Describing a problem isn’t an explanation

Once again, we’ve got people behaving badly, and numerous think pieces popping up stating that people are behaving badly. Here’s a reasonably good example with a good summary of the problem that somehow doesn’t resolve anything: Why are (some) Star Wars fans so toxic?

I don’t know about you, but when I see a question posed as a headline, I expect that somewhere in the body there will be an answer proposed and argued. We do get a good description of the problem, at least.

It’s a poisonous tributary of fanboyism that appears again and again. Earlier this week, Kelly Marie Tran, the Vietnamese-American actor who plays Rose (and the first WoC in a lead role in the saga) deleted all her Instagram posts. While Tran hasn’t specifically stated that online trolling is the reason she left social media, since the release of The Last Jedi in December she’s been on the receiving end of a torrent of online abuse. Some comments voiced dissatisfaction with the character of Rose itself, or deemed it necessary to attack Tran personally about her performance. Others were more concerned about her gender and her race. For an idea of what she’s been dealing with, one individual even went so far as to amend Rose’s entry on the Wookiepedia Star Wars wiki to read, “Ching Chong Wing Tong is a dumbass fucking character Disney made and is a stupid, retarded, and autistic love interest for Finn. She better die in the coma because she is a dumbass bitch.” If constant invective like this is the reason for Tran leaving social media – if she thought it best to sever the unbroken line of communication between her and the type of person who thinks sending this to a stranger is the right thing to do – then you can hardly blame her.

That individual? Total asshole. An embarrassment to his mother and his entire family line. Someone who ought to be fired from his job, his girlfriend ought to leave him, his computer and his phone thrown in a dumpster, and who should be quarantined until he gets extensive retraining in how to be a human being. But what is the problem with Star Wars fandom? (And note that we could substitute lots of different things for the words “Star Wars”: atheism/skepticism, veganism, Unix, beanie babies, science, whatever). The question is “WHY?”, not “WHO?”

I am so goddamn familiar with this ongoing problem that it doesn’t help to see another turd bobbing about in yet another genre punchbowl. I’m cynical enough to expect the situation to arise everywhere, and I don’t think it contributes to a solution to try to analyze the punch, rather than the turd.

Anyone who followed GamerGate is probably already drawing parallels between the misogyny of that sorry affair and these hissy fits in reaction to harmless pieces of family entertainment. The most vocal offenders in Tran’s case, as always, are an infinitesimal minority of the millions around the world who enjoy the films, or at least don’t feel the need to harass those they perceive as being to blame if they don’t. These males – and it is males – feel they have ownership over a piece of entertainment: that geekdom is their safe space, theirs alone, and the newfound mass popularity of the genre is bringing a lot of casuals into their hitherto predominantly straight, white, male dojo. Diversity isn’t what some of them want. Which is bizarre, considering the benefits of diversity are what quite a lot of sci-fi is actually about. But it’s not what these people believe they paid for, and therefore see themselves of having part-ownership of. The sense of entitlement is staggering.

OK, there’s something odd going on here. I know about fandoms, I’ve participated in a few. At their purest, they’re easy to describe: it’s people meeting and saying “You like this thing, too? I love this thing!” and jumping up and down while simultaneously gushing about their favorite part. I’ve seen it at science fiction conventions, and at evolutionary biology meetings. It’s beautiful. It’s community. It isn’t flawless, because there are always those annoying human problems: there’s always someone competitive who has to show that they love that thing more, and there are bad attempts to gloss over misbehavior, like that Big Name fondles young fans, because they love the thing so much that we mustn’t mention anything that might taint it, but this feels like something different. This isn’t the usual clumsy, socially maladroit behavior of overly-enthusiastic geeks, or the fumbling efforts to willfully avoid seeing bad behavior.

This feels like something intentional and malicious.

