlike fictional characters, on-line personae are (usually) so closely related to the real people behind them that - all abstract discourses about the performative nature of on-line communication aside - they really effectively are those real people, and can therefore genuinely have their feelings hurt.


Of course, I think that most people do recognize, on some level at least, that even on-line personalities are attached to real people, people who can genuinely have their feelings hurt. Yet it still seems to be very difficult for us to refrain from talking about other fans in precisely the same ways that we talk about the fictional characters of our source texts. Some people even identify fandom itself--the meta-construct, the subculture, or sometimes even just its gossip ("Fandom Wank Is Now My Fandom!")--as their "fandom." But if fandom itself is your 'fandom,' in that you're applying the particular hermeneutics of fandom to it and its participants, as if it were a fictional source text and its 'characters' fictional people, then I think that itself can lead to a certain degree of dysfunction, not least of which because the hermeneutics of fandom are in so many ways barely distinguishable from the cognitive patterns of schizoid paranoia itself.

So to some extent, I believe that interactions within on-line fandom might be unusually prone to paranoiac cognitive patterns simply because those cognitive patterns are what we have been taught: over-analyzing the text is what fandom encourages us to do. Or, perhaps, it goes the other way: perhaps people prone to overanalyzing are those most likely to have been drawn to fandom in the first place, as it is a place where that form of thinking is a valued skill. Either way, though, it comes down to much the same problem in the end:



We're all paranoids here.


ETA:
Okay, while I think that the thread which devolved into a back-and-forth about one particular recent fandom kerfuffle was, indeed, an excellent illustration of many of the things I was talking about in this post, I also don't think that it was doing anything particularly beneficial for either the two people directly involved or for the overall discussion. I've therefore now screened that thread. There are plenty of other places you can go, if you want to continue to try to hash things out on that topic.

If people could refrain from getting into back-and-forths on the specifics of any recent fandom kerfuffles from now on in the comments here, I'd greatly appreciate that. It's not that I don't think that those conversations can never be beneficial; it's just that I really don't think this is the place for it. Thanks.

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Tabouli the animate salad

Ahhh yes, the ol' fictional/factual divide.

from: tabouli
date: Jul. 17th, 2006 04:49 am (UTC)
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Will have to track down that book about girl-style bullying: very interesting.

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Elkins

An Oldie, but always a Goodie. :)

from: skelkins
date: Jul. 17th, 2006 05:38 am (UTC)
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I'd definitely recommend it. It actually came to the beach with me along with a small stack of other books on the same subject, but that one was definitely the best of the lot. IMNSHO, that is.

Why, I do believe that our respective subject headings here may well have constituted our very first direct interaction!

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Mrs. Paul Stephen McCartney Colbert

(no subject)

from: cesontmesmots
date: Jul. 17th, 2006 05:47 am (UTC)
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I was forwarded to your essay by a friend and can't even begin to describe to you how well-timed it is. After having just participated in some online drama in which online personas clashed and actual, real feelings were hurt, it's good to see that events like that aren't limited to my social group.

I'm putting this in my Memories, if you don't mind.

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Elkins

(no subject)

from: skelkins
date: Jul. 18th, 2006 05:57 am (UTC)
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Thank you!

I'm glad you found it reassuring, although I'm sorry to hear that you've been caught up in drama. Yeah, it really does suck, doesn't it?

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S

Fascinating stuff.

from: greensword
date: Jul. 17th, 2006 05:56 am (UTC)
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I once listened to an NPR interview with the author of Queen Bees and Wannabes which is about the same thing. Actually, the fascinating part of the interview was that they also did interviews with the girls the book was about and their parents. Anyway, just giving you a heads up if you want to do further reading.

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Elkins

Re: Fascinating stuff.

from: skelkins
date: Jul. 18th, 2006 05:59 am (UTC)
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Thanks for the heads up! I'll definitely give that one a try. The other books I took with me to the beach on the same subject were far more academic texts, and I found some of them distinctly... annoying. One of them, for example, seemed to take the perspective that rather than decry feminine aggression, we should laud it, because yay! Girls treating each other like shit! Take that, you woman-idealizers!

Uh, whatever. I'm sorry, but I just can't seem to work up any great enthusiasm for bad behavior as a feminist ideal. It's not as if there are really any women out there who don't already know damned well that girls and women can be really aggressive.

