The price of mocking WisCon attendees under a pseudonym? Being outed and terrorized.
WisCon calls itself the world’s leading feminist science fiction convention. It’s run by and for what social justice fandom calls “privileged” folks—they’re mostly white and expensively educated. It attracts a lot of academics, and while I love many academics, I can’t forget Dad’s advice after he entered the University of Florida as a forty-year-old freshman: “Pretty much by definition, academics are people who’ve been institutionalized most of their lives. They worked hard to learn a whole lot about a whole little, and they tend to think reading about a thing means they know it. The easiest way to get along with them is to learn their buzzwords, tell ‘em what they want to hear, and never contradict ‘em unless you’re ready for a hissy fit.”
Dad graduated with honors in three years.
But I digress.
WisCon 32 in May of 2008 was unique for two things, the “WisCholera”, a gastrointestinal illness caused by a norovirus that sent some WisConners to the emergency room, and “the WisCon Troll”, an incident that forever changed scifi’s social justice fandom.
Under the pseudonym Zathlazip, a two-time WisCon attendee posted “WisCon, the Feminist Sci-Fi Convention: A journey of self-hate” at Something Awful, a web site that does its best to live up to its name. Her post began:
WisCon 32, the 32nd year of the "World's Leading Feminist Science Fiction Convention," is taking place this Memorial Day weekend in Madison, Wisconsin.
If you are unfamiliar with this con, it is like any other sci-fi con, except that well over half of the attendees are female, about a third of the panels are political, there is no gaming, and absolutely everybody is a huge bitch.
This is my second year attending WisCon. I go because I love this. I remember how much I hate my fellow women, and then I go the whole rest of the year thankful that normal life is never this horrible.
The text continued in that tone. The photos targeted the fattest WisConners. Though Zathlazip obscured faces and didn’t use last names, it was easy for people to spot themselves and their friends. (The post is pay-to-view at Something Awful, but if you’re curious, google the title to find a free copy or two online.)
The only thing I can say in Zathlazip’s defense is she probably didn’t think WisConners would visit Something Awful. It’s a site for self-styled “goons” who will do almost anything online for the lulz.
But a WisConner found her post. In social justice terms, it was an intersectional moment of feces and fan. The outrage leaped from blog to blog.
Then Liz Henry, on her Badgerbag LiveJournal, revealed Zathlazip’s LJ user name and legal name. In the comments, Henry explained, “It was like 30 seconds of googling for me to find her real name.”
And LJ flames burned fiercely.
And social justice fandom sought revenge.
Someone left an anonymous comment at Something Awful telling Zathlazip that her legal name was known. If the WisCon post was not down in a day, her boss at the university would be told she had violated school policies on sexual harassment.
How a woman mocking male and female science fiction fans is sexual harassment, no one has explained, but the point’s moot. Zathlazip asked the Something Awful moderators to remove the post, and, as someone at Something Awful put it: “ the White Knight Action Patrol immediately swooped into action and deleted all traces of the thread from the Goldmine.”
But anyone who thinks that would end things does not understand Social Mob Justice.
Zathlazip got anonymous emails promising to make her unemployable.
People called and emailed her bosses in the hope of getting her fired.
People wrote posts that have since been deleted or made private about “how they would hurt/STAB her if they saw her on the street”, according to Pyratejenni on journalfen.net.
And someone snuck into Zathlazip’s campus office to leave a threat scrawled on a page torn from WisCon’s program book.
Zathlazip was terrified. She told the Madison Police Department about “vague threats” and the University of Wisconsin Police Department about the note in her office. She apologized on her LJ for what she had done and warned that if she got more emailed threats, she would record the ISP numbers.
But the WisConners rejected the apology. K. Tempest Bradford said if Zathlazip “feels scared, hurt, embattled, and like she can’t walk down the street without someone having something nasty to say about her, all I can say is: good. ... you know that feeling in the gut you get when you’re anxious and upset and freaked out? I hope she feels that every day for a year. It still wouldn’t be enough.”
