Call Out Culture in Tumblr Fandom

I’ve been a fan of video games and fantasy novels since I was at least ten years old, but I entered “fandom” as a subculture when I joined DeviantArt in 2006. I had been on LiveJournal for a few years before that, but I only started using my account to interact with fan communities in 2009. I was quite happy with LiveJournal-based fandom until around 2013 or so, when activity on the forums I frequented started to die down. By that point, however, I had already become more engrossed in Tumblr, where I’d had an account since 2011.

I consider myself to belong to the generation of people who made the transition from LiveJournal to Tumblr. I’m not claiming to be one of the pioneers of this transition, but I do remember what LiveJournal was like, and I’ve also been able to witness the rise of fandom on Tumblr. This transition occurred relatively recently, as the switch from longform blogging and fic writing to microblogging on Tumblr and Twitter has only really happened during the past six or seven years.

As a slightly older fan, I’m disturbed by what’s commonly known as “call out culture” in fandom communities on Tumblr and Twitter. Unfortunately, I’ve found that it’s difficult to explain what I mean to people outside of fandom. When I say that “I’m disturbed by the violence of call out culture in fandom,” people often interpret this to mean that I don’t support #MeToo or other social justice movements, which could not be further from the truth. What I’m saying is that, within the context of fandom, call out culture as it currently exists prevents the accurate identification of predators, abusers, and other creeps by making accusations so commonplace as to be meaningless. The rhetorical violence of call out culture has also resulted in online bullying, which is purposefully intended to cause real harm to real people, usually people occupying disadvantaged positions in the real world.

The culture of publicly “calling out” people who were causing harm within a community existed on LiveJournal, and I strongly believe that this culture was instrumental in the evolution of fandom from what could sometimes be an extremely sexist, racist, and homophobic space into a more progressive and inclusive set of communities. RaceFail 2009, in which a number of popular science fiction and fantasy writers were called out for their racist depictions of difference, is a good example of how this worked.

What was generally being called out, however, was real-world behavior, not the depictions of fictional characters. Within my own circle of fandom, there was a popular fic writer who attempted to befriend young fans in order to invite them to conventions and pressure them into unwanted sexual activity. This person’s actions eventually resulted in a connected set of call out posts on LiveJournal, the collective purpose of which was to protect younger fans from predatory behavior. (Since this person had made attempts to target me, I directly benefited from these call out posts.) There were also occasional warning posts about the abusive tendencies of certain creative professionals, whether they were skeezy male comic book artists or white female romance novelists who were prone to racist comments.

Because most of us only existed as screen names and avatars, this sort of unpleasantness was considered to be necessary to maintaining a reasonably safe space. People who made unfounded or ridiculous accusations regarding creative professionals or fellow fans were perceived as creating needless drama and mocked accordingly, most notably on a sadly defunct forum called, appropriately enough, Fandom Wank. The source of this mockery was the consensus that fandom is not, in fact, serious business. According to this worldview, it really doesn’t matter which fictional characters you want to kiss, and it’s only when someone’s behavior has truly serious consequences in the real world does calling them out become necessary.

What this meant is that is that people tended to pay close attention when an accusation was made. The community shunned predators and abusers, who were tracked through new fandoms, new usernames, and various dummy and burner accounts so that they wouldn’t be able to hurt anyone else.

(This also happened to a certain extent on artistic social networking sites such as DeviantArt and Fur Affinity. For example, artists would warn each other about genuinely creepy people, such as users who would request a seemingly innocent commission of a cute anime girl but then send the artist gory reference pictures without warning. I wasn’t on the inside of any of these communities, however, so I don’t what to make generalizations concerning how they operated.)

I strongly support a healthy culture of calling out predators and other abusive people, whether in fandom or real life. I believe accusations regarding abusive behavior should be taken seriously by the accuser, by the accused, and by the larger community.

Unfortunately, what’s happened on Tumblr is that it’s no longer real-world behavior that’s being called out. Instead, certain fans known as “antis” (a term stemming from people self-identifying as being anti-[a certain character] or anti-[a certain ship between characters] in the tags of their posts) have begun calling out fictional representations of behavior or relationships that they believe promote abuse. This is troublesome not only because different people write stories for different reasons, but also because fiction is often open to multiple interpretations. While one person may find a depiction of a fictional relationship therapeutic, another might find it triggering. As a literature professor, I hold that stories can be culturally influential and are thus worthy of critique. When a community devotes targeted and deadly serious attention to fictional abuse, however, it runs the risk of marginalizing and misrepresenting real abuse.

As of October 2018, the most recent and relevant example involves pedophilia, which – just to make the meaning of the term clear – is the attraction of an adult toward a prepubescent child. This is often associated with predatory behavior, and – again – it’s in the best interests of a community to call out this behavior when it arises. Although the understanding of what it means to be an “adult” differs from culture to culture, as do the age of majority and the age of consent, I think most people would be comfortable opposing pedophilia-oriented behavior and representation.

On Tumblr, however, “pedophilia” has become something of a codeword among antis to describe any ship between fictional characters that they don’t like, and the definition of pedophilia can be stretched to accommodate just about anything. If “pedophilia” doesn’t fit, then “incest,” “rape,” or general “abuse” might be applied as an alternative. It’s difficult to fight against this line of reasoning, because obviously, no one wants to say that they support pedophilia, incest, rape, or abuse.

