That “Abandoned Mall” Feeling

After the porn ban, Tumblr users have ditched the platform as promised
https://www.theverge.com/2019/3/14/18266013/tumblr-porn-ban-lost-users-down-traffic

Tumblr’s global traffic in December clocked in at 521 million, but it had dropped to 370 million by February, web analytics firm SimilarWeb tells The Verge. Statista reports a similar trend in the number of unique visitors. By January 2019, only over 437 million visited Tumblr, compared to a high of 642 million visitors in July 2018.

Tumblr loses almost a third of its users after banning porn
https://sea.mashable.com/tech/2777/tumblr-loses-almost-a-third-of-its-users-after-banning-porn

But NSFW posts were the lifeblood of Tumblr communities, and when that left the site, many of the users fled with it. PinkNews reports that traffic fell from 521 million monthly page views in December to 437 million in January, according to SimilarWeb analytics. By the end of February, Tumblr only received 369 million page views. That comes out to 151 million fewer page views, or a 29 percent drop.

Tumblr has lost 30 percent of web traffic since December
https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19393500

This doesn’t surprise me at all. I run a reasonably popular non-porn, submissions-based blog and immediately after the ban was implemented, our numbers tanked. Submissions dropped from 25-35 per day to around 10-20, while the number of notes (likes+reblogs+replies) per post has dropped from 600-800 to 200-400. Unfortunately, we still see about the same total number of spambots and fake blogs in our notes. So at least from my own anecdotal experience, the ban did nothing except drive away human users.
That last post reflects my own experience. I used to get around 600 to 800 notes a day in 2018, while now I’m only getting about 350. Then again, I don’t really post anything these days, so that could be a factor as well. I was actually looking forward to Tumblr quieting down a bit, but the trolls haven’t left yet. Because of the relative silence, their mindless barking seems to echo even further, unfortunately. I’ve been putting more effort into customizing Twitter to be a less chaotic experience, but it’s still difficult to express a healthy and multifaceted personality on that trashsite.

The Sepia Tinge of Decay

Echo of footsteps
A sharp fluorescent buzzing
Empty grocery store

I spent way too much time watching Dan Bell’s Dead Mall series on YouTube last night, and it creeped me out. Dan Bell himself is appreciative of the period architecture and kitsch aesthetic, and he doesn’t film in a way that attempts to create elements of horror where none exist, but there’s still something upsetting about these places.

This video series is all very Rust Belt; and, based on the specific locations, I would assume that this slowly creeping neglect is connected to both rural depopulation and the institutionalized economic marginalization of Black communities. That’s upsetting enough in and of itself, of course.

But there’s also a more universal memento mori quality to these videos that inspires a dread of cultural senescence.

I feel like someone should make a video series along the same lines about abandoned websites, because they give off the same sort of energy. It’s not nostalgia, because the affect is distinctly negative, but it’s similar. I think what makes the urban exploration of abandoned malls unpleasant is that they’re “abandoned” instead of “closed,” meaning that the lights are still on and the water is still running. If they were completely shut down and gradually being overtaken by nature, they would be beautiful, but there are still people inside these almost-dead buildings, and that’s disturbing. In the same way, online spaces like Blogspot/Blogger feel weird because there are still a few people using them, and websites for children’s movies from the 2000s are a little eerie because someone is still paying to host them. You want to feel nostalgia when you look at the past; but then, when you realize that it’s not safely in the past, it’s uncomfortable and uncanny.

Also, can I be real for a second? Tumblr is starting to take on an “abandoned mall” feeling, and I don’t like it.

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.

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.

The Backlash Against Tidying Up with Marie Kondo

If you’ve watched the Netflix show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, then you can confirm that its appeal is a combination of three things: One, judging other people’s lives, two, psychoanalyzing other people’s damage, and three, Marie Kondo’s facial expressions. The first two are standard reality television, but the third is really special. I don’t say this ironically; Marie Kondo is an interesting person, and it’s a pleasure to watch her interact with people and move through space.