A google-bombing was launched. More blogs than I care to count made posts outing Zathlazip. Now, anyone who googles her legal name learns what she did and how thoroughly she’s hated.
Pyratejenni may have been the only member of the community who denounced the outing. She noted that the unspoken rule of fandom was "What happens in fandom, stays in fandom", but now there was “nada about this behavior from fen normally so worried about community standards, like Coffeeandink. So it's okay now to post people's real names and similar information, as long as they do something that really, really pisses you off.
A few WisConners found affirming ways to respond. Perhaps the best was Purplefrog26 at the Fatshionista LJ, who posted a picture of herself dancing, her face proudly visible, with the comment, “I’m not sure what this person’s objective was in posting these pathetic attempts at humor. But I know that they did not change my commitment to living my life joyfully and abundantly. And I prefer pictures to include my face.”
The saddest responses came from social justice fans who denied their side could have had anything to do with terrorizing Zathlazip. They suggested Something Awful’s goons must be after her for the lulz. As Liz Henry put it:
If that is true she's being threatened, it might just as well be from the site she originally posted on. She is being mocked on a related site by members of her own community.
That’s a standard response from people who whip up a mob. I suspect Rush Limbaugh has made a similar argument more than once.
Now, it’s true the goons mocked Zathlazip for caving in to the threats. But the notion that a goon would go to WisCon, find a program, write a threat on it, and risk being caught putting it in Zathlazip’s office “for the lulz” calls for Occam to shave with a rusty razor. That’s not lulz. That’s work. The goons’ lulz came from teasing WisConners by making rudely accurate comments on their boards like,
Several other attendees are also currently in the market for a lawyer, in order to sue the entire internets for laughing at them. As if they weren't already hypocritical enough, the only persons who committed any actual crimes are the fatties.
Few WisConners mention the terrorizing of Zathlazip when they talk about the WisCon Troll. Most who do say “she deserved it.” Groups with a shared worldview forgive their people’s worst behavior when the motive is to protect the group. If you think in terms of institutional behavior, that ensures the group will be defended in similar ways in the future.
When I first wrote about the mobbing of Zathlazip, Liz Henry was bothered by my choice of “mobbing”. She asked, “In theory, people can think and act for themselves, yet mobilize to act together politically, right?”
I answered, “Yes. And yet, mobbing is rarely an instantaneous uprising of a group. First influential members of the community make cries of outrage. Then the mob acts on the outrage. In the various fails centering around WisCon, the pattern is consistent. All you have to do is check the timestamps and see how many readers a poster has.”
Mobbing has more consequences than mobs realize. From “Warning: Mobbing is Legal, Work with Caution” by Jody E. Housker, Ph.D., NCC, LPC and Stephen G. Saiz, Ed.D., NCC, LPC, ACS:
...the target may find that he/she is less productive, creative, and self questioning. Mobbing can leave the target’s life in turmoil (Glass, 1999), feeling embarrassed, frustrated and untrusting. Symptoms may include crying, sleep difficulties, lack of concentration, high blood pressure, gastrointestinal problems, excessive weight loss or gain, depression, alcohol or drug abuse, avoidance of the workplace, and/or uncharacteristic fearfulness (Namie & Namie, 2000; Davenport, Schwartz and Elliot, 1999). For some the degree of symptoms may become severe and include severe depression, panic attacks, heart attack, other severe illnesses, accidents, suicide attempts, violence directed at third parties and symptoms of PTSD (Namie & Namie, 2000; Davenport, Schwartz and Elliot, 1999). These symptoms may lead the target to feel who they are as a person is being stripped away.As emotional and psychological changes take place often physical difficulties follow. Those mobbed have been found to experience reduced immunity to infection, heart attacks as well as numerous other health problems (Davenport, Schwartz and Elliot, 1999). According to Leymann (n.d.) roughly ten to twenty percent of those mobbed in his study seemed to contract a serious illnesses or committed suicide.Changes take place in relationships inside and outside of work. When the target fails to “bounce back” from the impact of being mobbed, family and friends may begin to abandon the target (Namie & Namie, 2000). According to Westhues (2002) “Not infrequently, mobbing spelled the end of the target’s career, marriage, health, and livelihood.”All of the psychological, physical and relationships changes will likely lead to financial difficulties. Paid time off from work, doctor appointments, therapy, as well as medications may be required.
