Sock It To Me

This was written by Merlin Missy in 2007. Some references may now be outdated but the general advice is very good. It is used with permission. — Cygnet

Sockpuppets and You

A story: once upon a time when the Internet was young (okay, not really, call it circa 1996), I was a member of a mailing list that became so popular that it spawned several daughter lists. We all kept in contact with one another, with a couple of “ambassadors” hanging out from list to list in order to pass along news and keep the whole place friendly. On our very first daughter list, there was a member whom we shall call E. E was ill when she joined our little group, and sure enough, she eventually died of her illness. Her list and ours went into mourning, going so far as to create a memorial page for her. It had a little shovel, because of the on-going joke about our little sandboxes. Yeah. And then my friend J started noticing some oddities, like how the info came from E’s “cousin S,” whose name was an unusual misspelling of a pretty common name, and how well S knew (and in fact copied word for word) things E had said. And with a bit of digging and some phone calls, J discovered that our lost little sandbox player had never existed.

Now, anyone who’s been online for more than about a week has run across someone playing games anonymously, and anyone who’s been around for more than a month has run into a sockpuppet.

For those of you who have only been around that week, a sockpuppet is an alternate online persona adopted by someone for the purposes of deception. Pen names can be forms of sockpuppetry, though that depends on execution. A writer with multiple pen names may cultivate a secondary cult of personality around the other name(s), going so far as to enter online discussions under both pseuds. That would be socking. A writer who only posts stories under the names and does not attempt to engage in other fannish activities with the second name may be deceitful, but is unlikely to be dangerous.

‘Cause here’s the thing. Socks are dangerous. The media have been all over the case of Megan Meier. Megan met a boy online who turned out to be created by the parents of a former friend. When “Josh” said cruel things to her online and refused to speak with her again, Megan committed suicide. Last month, writer Josh Olson related the incredible story of how his friend “Audrey” was taken in by an Internet scammer who pretended to be a wonderful man named “Jesse.” And that’s not even getting into the tragic circumstances of Thomas Montgomery, which began with an IM flirtation and ended in murder.

Those stories make fandom socks seem almost innocuous. But they’re not. Take for example the case of Ms. Scribe, who finally got her wish of becoming one of the most (in)famous people in Harry Potter fandom, mainly by dint of turning out to be about a third of the total fans. In classic sockpuppetry fashion, she first created her primary account, then created bogus secondary accounts whose sole purpose were to praise her. Not content with that level of fame, she allegedly then created a series of fandom enemies to persecute her so that other fans would rally to her defense. She created other enemies who conveniently “blacklisted” her along with the Potter BNFs so we she would stand united with them. As a quick how-to guide of rocketing to fandom fame, she practically wrote the book. And in her wake, the Potter fandom (never known for being a shining light of stability or, dare I use the word, harmony) fractured and back-bit, and to this day some fans won’t speak to others because of events that transpired thanks to Ms. S.

Even as I type, some acquaintances in my fandom are putting together a list of identities they suspect (and are documenting) could be the same person engaged in a one-man popularity contest, complete with anonymous flaming and out-of-left-field praise of his own work.

Socking is everywhere. And it sucks. The lovely, freeing thing about online interaction is our ability to drop our bodies at the door (more or less) and come together as who we are inside. As I like to say, no one has warts online. We only see what people choose to put out there, and while caveat emptor must be the rule of the day online, it is our own pretense to be someone we’re not that made the rule necessary.

Signs to watch out for:

  • someone who posts a few things of his/her own, but seems to be fixated on another online person
  • newly-created journals* with no mutual friends (other than the obsession)
  • someone whose rants center around one person with whom they’ve had no apparent prior interaction
  • someone who posts rarely or never in a place where a third party can check her/his IP address
  • crops of anonymous flamers
  • crops of newly-created accounts who agree with the anonymous flamers
  • any of the above who share colloquial turns of phrase with the original person
  • and of course, anyone whose IP address matches the above (in the current debacle, someone appears to have used Photoshop to manipulate an IP address, which just adds another layer to the fail cake)

(*Editor’s note: Missy is referring to Livejournal here. Journals would be analogous to most any other current social media account, i.e., Facebook or Twitter. This was written in 2007. — Cygnet.)

In online interactions where you find yourself talking to someone who seems to be too good to be true, take a step back and actually let yourself consider that as a possibility. This applies to romantic relationships as well as fannish interactions. Does your conversational partner’s backstory sound like badfic that you’d laugh off the screen if it happened in a fanfic? Open yourself to the idea that someone did indeed make it up and is looking for attention.

