No Drama, Not Today

This comic was drawn by Vreni Stollberger (here’s her website) and written by me, Kathryn Hemmann (@kathrynthehuman on Twitter).

I routinely get a lot of strange comments on all of my blogs and social media accounts. What this has taught me is that, if you exist on the internet, people will send you hate. You can be the kindest and most conscientious person in the world (although I’m certainly not), but mean people don’t need a reason to harass you. I’ve learned that it’s best not to engage with trolls, since there’s no better way to shut them down than to deny them a platform to stand on. Still, it’s frustrating to have to deal with people like this when all you want to do is stay in your lane and enjoy your time online. The pressure to maintain a “positive” attitude and pretend as if nothing is happening when you’re trying to cope with threatening messages can get a little intense and unreasonable sometimes, to be honest.

Ah, well. Haters gonna hate.

Work Work Til You Go Berserk

Hyperemployment, or the Exhausting Work of the Technology User
https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/11/hyperemployment-or-the-exhausting-work-of-the-technology-user/281149/

It’s easy to see email as unwelcome obligations, but too rarely do we take that obligation to its logical if obvious conclusion: those obligations are increasingly akin to another job—or better, many other jobs. For those of us lucky enough to be employed, we’re really hyperemployed—committed to our usual jobs and many other jobs as well. It goes without saying that we’re not being paid for all these jobs, but pay is almost beside the point, because the real cost of hyperemployment is time. We are doing all those things others aren’t doing instead of all the things we are competent at doing. And if we fail to do them, whether through active resistance or simple overwhelm, we alone suffer for it: the schedules don’t get made, the paperwork doesn’t get mailed, the proposals don’t get printed, and on and on.

But the deluge doesn’t stop with email, and hyperemployment extends even to the unemployed, thanks to our tacit agreement to work for so many Silicon Valley technology companies. Increasingly, online life in general feels like this. The endless, constant flow of email, notifications, direct messages, favorites, invitations. After that daybreak email triage, so many other icons on your phone boast badges silently enumerating their demands.

Where is the lie, honestly.

I’m actually a narcissistic little dopamine gremlin who loves getting notifications that people like me, but I can sometimes get to a point (usually toward the end of the spring semester) where every email I receive physically hurts me.

Yesterday I wrote a long post about Patreon that began as a set of notes on how I might be able to use Patreon support my book review blog, Contemporary Japanese Literature. I’m still considering it, but the truth is that I already feel as though I’m working four or five separate jobs. There just aren’t enough hours in the day for me to take on another job without sacrificing something, and I don’t think spending more time on yet another social media platform is really worth it.

Reasons I Don’t Like Patreon

(1) Fandom has always been a relatively noncommercial space, and I hate the feeling that it’s starting to become filled with advertisements and corporate-style messaging. It always makes me cringe when fandom accounts on Tumblr or Twitter affix messages such as “subscribe to my Patreon for bonus content” to all of their posts on social media; it feels sort of like I’m watching an infomercial.

(2) I hate feeling like I’m constantly bombarded with messages that I should be spending more money, and I hate feeling guilty for not supporting artists. Monthly Patreon payments can add up, especially if you follow several dozen (or several hundred) artists. It’s not a big deal to give one person a few dollars every month, but even small expenditures can add up quickly, and I hate having to choose between equally deserving people.

(3) I hate feeling as though fandom should cost money and that, as a result, people without money are barred from accessing certain parts of fandom. This is especially true of Patreon-only Discord servers and locked communities on public servers. Putting up a paywall around access to community spaces feels really gross to me. I also don’t like it when creators use Patreon to restrict access to process videos, guides, tutorials, and other instructional materials that would be especially beneficial to younger artists and other members of the community who lack access to traditional resources.

(4) Your friendship with someone shouldn’t be dependent on how much you pay them each month. Loaning money to friends is almost never a good idea, nor is sending them a monthly paycheck. This has the potential to create awkward situations both with people you know in real life and with people you know through fandom. For example, what if Friend A finds out that you’re donating to Friend B’s Patreon but not to theirs? Will a fandom artist you support on Patreon still be friendly with you if you cancel your monthly pledge?