I wound up with the distinct impression that the (male) scholar secretly just found the idea of all these bitchy mean pubescent girls going for each other's throats to be, well, titillating --which I actually think of as a not insignificant part of the problem in the first place. "Isn't it sexy how bitchy and aggressive girls can be?" is just the other side of the "How unsexy and unfeminine it is for a woman to be forthright and honest -- or, God forbid, kind" coin, as far as I'm concerned.

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badgerbag

(no subject)

from: badgerbag
date: Jul. 17th, 2006 07:19 am (UTC)
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Brilliant... perturbing...

By the way, the other day at the roller rink, my friends and I were wondering what are you trying to say about me here?! I can't believe you would be so mean!

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Elkins

(no subject)

from: skelkins
date: Jul. 18th, 2006 06:02 am (UTC)
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Right, like I was talking about you. God, it was just a hypothetical, okay? I don't know why you always have to be so sensitive, it's not like everything in the entire world is always about you and your cooler new stupid friends. But if you really think I'm so mean, then fine. Okay? Just fine.

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ellecain

(no subject)

from: ellecain
date: Jul. 17th, 2006 09:52 am (UTC)
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Funnily enough, I associate this sort of hyper-attentive analysis with the early parts of dating rituals. On a date, people tend to focus intense scrutiny on the tiniest little things, and over react to certain mannerisms, in a can-I-really-count-on-him-if-he-does-that sort of way. Or sometimes, when trying to gauge the other person's feelings towards you *before* you ask him/her out on a date, wondering what their answer might be. A form, of course, of the teenage girl do-you-think-he-likes-me anxiety. There's a lot of stifling scrutiny, and its stressful for both parties.
And I think I might have seen that Queen Bees and Wannabes show that greensword mentioned. I remember Oprah did a show on that!

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Elkins

(no subject)

from: skelkins
date: Jul. 18th, 2006 06:06 am (UTC)
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That's really interesting, because another of the things that kept striking me as I read that book was just how similar, in many ways, girls' friendships at the age at which these behaviors are most common really are to romantic relationships, so much so that I think at times it's difficult even to avoid the language of romance when we talk about girls' friendships. Girls get crushes on each other; they have break-ups; they seek exclusionary relationships with their best friends and then become fantastically jealous of interlopers. They write each other what are really, for all intents and purposes, love letters. They're very passionate about each other.

And that's something else that I see a lot of in on-line fandom, honestly, although I suspect that some might find it a somewhat uncomfortable subject. :) Fandom interactions often seem to me to have strong homoerotic overtones: we express approbation by giving each other *snogs* and expressing desires to have each others' "internet babies." We "fangirl" each other.

I think that the nature of CMC probably helps to facilitate much of that, as well. It's very easy to idealize people, or to project all manner of things onto them, when all you have to go on is their writing; and it's probably also far less threatening to allow eros to slip into that equation when there's no physical interaction, and therefore no "threat" of an actual physical relationship developing.

In fact, many on-line relationships somewhat remind me of the sort of epistletory relationships that privileged women often used to form a century or so ago. I think there may a very similar dynamic involved, one in which the sense of physical distance can serve to make seem permissable a far more romantic mode of friendship than heteronormativity would ordinarily allow.

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David

(no subject)

from: sageofgodalming
date: Jul. 17th, 2006 11:58 am (UTC)
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Nice one.

In the specific case of the Harry Potter fandom, the text itself encourages paranoid interpretations. And in her interviews, so does the author, thus helping to blur the distinction between "Voldemort's secret agent is out to get Harry" and "Rowling is out to get us".

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Elkins

(no subject)

from: skelkins
date: Jul. 18th, 2006 06:15 am (UTC)
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I think that there are a number of things specific to the HP canon which might help contribute to its fandom's wank factor, actually (although I also think that in the long run, I tend to agree with the conclusion you reached just as I was leaving for my vacation last month: that the primary factor is likely just its enormous size).

I've been doodling around with the idea of trying my own hand at a "Why the HP Fandom Is So Very Wanky" analysis, drawing off of yours, but it's not quite there yet (if indeed it will ever be).

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Lyssa

(no subject)

from: lyssabard
date: Jul. 17th, 2006 01:25 pm (UTC)
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Refered here by heron61, and I have to say, this is one of the most insiteful pieces on fandom/online communication that I have read in a long time. I'll be snagging the book you cited. :)

I think that there is also the factor of the interfaces in which the fandoms occur--specifically LJ--that contributes to the paranoia and misreadings of which you speak. LJ has the added bagged of "friends" lists, screened commentary, and specifically formed social groupings that feed into how we read our relationships as well as how we read the texts before us (fanfic or otherwise). I'm a fan of Kate Hayles's work, and she notes in "Book Machines" that a book functions in many ways to tell one "how" to read it--left to right, sequentially, top to bottom, etc., and the same can be said for the online interfaces that shape the performative spaces within fandom. We are told by LJ that these are our "friends"--therefore, shouldn't we trust them? Surely they are not out to get us, when we are all in the same community?

