Gaslighting, Therapy, and Fanfic

Gaslighting is the process of attempting to convince someone that their accurate perception of a situation is incorrect; and, moreover, that there is something wrong with them personally for having perceived the situation in this way.

Based on what I’ve seen, a lot of the disagreement over this definition has to do with how many people need to be involved in order to a situation to be “gaslighting” and not “abusive behavior” or simply “being an asshole.” For example, if Person A says “There’s a strange smell coming from the kitchen” and Person B says “No there’s not, you’re just crazy,” then that’s probably not gaslighting. I would contend, however, that there is so much atmospheric discrimination against certain groups of people that even an isolated “you’re just overreacting” contributes to a broader system of systematic gaslighting. As a result of this atmospheric gaslighting, some people from marginalized positions can feel that there’s something inherently wrong with their point of view, especially during times of stress and vulnerability.

So there’s this thing that many American therapists do, which is to try to gently lead a patient to arriving at a revelation on their own, generally over the course of several sessions. I understand the theory behind this, but I still hate it.

I’m going to give a personal example. I was in a toxic relationship for more than a year when I was in college. I feel as though I’ve been conditioned to claim partial responsibility and say something like “the abuse went both ways,” but that wasn’t really what was going on. Essentially, the boy I was dating would be a disgusting assclown until I snapped and reacted, at which everything that was wrong with the relationship would be my fault because I got upset. I had never been in that sort of unhealthy relationship with anyone before, and I otherwise got along with most people really well, so I had no idea what was going on. I therefore went to a therapist and told her, in so many words, that I was “forcing” my boyfriend to abuse me verbally and physically, and that I needed her to help me figure out what it was about me that compelled him to hurt me.

If a scared teenager came to me and said this, my first response would be, in no uncertain terms, “Honey, you need to get out of there, because no one should be assaulting you for any reason. We can talk about this for as long as you want later, but you are in real danger and right now you need to get out.” What my therapist – and then another therapist – and then another therapist – said to me, however, was “Well, what do you think is wrong with you? Why do you think he hits you and calls you a dumb cunt?”

Even if this sort of thing isn’t technically gaslighting, it still feeds into the pervasive social narrative that teenage girls are crazy and irrational and deserve whatever happens to them if they don’t follow all of the contradictory “rules” about dating and relationships. Between one thing and another, I had never found a safe space where I could talk to other people my age about real relationships without being judged or losing face, which is why I didn’t immediately jump to the obvious conclusion that the reason why a boy would want to physically strike anyone is a conversation that needs to happen between him and his therapist.

Around this time I got on LiveJournal and discovered fic. What this meant is that suddenly I was exposed to all sorts of models of romantic and sexual relationships, and this was when I started to understand what was going on in my life. It’s not so much that the fic I was reading was explicitly like “this is what a healthy relationship looks like” or “this is what abuse looks like,” because Lord knows the BDSM Sailor Moon and Trigun femslash I was reading did not get even remotely close to that sort of thing. Rather, what I got from reading and discussing and eventually writing fic was that women’s stories are valid, and young women’s stories are valid, and queer women’s stories are valid, and nonbinary female-presenting people’s stories are valid. No matter how transgressive the fic or meta you wrote may have been, it was no less worthy of being taken seriously because you specifically wrote it.

That sense of “being valid” and “being taken seriously” is, in my opinion, an effective antidote to gaslighting. I don’t think fandom is or ever was inherently an activist space or even a safe space, but I do think it’s a place where a lot of female and transgender and nonbinary people first get the sense that it’s okay for them to exist in the world as themselves, no matter how weird or strange or non-normative or queer they might be.

I think this is one of the main reasons why the purity culture of anti-fandom bothers me so much. If people are only supposed to write “pure” relationships – or even, to take this a step farther, if they’re supposed to be so pre-enlightened about social justice that they need to tag everything they write with all applicable content warnings – then that’s tantamount to being told that they need to police themselves at all times in fandom, just as in real life. In addition, because the rules about “safe shipping” are so arbitrary and contradictory, this feels very much like the same sort of “Well, what do you think is wrong with you?” nonsense I got in therapy as a teenager (and then later, when I tried therapy again at several points as an adult).

