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Why the Internet's biggest scavenger hunt is the bane of many sci-fi authors' existence

Misha Collins plays Castiel in Supernatural.
Misha Collins plays Castiel in Supernatural.
The CW
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Have you been seeing the word "GISHWHES" floating through your Twitter or Facebook feed this past week? Have you been wondering what that means? Do you have no idea what I'm talking about but just like finding out what acronyms stand for? Join me, then, on a journey into the heart of GISHWHES.

What the heck is a GISHWHES?

GISHWHES stands for "The Greatest Internet Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen." It is, as you have probably guessed by now, a scavenger hunt, carried out on the Internet. It purports to be the greatest.

How do I pronounce it?

Just like it's spelled, except maybe make the S at the end sound more like a Z.

Who is behind it?

The scavenger hunt that evolved into GISHWHES was started in 2010 by actor Misha Collins in an effort to win Supernatural, the CW show he stars on, a People's Choice Award. Yes, really. Since then, it's evolved into the slap-happy, goofy time it is now, but it also benefits Collins's charity, Random Acts, which is dedicated to spreading random acts of kindness throughout the world.

A scavenger hunt that benefits charity? That sounds pretty fun!

And the people who do it seem to think so, too. Even William Shatner is in on the fun, as evidenced by his Twitter page. That tweet to NASA he sent a few days ago sure seems to be part of the game.

What sorts of things do I have to find?

What's scavenged in this hunt isn't a list of items, but a list of tasks that are then photographed. (This will cause some frustration. Keep reading.) You can read the full list for this year here.

Most tasks are something strange or silly, ranging from fairly easy tasks (giving a fake, ridiculous name to a Starbucks barista) to logistically difficult (spell out GISHWHES on the side of a skyscraper, using lit and unlit windows). Most involve participants doing something creative (like editing existing footage of Shatner and Larry King to make it seem like they're in a romantic comedy) or having to ask others to help them out. Quite a few are about helping others in your community out, either by doing volunteer work or getting your CPR certification or something similar.

But a few are veiled political statements, like a task requiring participants to get an elected official to do yard work for them for less than minimum wage, or an attempt to display the problems of trickle-down economics using ice cream sundaes. ("It should be a real mess," the lattermost item notes.)

How do I win?

Notably, you don't have to complete every task to win the scavenger hunt. And you're not in this by yourself either. You have a team of 15 that works to complete as many tasks as possible. Each task is worth a certain number of points, and the team that collects the most points wins a trip with Collins to an exotic location. (This year's grand prize is a trip to Croatia, where Game of Thrones is filmed, for a "pirate adventure.") But you can't win this year, because registration is already closed. Plan for 2015, we suppose.

But you suggested some people are frustrated with GISHWHES this year. Why's that?

Well, GISHWHES has a big heart but maybe not the best ability to predict what will happen when the Internet is turned loose on something like this.

Quite a few of the items basically invite participants to pester — or even harass — the famous and semi-famous on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook. The official rules were amended this year to state that points will be docked if harassment happens, but this is the Internet, where the line between "asking nicely" and "becoming a flood of people who think they're asking nicely but can actually seem quite overwhelming" is tenuous.

Two items, in particular, have caused geek-friendly authors to post increasingly irritated missives about being bothered. One task requires asking a previously published author to write a 140-word story, while the other requires asking a bestselling author or Tony Award winner to offer a dramatic performance of a section of the California driver's manual. Science fiction author John Scalzi got so irritated by the whole thing that he finally just tweeted a hilariously angry story, while Neil Gaiman insisted he wasn't going to be involved.

By far the most discussion has surrounded author Lauren DeStefano, who posted this message about why she couldn't participate to her Facebook page. DeStefano argued that to an author, even a 140-word story is work. GISHWHES aficionados groused that she was being too uptight. It was a whole thing.

What could GISHWHES do better in the future?

This is tricky, because so much of what the organization does is invested in getting participants to step out of their comfort zones, which necessarily involves talking with people one might not normally approach. The problem is how to negotiate the space between doing that and respecting the comfort zones of others, like, authors, who are sort of famously loners.

This probably will just require better consideration of when the people being approached are in a position to want to be approached (like someone working in a service industry or the person running a government agency's social media accounts) and when they're going to be overwhelmed by requests. Institutions, not individuals, seems a good rule of thumb.

But what do we know? We don't have any Guinness World Records. GISHWHES has five.

When will this year's GISHWHES be over?

Oh, you're a science fiction author, are you? Don't worry. You will get a break from the inundation of requests at the end of the week. This year's GISHWHES is over Saturday.