Why do people sock? Easy. People want attention. We crave it. Lack of real-world validation coupled with the heady feeling of total freedom online makes a potent mixture. Plus, there’s a sense of disconnect from the people on the other end.

Social psychologist Nicholas Epley describes the process as being psychologically “distant” from our conversational partners, and also less focused on our own identities, a combination which he says can lead to aggressive, hurtful behavior. That person on the other end of the line isn’t real to us, and so causing him/her pain isn’t as personally upsetting as it might be were we sitting in a room together. Flaming and trolling come from this same root: anonymity makes a Bantam rooster of the most circumspect person in the real world. Creating extra people to love (or despise) yourself doesn’t feel as much of a betrayal of trust; it’s not like those other people you’re talking to are really real anyway, right?

But what if they are? What if those people on the other end are actual people, and more, they’re the cool people you always wanted to hang out with? This thought process leads to a different but still dangerous form of sockpuppetry, dangerous because the original poser may be unaware that this is a form of sockpuppetry at all. I speak now of the Fandom Chameleon. You’ve met her too, though you may not have realized it for several months when you did. The Chameleon is her own best sockpuppet.

You’re in the fandom, and so is she! You love a particular character, and low and behold, she does too. Your ‘ship is her ‘ship, and so is your secondary ‘ship. The other show you watch is also her other favorite show. You’ve got a political position, and OMG, she has the same thoughts on the matter. It is like you have found your best friend just waiting for you. And then you manage to see her talking to someone else, whose ‘ship she also sails above all others, and whose favorite show she also enjoys best, and whose somewhat different opinion on the political issue is suddenly her own. You’ve found a Chameleon.

Chameleons aren’t inherently hurtful. How could they be? They want to be loved and be everyone’s very best friend and fandom buddy. They are however frustrating to deal with on a long-term basis. It’s one thing to know that someone enjoys other things than you do, and quite another to realize that, if you mentioned in the right tone that you thought all the puppies in the world should be rounded up and shot into the sun, that she would agree with you and in fact help make plans to help you design the rocket (at least until a PETA member came into the chatroom, at which point she would start chanting “Fur is murder!”).

Signs of a Fandom Chameleon:

  • generally young, if not chronologically then emotionally (chameleon trait can go hand-in-hand with discovery of self-identity)
  • fond of phrases like “for whatever reason, I’ve never done that” when you bring up some fandom faux pas in conversation
  • in discussions with multiple people, claims to have written fanfics exactly tailored to fan after fan’s desire, but none are ever finished or released as WIPs
  • prone to exaggerations of personal life issues geared towards particular fans’ interests

Again, Fandom Chameleons are not inherently as bad as more typical sockpuppets, but they can leave similar damage in their wake once the story changes to fit new fandom friends.

So, seriously, WTF? Are there any real people out there? Should you trust anyone you meet in fandom or online or anywhere? Short answer: no. You shouldn’t. Trust is something you build over time with people. It’s based on long conversations and short IMs and it’s confirmed with meetings in real life by people you know (and trust) already. It’s having a network of friends who’ve met you, and who have met your other online friends, and it’s phone calls and occasional Google searches to confirm details. Of the other people who currently work at this site, I can personally vouch for the existence of exactly two of them because we’ve met irl. Three others I’ve never met but they know real-life friends of mine. If you don’t know about the person you’re talking to and you’re fearing a puppet or chameleon, ask around.

Ways to confirm someone is real:

  • photographs (can be faked, so be wary and treat this as a first step only)
  • telephone conversations (can also be faked, but harder to keep up with)
  • Google and 411 searches on available personal information
  • vouched for by someone you know and have met in real life (based on trust of person making declaration)
  • meet her/him in person

You’re not going to meet most of your online friends in person. The distances that tend to be described by ‘Net friendships can be prohibitive. Cons are a great place to meet people irl, though be aware that, just like you, your friends will be taking this as an opportunity to fly their freak flags pretty high. Always always always meet someone for the first time in a public place, and do so with a friend or friends. I won’t say never give out your personal information, because there are people all over the world whom I’ve never met who know where I live. Have that voucher in hand and that Google search done first, and don’t be stupid about it.

That’s really the basic rule to weeding out the socks and the chameleons from the honest fans. If the story is too good (or too heart-wrenching) to be believed, if you’re hearing exactly what you want to hear, or if too many brand-new people are saying the exact same thing, someone’s probably lying. And note that if you’re the one lying, you’re going to be caught out eventually, and it won’t be pretty. Credibility is the only real coinage in fandom. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.

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