If we can call fandom a safe space, and if we can think of fandom as an activist space, I think that’s because it’s a space where the voices of people who are so often silenced, marginalized, and discounted in the real world are allowed free expression. In this sense, a sentiment such as “don’t like, don’t read” can be a powerful and almost politically transformative expression of tolerance and empathy.

By the way, I get that not all therapists are incompetent jerks. Many of them are, though, and finding one of the good ones (who also happens to be a good fit for any given client) is not just a difficult and time-consuming process but also a community effort in many cases. I don’t want to suggest that fanfic is an alternative to therapy… but it sure is a hell of a lot cheaper.

Fanfic on Tumblr

I just read a brilliant post on Dreamwidth titled “State of the Migration: On fannish archival catastrophes, and what happens next” about, well, exactly what it says on the label. There has been some concern about Pillowfort, and I’ve seen a few curated lists of other alternatives to Tumblr, but I’m going to be honest and admit that what I really want for the next fandom hub is that it’s fanfic friendly. Tumblr was a great platform for visual artists, but it wasn’t such a good place to host or promote writing.

As a fic writer, I believe with all of my heart that fan artists are wonderful, which is why I support a number of them through Patreon, Ko-fi, and commissions. I reblog the work of fan artists because I love it and I want it to spread, even if my contribution to the artists’ success is limited. Almost every writer I know is supportive of artists in their own way. Artists make fantastic contributions to fandom, and they deserve love!

At the same time, I’ve sometimes felt resentful that many people in Tumblr-based fandom don’t go out of their way to support fic writers in the same way. In fact, most don’t even bother to click on the “like” button of the fic posts that appear in the tags they use on Tumblr. This may seem petty, but it’s actually a big deal. Not only does the small show of support of “liking” a post fill the hearts of writers with joy, but it also figures into the metrics of the Tumblr platform itself, which promotes posts and keeps them from disappearing from the appropriate tags based on how many notes they receive.

I recently read a great essay, Social Contract Theory and Fandom Libertarianism, whose author argues that people with a libertarian approach to fandom want “all the benefits of living in a society without any sort of responsibility for their fellow community members.” I think many fans want the “benefits of living in a society,” such as a steady stream of quality content, positive feedback, encouragement, and the occasional monetary donation – because of course they do – but they may not fully understand why it’s important to help support the community that supports them. After all, the popular fan artists have thousands of followers, and their posts get hundreds (and often thousands) of notes, so the community is doing fine, right?

Unfortunately, there are a lot of fic writers (including myself) who’ve struggled through a dark and painful space on Tumblr. The libertarian approach to this concern is that “everyone should just take care of themselves and leave everyone else alone.” In theory, this should work. The problem is that the prevailing fan culture on Tumblr has been skewed heavily in favor of artists, and what this has meant in practice is that fewer people have been posting their stories. Over the past four years, from the summer of 2014 to the end of 2018, I’ve watched the number of fic posts on about two dozen fandom tags I track dwindle down to almost nothing, even as the fandoms themselves continue to be quite active.

One might argue that the platform itself is to blame. This makes a certain amount of sense, as the layout of the site facilitates the rapid consumption of images, while writing often takes more time to process. In addition, depending on the interface, “Read More” cuts and links may not work properly. That being said, Tumblr recommends posts based on the activity of each individual user. For example, if a user likes a lot of text posts, Tumblr will recommend more text posts. This means that there doesn’t seem to be any innate programming that works against text posts, as Tumblr does not hide text posts on tracked tags, and image posts are just as likely as text posts to disappear from tags if they don’t receive enough notes.

The root of the problem is that many people on Tumblr, as individuals, do not support fic writers. They will not like fic posts, they will not reblog fic posts, and many will not even bother to look at fic posts if they don’t see them reblogged by someone else. Moreover, even though it’s relatively common for fan artists to draw fan art that celebrates the work of other artists, the vast majority of people specializing in visual art on Tumblr would never consider drawing fan art for someone’s fic. There are exceptions, of course; but, in my experience, they are extremely rare. No matter how involved a fic writer may be in the fandom community, and no matter how much support a fic writer may give to other creators, most people won’t acknowledge the existence of their writing.