You know you can belong to multiple fandoms at once, right? When you talk about the people in Star Wars fandom, you’re actually talking about a collection of very different overlapping interests. There are the cosplayers who see it as a target-rich environment with many exotic costumes, but they may also view Final Fantasy fandom as another fine place to play. There are cinemaphiles who just adore the approach to technology of the movies, and look at other science fiction movies through the same lens. This is not a problem. It’s actually a plus when people with different perspectives on the same thing interact.

Except…I think there’s another kind of fandom that has been growing for decades now. Let’s call it the Dark Fandom, or DF for short, just to pin a label on it. This is a fandom that celebrates snideness, jeering, crudity, and taking a dump in the punchbowl. It’s 4chan/8chan. It’s a substantial chunk of Reddit. It’s YouTube comment sections. It’s community, too. It’s people coming together and saying, “You hate feminism? I hate feminism even more! High five!” or “Hey, you like trashing parties? Let’s invade rec.pets.cats and piss off some normies!” (Yeah, this has been a phenomenon since the early days of usenet).

This isn’t necessarily a problem with Star Wars fandom. It’s a problem with that segment of Star Wars fandom that overlaps with the DF. Or the atheists who are card-carrying members of the DF. Or the gamers who enjoy a particular video game, but think the game culture could use some more DF. Just as cosplayers might want to participate in a fandom with cool costumes, these people want to join in with more cool shitposting.

That’s the real problem. The question is what are we going to do about it?

We need ways to identify DF members, first of all. I’ve generally found that anyone who is proud to have participated in 4chan, for instance, is almost always pure poison. Anti-feminism isn’t a coherent position, it’s simply a pathology of bros, so that’s a useful marker. But 4chan was anonymous, not every discussion is about feminism, and people can use DF tactics for all kinds of causes.

We need to ostracize the DF. We all sort of do this already: someone who is disruptive and who contributes nothing but complaints and bitterness tends to be unwelcome at meetings and in any kind of productive interaction. But all too often we let them linger on, maintaining an association. We usually think of a synthesis of overlapping fandoms as a good thing, and we like to consider a diversity of interests to be a strength. But the DF is a cancer that weakens us when we allow it to persist.

We need to help people get out of the DF. It’s only a first step to kick out members of the DF — we also need a way to let them back in if they change. We need standards of behavior for our own fandoms, so people understand what it takes to be a respectable member of the Star Wars fan club, or whatever.

The bottom line is that we need to recognize that not all fandoms are good, not all are compatible, and take steps to deny associations with shitposting Dark Fandoms, like the ones flourishing in various media right now.


  1. says

    I get what your putting down and agree all the way through, but I’m not a fan of the “Dark Fandom” label. I know youre just riffing in the whole dark intellectual thing, but it feels like DF is just too cool/interesting a name for these shitty people. I dont really have any ideas to replace it, unfortunately.

  2. raven says

    This feels like something intentional and malicious.

    I’m afraid PZ Myers has just discovered…internet trolls.
    Internet trolls are everywhere.
    Without policing and moderation, they will take over any forum and destroy it.
    I saw it with Usenet, AOL, and Yahoo.

    I realize that giving a name to a group doesn’t explain why they are trolls.
    That is likely to have many answers, as trolls are individuals, and individuals vary.
    My old AOL instruction manual said trolls were troubled people wrestling with their inner demons online, and losing.
    Some are mental age disturbed adolescents, who think any attention even unfavorable, is still attention and something they desperately need.
    There are I’m sure, many other backgrounds and reasons.

  3. raven says

    Without policing and moderation, they will take over any forum and destroy it.

    Trolls really are everywhere.
    1. The latest is for them to show up when people die, famous people usually but not necessarily and say wacko things.
    “Anthony Bourdain, the celebrity chef who died yesterday is now burning in hell, by those nice xians.”
    And lots worse and even more incoherent.

