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Whisper Network Failure

(Warning: Long, possibly rambling, rather serious post ahead...)

There has been a discussion among various authors I know in the SF community about whisper networks recently--or maybe that's a conversation that's been going on for ages, and the whisper network only just reached me. Hard to tell, obviously.

Quick crash course in terms and examples:

Whisper networks, as I hear the term used, are basically the thing that a community or social group (i.e. SF fandom) uses to warn each other about missing stairs. (Christ, what a lot of jargon already...) Which is fine and good and a very valid community coping mechanism when, for whatever, reason, you can't FIX the stair. There are plenty of people in SF fandom, for example, that cannot be "fixed"--they are what they are and they aren't going away and whatever they are doing is either not illegal or not actionable and so a whisper network springs up to say "Hey, keep an eye out for Person X, and don't be alone with them/engage them on-line/enter a business arrangement with them/whatever the particular issue is."

For example, I am told that it was apparently well known that Isaac Asimov was a serial groper back in the day, nobody in power considered this "serious" (or they thought it was funny) and so the whisper network went around that you didn't turn your back on him and you stayed out of arm's reach or stuff would happen.

Which is really shitty, on one level, because nobody was fixing it, but people absolutely needed to be warned, so...whisper network to the attempted rescue.

The problem with this, of course, is that if you aren't lucky/social/lucky/friends with somebody in the know/lucky, you don't get the memo, and the next thing you know, you're in the wrong elevator and there's a hand on your ass, and if you're even more unlucky, you say to someone "Dude! Person X grabbed my ass!" and they say "Oh, yeah, that's just X, he does that. Didn't anyone warn you?" and then not only did you just get your ass grabbed, you get made to feel like you're stupid/unobservant/not even worthy of someone trying to warn you because no one cares what happens to you because you must suck.

Everybody with me so far? (Feel free to chime in in the comments if I am Getting Shit Wrong. This is being written fast and furious and my verbage is not as careful as it probably should be--if I say something stupid, point it out to me and I will correct if possible!)

I am a prime example of people who are failed by whisper networks. I have a wide circle of generally good friends in fandom who would totally jump in to save me if my car got a flat, but who honestly might not think to tell me that Person X is a missing stair, because they would assume that A) hey, I'm smart, I already know, and B) it's such an awkward conversation to have, and C) everybody knows, don't they?

And I am bad with names and bad with faces and while the vast majority of my fans are very good, once they figure this out, about saying "You know me from X," so I can go "RIGHT! YES!" nobody in the history of the world is going to come up at a con and say "You know me from the time I grabbed your ass in an elevator."

My entire connection to the whisper network is from pretty much two people who know me well enough to know that I don't know and I have, I am afraid, already forgotten several of the names they told me, because I have a hard time processing stuff that's not written down and so there is a non-zero chance that some day I will be squinting at a nametag and burst out with "Oh! You're the ass-grabber! Right, I remember now!" and it will be awkward, although there is probably an argument to be made that in such case, I am a bumbling Nemesis of Social Consequences.

(Dealers and artists, let me add, are broadly the exception to this--the vast majority will be delighted to run down every person who comes by the table who is awesome or terrible--"Did you get the guy? With the thing? Oh god!" and "Yeah, don't take his commission, he nit-picks for weeks," but also "He is fantastic and I will introduce you tomorrow," and "She is the sweetest person in creation, if I had fifty commissioners like her, I would be the happiest artist on the planet." But you still have to show up where there are dealers and artists, which is not always feasible, and increasingly is much less connected to SF writer fandom, which is the pool I am slowly sliding into.)


At WindyCon--where I personally had no problems or complaints at all, let me say straight up--I was on a panel about social media. (This is what spawned the whole post, incidentally.) And the conversation turned to the whisper network, and Recent Events and the things that everybody knows.

At least two people literally said "Everybody knew..." about MZB and I still don't know if they were being sarcastic and my body reading was just off, but I tensed up and wanted to scream because I didn't know. And maybe everybody did know in nineteen-sixty-freaking-three, but a goodly percentage of those people have died or dropped out of fandom or moved off the grid because life sucks sometimes, and if you keep not mentioning it because why bother, everybody knows, eventually you are standing in a room where nobody knows except you and you don't say anything because dude, everybody knows.

Well, maybe they knew all that and were saying it ironically, because I would like to think that, and I am just humorless about this topic and not everybody you meet has body language while sitting in a chair that I can read with flawless accuracy. Because I grew up on Sword & Sorceress and it really kind of mattered to me a LOT but there's Being A Fan Of Problematic Things and then there's this. 'Problematic things' to me is enjoying Baby, It's Cold Outside, and doesn't come anywhere near this shit.