In other words, the work of fic authors work may as well not exist. This is probably why I’ve seen so many writers get discouraged and leave their fandoms or quit Tumblr altogether over the past five years. Millions of stories are still being posted to Archive of Our Own, but AO3 is not a social networking site and was not designed to facilitate friendship, community-building, and collaboration. Meanwhile, the entire purpose of Tumblr is to create relationships between users, but writers rarely end up benefitting from their engagement.

The sad thing is that, again, this bias against writers is not innate to the platform itself, and the culture within fandom doesn’t have to be the way it is now. To give a personal example, when a fandom artist reblogs one of my fic posts, I can get hundreds of notes and dozens of new followers. That sort of thing means the world to me – all creators value positive feedback, after all – but it only happens about once every six months. This has been enough support to keep me going, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt that the majority of my fic posts only get seven or eight notes. I’ve tried experimenting with all sorts of variables, from the content of what I post to the length of what I post to when I post to how often I post, but nothing I’ve done has affected the reception I’ve received. What has surprised me most is that the reception of my writing is also completely unrelated to the size of my following; I currently get the same number of notes on my writing with thousands of followers as I used to get with only several hundred followers.

And this, I think, is why the culture of fanfic on Tumblr died out, while fandom culture in general seems to have gone off the deep end. Writers contribute fresh new ideas, create meta and stories that inspire people, and make high-quality shitposts. They are vital to fandom, and they keep online communities (especially communities for niche interests) healthy, friendly, and thriving. I hope that, wherever fandom ends up, the slow migration from Tumblr serves as a catalyst for a change in the culture.

Fanfic Writers and “The Money Question”

I wish a statement like “people would pay to read your original writing” weren’t considered such an insult in fandom. To me, it’s a combination of two sentiments:

(1) I want you to be fairly compensated for your talents. You should be able to pay the rent doing this amazing thing you do so very well.

(2) I want you to be able to quit the job you hate so that you can spend more time doing the thing you love. You would win, and everyone else would win because we would get to read more of your work and share it with people outside our circle of fandom.

For people who can afford it, there is an established path of going to college, majoring in Creative Writing, and then going on to get an MFA. Along this path, there are multiple opportunities for publication and self-promotion. Being part of an active fandom community can be just as intellectually stimulating, educational, and skill-developing as the best of degree programs, but there’s no real path laid out for us for concerning “what to do next” as we get older and need to support ourselves financially.

I can’t help but think that this has to do partially with the way that fic still isn’t considered “real” writing by many established professional authors, and I wonder how much of this is tied up with gender and the expectation that women won’t receive money for their work. Moreover, because women’s writing is often downplayed in Creative Writing programs and other “serious” literary venues, many women have turned to fandom to share their stories with a sympathetic and engaged fannish audience, which also tends to skew female (and nonbinary and queer). For many fic writers, entering the world of professionally published fiction means leaving behind a large and supportive community and disowning a substantial body of writing.

In any case, I wish that we could talk about “what happens next” for fic writers. Sure, it’s empowering to do what you enjoy, but it’s also empowering to be able to make a living by doing what you enjoy.

So how do we do that? I really want fandom to have this conversation. Episode 86 of the Fansplaining podcast, “The Money Question” (here’s the transcript), touches on this issue in terms of monetizing fanwork through platforms like Patreon and Ko-Fi, as well as the legal position of AO3, but I want the conversation about the relationship between fanfic and professional writing to be wider, deeper, and spread more through different voices across different fandom spaces.

Tumblr Drama Annotated Reading List

I ended up doing a fair amount of research for my essays Call Out Culture in Tumblr Fandom and Censorship in Fandom, and I’d like to share a short annotated list of some of the online sources that were useful to me.

The Secret Lives of Tumblr Teens
https://newrepublic.com/article/129002/secret-lives-tumblr-teens

A long article from 2016 about the culture of shitposting on Tumblr and the rocky relationship between the site’s corporate owners and its userbase.

When Tumblr Bans Porn, Who Loses?
https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/12/4/18126112/tumblr-porn-ban-verizon-ad-goals-sex-work-fandom

An in-depth article about Tumblr’s December 2018 ban on “adult” material with a focus on how the new policy adversely affects minority communities.