    2. A friend once set up a blog-forum for patients with an autoimmune disease.
    This one is hard to treat.
    This patient population has a notably higher rate of suicide.
    It didn’t take long for trolls to show up, abuse the patients, and tell them they were worthless, and should kill themselves.
    This forum still exists but it is now hard to find, heavily moderated, and you need a referral to get in.

    3. We’ve all seen the comments sections of the new media online.
    Everyone knows not to read the comments on any story.

    Trolls will invade any public internet space, no matter what the subject is, and act out. If there aren’t any mods, moderation, and troll control, they will destroy it.

  4. says

    #1: The name is irelevant. It doesn’t matter what you call them: you can call them “slime” and they’ll just own it and take pride in being slimy, as we all know from experience.

  5. says

    raven @3: speaking of Anthony Bourdain, David Simon (writer of Homicide: Life on the Streets, The Wire and others) has a post up on his blog mourning Bourdain, whom he knew, where he also mentions how he’s been banned from Twitter for refusing to take down posts where he rightfully curses out the kind of verminous shitbag who does things like gloat over the death of celebrities (in Simon’s case, it was raging at people supporting Trump’s callous treatment of asylum seekers, and spreading anti-Semitic calumnies about George Soros). As Simon put it:

    Suffice to say that while you can arrive on Twitter and disseminate the untethered and anti-human opinion that mothers who have their children kidnapped and held incommunicado from them at the American border are criminals — and both mother and child deserve that fate — or that 14-year-old boys who survive the Holocaust are guilty of betraying fellow Jews when there is no evidence of such, you CANNOT wish that the people who traffic in such vile shit should crawl off and die of a fulminant venereal rash. Slander is cool, brutality is acceptable. But the hyperbolic and comic hope that a just god might smite the slanderer or brutalizer with a deadly skin disorder is somehow beyond the pale.

    Die of boils, @jack [Dorsey, mealy-mouthed FREEZE PEACH lovin’ CEO of Twitter, if you’re not au fait with the Twitterocracy].

    Screenshots of Simon’s Twitter diatribes here if his account has been taken down.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    YOB… @ # 1: … I’m not a fan of the “Dark Fandom” label…

    Yabbut I can think of other appellations which fit quite fittingly under the “DF” acronym.

  7. says

    Actually, you got it right with the first one PZ – 4chan/8chan. Reddit grew “out of” these people. The fact that the forum is also now used for a thousand other things is “incidental”. The whole entire point of the original design was so that anonymous assholes could spout off about their common interest, and their number one common interest is why the universe wasn’t handing them out participation trophies for life, never mind all the riches, women, and success they **deserve** for having been born with a penis. Everything else grew out of the success of this, ironically, even the anonymous group itself, who decided to take a far more proactive, and sometimes destructive, path. If this was a comic book, they would be the Jokers – the people who feel disenfranchised by reality, and *need* to show the world as the joke it is. Is politics corrupt? Heh, why not help that out by exposing the corruption in a way that makes the corrupt people even more paranoid and gains them more power. What a fine joke! Are there problems with “some” branches of feminism, liberalism, conservatism, or any other ism, well, wouldn’t it be funny to troll them and prove that the corruption is throughout the entire movement, not just in the fringes? What a laugh!

    Sure, its gone way past that, due to how many creeps there are, of every stripe, out there, but basically, the “core” demographic of this bunch literally thinks like the Joker – the world is absurd because **we** are not getting what we personally deserve from it, so how can we show that absurdity to the world, but trolling, hacking, and anything else we can come up with? After all, look how many people don’t get the joke, but follow along with us anyway, and the chaos its causing! One day everyone will get it, or the world will burn down, and then all this unfairness will end for *US*.

    In short, to quote Alfred, “Some people just want to see the world burn.” And, these people where the founders of all these anonymous services.