And from The Mobbing Portal’s Glossary of Terms:
Heinz Leymann ... analyzed the impact of mobbing on the target's psychological well-being and found severe anxiety reactions of either obsession or depression. Leymann defines obsession as the"opposite of depression" where instead of"pathological inactivity" the individual experiences"over-activity and dependency" as a consequence mobbing (Leymann 1992). Just like depressive symptoms, obsessive symptoms can become chronic after a prolonged period of abuse. Permanent personality changes that Leymann noted includes the following:"a hostile suspicious attitude toward the surroundings, a chronic feeling of nervousness that one is in constant danger, compulsory fixation on one's own fate to a degree that exceeds the limit of tolerance of people in one's surroundings (leading to isolation and loneliness), and hypersensitivity with respect to injustices and a constant identification with the suffering of others in an almost compulsory manner" (Leymann 1992).
Even the fear of being mobbed can be devastating. Megan Meier killed herself after getting a message saying:
Everybody in O'Fallon knows how you are. You are a bad person and everybody hates you. Have a shitty rest of your life.
Liz Henry may be the only person who publicly regretted outing Zathlazip. In The WisCon Chronicles 3, she wrote:
I have personally apologized to Zathlazip for participating in the outing of her various identities...
Many WisCon people refer to the incident as “The WisCon Troll.” This demonstrates at least two major problems. The first is that it conflates their mobbing with Zathlazip’s mockery. The other problem is this: a person who is obnoxious on the Internet is still a person, not a troll. Yet a WisCon member declaring “I want them (the SASS trolls, Zathlazip, and SA members alike) to lose their jobs, their homes, their families; they aren’t even human beings. I want them hurt.” Others continue to make similar statements. The level of damage to Zathlazip that some people call for is not in keeping with the level of damage that was caused by the whole constellation of events, let alone the level of damage that she herself caused. The WisCon community was damaged by a complicated culture clash resulting from the initial actions of Zathlazip, but we don’t believe that participating in the practice of dehumanizing others will do the community any good. Much of the language around The Troll is perturbing. As feminists we profess to care for all women and all people. When we exclude Zathlazip from the category of person, we are doing something wrong.
Studies of mobbiing focus on the mobbed, but anyone who cares about a community that mobs should remember that mobbing damages the mobbers as well. Five years after the Salem witch hunts, jurors signed an apology:
And we also pray that we may be considered candidly and aright by the living sufferers as being then under the power of a strong and general delusion, utterly unacquainted with and not experienced in matters of that nature.
If ever we understand that “strong and general delusion”, witch hunts will end.
When I wrote about this in the past, I used Zathlazip’s legal name because the WisConners made it public knowledge. But I’ve been thinking about whether the purpose of justice is vengeance or healing. My answer is to remove her name from my web site, just as Liz Henry chose to leave it out of her essay in WisCon Chronicles 3. If more WisConners do the same, Google’s connection of Zathlazip’s legal name to the WisCon Troll will fade. The histories will not disappear, but the histories will remember the pseudonym who mocked, not the person who was outed. Doing that would not necessarily be forgiveness. It would only be kindness.
And for those who value pseudonymity, it would be a recommitment to their principles. Pyratejenni was right. What happens under a pseud should stay under a pseud.
The most objective account of the incident may be “Internet famous, real-world notorious: UW student mocks WisCon, starts online firestorm”, where Zathlazip points out social justice fandom's double standard:
Many of these people want to be both invisible and visible at the same time. They claim they want what they have to say heard, but then they are extremely vindictive for being exposed by someone who doesn't subscribe to it. They want their names/photos private — which, at the time, I thought I was respecting — but then as a group they condone harassment of me by my full name and job, and many of them condoned violence against me.