Why decades-old internet arguments are today's viral entertainment

Noughties fan fiction message boards were once full of the internet’s biggest beef. Now, 15 years later, these dramatic tales are creeping back into the mainstream.

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At the end of April, the US journalist John Paul Brammer created a Twitter thread that quickly received thousands of likes. “I’m watching an hour-long video about drama in the Harry Potter fanfic community and I am GRIPPED,” he wrote. “I am begging you to watch this with me.”

The thread linked to an episode of a YouTube documentary series called “When Posting Goes Wrong”. Its subject is a woman who, under the pseudonym “Msscribe”, used lies, manipulation and a network of fake "sock-puppet" accounts to achieve widespread popularity and acclaim in the Harry Potter fan-fiction community in the early Noughties, before being unmasked and denounced. The episode currently has just shy of half a million views. 

Internet drama goes viral all the time, but the responses to Brammer’s thread suggested this was something different. Hundreds of replies rolled in. People were confused as to why this story was becoming popular, on Twitter accounts unrelated to the fan fiction ocmmunity, more than 15 years after the events it described.

Those who already knew thInternet fanfiction is becoming mainstream – but not necessarily more representativee Msscribe story were especially bemused. “The ancient texts”; “Time to slide down the memory chute” and “I cannot believe people are discovering Msscribe in the year of our lord 2020” were a few responses. But while the the Msscribe drama was something that happened to a select group 15 years ago, it contains the same dramatic elements of subterfuge and betrayal that can make any story compelling – in a play, a novel, an internet community or on social media.

In lockdown, with so much extra time to burn, many of us are choosing to burn it online. And with next to no news stories offering light entertainment, we are forced to look harder for digital escapism. Old internet tales, previously confined to their communities, are gaining a second lease of life.

The documentary explaining the Msscribe story was created by Max, a part-time YouTuber living in Los Angeles who often makes videos about fan fiction and the people behind it. In one popular series, “What Your Favorite Ship Says About You”, he mocks people for their favourite fan fiction couples ("shipping" describes fans' desire for two characters to be in a relationship). Max decided to make the Msscribe documentary simply because he hadn’t seen it done before. 

[see also: Internet fanfiction is becoming mainstream – but not necessarily more representative]

He tells me he didn't hear about Msscribe until late last year, “so I read through the full story and immediately thought ‘someone has to have made a video about this already’. I had a semi-successful YouTube channel, so I decided to be the change I wanted to see in the world and make it myself.”

Max tells me that, although it went viral, he mostly credits YouTube’s infamously unpredictable algorithm for the video’s success. “That said,” he says, “I think the reason people actually stuck around to watch the whole thing... is because the story is extremely compelling.”

Other stories have had a renaissance since the pandemic began. The tale of infamous fandom cult leader Andy Blake, better known as “Thanfiction”, has also resurfaced, with people sharing Google Docs and Twitter threads giving a rundown of the early Noughties drama. Snapewives, another Harry Potter fandom group who believed they could channel the character Severus Snape and have romantic relationships with him, have also regained internet notoriety in recent months despite their effective wind-down more than a decade ago. 

The popularity of these old fan fiction stories has risen alongside wider nostalgia for the Noughties and early 2010s. On TikTok, memes of teens proving they are only now discovering Noughties chart-topping singles have become a viral staple in the past few weeks, and memes mocking film and TV show clips from around the same period (such as the Disney Channel original movie Radio Rebel from 2012) seem to become popular every couple of months.

What many of these re-emerging fan fiction stories have in common is fraud. Much like beloved “scammers” of recent years (eg Caroline Calloway and Anna Delvey), stories like Msscribe follow a beloved narrative of how a grand master planner watched their scheme dramatically fall apart.

“People love Talented Mr Ripley-type stories,” Max says, “where people create these elaborate false identities to gain status and influence, and this is like a very small-scale version of that.” 

Citing the popularity of YouTube gossip “tea” channels – in which YouTubers will explain drama or give commentary on the YouTube social ecosystem – Max believes there’s already an enormous appetite for infighting that occurs entirely online. “The depths this woman went to just to become a member of this one in-group is completely mind-boggling to the average person,” he says of the Msscribe story, “and I think people are fascinated by the extreme lengths she went to to maintain the deception.” 

As lockdowns begin to ease across the world, so does the need to scour the internet for distractions. And while people may still be online more than usual, trawling the depths of the internet’s archive will inevitably become a less popular pastime. But the extreme spike in how much time we’ve spent browsing in the past few months will have a more permanent impact, with a drastic increase in the number of people eager to hear stories once deemed too niche for mainstream readers. 

“As the saying goes, we are all messy bitches who live for the drama,” Max tells me. No matter how old it is, there will always be an appetite for beef.

[see also: Why can’t we focus during this pandemic?]

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. Sign up to her free weekly newsletter the Dress Down for the latest film, TV, art, theatre and book reviews.

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