(5) There’s no way to filter content on Patreon, either for subscribers or creators. Let’s say, for example, that there’s someone who’s into a certain fetish that many people might not be comfortable with, such as explicit age gaps in sexual relationships, and that this person makes repeated requests to the artists they’re supporting on Patreon to draw content of their fetish. I’m a firm believer in “don’t like, don’t read,” and I stand behind the idea that everyone’s fantasies involving fictional characters are valid, but I also don’t particularly want to see an impish ten-year-old cartoon character being happily molested by a forty-year-old if I can help it, nor do I want to see a soft version of the same concept while knowing why that specific person requested it. I feel bad for the creators who rely on Patreon for financial support and have to deal with these types of requests. For example, how comfortable would they be turning down a request for fetish porn if it meant possibly losing a long-term supporter?

All that being said, I like when people use Patreon as a tip jar.

Some of the most talented and prolific webcomic artists and indie game developers I know do this. All of their content is free and open to everyone, and they use Patreon as a development blog. Some creators – especially people who run popular podcasts and YouTube channels – still make thousands of dollars a month through Patreon despite the fact that all of their content is unlocked.

Although I understand that Patreon creators who make a decent monthly salary are exceptions, the fact that they can be so successful despite not creating paywalls makes me wonder if limiting access to content on Patreon is really all that effective. Even though a creator may get a bit of extra revenue in this way, I’m not sure it’s worth the trade-off in terms of integrity and goodwill. To put it bluntly, using reward tiers to incentivize the people who want to support you into giving you a few extra dollars each month is repellent capitalist bullshit. For me personally, it also makes scrolling through my feed on Patreon distinctly unpleasant, like, YOU AREN’T RICH ENOUGH TO SEE THIS POST LOL.

What I’m trying to explain is that, although I think Patreon can be a great platform to help people finance their creative work, the incursion of profit-driven language, practices, and ideologies into a space built on support, communication, and goodwill is troubling and offensive.

Basically, I hate capitalism. It’s not that I think independent creators don’t deserve support; rather, I think it’s disgusting how Patreon normalizes using exploitative methods to extract as much money as possible from people who want to support their friends and other independent creators. I also dislike how Patreon encourages creators to rely on these methods, thereby steering them into a mindset in which they treat their engagement with Patreon like an actual job and their friends like clients. This type of engagement has a clear potential to become uncomfortable and unsustainable, especially for people in economically precarious positions.

I’m not trying to say that Patreon is inherently bad, or that people shouldn’t use Patreon. I’ve actually supported a decent number of creative people on Patreon for years, and it makes me happy to do so. What I’m trying to figure out is how Patreon can be used in a way that doesn’t mirror the emotional violence and sheer obnoxiousness of capitalism. I also want to push back against the trend of every interaction on social media becoming a microtransaction, because it’s exhausting.

Regretsy

Everything You Never Wanted to Know About What’s Wrong With Etsy
https://sydneyschuster.wordpress.com/2018/12/28/everything-you-never-wanted-to-know-about-whats-wrong-with-etsy/

Etsy reported $81.8 million net income in 2017. From 1.9 million sellers. That’s $43 annual net income per seller. Etsy’s profit in 2018: 3.3%. Why build a sprawling, insane Rube Goldberg contraption that ranks 60 million listings by criteria sellers can’t control and then hides most of them from buyers, to get $43?

Answer: stupidity, cluelessness, incompetence, cruelty, and unreported cash. So Etsy, is you is or is you ain’t a retailer? When you figure it out, let us know.

Punch through all that bullshit and it becomes obvious to even the most tech-challenged crafter or junk dealer that it shouldn’t take years to sell the same widget on Etsy that sold in a week on eBay or Amazon.

This long blog post about Etsy’s many dysfunctions is extremely detailed. Some of the hyperlinks no longer work, presumably because they were taken offline, but everything I followed up on seems to check out. Despite the fact that we’re operating on different scales, the author’s experience as a seller on Etsy reflects my own, and her essay gave me a better understanding of why certain aspects of my experience with buying and selling zines on Etsy have always felt so weird to me.