That's not the bit that spawned the post. That bit I have not yet processed and may go to my grave not processing and even if I process it, I still might not talk about it in public, because there are living victims out there and that's way more important than my bullshit.

The bit that spawned the post was five minutes later.

The bit was when somebody was explaining the whisper network, and saying "We all got told not to get in an elevator with--well--certain authors--or we'd get groped--"

"Author X,*" muttered someone in the front row, not quite under her breath.

"Author X?" I said out loud, more startled than I probably should have been. "Seriously?"

"No, it was Author Y," said someone else.

"I thought Y was just a drunk."

"No, X was the drunk, Y was just annoying."

"Look, they were both gropers," said someone else, exasperated.

"Oh, for fuck's sake," I said, displaying my awesome professional panelist demeanor, and dropped my head in my hands. "This is why we can't have nice things."

Was this true?

I don't know. How could I? I've never met either of them. I've never had anyone come up and say "Yeah, avoid X," or even "Avoid Y because you're his type," (although I have heard that is a thing.) All we have are rumors, and the occasional acid statement "Oh yeah, he's a great guy to hang around with. If you're male." and frankly, I am lucky as hell to have gotten that much. I don't know if it's not true. I'd probably stay out of elevators with them, though, and in that regard, the whisper network has done its work well.

I don't think this was a conversation unique to this panel or this con. I suspect variations on this go on everywhere, whenever you get chunks of fandom together. (Hell, if anything I'd say it was a tribute to Windycon feeling safe enough for people to say this out loud.)

There are too many of us. Maybe fandom got too big, or maybe it just got too fragmented. We are ten thousand little circles that talk to each other, mostly in person, sometimes not at all. (Hell, I know of at least one problem in the local scene, but I couldn't tell you his name if my life depended on it. I knew it for the two days when I was reporting him, now I'm reduced to vague physical descriptions and hand-waving, because my brain can retain shocking amounts of bird fieldmarks and the Latin names of plants and is absolute shit for other things. If I ever meet him again, sans certain context clues, I will walk right by without realizing that Angry Bald Man once had to be deployed to keep him away from a dealer at another convention. But hey, if there's a Virginia Rail perched on his head, I'll be able to ID that sucker cold.)

Well, I got this far rambling. If I were a good and sensible columnist, I would provide some thoughtful solutions for how to make things better, but I'm not and I can't because I don't know.

Really smart, canny, kind people, who understand other people on a level that I kinda don't, have been beating their heads against this for ages, and the best anyone can seem to come up with is that we need to get the whisper network working better and louder, while we are trying desperately to fix missing stairs.

Maybe there isn't a fix. Maybe this is just a function of what happens when you get a bunch of people together in groups--certain people who can milk the system of courtesies and politenesses and benefits of the doubt, a system that is flawed, but nevertheless allows a hundred humans to get into a closed metal tube for six hours and then all disembark alive at the other end, which the primatologists tell us is not something you can expect chimps to do.

Anyway. that's what I've been thinking about lately. It's discouraging and I don't know the answers, but there it is.

*They said a real name. I know it. Probably you know it. For various reasons, some of which will be obvious in another few sentences, but also including the fact that I don't know if it's true because I'm not in the goddamn whisper network, we will be using pseudonyms.**

**Sadly, for all I know there's a dozen people in the audience who know, from those remote clues, who was under discussion. Which is sad. And I don't want to name names because I'm afraid of the potential backlash, and that's maybe sadder. But I can't police this space as tightly as I need to, and I don't know if I can keep it safe from a really dedicated troll onslaught, and as is the entire point of my post, the whisper network is fucked up. So, err, please don't name names here, if you think you know them, because I don't know and can't deal right now.

Another aspect of such a network: You don't know if the allegations are true. History is replete with "everyone knows" stuff that ain't so, and some of that was started for malicious reasons.

But I certainly wish you well clear of those elevator encounters!

===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle

Whisper networks fail me in almost exactly the same way. Except that I end up hearing about Jim Frenkel and MZB on and off for years. I just don't hear about anyone I actually encounter in person, because I am not anybody and I do not get invited to parties where Names are and indeed right now I don't go anywhere or do anything except on the rare occasion when I do, at which point I rarely get groped, but then random person will make some incredibly gross comment to me and I mention it later to a friend and they say "Yes, didn't you know not to talk to them?"

Sorry. Run on sentence.

I also don't process things that aren't written down so well, and forget names and faces, so even when I have been told, I don't make the connection, too.

And it's not always as horrible as elevator groping--there's at least one where the whisper is "speak not his name, he googles himself and is an ass."

