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

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.

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.

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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