  8. leerudolph says

    Without policing and moderation, they will take over any forum and destroy it.
    I saw it with Usenet

    “Policing” and “moderation” need to be defined. The words evoke (I don’t know whether you intend them to) particular modes of social regulation, in particular, hierarchical, “top down” regulation. So I would just like to testify, from my own experience on Usenet, that at least sometimes non-hierarchical, diffuse, modes of social regulation—ones that I am temperamentally inclined to prefer and to trust—can resist troll takeovers and troll destruction, sometimes as long as 20 years.

    One I became well acquainted with was soc.motss, where I began reading and commenting (eventually very extensively) c. 1989—so, when it was, according to that article, about 6 years old. Again according to the article, “By the early 1990s, motss member and software engineer Brian Reid estimated that about 3 percent of all Usenet readers were reading soc.motss, which was an audience of about 83,000 people.” As you can imagine, troll attacks (of all sorts—by no means all homophobic) were common. The newsgroup was never moderated formally, but it was aggressively protected by its communities of active posters and participants in off-line group activities (and it certainly had help and support from a lot of other parties behind the scenes: an impressive proportion of the “founders of the internet”, ARPANET, BBN, etc., etc., were tied in to soc.motss via what might be called, with deliberate anachronism, the “internet of people”). Some troll attacks left permanent damage (after one, when it looked briefly like maybe things were really in danger of falling apart, I wrote a despairing poem [1]). But it wasn’t really until Facebook came along that soc.motss, as a Usenet newsgroup, withered away. (I sadly abandoned it then. I had made many good friends, several in Real Life, but I could not make the transition away from text-based asynchronous communication, and I still haven’t; a handful of blogs fill that niche in my life, imperfectly. I exchange irregular e-mails with some of those friends still.)

    Another newsgroup I was equally well acquainted with, more centrally located in, and several dozens of whose members I met physically (over the course of over 20 years), was alt.folklore.urban. Again, there was never any moderation; social control was, with great success, achieved by the newsgroup’s regulars—specifically by our facility at countertrolling (within the group), in a sort of immune reaction producing a high fever that would burn the troll infection right up. This is not perhaps a good model for groups in general, but it worked for us, and gave a lot of people a lot of good laughs in the process.

    [1] Here is the poem. The “prayer” is, rest assured, a godless prayer. The “something I loved” was, in the first instance, soc.motss (when I thought that the asshole troll was going to pull it all down, though in the end he did no more—and that was bad enough!—than to get Melinda in trouble at work), but of course eventually, after having been through the muses’ mill, it became something lost long ago that I still can’t quite remember… The stanza is Paul Goodman’s “Little Prayer” stanza.


    I had taken the word of the calendar
    and slept, thinking winter was over.
        Morning came: the sky was gray,
        it had nothing to say;

    the garden was hidden beneath a new drift,
    still dead. I have lost something I loved,
        but what, and when,
        I have forgotten.

    If I could remember, I could make an end:
    let me remember. By afternoon
        the snow was gone, in wind,
        in untrustworthy sun.

  9. unclefrogy says

    I also have a hard time with labels generally I agree with the sentiment though and have little to add to what can be done to resist the trolls that has not already been suggested.
    I admit that it is pretty hard for me to always resist my angry reaction when being bated .
    the reason I am posting is to inform anyone that there is a really cool youtube channel called “DF in the shop” a very talented blacksmith teaching and demonstrating his many skills hate to see the confusing spread as a side effect. Confusion and reaction seems to be the desired result of trolls anyway. they really are suffering from some form o terminal acute resentment syndrome or is that sin-drone (as in on and on)
    uncle frogy

  10. raven says

    “Policing” and “moderation” need to be defined. The words evoke (I don’t know whether you intend them to) particular modes of social regulation, in particular, hierarchical, “top down” regulation.

    1. Just ban the obvious trolls.
    Life is quite literally too short to spend much time dealing with trolls.
    It is quick, fast, easy, and effective.