But these things could save us all a lot of unpleasantness if we knew them

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Well, if Mr. Do Not Mention is who I think he is, he's done rather worse than showing up and being an ass. Like repeatedly publishing the legal name and home address of a vulnerable person who has disagreed with him publicly. And who has asked him repeatedly not to do that because it endangers her.

He's also now being... not invited to a lot of fan spaces anymore (though by no means not all fan spaces, and there are other reasons he's being invited to fewer spaces, too) because of his behavior. But it's pretty difficult to keep him out of public internet spaces. There's simply no way to fix the stair.

Or it might be a different person who googles himself and shows up to be an ass.

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Just so you know, this post raised my respect for you by a factor of ten. ^_^

I'd respect myself a lot more if I had any good ideas about how to fix it!

What you wrote is important to say. It's 2014 and it's still a matter of knowing the right person who might whisper a name to you so you might be safe in an elevator? In a hallway? In a corner at a party?

And this crap has been going on for a long time.

There's a word for what's been going on. The fear of being ostracized or not published if you confront the wrong Important Person and accuse them. The fear by a con of being unable to disinvite a problem. It's "enabling".

I am mostly clueless. An introvert. My idea of enjoying a con party is cruising in, checking out the food, seeing if there's anyone I know -- and these days, whether there's a place to sit or room for the big guy and his walker. Mostly I don't go out in the evenings, retreat to my hotel room and write. I'm the last person to notice stuff and definitely the last to hear things. I didn't know about MZB until this summer. I certainly hadn't heard about Bill Cosby. And I was surprised to see a problematic person working the con suite at WisCon this year. It became an issue. WisCon! Shouldn't they know better?

Anyway, I just wanted to say that I agree with you. The Whisper net is a failure mode.

I don't have a better answer, but this is a conversation that needs to be said.

Dr. Phil

I wish whisper networks could do more to transmit messages to missing stairs, like "Dude, you need to stop groping people in elevators," so that it wouldn't matter so much whether they were any good at transmitting messages about missing stairs. (I say this purely as wishful thinking, not as an implicit criticism of anyone who has ever tried to warn a friend about a creep. It's much more difficult and dangerous to tell someone they're hurting people than it is to tell someone you're worried they might get hurt, and I don't know how to get around that.)

Speaking as someone who tried that...it doesn't work. Well, mostly.

They know it's not ok, but they either choose not to care, or rationalise it in some way. [you can think of examples of the later I'm sure.] Generally they either offer false promises to not do it again, brush you off and ignore you or get angry and defensive. Usually in direct proportion to their ego.

Basically... pointing out oafish behaviour doesn't stop them being oafs, because they already know and chose to be.

That said... there's something to be said for wake-up calls for the terminally clueless idiots with their heads up their ass justifications.

Edited at 2014-11-27 02:28 am (UTC)

You know.. someone who's a Grand S.M.O.F [Secret Master Of Fandom] really ought to start a Little Black Book of Names, and what they are suspected or even confirmed as being or doing, for those who are not part of a whisper network.

But then.. I also think some people really need to come with warning labels or advisory sheets, preferably on the front page of the user manuals for that model.

Edited at 2014-11-27 02:29 am (UTC)

The problem with that is for certain egos, that if this became open knowledge, that would leave them open to a lawsuit for damages, ect.

This sort of thing scares the crap out of me. Listen -- I was at a bar once when a drunk man came up and hit me in the face. Just like that, wham, followed by uproarious drunk laughter. I had with me, on my left, my police officer boyfriend. On my right was his police officer sister. On her right was her ex-military husband. Everyone saw it. Plenty of strangers around, too.

Do you know what happened? Can you guess?

FUCK ALL HAPPENED. No one did anything. No one said anything. He staggered off, we left, and it was OVER.

For me, it's not just that I know people won't warn me. It's that I know they won't defend me, either, if something happens. Screw whisper networks. They only protect people who matter.

Dude... you need to have long conversation with your Boyfriend... because if anyone is supposed to have your back, that would be him.

That is, assuming that he isn't your ex by now.

I only heard about MZB recently. In that case, the whisper network apparently allowed entirely inexcusable behavior to continue for years.

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It's not just authors who need that network, either. For every Jim Frenkel or Bill Cosby, aiming at young women who are trying to make careers in their fields, there's an Asimov or a Jian Ghomeshi, who are just as likely to go after fans.

When lots of people connected to Canadian music and/or broadcasting were asking women "Do you know about Jian?" at industry events, it may have protected their friends and acquaintances. Ghomeshi may even have been aware of the whisper network. It didn't stop him from beating up and raping women: he went after fans he met at book signings.

