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.

16 thoughts on “Whisper Network Failure

  1. Meg Frank says:

    So, a few things.

    1. I really enjoyed being on the panel with you.

    2. I really hope to ghod that nobody in the whisper network ever responds to someone who has been hypothetically groped with “Oh, yeah, that’s just X, he does that. Didn’t anyone warn you?” If they’re not responding with “Oh crap, I’m really sorry. Would you like to go to Ops to report that? And you should also keep an eye out for A,B,C, & X,Y,Z.” then they are assholes.

    3. As fandom gets larger, the percentage of assholes/creeps/actual weirdos gets larger, and unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be a proportional growth. It’s easy for the wolves to hide among the sheep because fandom started as a group of ostracized sheep who now never want to ostracize any other sheep. Even if they aren’t sheep, but in fact wolves.

    We need to start getting used to taking long hard looks at bad behavior instead of shrugging it off. Calling someone out on their bad behavior isn’t ostracizing them, it’s helping them even if it doesn’t feel warm and fuzzy. Sheep who are clumsy and bad at talking to other sheep and want to continue to talk to other sheep will want to know when they’re doing it badly. Wolves in sheep clothing don’t want to know, they want to keep hiding. Digging in and talking about motivations, even though uncomfortable, is one of the many steps that we as a community need to take to make things better.

  2. Wolf Lahti says:

    The way to fix the stairs is to stop whispering and start shouting. As Meg Frank perfectly put it, “Calling someone out on their bad behavior isn’t ostracizing them, it’s helping them.” Call them on it in private at first. then if they don’t straighten up, shout it from the rooftops.

    I have always been one for naming names. If a company screws up by offering a poor product or bad service, I won’t say “This business, who shall remain nameless, makes gizmos that are a danger to your dog and uncle”—I will bloody well let everyone know who this business is and why, specifically, I think their gizmos are risky. I have not lost any friends doing this, but if I did, they’re probably not the sort of people I’d want to be friends with anyway.

    It goes without saying, I hope, that you’d better be damned sure of your facts before you start pointing fingers or arrows or whatever.

  3. C. S. P. Schofield says:

    My lady and I were active in fandom for several years, including about a decade’s worth of Darkover Grand Councils. Nobody told US about MZB, so I call bullsh*t on “everybody knew”. SOME people may have known. Or some people may be trying to wrap themselves in the cloak of “insider knowledge” when they were as clueless as the rest of us. OTOH, Asimov’s Roman Hands problem WAS widely known, dating back to the 1950’s, if I’m remembering correctly. Certainly by the time we were active. Hell, Heinlein makes reference to it in THE NUMBER OF THE BEAST. I always kinda wondered how Dr. A got away with it in a subculture loaded with women I would have expected to deck him. Of, indeed, if he didn’t, and I just never heard about it.

  4. erebor says:

    There’s a name for this? Wow. We just sort of called it unofficial orientation. This is how literally all useful coursework advice (not tutoring, but what class to take when, and who to take it with, and what classes you absolutely could not take simultaneously and still expect to sleep) is transmitted at my alma mater. It’s also a matter of course among graduate students in my current department (and among departments at different schools as well), since tenure complicates the process of fixing broken stairs.

    Of course, there are (or were) literal broken stairs in the lab. (And broken other things that I’m sure would turn OSHA’s collective hair white, but the stairs were particularly unfun.)

    • C. S. P. Schofield says:

      Having lived on the fringes of Academia most of my life (my Father was a Professor), I can just imagine….

      Knowing what I know about campus politics and how Liberal Intellectual Icons like (to pick a fairly notorious example) Ward Churchill are protected from the consequences of behavior that would discredit a Pope, I have to laugh every time I hear or read about some (Usually white middle class) Feminist decrying a “Rape Culture” on college campuses.

      I’m not saying that Fraternity rapes don’t happen. I’m not saying that at all. I AM saying that I strongly suspect that there is an awful lot of sexual predation going on among the Professoriat that gets one hell of a lot less attention than it should.

      I caught the edges of a few scandals from overhearing my Father from time to time. He had scant patience for it, and I imagine the Powers That Be kept any word as far away from hims as they could; they were scared to death of him. Do what little he heard about (and warned his female students about quite explicitly) was probably the tip of a large iceberg.

      Someday before too long the overbuilt edifice if Higher Education in this country is going to come crashing down like a sand castle when the tide comes in. When that happens all kinds of muck is going to get exposed to daylight, and it will raise one hell of a stink.

  5. LonOtter says:

    Yeah, concur that the whisper network is definitely not great at letting “everybody” know.

    I learned about MZB this summer. Now, on the one hand that doesn’t worry too much, because AFAIK I’ve never been in the same state at the same time as she was, so I never needed the warning. OTOH, next time I get into that one box, “The Mists of Avalon” is likely to leave the house, because I don’t think I’ll ever want to read it again.

    But the network has also failed me on the current creeps in Chicago-area fandom – I can think of only two that I know of, and only when/after they were busted. Unfortunately, I don’t believe they were/are the only ones. And I’ve been on convention committees, so I think I know some of the people who know. Or something.

  6. Melissa Trible says:

    And, of course… whisper-network type structures work best when most of the people involved are socially adept. What type of people make up, probably, the majority of fandom?…

  7. Professor Godel Fishbreath says:

    Another good thing about shouting it loudly is that the people accused get to respond, to know that they are accused. Trial by media is better then trial by rumor, and will not grow so fast in the telling.

    Yes there are many that are guilty. But likely some that are not.

    Dr. A? I saw him and a femfan once. His reputation advertised for him, and I suspect that most could have been pre-self-selected. But any that wern’t would be a troubling problem.

  8. Douglas Henke says:

    A problem (though perhaps not the chief problem) with whisper networks (aka rumor mills) is that the chief criterion for gain to a particular signal is not “Is this true?” but instead “Is this fun to repeat?”

    Drawing the corresponding Venn diagram left as an exercise for the reader.

    Seconding all the people upthread saying variations on “if you know firsthand something is true, stop whispering and start shouting.”

    • erebor says:

      The problem with shouting about the dirty little secrets of some people is that there often exists a major power imbalance between that person and the person who you say should shout.
      If I shouted about my (hypothetical, thank heaven) boss’ predilection for goosing female staff members, I could be fired. Or demoted. Or otherwise made to feel unwelcome and prevented from advancing. There are federal laws against retribution in cases like this, but that would feel like awfully scant protection.
      If I shouted about my (unfortunately not hypothetical) dissertation committee member’s tendency to apply her grudges and insecurities to female graduate students (I think they call it “gatekeeping”, but there’s a healthy amount of just plain “I-don’t-like-your-advisor/ideas/conclusions” in there too), I might be prevented from gaining my degree and graduating. Theoretically, that’s what the rest of the committee is there to prevent, but that doesn’t make it any less threatening. (And, to put it bluntly, shouting this to the heavens would be a futile effort, since she has tenure and the graduate student population has turnover.)

  9. Stevie says:

    I’m so sorry to see this, and sorry that it’s taken me so long to see this; I usually drop by in the hope of finding that you’re writing the sequel to ‘Nine Goblins’ but the Christmas present thing has me in my usual state of complete indecision about who might like what and thus I am behind on everything.

    I wish I could offer a means of avoiding the missing stair; I can’t do that but I do believe that the Requires Hate debacle may help us to be more honest about the realities of the SF\F genre and its fandom. Stuff like this flourishes in the dark; shining a light on it is undoubtedly scary but it helps…

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