In essence, the trouble seems to be with the site’s algorithms developing in counterproductive ways due to the deliberate meddling of the site’s administrators and corporate leadership. The author makes a good point at the end of the essay when she asks why anyone would want to create such a hostile environment that doesn’t seem to benefit anyone. Based on what we know about Facebook, I suspect that Etsy may be making its money as a tool for market research and algorithm development, not as a business front or hosting service.

Despite this, I continue to use Etsy, just as I continue to use Amazon and Twitter. I receive tangible benefits from these services, and I also believe that it’s not a meaningless act to engage with these sites in a way that attempts to make good on their utopian potential. At the same time, however, I think it’s good to be aware of the flaws and broader implications of these systems, as well as to seek out and support alternatives. Unfortunately, that’s easier said that done, as the alternatives are often just as problematic.

Constant Vigilance

One month after controversial adult-content purge, far-right pages are thriving on Tumblr
https://thinkprogress.org/far-right-content-survived-tumblr-purge-36635e6aba4b/

This subtle far-right creep echoes a 2017 study by the Institute of Strategic Dialogue which warned that the far-right had become extremely adapt at using internet platforms to normalize their ideas. “The weaponisation of internet culture is deliberately used by extreme-right influencers to bring about attitude and behavioural change, in particular among the younger generations,” the report warned.

This sort of normalization of white nationalist talking points was what tech companies were supposedly shocked by – and promised to stop – in the wake of Charlottesville, as they provided an easy way of “red-pilling,” or radicalizing and recruiting, new members, most of whom are young, white, disaffected men.

White Supremacist Propaganda
https://closet-keys.tumblr.com/post/160047478578/white-supremacist-propaganda-while-a-lot-of-klan

The intent is to convince racist white people (who don’t think of themselves as racist, but who clearly are, and clearly feel angry when their entitlement isn’t immediately gratified) that the hate group in question is just ‘misunderstood’ and is really about pride and celebrating your own culture, etc.

The intent is that once someone falls for that bait and hook, they can play up on their underlying resentment and entitlement. If you already believe that you should be able to celebrate being white, and they can bring you from that belief to the belief that people of color are preventing you from your right to have pride in that, then they can foster anger against people of color. From there, any time there is a collective societal reaction of disgust towards the hate group or towards the notion of white pride, the recruited whites can be relied upon to feel victimized by society collectively.

Both of these essays accurately reflect my social media experience with mainstream white supremacy and white supremacist messaging, which is worded and coded in such a way that it seems plausible that a decent, reasonable person would agree with it if they didn’t know where it was coming from. “Loving your heritage doesn’t mean being a racist” is representative of this type of entry-level messaging, which is intended to target people who feel socially alienated and are searching for positivity and affirmation.

At the beginning of 2019, I expressed concern about people on Twitter getting upset over chunky otters and Marie Kondo. I understood why people were getting upset, of course, and there were some important discussions on the subject of Marie Kondo in particular. Still, there needs to be a serious and public conversation about covert white supremacist messaging, and I’m not sure that we took advantage of the opportunity to have it.

To give an example of what I mean by “covert white supremacist messaging,” back in 2016 or so I followed a few people who occasionally reblogged lovely nature photography. Tumblr’s algorithm then began to recommend all manner of weird gender essentialist and white supremacist posts. What I was eventually able to figure out is that the nature photography was of scenery in Germany specifically, and that the blogs posting it had tagged these posts as “featherwood,” a term that may have once been associated with female prison gangs but has since spread to people who have embraced a Quiverfull-style ideology concerning race and gender (namely, that it is the duty of white Christian women to have as many white Christian children as possible). As soon as I blocked the word “featherwood” on Tumblr, the problem was mostly fixed. I also had to unfollow three or four people who reblogged these posts, often alongside Steven Universe photosets and radical leftist “are the cishets okay” memes.