Again, well written. You should consider submitting this to a fandom studies journal or conference.

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Elkins

(no subject)

from: skelkins
date: Jul. 18th, 2006 06:38 am (UTC)
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Thank you!

I think that there is also the factor of the interfaces in which the fandoms occur--specifically LJ--that contributes to the paranoia and misreadings of which you speak.

Oh, hell, yes! The entire 'friending' issue is monstrously given to fostering social paranoia, I quite agree, as is the ability not only to friendslock and screen comments, but also to use "private filters," so that even 'friends' can't really know whether they're privy to all of each other's interactions or not. An excellent recipe for paranoia, that - I'm not sure if they could have designed a better one if such had been their intent.

We are told by LJ that these are our "friends"--therefore, shouldn't we trust them?

Oh yes. I know it's an old, tired subject, but I really do think that the terminology livejournal chose for its aggregation feature is responsible for a lot of the angst over 'friending.' As you said, the interface communicates to the user not only how to use the features, but also how to read the meaning of those features - and in this case, what livejournal is telling its users is that one is supposed to be interpreting ones readership as a personal relationship. I also think that livejournal really reinforced this message by designing the system so that you always know who has you 'friended' and who has not. This makes it very different from, say, Bloglines, an aggregator which does not facilitate the same sort of tracking of ones readership. Nobody falls into a state of despair over being dropped from someone else's Bloglines account, not least of which because they usually aren't even aware of it.

In the blogosphere, people do sometimes fall into resentment or envy or hurt feelings over who appears in whose "blogrolls," but it's really nothing compared to the fits of social anxiety that people can fall into over 'friending' issues on LJ.

Thank you very much for the implicit recommendation of Hayles, by the way. I hadn't been aware of her work, and just from what I've now Googled up, it looks like great stuff. Yay, more good things to read!

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Amy

(no subject)

from: happy_potterer
date: Jul. 17th, 2006 01:36 pm (UTC)
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Fabulous post. I'm taken with this: I think paranoia can be instructive in the right doses. Paranoia is a skill. -John Shirley

and

Girls learn to spend a lot of their time and mental energy trying to analyze and to second-guess the behavior of the people around them precisely because within their social milieus, this is often a relevant social skill.

And this is a very useful social skill, even when applied to saner worlds than that of girls' cliques. Could this be why girls and women are generally more aware of subtle social signals and hidden meanings than boys and men, to make a gross generalization?

The very significant downside to this particular skill is not only that it is often learned out of fear of social ostracism, but is often undone by that pervasive fear. Having grown up with a mother who, like many women, tends to conceal and deny aggression, and for that matter disagreement, I have had to learn when not to read in further meanings. When one has learned (or felt the impact of failing to learn) the skills of dealing with girl culture, it becomes difficult to perceive when a glance is just a glance, when a whispered comment is just something the other girls don't want the teacher to hear.

Paranoia, while sometimes a useful lens, is not really an accurate way to read situations, because it assumes persecution where sometimes there is none. (Even paranoids have friends.) Seeing hostility where there is only goodwill can be as destructive to relationships as seeing only goodwill where there is genuine hostility.

So there goes my nascent theory that on the strength of their childhood culture, women would make better diplomats than men . . .

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Amy

(no subject)

from: happy_potterer
date: Jul. 17th, 2006 01:39 pm (UTC)
Link

P.S. I believe Golda Meir was quoting Delmore Schwartz--or else they both tapped into the same basic truth. (Jews, like schoolgirls, have had fine training by which to acquire the skills of paranoia.)

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Kahvi

(no subject)

from: go_back_chief
date: Jul. 17th, 2006 02:10 pm (UTC)
Link

then it's a fairly natural response for us to try to narrow down our focus, to hone in quite acutely on whatever the expected sources of danger might be.

Exactly, and if it's "a threat" that comes from one, or several, anonymous sources, you have the same disadvante as a blind person fighting, and like hir, you do your bestt to sharpen all your other senses, to try to determine what those sources may be.