    2. Many forums provide “ignore lists” features.
    I believe the common Disqus, used on Patheos does so although theirs is so clumsy, I have yet to figure it out.
    Others are much easier.
    On one forum, where I’ve lurked for many years, I use it often.
    Otherwise, it is unreadable.

    3. If a forum gets overrun by trolls, I just decide not to waste any of my valuable life span on it.
    I’ve abandoned many over the last two decades and they’ve all subsequently more or less died of neglect.

  11. paxoll says

    One major problem is click bait media purposefully conflating internet trolls with a “fandom”. This derails any productive discussion on any topic worth arguing. For this particular example, its perfectly fine to talk about and criticize Trans character in context of script, or acting, or directing, ect… But then the media lumps someone with this position with some troll yelling “asian fatty” and a bunch of hyperbolic speech gets thrown around polarizing and splitting the community. Can’t have a reasonable discussion on how to fix the troll problem when everyone who doesn’t gush over the whole movie is being labeled as one…. damn, why does this issue seem so familiar…

  12. says

    I was a lurker on alt.tasteless in the mid-90s, ust after the rec.pets.cats “raid” PZ mentions. I just remember being bemused by the whole incident, like, “what does this have to do with poop jokes?” The guys involved in the raid were as you would imagine: loudmouthed, unfunny braggarts desperate to be seen as “edgy”; their ideological descendants populate the *chans and Gabs and Voats and the other sinkholes on today’s Internet. The people I stuck around on alt.tasteless to read, the men and women who could skewer a spammer injudicious enough to post there, or spin a tale of food poisoning or distressingly intimate medical procedure into some kind of Boschian nightmare of simultaneous retching and helpless laughter, they all ended up leaving.

  13. cartomancer says

    Hmm, I’m not sure about this theory.

    I can see that there are indeed plenty of cases where people have several hobbies, and those hobbies overlap. A fondness for Star Wars and a love of dressing up in costumes, or an interest in painting and a love of Gothic cathedrals for instance. Should people like this want to share those hobbies with others in a social way, then the interactions can be productive. Though perhaps not always. I expect there are occasions when it falls completely flat, and your attempts to combine your interest in erotic vegetable sculpture with your delight in Buffy the Vampire Slayer put off your fellow turnip carving enthusiasts and fellow Buffy fans alike.

    But I don’t see how one could reasonably go about combining a fundamentally antisocial hobby with a fundamentally social one in this way. Harassing people on the internet, malevolent tricksterism and being a tosser just to get a rise out of people are hobbies of an intrinsically different and opposite kind to hobbies where you want to enjoy the fellowship and enthusiasm of fellow devotees. For the one you want to be reviled and rejected, for the other you want to be lauded and accepted. This isn’t just a case of misunderstanding what others might respond to, it’s having two conflicting and incompatible goals in mind.

    I think a better explanation would be that, where genuine fans are concerned, the harassment and unpleasantness are simply woefully inappropriate learned behaviours that they have somehow come to believe are normal and appropriate on the internet.

  14. says

    There have been nasty bastards in fandom since the get-go. Has anyone here read Harlan Ellison’s (no stranger to nasty bastardy himself, it must be said) essay, “Xenogenesis” about the terrible harassment meted out to SF authors by sociopathic fans? You’d imagine controversial, in-your-face types like Ellison would court this kind of attention but according to his account, even the most amiable low-key, unassuming writers in the genre were the victims of the most appalling behaviour.

  15. says

    There is never a reason to harrass someone over a art work.

    With that being said what I find remarkable is how thin skin these folks are. TLJ would have been a great film instead of a merely good one if it *didn’t* go out of its way to pull punches and committed fully to alienating fans from Star Wars.

    Alas we had a film try to have its cake and eat it too.

  16. DLC says

    But but, frozen peaches. But, they has fee-fees too. but, they’re just children who need mentoring. But they’re… Oh bullshit. They’re worthless shitstains on the toilet bowl of life. Get the clorox and get rid of them already.