The problem with the application of these terms lies in their looseness, especially concerning fictional stories that can be interpreted in multiple ways or, in the case of ongoing television series, are still developing. An example that I haven’t been able to escape despite my total noninvolvement with the fandom involves a popular ship in the fandom for a cartoon on Netflix called Voltron: Legendary Defender. As far as I can tell, the show is about a bunch of teenagers fighting evil in space, and the target audience seems to fall into the same market demographic as the Harry Potter books, namely, younger teens who presumably age along with the characters as the series continues. The show therefore has a lot of teenage fans who imagine one teenage character to be in love with another teenage character. At the beginning of the series, none of these characters had actual ages beyond “they’re all teenagers,” but the showrunners have since implied that some of the characters were as young as 16 at the beginning while some were as old as 25 during the then-current season. According to antis, a popular male/male ship involving one of the 16-year-olds is “pedophilia” because this character was below the (American) age of consent when the series first began airing.

Although this argument makes a certain degree of sense, the real reason this ship is labeled as “pedophilia” is because the anti-shippers prefer any number of other ships, some with a comparative age gap. These fans become emotionally attached to their preferred ship, and the intensity of this affect manifests in the violence of their reaction to any depiction of their favorite characters in a different relationship. They only want to see fan-made content of their preferred ship, not anything else.

The followers of some of the most influential antis are drawn to them because of the pro-ship art or stories they create, which makes them more willing to tolerate and spread the anti-ship content as well. It’s been my experience that, within the isolated context of a certain artist or writer’s blog, there’s often a clear connection between “I like a ship between two characters of equal social status” and “I don’t like a rival ship because its fans emphasize the uneven power dynamic.” In other words, an anti-ship argument may make perfect sense within its specific context. Unfortunately, this argument starts to break down when its more incendiary aspects spread through reblogs (or retweets). What most people see, then, are reblogs of posts saying things like “Anyone who ships [ship name] is a pedophile!” or “Unfollow me right now if you’re a disgusting [ship name] pedophile!” These posts then spread even farther from their original context, and they can pick up thousands of notes because, after all, nobody wants to be associated with pedophiles, right?

As I stated at the beginning of this essay, this is a troubling trend in fandom for three main reasons.

First, misinformation regarding abuse leaves people (especially younger people) ill-prepared to identify warning signs of real abuse when they encounter it. If the vast majority of a fandom’s conversations about “abuse” concern “shipping the wrong pairing,” then there’s no room for conversations about what actual creepy people have done in the past or may still be doing.

Second, overexposure decreases the severity of the accusation. Accusations of abuse are now so commonplace that it’s become almost impossible to differentiate between a post calling out a genuinely abusive person and a post calling out someone as “abusive” because they posted a picture of a fictional character that someone doesn’t like. This is essentially a “boy who cried wolf” scenario in action.

I want to emphasize that this is not mere conjecture. Because this is the internet, creepy people are out there, and creepy things do happen. Along with the aforementioned misinformation and overexposure, I’m afraid that the tribalism created by the intensity of this discourse may discourage people from reporting predators who they perceive to be “on their side.”

Third, and perhaps most importantly, it’s worth saying that engaging in abusive behavior is, in fact, abuse. The romanticization of certain relationships may potentially make people vulnerable to abuse in the real world or trigger panic attacks and other negative experiences, which is why most content creators go out of their way to tag their work appropriately and preface it with content warnings. Still, this harm is hypothetical. Meanwhile, antis engage in actual harm by sending death threats, engaging in suicide baiting, and engineering social ostracization from a supportive community.

(For reference, I described my most recent experience with this sort of abuse in my post Bullying on Tumblr. After someone called me out for “animal abuse” when I post a cute anime-style drawing of a cute cartoon character holding a cute cartoon pig, I was sent more than a dozen graphic images and videos of extreme violence against real animals and actual humans. These images were so disturbing that I wouldn’t be comfortable describing them even in the most general and abstract language.)

This rhetorical violence is often accompanied by gaslighting, or telling the person who’s being bullied that they deserve it or that they simply need to go outside. Although this hurts everyone, it has the potential to hurt people with minority identities to an exponential degree. For many younger fans with queer genders and sexualities, Tumblr fandom may have been the only “outside” they had within a homophobic family, high school, or religious community. In many parts of the world (including the United States), there is still a strong association between queerness and predatory sexuality, so a gay teenager who is “called out” for “pedophilia” is much more likely to experience severe emotional distress because of the violence of this accusation than a heterosexual adult.

When I say “I’m concerned by the rhetorical violence on Tumblr,” people outside of fandom tend to assume that I’m saying “I don’t think identity politics are a valid form of social justice,” but what I’m actually trying to say is “I don’t think sending death threats to gay teenagers is a valid form of social justice.” Calling people out for bad behavior is absolutely necessary in any community, but call out culture in its current state on Tumblr is facilitating abuse, not preventing it. Discussions about fictional representation are also important, but casual accusations of serious abuse are shutting people out and shutting conversations down, often to the detriment of people occupying minority or marginal positionalities.