I think that the somewhat paranoiac over-analysis of internet texts which people often engage in while embroiled in on-line kerfuffles may be to some extent simply an inevitable response to this fact. I also think that when we are involved in disputes, and therefore feeling particularly desperate for knowledge, the limited meanings we can reasonably deduce from our texts are sometimes just not seen as enough, and that this can lead us into an even further manifestation of paranoiac behavior.

Tell me about it. :(

Uncertainty is very threatening - so threatening, in fact, that sometimes people prefer to contend even with imagined threats than to suffer the uncertainty of not knowing whether there's really any existing threat at all.

YES. To be uncertain of whether a threat exists or not, fits the blind man defending himself analogy again, it makes it easier for him to "make up a vision" to fight, then just not knowing what is out there, and flaying his arms around, madly.

Also, if you think there's a threat, that "someone's out to get you", you want to be prepared dammit, and have a clear vision of where it comes from, as well as being able to somewhat predict when it will strike, and with what means, so that you can defend yourself in an appropriate manner. It's both frustrating and angst-inducing not to know any of these things, nevermind not knowing whether a threat even exists at all.

Though after these last few days, I've come to the conclusion that I prefer "not knowing whether a threat exist at all" to "knowing that it exists, just not what it is, where it comes from, how grave it is". Because I've felt quite a few times before that there might be a threat, and it's made me paranoid and uncomfortable, and kept me from updating, or posting anything, but the difference is that those times, I've been able to overcome it, chuck it up to "probably just being paranoia", and ignored my uneasy feelings, and get into the game again. But now I'm certain, and I can't choose to ignore it anymore. I don't know how to react to that. My gut-instincts tells me to fight teeth and nail, to not give in, because it just pisses me off so much. At the same time it's exhausting, and it makes you wonder what battles are really worth fighting.

The funny thing is, I always used to wonder why people who got involved in out-drawn, complicated internet-fights, and/or felt harrassed online, didn't just ignore it -as a strategy, if nothing else. But now I know how incredibly hard it is to do just that. Then again, feeling that I'm being "followed" and "closely watched" by unfriendly eyes and "harrassed", is probably one of my hot buttons. I just can't imagine any other reason for engaging in that sort of behaviour, other than that the person/s doing it, want to intimidate me into silence or submission. While that really used to work when I was younger (or probably because it used to work), it just seriously enrages me now, because it feels like those persons are trying to take away the controll of my life, that I had to work so hard to get. So, as a consequence, I also tend to overreact to any kind of "stalker-sign", a man who calls me up just a little bit too often for my comfortability, is likely to find out I've changed my number.

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Elkins

(no subject)

from: skelkins
date: Jul. 18th, 2006 10:27 am (UTC)
Link

Also, if you think there's a threat, that "someone's out to get you", you want to be prepared dammit, and have a clear vision of where it comes from, as well as being able to somewhat predict when it will strike, and with what means, so that you can defend yourself in an appropriate manner.

You know, on the subject of internet personae, I can't help but think that the fact that you chose as your on-line representation a warrior character is not altogether insignificant here. When I feel that someone's out to get me, my instinctive reaction is usually to run like hell. Either that, or just to keep smiling blandly and pretending that I haven't yet noticed, in the vague hope that maybe then they'll decide that I'm not really enough of a threat to bother with and go do something else instead. Sometimes I even whistle an aimless little tune! Just to show everyone how nonchalant and oblivious and really very harmless I am!

I don't think that either of those are really very useful strategies, mind you. But I admit that they are the ones I instinctively favor, the ones that I'll almost inevitably fall back on if I don't work really hard to force myself to do something else instead.

The funny thing is, I always used to wonder why people who got involved in out-drawn, complicated internet-fights, and/or felt harrassed online, didn't just ignore it -as a strategy, if nothing else.

It's always very easy to advise other people to "just ignore" things. Furthermore, giving others that particular piece of advice tends to leave you with the most marvelous sense of superiority! Why, it takes no time at all after you've advised someone to "just ignore" something before you start to feel just so terribly sage and wise and calm, you know? Almost as if you're floating! Floating loftily above all of that squalor and sordidness which concerns those mere and undignified mortals down below.

Sadly, however, it's always considerably more difficult to take that piece of advice than it is to give it.

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Sykii

(no subject)

from: sykii
date: Jul. 17th, 2006 02:43 pm (UTC)
Link

I ended up here through heron61's link.
The points you make about girl bullying ring painfully true. I found myself reading with my teeth and fists involuntarily clenched, remembering junior high school.
I have no first hand experience with fandom per se (though most of my close friends do), but when I read your post, it occurred to me that a tendency to treat people like fictional characters is one of the main problems with too many people who love stories.
Thank you for writing this. It's thought-provoking.

