How an online knitting forum taught me how suffering can be exploited on the internet

The bigger the trauma, the greater the harvest of “vibes”: cancer was a banker, a job loss would do OK, your cat dying was the mother lode.

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In my first life on the internet, I belonged to the knitosphere. This was sometime around 2005, before Twitter and even before Facebook, but after the Usenet era, when the internet was the joyful kingdom of the true geeks. One day, as a beginner knitter struggling to make sense of what a “yarn over” was, I clicked through from the pattern site to the message board, posted my question, and was rewarded with cheerfully supportive answers from other users. (A “yarn over”, by the way, is a deliberate hole made for knitting lace. I finished the pattern. The jumper was horrible.)

Other people arrived at the forum the same way I did – needing help with a technique, or trying to decipher an ambiguous pattern – and often they got their solution and faded away. I stuck around. I tried to help newbie knitters with problems even more elementary than my own. I made a blog to share pictures of my “Wips” (works in progress), my “stash” (yarn collection) and my finished items (not very many of these). I maintained a wide-eyed superiority when drama broke out over flammable issues such as acrylic vs natural fibres, crochet vs knitters, and whether knitting washcloths was a waste of precious lifespan.

On the forum, the most potent currency of all was “vibes”. A regular post would involve someone summarising some stressful life event – a medical issue, a job interview, a relationship woe – and requesting “good vibes”. And the more vibes you could command, the more of a big deal you obviously were. A coterie of the hardcore (I still remember their names) could expect multi-page commiserations over a domestic mishap; but there was nothing quite as tragic as the low-post-count user sharing their disaster, and getting a few vague mutterings of consolation back.

Adjusting for star power, though, you could generally assume that the bigger the trauma, the greater the harvest of vibes. Cancer was a banker. A job loss (or a husband losing his job, since this was a craft forum, and millennial makers of ironic nipple pasties rubbed up against the home-schooling-and-canning tendency) would do OK. If your cat died, that was the mother lode of vibes. And some of the big-name users really seemed to be extraordinarily unlucky – or, if you took a cynical view on it, extraordinarily successful at harvesting vibes. Some even put up their PayPal details to accept donations.

This was a system that incentivised misfortune, converting grim experiences into attention and love. Surely there’d be some people – some affection-hungry people – who’d make the obvious calculation. After all, it’s not like your fellow-users on a knitting board can demand to see your medical notes, or a death certificate from the vet. Doubting someone else’s pain is intensely taboo: if you don’t believe me, try saying “really?” the next time someone informs you of a family bereavement. Publicly doubting a big-name user on the board? Tantamount to social suicide.

In online communities, victimhood confers a perverse authority – if you know how to leverage it, and have the disposition to do so. I carried on following some of the board users after I drifted away: one started a blog where she recorded her experience of an astonishing volume of street harassment. All of it plausible in itself, and it became widely read because other women were relieved to have this depressing part of their lives recognised; but there seemed to be so much of it. It could all, of course, have been perfectly true. Or it could have been a fabrication, and there was no way to tell.

There are other, documented cases of people going all-out to counterfeit suffering online. I lost several perfectly good work hours recently to reading an exhaustive account of a woman who conned the Harry Potter fanfic community by setting up “sock puppet” accounts (that is, proxies secretly controlled by her) to both praise and attack her. The worship elevated her standing in the fandom, but it was the abuse that conferred stardom: as a victim, defying hostile forces, she had a supreme glamour. The labour she put in was astonishing, but the rewards were huge.

In that case, she was eventually undone when the moderators of the boards she used decided to trace the IP addresses of her harassers, and discovered they were using the same computer as her. But her contemporary equivalents have fewer technical constraints to guard against. Regular users can’t access the IP of a tweet, so unless you manage to irritate someone in headquarters, you can ventriloquise enemies to your heart’s content. Or you could share a screengrab of a vicious email: beautifully innocent of metadata, so no one can know if the original sender was you, at your own PC.

One of the reasons these doubtful cases can prosper – besides the near-insurmountable embarrassment it would take to ask for evidence – is that they slot neatly into genuine problems with deep political inflections. Harassment, both on and offline, is a huge impediment to women going about their business: who’s going to challenge a victim when we all know that women are routinely disbelieved anyway? A squalid, misogynistic men’s rights activist, that’s who, and no one wants to be one of them. Taking sides on the matter of truth means taking sides in a culture war as well.

Sometimes, on the internet now, when I’m embroiled in some kind of feverish dispute (though rarely about the ills of man-made fibres), I’ll have a guilty yearning: if only I could claim one killer affliction, one status-enhancing bit of marginalised identity, no one could touch me. Some ghastly experience that would demand everyone’s sympathy. The impulse passes, but the social structure that makes suffering an asset remains, and as long as it exists, there will be people ready to exploit it. Send vibes.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article appears in the 15 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The revolution that fuelled radical Islam