Over the past two years, Shanley Kane achieved a kind of celebrity on Twitter, where, as @shanley, she claimed to be leading a crusade for women in tech. But now some people wonder if the whole thing was a massive hoax.
What's most interesting is that, whether she intended to or not, Kane pioneered a new form of online entertainment. I think of what she did as the Shanley Show, and I believe we will see more shows like it in the future — entertainments that exist only on social media, and that blur the line between fiction and non-fiction.
Twitter has always been a kind of reality TV, a place where regular folks get a glimpse into the lives of celebrities. Kane stretched that medium to make something new, using elements of what Alan Funt used to do on "Candid Camera" and what Sacha Baron Cohen did with Ali G and Bruno.
The Shanley Show was "The Truman Show" turned inside out. In that movie, Truman is on a TV show but doesn't know it. In the Shanley Show, the audience is watching TV but doesn't realize that the whole thing is a show. The audience thinks it's real.
If that's what Kane was doing, then it was actually kind of brilliant. But no one knows for sure, which only makes it more intriguing.
Some of the people who took Kane seriously are starting to wonder if they were the victims of a hoax played by someone doing a spoof of feminist criticism. One mainstream journalist who has covered Kane sympathetically now fears that when he interviewed her, and wrote about her, it was all part of a con game.
Kane seems to be two people at once. On Twitter, she was @shanley, an angry character who posted profanity-laced tweets and ad hominem attacks on people who disagreed with her — as well as those who supported her.
But there was another Shanley Kane. That one runs a publication called Model View Culture, which has published good writing about the culture of Silicon Valley.
In interviews Kane could be surprisingly intelligent. She had feminist rhetoric down, the stuff about erasure and marginalization.
But even in this persona, there were clues of something amiss. Some of her rhetoric was just over-the-top, such as her claiming to be opposed to the computer terms "master" (server) and "slave" (client). In retrospect, my journalist friend now wonders, how could she have been serious about stuff like that?
"I feel like the character in The Spanish Prisoner," he said, referring to the David Mamet film about a masterful con game.
The back story
Kane is 28 years old and first arrived in Silicon Valley as a PR flack. Then she co-founded Model View Culture and started building a following on Twitter where people loved her angry rants and cheered her on for daring to speak truth to power. She railed against the white cisgender heterosexual males who run Silicon Valley.
The essence of drama is conflict, and Kane provided that in abundance, with a constant string of new attacks and battles to fight. This was the Shanley Show, starring a character called Shanley, and it was marvelous. People loved Shanley. People hated Shanley. People feared Shanley. Standing up to Shanely or arguing with Shanley meant enduring an onslaught of vicious attacks from Shanley and her legion of fans. People argued about Shanley. They took sides in Shanley's battles. It all felt so real.
But last month the show hit a wall. In January, Kane went off on a new target — Linus Torvalds, the creator of the Linux operating system. At first it seemed like just another Shanley Show blowup. Kane bashed Torvalds, unleashing her legion of fans. Then came the opposing wave of support for Torvalds, and the battle was on.
I got dragged into this because I wrote a piece on Valleywag about the Torvalds kerfuffle. Suddenly I too was the enemy — just for writing a post! Now I was coming under attack by Kane and her acolytes. The Kane stuff was an order of magnitude more intense than any flame attack I've ever experienced. Moreover, other people seized on the Kane attacks to write their own articles about how I was a misogynist pig bastard piece of shit loser asshole with a dead career. My Twitter feed filled up with people I've never met smearing me and attacking me and telling me I was a woman hater who was harming women — simply because I'd written a post about a fight between Shanley and Torvalds. Breathtaking stuff!
A friend of mine wrote to me: "Oh now you have DONE IT. You've taken on SHANLEY KANE. Nice knowing you."
The whole thing was so exaggerated, so blown out of proportion, that I started to wonder if it was all just an act.
The weev connection
That suspicion deepened when it emerged, a day or two later, that in 2012 Kane had been involved with Andrew Auernheimer, aka weev, a notorious troll who recently was released from prison, where he had spent time on hacking charges.
Auernheimer says he is a white supremacist and that back in 2012 Kane had shared his racist views.
This raised questions about Kane's sincerity. How could she be a white supremacist in 2012, but now an advocate for the rights of minorities and women?
Kane's supporters tried to dismiss Auernheimer's claims, saying he was an unreliable source and was probably making up this story to smear her.