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Elkins

(no subject)

from: skelkins
date: Jul. 18th, 2006 10:39 am (UTC)
Link

Thank you. I'm sorry it brought back bad memories for you.

it occurred to me that a tendency to treat people like fictional characters is one of the main problems with too many people who love stories.

That's quite true! I'd also add that the converse is often the case: people who love stories often find themselves treating fictional characters as if they were real people.

I think that one, though, is on the whole a far more harmless form of cognitive confusion (even if it can cause misunderstandings and anger on fan forums from time to time).

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Magpie

(no subject)

from: sistermagpie
date: Jul. 17th, 2006 08:48 pm (UTC)
Link

Great post! I loved that book too--and the other added thing in fandom is that since most of the women have left junior high they can recognize that behavior and also deny it since they're not in junior high any more--saying anything is like the mean girls in high school means you're projecint things you should have gotten over years ago and no longer be bothered by onto an adult situation, not describing what's going on.

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NM  (Narcissa Malfoy)

(no subject)

from: narcissam
date: Jul. 18th, 2006 02:22 am (UTC)
Link

saying anything is like the mean girls in high school means you're projecint things you should have gotten over years ago and no longer be bothered by onto an adult situation, not describing what's going on.

I think that's true, but there's also another reason why saying things are like the mean girls in high school doesn't go down well with people. One is that it's so very overused. Everything is like the mean girls in high school. As I understand it, Snacky's Law was a humourous response after she felt that every single internet discussion she witnessed would eventually end up with someone comparing someone else to the Mean Girls in High School. When it's used everywhere, even when it would be applicable, it doesn't have much impact.

The second is that comparisons of fandom to the Mean Girls In High School are rarely as disinterested as Elkins's essay here. I know Elkins is probably reacting to a series of fandom incidents, even recent ones, and I could probably name some of them, and describe my biased POV in them, *but* all of us here instinctively trust her as not using this post as a passive agressive weapon in some fandom fight *she's* involved in. Which is mostly not seen as the case when the comparisons come up usually.

But I guarantee you that someone who doesn't know her or trust her will come along and see this post itself as an act of passive agression against some "side". At least, my Cassandric senses tell me so. It is to be hoped that I'm wrong.

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NM  (Narcissa Malfoy)

(no subject)

from: narcissam
date: Jul. 18th, 2006 02:11 am (UTC)
Link

I was going to recommend you that book! Then, I thought, Elkins has probably already read it, and anyway, I shouldn't send her depressing emails! I bought it with my Christmas bookstore certificate and it has a place of honour on the bookshelf nearest to my bed. It was all too familiar to me. Though the worst stuff I've seen didn't happen to me. I was far too much of an outcast for that. My best friend, on the other hand, went through a saga (at another school than mine) that makes me realize that there were perks to being the loner.

In my own experience, I can remember Grade Three very nicely when the other girls spat at me, then told the teacher they didn't mean for saliva to fly when they were talking. Very plausible, really. But of course it doesn't stop in school, but school is one of those environments that makes it so much worse. Unlike fandom, for instance, it's an enforced closed-off and close space.

But now that I know you've read and liked it, I really have to re-read and bring up my niggling objections to some of her ideas. The linking of passive-agression and the maternal archetype I think I had some thoughts on. That the insult 'bitch' is not in my experience always about the woman being not motherly or 'womanly', but sometimes about a woman or girl being *too* protective of her family or friends, in fact, down right territorial.

But when I googled it, interested in responses, I found some very right-wing review of the book that made me angry and wanting to engage in acts of physical agression against the reviewer. So I gave up there.

I haven't said anything about how this relates to fandom, I know, and it's not because I don't have thoughts there, but this is getting long as it is.

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Elkins

(no subject)

from: skelkins
date: Jul. 18th, 2006 12:26 pm (UTC)
Link

Though the worst stuff I've seen didn't happen to me. I was far too much of an outcast for that.

Yes, same here. One of the rather reassuring things about the book, actually, was that it made me feel quite grateful in some ways to have been such a social outcast.

Like you, I also had a friend who went the social-climbing route for a time, got herself in with a fairly popular crowd, and then was driven very nearly insane by it. Enough so, in fact, that her parents ended up pulling her out of the school system and sending her off to a private school for a year or two. So even back then, I was fully aware that dealing with those sorts of cliques really wasn't at all fun.