Why Monetizing Social Media Through Advertising Is Doomed to Failure
https://synecdochic.dreamwidth.org/234496.html

A three-part blog post written by a tech insider about why it’s so difficult to actually make money from social media websites like Tumblr. This was originally written in 2008, back when people in fandom were starting to think about alternatives to LiveJournal in the wake of the Strikethrough and Boldthrough deletion of a number of prominent fandom-related accounts and communities.

The Rise of Anti-Fandom Fandom
https://www.dailydot.com/parsec/fandom/tumblr-anti-fandom-your-fave-problematic/

An article from 2013 about a Tumblr blog called Your Fave Is Problematic, which was dedicated to posting receipts on the weird, problematic, and downright shitty behavior of actors, musicians, writers, and other celebrities in the entertainment industry.

Toxic Fandom: When Criticism and Entitlement Go Too Far
https://geekdad.com/2018/10/toxic-fandom-when-criticism-and-entitlement-go-too-far

A short essay on the evolution of anti-fandom that uses the online unpleasantness associated with the Netflix cartoon Voltron: Legendary Defender as a starting point.

Towards a Working Definition of “Anti”
https://shinelikethunder.tumblr.com/post/154454617111/towards-a-working-definition-of-anti

A point-by-point breakdown of what anti-fandom is and how it’s different from simply critiquing a piece of media or an aspect of fandom culture.

The Boundary Between Critique, Purity Culture, and Censorship
https://lines-and-edges.tumblr.com/post/167426659087/imo-the-boundary-between-critique-purity-culture

A short Tumblr post on the ideological connection between the purity culture of religious fundamentalism and the purity culture of anti-fandom.

How Good People and Well-Intentioned Groups Go Bad
http://www.springhole.net/writing/how-good-people-and-well-intentioned-groups-can-go-bad.htm

An essay about cult mentality that was written by someone familiar with online fandom and concerned about bullying and purity culture. When people joke about Tumblr being “just like a cult,” this is what they mean.

An Unfunny Joke about Antis
https://freedom-of-fanfic.tumblr.com/post/170096625464/an-unfunny-joke-about-antis

A detailed and beautifully written post about how members of anti-fandom are in fact engaging in patterns of abusive behavior. This entire blog is brilliant, and two other posts I found particularly interesting are on the topics of Exclusionary Radical Feminism and Why Shipping Is Not Activism.

Taming Femslash
http://smallswingshoes.tumblr.com/post/158010358049/hi-i-wanted-to-address-an-ask-you-answered-a-few

A conversation between several Tumblr users that illustrates how sexism masquerading as social justice has been used to silence the voices and stories of queer women in fandom.

The Mixon Report
http://failfandomanon.wikia.com/wiki/The_Mixon_Report

A wiki entry about a toxic fan who successfully used social justice as an excuse to bully people in fandom and professional SF writers’ communities on LiveJournal. All evidence points to a disproportionate number of her victims being young women, queer, and people of color. This rabbithole goes down deep, so be warned.

Post-Tumblr Fandom

On Monday, December 3, Tumblr announced that it would ban all adult content starting on December 17, 2018. This is a result of the demands of its clients, who pay for advertising space on the site, and these demands more than likely have something to do with Tumblr being removed from the Apple App Store.

Along with this announcement, Tumblr implemented an algorithmic image filtering system that is laughably flawed, and people have been posting humorous examples of images that were tagged as “NSFW” by this system, including a screenshot of Super Mario in a bathing suit, Bowser with a Pride Flag background, a drawing of Garfield the cat, a drawing of an alligator in an Aloha shirt, a link to an article about the flaws of this system that uses an image of a desert as its header, and the announcement post itself. For what it’s worth, the drawing of an anime man holding a cartoon pig that I posted about earlier was also flagged (thankfully, I was able to make a successful appeal for this post, which remains completely harmless).

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to appeal posts that have been flagged by the algorithm, as a user can only make an appeal by clicking on a button attached to the original post as it appears on their internal dashboard. If the post is recent, this is mildly annoying; but, if the post is older, the user will have to scroll through hundreds or even thousands of their own posts to find the original, as the appeal button will not appear on a reblog. There is no way to find posts that have been flagged except to scroll through all of them. In addition, since flagged posts no longer appear on internal searches, there is no way to call up a post that the user knows has been flagged. What this means is that Tumblr is going to delete an extraordinary amount of inoffensive and totally safe-for-work content, and there is very little that anyone can do about it.