As a side note, I think I need to think about my phrasing here. I've used "he's a good guy, if you're male" about at least one person who may or may not be a groper: what I knew, and was referring to, was that he was rude and condescending to women. That in itself doesn't make anyone unsafe in an elevator, but it does mean that he's going to be an annoying person for women to talk to, even at a physically safe distance. And it might be worth my paying more attention to the difference between "he is condescending to women," "he insults women and makes inappropriate sexual remarks," and "don't be alone with him or let him come within arm's reach."

Oh, absolutely--I say SF fandom because that's mine specifically, but what everybody knows is a problem with...well...everybody.

We had an interesting whisper network blow-up here in Canada recently-- a woman anonymously accused a radio celebrity (Jian Ghomeshi) of sexual assault, followed by multiple other women, and finally universities started saying "Yeeeeeeeeah, we tell female students not to intern on Ghomeshi's show." It's a deeply infuriating subject to see how deep the rabbit hole goes to protect these missing stairs.

I want there to be-- spitballing here-- Fandom Ombudspeople, that maintain email accounts or dreamwidth communities with screened posting and IP logging, to receive anonymous reports about bad behavior from fandom personalities. Multiple ombudspeople to receive the same reports, so no single person can cover up fingers pointed at a friend. IP logging to detect people with proxies and grudges. Hidden reports to protect privacy and prevent bandwagoning. And if a substantial body of evidence is built up, social consequences for the accused. I'm sure others can also see the potential problems, but it's obvious what we've got isn't enough.

Currently my fandom whisper network is probably fail-fandom-anon on dreamwidth, although I certainly don't read every post or check every entry, but I've heard troubling things there.

Edited at 2014-11-27 03:07 am (UTC)

The 'consequences' bit there might look something like a legal-action kickstarter - if N people anonymously pledge to go public with the fact that a particular person has done a particular thing to all of them, those N people get each others' contact info and also some sort of legal assistance.

The biggest problem from a very outsider POV - ie in another country and never attended any con except Melbourn Worldcon - is the fact that the support structures to help the victims DOESNT EXIST OR IS SO BROKEN AS TO BE WORTHLESS

Readercon and WISCON are the two that are top of mind from recent memory as total clustefuck examples of how not to handle victims of abuse and harassment.

If that safe space doesnt exist and the people in charge are not prepared to call famous/important people out on their behaviour then the whisper community is what will evolve in the vacuum of any real support. And its this lack of holding people accountable for known, repeated and witnessed behaviours that utterly confounds me. Partly cos of the litiginous (sp) nature of US society, Im assuming thats a concern. But how is knowing that people are behaving badly, and "everybody knows" so shy isnt any one doing anything about it? Why is it allowed to happen because they are VIP?

If the VIP are held to account publically surely that should have some real impact and hope to restrain other abusers if they know *real* consequences happen.

Finally are these VIP so goddamn desirable to have around (competely with filthy mouths and grabby hands?) ie is the con improved by having them there? Really?

I didnt know about MZB until recently when it was splashed over the net either FWIW

I wish I had good answers for you.

A lot of people, I suppose, have the energy to say "Hey, watch out for the pothole!" but not enough to fill the pothole themself, or they don't know how or they are afraid of making it worse or of repercussions or...insert reason here.

It sucks.

Augh, where were these terms and phrases when I needed them! Never knew "missing stair" was a thing but it would have helped explain a couple of situations.

I'm also not usually someone who benefits from whisper networks. At least in my experience, people come out of the woodwork after shit happens. I don't really know how to handle that because these are people who basically stood there and watched the ordeal from beginning to end and -said nothing- until the damage was done. Not even talking about when people stay silent because of awkward moments/situations (I totally understand that) but when people have had multiple opportunities to give a heads-up, but don't. x_x

Heh. I am the last person to lead a revolution, but I can at least hook people up to useful phrases!

Reading over all this, it occurs to me that the entities that solve the problem of the whispernet are the muckraking journalists. They take the whispers and blare them from the loudspeakers, breaking the wall of public silence.

When I entered fandom, I was coming out of other groups that had whisper networks. Hell, my church growing up had one (yes, they're disfunctional. They're also overwhelmingly white and wealthy and old school southern. If he's a problem, you must have been asking for it, etc.). What it meant to me was that I knew there was probably one in fandom too, and I needed to find it. So I went looking. It helped with the Frenkles of our world, but not so much with the ones who are just assholes or unpleasant. But it says something really unpleasant that my first response in a new community is to figure out who is a part of the network and will be willing to talk.