Still, because I never had the opportunity to see those clique dynamics close to hand, I can't really say that I ever had much of a grasp on how they actually worked. So the book was really informative for me. I rather wish I'd read it before I got involved with the fandom, in fact. Not, I am sure, that it would really have helped, but perhaps it would have made a few things a bit less bewildering.

That the insult 'bitch' is not in my experience always about the woman being not motherly or 'womanly', but sometimes about a woman or girl being *too* protective of her family or friends, in fact, down right territorial.

I don't think of 'bitch' as mapping to 'unwomanly' either. On the contrary, I tend to think of it as referring to very stereotypically 'feminine' forms of aggression - the sort largely covered in the book, actually. Back-biting is 'bitchy.' Punching someone in the face is decidedly not.

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~ c a v a l a x i s ~

(no subject)

from: cavalaxis
date: Jul. 18th, 2006 10:06 pm (UTC)
Link

This essay is absolutely revelatory for me. It explains clearly to me what happened in huge chunks of my school years, and explains why I only skim the surface of fandom. I love it, but it seems vaguely unhealthy to me. (Yay, addictive personality!)

Very well spoken.

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Elkins

(no subject)

from: skelkins
date: Jul. 19th, 2006 04:54 am (UTC)
Link

Thanks! Yes, fandom does seem to have a rather unhealthy effect on people sometimes. Although I think it's also sometimes hard to evaluate cause and effect there. It often seems to me, for example, that a disproportionate number of the people I've met through fandom suffer from clinical depression or anxiety, but I can definitely see how suffering from one of those conditions might be something that would lead someone to seek active involvement in an internet community in the first place. (And of course, it's also possible that people are just a lot more willing to tell relative strangers about their medicable conditions on-line than they are in face-to-face interactions).

Addictive personality, eh?

::takes long drag on cigarette::

Yeah, I know how that is.

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Word.

from: pretentioustfu
date: Jul. 18th, 2006 10:36 pm (UTC)
Link

Though I *would* like to add that slash, even the dreaded RPS, isn't a form of true paranoia as much as it is a form of interpretation. Paranoia would be, for example, if I said Gackt and Hyde were together because of a conspiracy by the Japanese government. Paranoia isn't going "hmm, Gackt says he is attracted to Hyde repeatedly, that Hyde is his BFF, they work together on a movie, Hyde mentions it was one of the best times of his life, then divorces Megumi in 2005, and in 2006 Gackt tells the media to back off of him and Hyde-there *could* be something there."

As an analogy, paranoia is assuming there will be a fire since there's matches around. Interpretation is smelling smoke and wondering where the smoke is originating (and possibly extrapolating on what caused the smoke and how big a fire it is, if it is a fire)

^_^

*headdesk* repeated addition request, sorry for that.

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Elkins

Re: Word.

from: skelkins
date: Jul. 19th, 2006 12:48 am (UTC)
Link

Of course you can. Welcome!

As an analogy, paranoia is assuming there will be a fire since there's matches around. Interpretation is smelling smoke and wondering where the smoke is originating (and possibly extrapolating on what caused the smoke and how big a fire it is, if it is a fire)

That's a great analogy. Although I do think the line between the two can still be a little hazy, at times. (To continue your metaphor, maybe some people have a keener sense of smell than others.) The fact that one person's 'interpretation' so often looks like 'paranoia' to another person--and vice versa--seems to me to account for a lot of fandom disputes, actually.

I think that when I brought up slash, I wasn't thinking so much of RPS as I was of, uh, would FPS be the term? I admit that I don't know all that much about RPS, so feel free to correct me if I've got this wrong, but it seems like a somewhat different dyanamic to me in that it's (kinda sorta somewhat) dealing with real people, so you don't have the same underlying implication that there's an author who is actually lying to the reader about what's "really going on" in the world of the fiction. Instead, you're thinking in terms of hidden information that has been hidden simply because it's, well, private, which isn't quite the same thing as a writer deliberately trying to lead the readership astray....although now that I think of it, I have to admit that there are a number of similarities.

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Pirate Monkey

(no subject)

from: b00jum
date: Jul. 19th, 2006 12:38 am (UTC)
Link

I'm here via a link by heron61.

Great article, I hope it gets published somewhere.

I do have two comments. First is that I think that the some degree of paranoia comes from an inherent fascination with paranoia itself. Think of the classic slide into insanity where the attraction to self or perceptual destruction is actively sought. Perhaps paranoia in this case is fulfilling an unmet need?