There has already been a massive migration from Tumblr, and many people have closed their accounts in protest. In my circles of fandom, artists have been announcing a move to Twitter (where most of them have been active for some time), while writers have largely gone silent. I’ve also starting to come across a few conversations concerning a potential split in fandom.

I think this already happened to a certain extent in 2016, when cultural tensions surrounding the American election had a major effect on the radicalization of fandom spaces. Specifically, people who could migrate to Twitter did so, mostly because it was easier to mute people and block tags there. The people who successfully made this transition tended to be artists who were already popular and comfortable with using their real names for the sake of professional advancement. After all, the creative industry expects that artists are going to make fan art, right? Meanwhile, writers don’t seem to have been able to make this transition, or at least not in the same way. I suspect this has to do with their livelihood being more dependent on their privacy. Like, Heaven forbid that a librarian writes gay fanfiction about Harry Potter; they must be some sort of deviant!

I don’t know the full story behind the planning and launch of Pillowfort, but I think it probably had something to do with the frustration of all the people who felt left behind after communities on LiveJournal and Dreamwidth stopped attracting substantial traffic and activity. I personally feel that the platform has incredible potential; but, in its current beta state, it’s ugly and clunky and not particularly active. It had also been temporarily shut down due to security concerns, a planned outage that could not have had worse timing. What I genuinely hope is that Pillowfort replaces Tumblr in the same way that AO3 has become the preferred platform over FFN, a shift that may create an initial division but just might make everyone happier in the long run.

I think the transition from Fanfiction.net to Archive of Our Own is a more useful model for what may happen to the central hub of fandom than the transition from Tumblr to Twitter. The collective migration from FFN to AO3 was essentially a shift from a proverbial pit of (distressingly young) voles to a platform managed by experienced community organizers, while the migration to Twitter has been a shift toward more explicitly stated and concretely realized capitalist value structures. There’s always going to be a need for lawless and mostly unmoderated spaces with no barriers to entry, and there’s always going to be a need for a space where creative people can make the jump from amateur to professional, but I don’t think either of those types of spaces are a good place to host common forms of self-expression that have been essential to fandom communities for decades.

The alternative may indeed be a split into smaller factions that are almost impossible for an outsider to find or access, such as servers on Discord. Although this is almost impossible to document due to the nature of the platform, I can say from personal experience that I’ve seen horrifying things on Discord, both on servers I joined from Tumblr and servers I joined from Reddit. Because they’re private, exclusive, and almost hermetically sealed, communities on Discord are in danger of becoming echo chambers where truly awful things are said and done. In the same way that private chatrooms associated with 4chan facilitated Gamergate, private Discord servers have led to younger fans being mobilized to participate in harassment campaigns targeted at both fan creators and showrunners. On the older end of the spectrum, many refugees from LiveJournal are still active on Dreamwidth, but communities on DW tend to be deliberately esoteric and opaque, a holdover from LiveJournal culture specifically meant to keep these communities hidden from “outsiders.”

Despite the annoyances and petty dramas of Tumblr, I enjoy being active on the site, which has introduced me to amazing people and helped me discover cultures, communities, and perspectives that I never would have been exposed to otherwise. Tumblr’s enthusiastic embrace of fandom and queer sexuality also helped me come to terms with my own identity and express myself creatively, both of which I had been struggling with my entire life. Although obviously – obviously – everyone wants child pornography and pornbots removed from Tumblr, I’m afraid that the ban on NSFW content is going to disproportionately affect LGBTQ+ people, people of color, neurodivergent and differently abled people, and other minorities who found something resembling a safe space within the inclusive and left-leaning social ecosystems on the site.

By using an algorithm to institute a blanket ban on all potentially “adult” content, Tumblr has committed itself to destroying a lot of healthy and creative self-expression, which will be driven underground into potentially dangerous and radicalized spaces. As I wrote last week in my post Censorship in Fandom, I don’t think deleting “problematic” content serves anyone except advertisers who attempt to monetize social media in order to generate revenue. After all, we’ve been through this before, and it wasn’t pleasant for anyone. I’m worried about what will happen to the communities that were dependent on open self-expression, and I hope that fandom, as a collective community, finds a better place to exist online. As for me, I’m going to give Pillowfort another shot.