As far as I can tell, the reaction to the show on Twitter has been humorously nihilistic, like, “How do I throw myself away” and “The joke’s on you, Marie Kondo – I no longer know how to experience joy.” In print media, the running joke about The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up has been that none of us can escape the awful capitalist hell we’ve trapped ourselves in, and not even Marie Kondo can save us now. (See, for example, this cartoon that ran two years ago in The New Yorker.) Also, some people have gotten passionate about not wanting to throw away their books, and other people have mocked them for their performative intellectualism, and this exchange has become a meme in and of itself.

And then, after two weeks of people having fun with a silly show on Netflix, other people started bringing race into the equation. If you watched the show, you’re racist. If you didn’t watch the show, you’re racist. If you make fun of Marie Kondo, you’re racist. If you respect and appreciate Marie Kondo, you’re racist. If you have no idea who Marie Kondo is but still insist on folding your shirts in a certain way, you’re racist and you don’t even know it.

The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up was originally published in translation in 2014 by Ten Speed Press, a small outfit in California that specializes in “healthy lifestyle” and crafting books. They have a good list of nonfiction and autobio comics as well; and, if you’ve ever seen one of those ridiculous “How to Draw Manga” books in a chain bookstore, they probably published it. The press commissions a lot of translations, and their scope is fairly international. When they put out their translation of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, they gave it the subtitle “The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” not because they were playing to some sort of “Oriental mysticism” but because there is a huge market for books like The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living and The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter and Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. Essentially, people in the United States want to escape the awful capitalist hell we’ve created for ourselves, but we don’t want to give up our perceived standard of living, so we want people in other “developed” countries to tell us what we’re doing wrong and how to fix it.

I won’t deny that racism may play a part in this, because we live in a system of global white supremacy in which racism plays a part in everything, but what the publishing market has done is to group Japan with what I think it’s fair to call “fancy Europe,” which is problematic but not, I think, overtly racist. In the book itself, which is a translation of something originally published in 2010 in Japanese (人生がときめく片づけの魔法), Kondo does indeed talk to her Japanese readers about “ancient Japanese cleaning rituals.” Japanese writers have been doing this before America existed, however, and they will probably continue doing this after America fails. I therefore don’t think it’s fair to make American conceptions of Orientalism the center of a conversation about what’s going on there.

This is what bothers me so much about the application of American configurations of race to who Marie Kondo is and what she’s doing and how her work has been received – America is not the center of this particular transnational cultural phenomenon, and assuming its centrality is not “racist,” exactly, but extremely arrogant. Within the specific context of American conversations about the Netflix show on Twitter, there are so many different voices from so many different people that you would specifically have to go looking for white people being racist. They exist, obviously, but who does it benefit to treat their gross fringe options as the most important voices while ignoring everyone else?

Meanwhile, speaking of Japan-America relations, the nuclear waste from the Manhattan Project is still under St. Louis, and it’s still giving people cancer; and, if you care about such things, it’s still disproportionately affecting African-American communities. Flint, Michigan still doesn’t have clean water, and we’re still imprisoning the children of refugees, and the federal government is still shut down because of a legitimately racist pissing match over a “border wall,” and… I mean, you know, everything. I feel that we’re all constantly under assault during the administration of POTUS45, and the sort of incessant angry buzzing noise generated by endless waves of thinkpiece articles about how some innocuous Netflix show might be covertly racist only makes everyone more exhausted without actually doing anything to help anyone.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t like the “Which One of Your Friends Is A Secret Racist?” game that I’ve seen (white) people play on social media. If the basis of judgment is liking a tweet of a round animal or watching a self-improvement Netflix miniseries on New Year’s Day, then we’re all racists; and, by implication, we’re all just as guilty as POTUS45 in making the world an awful place.

It’s like, then why even do anything, you know? Why even try.

The problem with an insistence on ideological purity is that it denies the existence of allies and punishes people who don’t have the resources to devote to following the minutiae of the social media conversations surrounding whatever cause or movement they’d like to support. This is especially upsetting at the current moment, as trying to help people affected by the administration is not some sort of abstract intellectual game, especially since so many of us are doing our best to stay afloat ourselves.

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.

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.