Unfortunately, Kane had told people around her about her connections to Auernheimer. One of them was Amelia Greenhall, the co-founder of Model View Culture, who came forward with her own story of how she had been abused by Kane, and confirming that yes, Kane had told her and others about her past ties to Auernheimer.
Kane published a statement claiming that she was mentally ill and an abuse victim.
Other women who had been abused by Kane began reaching out to tell their stories, privately, off the record. They spread word that while Kane was saying the Valley's problems were caused by "cisgender, heterosexual white men," she was in fact living with one such man: Artur Bergman, the founder and CEO of Fastly, a tech company that has raised $54 million in venture capital funding and whose employees include a whole lot of white males.
This created yet more room for doubt about Kane's sincerity, and further raised the possibility that the whole performance had been a hoax.
It's not clear if we've seen the end of the Shanley Show. If so this would no doubt be a relief to people who have been persecuted by Kane and her followers. But a question remains about whether the whole thing was just a huge hoax — a "mega-troll," as one person put it to me.
One of Kane's victims has an interesting notion, which is that Kane and her purported opponents are actually all part of the same community. Basically, they're an online theater troupe. They start by finding issues that elicits strong emotions, like racism and sexism. Then they pick sides, and fight. They dox each other. They cry foul. They get revenge. They create scapegoats and enemies.
Most important, they draw in an audience, and the audience gets sucked into the drama and even participates in it. This is, in effect, a new form of entertainment, made possible by Twitter. It's better than TV, if only because it feels so real. In fact it is real, in the sense that real people do suffer real harm. Often those people are unwitting victims who have no idea what's going on. That only makes the show more compelling.
The victims are not only the people who get attacked, but also the ones who are doing the attacking. They too don't realize that it's theater. They take it seriously. They're the ones who participate and get all worked up about what someone just said about their hero, and go strike back on their hero's behalf. Now everyone is arguing with everyone. Fantastic!
They're all playing a video game, but they don't realize it. They're like people who think soap operas are real. What Kane and her troupe are doing is creating an online play where a mix of witting actors and unwitting audience members share in the performance. It's Plato's Cave, a world where even the actors who are in on the joke can't tell, with complete certainly, what's real and what's not. This may have started out as just people playing pranks, but at its highest level this starts to look almost like a form of literature — one that is incredibly fun, and engrossing, and addictive, and entertaining.
The joy of hoax
I did something like this back when I was writing the Fake Steve Jobs blog. The Internet is full of people who love to correct mistakes. So I would intentionally put mistakes into my blog posts, just to see how long it would take for someone to find the mistake and point it out, hopefully in a condescending or insulting manner.
For example, I'd post an item claiming that Lisbon was in the Middle East. Then I, and most of the readers, would wait for the smarty pants people to start posting comments calling me a moron for not knowing where Lisbon is located.
Most of the readers were in on the joke. But we could always count on someone walking into the trap. If the person posting the correction was incredibly rude, or pompous, that was extra fun. If the person actually thought they were addressing Steve Jobs — "I can't believe that the CEO of a huge company can be this stupid" — that was as good as it could get.
Over time I would push the limits by posting ever more stupid and obvious mistakes, just to see if someone would still race in to post a correction. Someone always did. It was amazing. This seemed to me like an interesting form of comedy, one where the audience itself, or part of it anyway, was the butt of the joke.
It was all pretty silly. And it was pretty mild stuff compared to the Shanley Show. But it's all part of the same urge. I get why people like Kane do this. There's an adrenaline rush, a feeling of power. Being loved, being hated, who cares? You have followers, as they say on Twitter. You're like a cult leader. Who can resist that?
It's possible that the Shanley Show was not a hoax. Maybe Kane really is a sincere but deeply troubled person. That would be sad if it's true. But it would not make the show any less of a show. Whether Kane set out to create a show or just did it by accident is pretty much irrelevant at this point.
What's most interesting is that even if the Shanley Show is over, others like it will be forthcoming. Moreover, some of these shows may be created or sponsored by brands. A few years ago I met with an advertising executive in New York to discuss the possibility of creating a show that would exist solely on social media. The idea would be to create characters who felt so real that people would follow their adventures and not realize that the whole thing was fiction. Platforms like Twitter had made it possible to blur the line between fiction and non-fiction in some interesting ways, and we thought it could be cool to play around with that.
We never got that project off the ground. But someone, someday, will.