Censorship in Fandom

There’s been a lot of talk this past week about Tumblr being removed from the Apple App Store. It turns out that the cause was the site’s failure to filter and remove child pornography, which makes sense.

The prevalence of explicit and often disturbing pornography has been a problem with Tumblr for some time. Tumblr maintains a generally permissive attitude regarding adult content, but the nature of the platform facilitates of the unwelcome spread of this content, as well as unwelcome solicitations. As I tweeted just last week, “Every morning I wake up early, brew a pot of tea, do some stretches, water my houseplants, and then report and block all the pornbots that started following me on Tumblr during the night.”

If this has been a problem with Tumblr for years, why have the people who own and manage the site only started to take action now? The recent and specific concern with child pornography – while absolutely valid! – runs distressingly parallel to the accusations of anti-fandom communities that have dedicated themselves to circulating inflammatory “discourse” regarding fictional characters and romantic pairings between these characters. As I discussed at length in an earlier post, “child abuse” is one of the more common labels applied to something that fandom antis don’t approve of. To be clear, anti-fandom communities are not protesting the treatment of actual minors, but the depiction of characters from animated entertainment media such as the Netflix show Voltron: Legendary Defender or the anime My Hero Academia. Within this context, a high school age character in a relationship with a college age character is construed as “pedophilia” regardless of how the characters and their relationships are presented. The motives behind such accusations are complicated and diverse, but they often boil down to a strong preference for another romantic pairing.

For fandom antis, romantically shipping the “wrong” two characters occupies the same category as actual child pornography, and communities of antis are frequently mobilized by a strong and charismatic leader to report someone in a character or pairing fandom that they don’t like for “child abuse” or “child pornography.” The way I’ve seen this work is that a popular anti-fandom blog will reblog a “problematic” post and add tags attacking the original poster, which prompts the anti-fandom blog’s followers to send in abuse reports and directly harass the original poster. (As an example of how absurd this can be in practice, I was recently harassed about “animal abuse” after posting an anime-style drawing of a man holding a cartoon pig.) If the reblogged post contains links to other social media sites, the harassers will often follow the original poster and try to report them for “abuse” on that site as well.

Although I’m sure the situation is complicated, I strongly suspect that the Tumblr app itself was reported to the Apple App Store for containing “child pornography” by these highly mobilized communities of fandom antis. As a result, Tumblr does seem to have made a greater effort to clean itself up, which is fantastic (and, quite frankly, should have happened years ago). Unfortunately, there have also been substantiated reports circulated within fandom communities about the blogs of popular fan artists and writers being deleted by Tumblr, along with at least two prominent blogs of people who write critical essays about fandom as a subculture. I don’t think this is a coincidence, and I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that Tumblr has just added “contains depictions of fictional minors” to its form for reporting violations of the site guidelines.

Fandom antis tend to be authoritarian in their worldview and behavior, as demonstrated by their insistence on ideological purity and their clearly stated justifications for using any means necessary to ferret out and then attack perceived dissidents. People who have embraced this authoritarian mindset often call for censorship and villainize platforms that do not practice censorship, an example of which is illustrated by the screencap of the widely circulated Tumblr post at the beginning of this essay. I’m wary of censorship in any situation, but I think it’s an especially dangerous policy within the context of fandom.

Although fandom can and has influenced mainstream culture, fandom communities exist at the edges and within the gaps of mainstream culture. Free speech – especially free speech at the margins of any given society – is absolutely necessary for liberty and equality, especially for people who occupy minority positions. Words like “liberty” and “equality” are frustratingly abstract, so let me offer a concrete example of the effects of censorship with a brief bit of background.