Second, there is another aspect to CMC that I find relevant. It has to do with my own particular frustration with CMC, especially email. I've had numerous experiences asking a question of a co-worked and received a partial or ambiguous answer. A friend finally enlightened me that it comes from our expectations of email - that a computer system should give us quicker response. In a sense, much of the way we interact with email is similar to using a chat program. We don't feel we have time for a lengthy dissertation so we send off a quick message. That would certainly account for much of the contextual gaps we experience in online disputes.


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Elkins

(no subject)

from: skelkins
date: Jul. 19th, 2006 06:51 pm (UTC)
Link

First is that I think that the some degree of paranoia comes from an inherent fascination with paranoia itself.

Yes, that's sort of the dangerous thing about paranoid thought processes, isn't it? There's really something very attractive about them in and of themselves.

Perhaps paranoia in this case is fulfilling an unmet need?

Perhaps it is. I've often thought that the appeal of horror fiction might be connected to some innate human desire for "paranoid" constructs. Horror stories are appealing, in large part, because they create fictive worlds in which all of our most paranoid suspicions about the way the world works turn out to be perfectly and completely true. (Of course the snark is a boojum! They all are!)

I believe that this may be strongly connected to our desire for the numinous. As I touched upon briefly in the post, I tend to think of "paranoia" and spiritual awakening, or spiritual knowledge, as two sides of the same coin.

I think you make a good point too about the perceived need for speed in on-line communications, and the extent to which that may lead people to take less care than otherwise they might in the way they phrase things. I know that I've been guilty of that myself when I've felt myself under some pressure to respond to something quickly: written something in haste, only to repent at leisure after it's come back to bite me in the ass. Of course, though, that can really be a no-win situation sometimes. It's also happened to me that when I've tried to take my time with something, to make sure it's done right, then that's caused problems as well.

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(Deleted comment)

Elkins

(no subject)

from: skelkins
date: Jul. 20th, 2006 01:25 am (UTC)
Link

I take things at face value and just say what's on my mind because it's easier and I don't like to play games.

I don't like it either. It's very stressful, and at times I can even find it weirdly infuriating.

As a child, I was utterly socially oblivious--I was thinking primarily of myself when I wrote that thing about a girl who doesn't know how to play the game being a "social moron."

On the whole, though, you know, sometimes I can get quite nostalgic for my days of social moronitude? It was far less stressful, in some ways, genuinely not to notice things than it is now, when I often only pretend not to notice them.

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Number One Spoon

(no subject)

from: herongale
date: Jul. 19th, 2006 02:52 am (UTC)
Link

Saw this essay through journalfen, and just wanted to drop a note to tell you that everything here seems very true, and I appreciate the scholarship and clarity of your explanation. Great job!

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Elkins

(no subject)

from: skelkins
date: Jul. 20th, 2006 01:25 am (UTC)
Link

Thank you!

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shell

(no subject)

from: umbo
date: Jul. 19th, 2006 06:58 pm (UTC)
Link

How did I miss this when you first posted it? It must have gotten buried by all the SGA and SG1 posts.

Anyway, brilliant as always, I say, as someone who, yes, fangirled you long before I knew anything about the homosocial nature of fandom. I can't help but think as well of the members of fandom who are *not* good at reading the subtle social signs women and girls are usually good at figuring out--those who have real difficulty with picking up social signals in RL--although they may be (in my experience, anyway) especially paranoid in their reading of CMC.

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Pirate Monkey

(no subject)

from: b00jum
date: Jul. 19th, 2006 08:16 pm (UTC)
Link


Thats marvelous! I love the dichotomous image of the socially clueless fan who walks like a golem in a china shop when encountered in RL, but suddenly becomes a stereotypical high school girl when reading CMC.

This really has Anime genre characteristics written all over it.

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azdak

(no subject)

from: azdak
date: Jul. 19th, 2006 07:33 pm (UTC)
Link

Here via metafandom. This is a fascinating essay that really makes me want to read the book. I was got about halfway through, while thinking "this is terrific" and came to the reference to Elkins, at which point I realised that you must be the person who wrote "Draco Malfoy is ever so lame", which I've been linked to a couple of times and think is also a great essay, despite not my being in HP fandom as such. Anyway, I just wanted to say thank you for providing so much food for thought (one tiny quibble - I take it Golda Maier is a type for Golda Meir, or am I just pig ignorant?)

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Elkins

(no subject)

from: skelkins
date: Jul. 20th, 2006 03:07 am (UTC)
Link

Yep, that's me! Thank you very much. And thanks for the heads-up on the typo, too: I've fixed it now. I did indeed mean 'Meir' (although I strongly suspect that she never really said the phrase at all).

