The Three False Equivalencies of Anti-Fandom

(1) The False Equivalency of Representation

Even if a fanfic has hundreds of thousands of views and thousands of kudos, it is never going to achieve the same level of cultural impact as big-budget mainstream media. No matter how much wholesome fic you write about Finn, it is not going to be the same as John Boyega’s face on every movie screen everywhere in the world.

(2) The False Equivalency of “They’re Just Fictional Characters”

Because “positive representation” isn’t really a valid concern with fanwork (although, in a collective sense, it absolutely can be, but that’s a different conversation), it doesn’t matter whether your fic or art is about Naruto kissing Sakura or Naruto kissing Sasuke. In fact, those three names are probably nothing more than nonsense words to 99.999% of people on this earth. It also doesn’t matter if you, as some rando on the internet, get off (for whatever reason) on the idea of Sasuke forcing himself on Naruto, Sakura, or both at the same time. They’re just fictional characters, and it does not matter to the broader culture. What does matter is if systematic structures of inequality and discrimination are uncritically reproduced in the fictional texts embraced by fandom without commentary. It’s therefore a false equivalency to put “I don’t like this m/m ship” on the same level of critique as “I don’t like how the source text marginalizes female characters.”

(3) The False Equivalency of GO OUTSIDE

Saying “I don’t like a particular m/m ship” is not only fine, it’s par for the course in fandom. Saying “I don’t like how the source text marginalizes female characters” is also fine, and we could probably use more of that sort of thing in fandom, to be honest. Someone writing about the details of their disappointment regarding a work of fiction is also fine. It’s okay to not like things! What is not okay is sending death and rape threats, accusing people of pedophilia, finding someone’s personal information and threatening to contact their family or employer, and doing things like creating a [username]gokillyourself account on AO3 in order to leave comments containing concrete instructions on how to commit suicide. It is a very clear false equivalency to suggest that expressing a negative opinion about a fictional character is “just as bad” as harassing an actual human being.

American Gothic Posthuman Romance

I’ve been reading an epic ongoing Five Nights at Freddy’s fanfic series, Everything Is All Right. I know almost nothing about the Five Nights at Freddy’s games, but the fic’s author, R. Lee Smith, is a prolific and extremely interesting writer who happens to share to one of my more arcane interests, interspecies romance. Smith’s writing style and subject matter resemble those of Stephen King – and I say this as a fan of Stephen King, if that needs clarification – except if all of King’s protagonists were female and also down to romance monsters.

Smith’s work came highly recommended by @corseque on Tumblr, whose taste in fiction I’ve grown to trust over the past two or three years. Corseque mentioned that this author has been writing fanfic, so I clicked on the link and started reading the first novel in the series, which is about the developing relationship between the author’s original character romancing Bonnie, a rotting animatronic rabbit without a face.

People say of writers they admire that they would read anything they wrote, up to and including a shopping list, but I think the real test of how much you like a writer is whether you’d be willing to read their erotic Five Nights at Freddy’s fanfiction. For me, regarding R. Lee Smith, I guess that answer is “yes.” I’m not sure that this is the sort of thing I could recommend to most people, but it’s quite good. Like, really good. I’m taking my sweet time reading the series, but I’m hooked.

By the way, I want to take this opportunity to comment on how amazing fanfiction is. It’s so cool that so many fantastic writers put their work up online for free, and it’s such a gift that anyone can access it at any time from anywhere. Sometimes I get frustrated with fandom, but there is not a day that goes by that I’m not grateful to every single fanfic author on this planet.

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.