Throughout the 1970s, female intellectuals in the United States staged a vigorous critique against sexist and violent imagery in their media and culture, and in 1979 a New York based organization called Women Against Pornography started to gain traction. Partially because of the outreach efforts of this organization, in 1983 two law professors named Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon drafted an antipornography law that ended up being passed by the Minneapolis City Council. The twin problems with this law were that it was both hopelessly vague regarding the nature of “pornography” and extremely specific regarding its focus on denying the depiction of women’s pleasure. Dworkin and MacKinnon wrote extensively and published prolifically, and in the next few years versions of their law were enacted elsewhere, including Los Angeles County and the state of Massachusetts. Although Dworkin and MacKinnon identified as feminists, local and national feminist groups wanted nothing to do with them, and their support came from conservative Christian interest groups, the same people who were also campaigning to take sex education out of American schools.

In the United States, the Supreme Court eventually struck these laws down as being unconstitutional as a result of court cases filed largely by lesbian and gay rights organizations. Canada was even more conservative than America during the 1980s, however, and the Meese Pornography Commission that informed and influenced the Canadian Supreme Court’s deliberations on antipornography laws was utterly dominated by right-wing opponents of women’s rights. According to the court’s eventual decision in 1992, such laws were upheld, and the first “pornographers” targeted by police were feminist and lesbian bookstores (remember that, since these laws only targeted depictions of women’s pleasure, gay men were largely off the hook). Ironically, because Andrea Dworkin’s 1989 book Pornography contained samples of the sort of imagery she argued should be banned by law, the actual passage of such laws resulted her own book being banned in Canada.

Let’s return to the ostensible issue at hand – child abuse and “protecting the children.”

A good case study of how censorship denies resources to children on the margins, such as children with queer genders and sexualities and children who experience abuse, is the reception of Bryan Talbot’s 1995 graphic novel The Tale of One Bad Rat, which chronicles a young woman’s flight from home after being abused by a male relative, her struggles living as a homeless minor, and the uneasy peace she is finally able to make with her trauma. According to Talbot, he could have written the story of a homeless girl finding a home without the depiction of abuse, but, as he says himself, “the issue was far too important to marginalize.”

Due to the inclusion of this depiction, however, The Tale of One Bad Rat has been successfully removed from schools, libraries, and bookstores in Canada, with challengers citing local and national antipornography laws. The graphic novel is nothing that any sane person would consider “pornography,” and it was expressly intended to serve as a source of strength and comfort. Because it was challenged so relentlessly, however, multiple writers and artists from across the Commonwealth (including, most famously, Neil Gaiman) were continually called on to help defend it in the ten years after its release. The situation concerning banned and blacklisted books in Canada has recently gotten better, but throughout the 1990s and 2000s multiple people were charged, fined, and literally imprisoned on account of the comics they owned, imported, or ordered for their libraries.

Fiction and art can be extremely powerful tools with far-ranging effects, but censorship never hurts people who are already in a position of power. The victims of censorship have historically been the young, the queer, the poor, racial and ethnic minorities, and other people on the margins. Demanding that AO3 remove works with “problematic” content is a slippery slope, and I promise that fandom, as a collective community, does not want to go down that road.

This is precisely why it’s so upsetting to see fandom antis attacking communities of left-leaning young queer people, who are more likely to be survivors of assault or suffering from mental health-related illnesses. Antis are punching down, and they direct the blunt of their attacks toward those who are most vulnerable, not entrenched systems of inequality or, in this particular scenario, the social, political, and digital structures facilitating child abuse. If people posting actual child pornography are kicked off of Tumblr (as we can all agree they should be), they will undoubtedly post that material elsewhere. For people trying to understand the abuse they have experienced themselves, however, there may not be anywhere else to go.

The recent purge on Tumblr might seem like a victory in the fight to create safer online spaces, but the authoritarian impulse toward censorship that I suspect triggered this event deserves investigation and a careful application of critical thinking.

How Notes Work on Tumblr

I’ve spent the past four years observing how Tumblr functions, especially how content is spread on the site, and I’ve developed a theory regarding how some posts manage to pick up more notes. This theory reflects my own experiences as someone who regularly posts original content and has slowly gained several thousand followers. I’m sure that other people have had different experiences. Tumblr is huge, after all.

Every blog on Tumblr has a “reblog coefficient,” which indicates how many notes someone’s reblog of a post will generate. If a blog has a reblog coefficient of ten, this means that at least ten of its followers will like and/or reblog any given post one of its posts.