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Doctor Science

(no subject)

from: mecurtin
date: Jul. 20th, 2006 04:29 am (UTC)
Link

It's a good starter theory, but it really needs a comparison study to male-dominated CMC such as political blogs. My impression is that male-dominated CMC has a much higher proportion of violent or sexually-aggressive speech. But I don't know if the tendency toward overt aggression means that male-dominated CMC is less paranoid, at all.

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(no subject)

from: lordsmerf
date: Jul. 20th, 2006 05:18 pm (UTC)
Link

My own experience as a male in a male-dominated CMC community is that paranoia is not generally an issue. Most communication takes on a much more aggressive vibe because males don't tend to pay as much attention to subtle social hints. They also appear to be much more likely to ascribe 'stupidity' to someone else rather than ill-intent. That is, people aren't making subtle social attacks against you, they're just too dumb to see your real point.

Thomas

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(no subject)

from: galadhir
date: Jul. 20th, 2006 01:35 pm (UTC)
Link

Wonderful! I found this through Fabu's recommendation, and recognize so much of what you're saying in my experience of LJ. Does the book have a solution to offer? At school my solution was always to run away and have nothing to do with anyone any more, but I would rather not have to do that with fandom :)

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Dauntless

(no subject)

from: hms_dauntless
date: Jul. 20th, 2006 02:06 pm (UTC)
Link

LOL sorry for the post, galadhir ! By mistake, I replied to your comment instead of posting as a new comment. Force of habit, I suppose ;)

(and apologies to the LJ's owner, of course - I'm really LJ challenged)

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Dauntless

(no subject)

from: hms_dauntless
date: Jul. 20th, 2006 02:01 pm (UTC)
Link

Here via a link by fabu. Fascinating post. Great food for thought.

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Elkins

(no subject)

from: skelkins
date: Jul. 21st, 2006 02:45 am (UTC)
Link

Thank you!

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(no subject)

from: lordsmerf
date: Jul. 20th, 2006 05:22 pm (UTC)
Link

Hey you!

Two quick things. First, I was embbarrassed to realize that I had not, as I thought I had, added you to my flist. Which means I'm a bit behind the curve on this one. Second, I just want you to know how much I resent the imposition you make on me by continually recommending books that I just must read. The back-log is building up fast, and the library keeps sending me nasty notes to return their stuff.

Thomas (yeah, that one)

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Elkins

(no subject)

from: skelkins
date: Jul. 21st, 2006 03:55 pm (UTC)
Link

Hey there, you!

I think that was my fault, really. I thought that I'd included the address of this LJ in my list of contact info in that e-mail, but now that I've dug it up again, I see that I hadn't.

Here, have another recommendation!

Fans: The Mirror of Consumption, by Cornel Sandvoss. Polity Press, 2005. That's another one I took to the beach with me--an "impulse grab," off of the library shelf--and it was so awesome that I actually hunted down a used copy on Amazon, just so that I can hold it my hot little hands, hug it and squeeze it and call it George, whenever I want to. (I hope to write a post riffing off of that one, too, because it touched on so many things that I'd already been thinking a lot about lately, and made me go "Oh! Of course!" about some of them. But anyway.)

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she's a tramp, she's a tramp, she's a vamp

(no subject)

from: tacky_tramp
date: Jul. 20th, 2006 07:10 pm (UTC)
Link

“Fandom celebrates not exceptional texts but rather exceptional readings (though its interpretive practices make it impossible to maintain a clear or precise distinction between the two).” -Henry Jenkins

Where is this quotation from?

Amazing essay!

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she's a tramp, she's a tramp, she's a vamp

(no subject)

from: tacky_tramp
date: Jul. 20th, 2006 07:16 pm (UTC)
Link

Nevermind -- Google is my friend. :-)

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The artist soon to be known as happydork

(no subject)

from: foreverdirt
date: Jul. 20th, 2006 07:21 pm (UTC)
Link

Fascinating.

(And now I find myself thinking: "But that comment's a bit terse. I should add something to soften it - perhaps a smilie or a reference to a bit I particularly agreed with...")

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Elkins

(no subject)

from: skelkins
date: Jul. 21st, 2006 04:10 pm (UTC)
Link

Thanks. Heh. Yeah, it's awful isn't it? Sometimes I wish I could just shut that little voice up. (But I worked so hard to develop it in the first place!)

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