I call the blogs with the highest reblog coefficients “anchor blogs,” as they serve as anchors for a fandom. Even when Tumblr-specific browser extensions (like XKit) are used, it can be difficult to catch everything that comes along in the rapid flow of the Tumblr feed stream, so people attached to a certain fandom will often visit one or two anchor blogs to check for new content, which they will like or reblog directly from that blog.

Tumblr has a category of older communities that we can think of as “legacy fandoms,” by which I mean fandoms that have inherited a large number of fans from fic-centric fandom communities on LiveJournal. To give a concrete example, Hannibal is a legacy fandom of Sherlock, which is itself a transitional legacy fandom of Harry Potter. In the larger legacy fandoms, it’s common for fanfic authors to have anchor blogs. Because the essentially visual nature of Tumblr as a platform can undermine the circulation of text posts even within legacy fandoms, however, sometimes fanfic writers will work together to create and co-moderate anchor blogs that are separate from their main blogs.

In many newer fandoms on Tumblr, however, the anchor blogs tend to be the blogs of popular artists. An artist’s work will generate its own fandom, which will help propel the broader fandom forward. Perhaps because they themselves are visually oriented, the artists who run anchor blogs tend to only reblog art and other image posts. In addition, there are typically several large anchor blogs within any given fandom that will reblog almost anything posted onto a certain tag or set of tags, with the caveat that they also tend to favor image posts.

What this means is that, within Tumblr-based fandom cultures, it’s rare for a text post to get more than thirty to forty notes, even if the author’s blog is fairly popular. There are exceptions, of course, but they’re generally tied to a friendship or collaboration between a writer and an artist. (Two other common exceptions are “discourse,” or aggressively inflammatory statements, and “shitposts,” which are characterized by a distinctive flavor of absurdist humor.) If an artist or other anchor blog reblogs a text post, it can get hundreds and sometimes even thousands of notes.

It’s entirely possible for someone who isn’t an artist to have what I call a “bedrock blog,” which is a blog that one or more of the anchor blogs follow and reblog from. Even if a bedrock blog only has a base reblog coefficient of ten, their practical reblog coefficient can be exponentially larger because of their association with an anchor blog. I’ve noticed a number of commonalities between bedrock blogs in my own fandoms, but one factor that stands out to me is that the people who run them tend to be extroverted and extremely active on the site.

I’ve also developed a theory that the algorithms that regulate Tumblr privilege content that has been liked or reblogged and thus vetted by certain “magnet blogs.” A “magnet blog” is one of the blogs that appears in the “recommended” section of a user’s internal dashboard if they search, track, or start using a certain tag, as the magnet blog is identified by the Tumblr algorithm as being identified with that tag. What this means is that, if you tag a post with a certain tag, and then one of the magnet blogs reblogs your post with the same tag, it’s much more likely to appear in the recommended posts (on both the website and the mobile app) of anyone who has ever liked or reblogged anything with that tag, even if the end user has never actually used the tag on their own blog before.

Based on my observations, a like or reblog from a magnet blog seems to be the difference between an image post getting 200 notes and getting 2,000 notes. This is social networking via algorithm, which means that you can never know who the “right” person to like or reblog your post is at any given time or in any given situation. If I had to guess, I might submit the hypothesis that megapopular (with 20k+ followers) anchor blogs often function as magnet blogs for the tags they use.

There are also more concrete and mechanical factors that influence the distribution of content. For example, Sunday evening from 6:00pm to 8:30pm EST/EDT is the best time to post something on Tumblr. Wednesdays and Thursdays also get a high volume of traffic, with the window between 7:00pm to 10:00pm being particularly active. The trick seems to be to try to catch the sweet spot when both the East Coast and the West Coast will see your work, and hopefully the reblogs will keep the post spreading until the people in Asia and Europe are active. Also, unlike Instagram and other social media sites, only the first five tags of any given post “count,” meaning that the post will only appear on the searches and feeds for those first five tags. There are a few other best practices concerning things such as embedded links and image formatting, but these can change according to a user’s blog theme and the site’s current policies.

When it comes to how many notes any given post on Tumblr will get, specific social connections, timing, and formatting – not to mention creativity, skill, and consistency – are important, as is having a strong social network both on and off Tumblr. That being said, there are other major contributing factors that are not random, exactly, but extremely difficult to control or predict.