What I’m trying to demonstrate with this example is that there are in fact codewords and ideological patterns that are strong indicators of veiled white supremacist leanings. Because it’s entirely possible for intelligent people in progressive communities to spread alt-right memes without understanding what they are, I wish the huge public conversations about race and representation happening on social media would touch on this sort of thing.

Another example is the expression “the coastal elites,” which has been a white supremacist codeword for “the Jewish global conspiracy” since I was in college (and long before that, I’m sure). When people associated with the American left wing started talking about “coastal elites” during the lead-up and aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, that was a huge red flag for me. There were people on Tumblr reblogging all sorts of authoritarian craziness in the name of social justice, and I had no idea how to tell them that the ideological purity they were advocating was using the language of hardcore white supremacy. When I tried to explain my understanding of what was going on to a few people close to me, the response was inevitably something along the lines of “well you’re a racist for not understanding that Hillary is just as evil as Trump.”

It’s 2019, and you’d think we’d have figured this mess out by now, but that’s not the case. To give yet another example, I’ve recently seen a few of my friends and professional contacts on Twitter retweet things coming from people who advocate #humanscience and #humanbiodiversity. What the people who use these hashtags are specifically referring to is “race science” (here’s an archived webcapture of a widely circulated “human biodiversity reading list” for reference), whose main guiding principle seems to be the “scientifically proven” assertion that melanin is a chemical that causes violent and antisocial behavior. The message that these people (many of whom are writers whose work has been published in respected tech journals) are advocating is that, if we accept that science tells us that climate change is real and that we need to vaccinate our children, then we must also accept it when science tells us [insert whatever racist bullshit is currently trending here].

During the past month or so, when I’ve messaged a few people whom I know personally and have been friends with for years with a gentle note of caution, the responses have been along the lines of “So you’re an antivaxxer then” or “I wouldn’t have pegged you for a climate change denier.” It’s like, “Hang on there friend, I was just trying to give you a heads-up that the person you’ve been retweeting constantly for the past week is a secret white supremacist!” Except it’s not even a secret, because all the codewords are right there in their Twitter profiles.

What I’m trying to explain with these examples is that some people are indeed “secret racists,” and the reason that most decent people don’t see them for what they are is because most of us (thankfully) don’t have much exposure to white supremacist vocabulary or alt-right online spaces. The only reason I know a tiny fraction of what’s going on is because I grew up in the rural Deep South (where people tend to feel more comfortable with being openly racist) and now spend time on gaming forums where MRA-style misogyny can often serve as a gateway to more radical belief systems. My first instinct is to block and avoid this sort of thing when I encounter it, so I’m not an expert, and I still experience the occasional unpleasant surprise when I realize that something I thought was silly and harmless is, in fact, deeply disturbing. (I actually just reblogged something that turned out to be propaganda for the Church of Scientology, and I was mortified when someone told me what it was.)

This is why I wish the conversations people engage in on Twitter and other social media platforms about covert white supremacist messaging would focus more on identifying and explaining codewords and exposing and calling out creepy individuals. If we had more of a collective awareness that this sort of hidden messaging exists and is carefully designed to spread throughout mainstream social networks, it might be easier to identify and quarantine it. After all, the reason that cult-like belief systems are so fringe is because most people find them uncomfortable and strange and don’t want anything to do with them, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t real danger in inadvertently spreading this type of messaging.

A Hellscape of Unsavory Experiences

The bogus “Momo challenge” internet hoax, explained
https://www.vox.com/2019/3/3/18248783/momo-challenge-hoax-explained

A flurry of TV reports, along with both local and national news, began breathlessly advising parents on ways to “protect kids from a disturbing internet game.” Lost in any coverage, however, were any examples of the authenticated versions of the Momo challenge, including screenshots of “threatening messages” or confirmed videos promoting violence.

It shouldn’t be too surprising that a viral urban legend (and likely hoax) targeting kids would be able to sweep the globe. The internet can be a hellscape of unsavory experiences for anyone; parents face the added challenge of wrestling with how to adequately protect their kids without being overbearing. Indeed, inappropriate content often does make it past automated platform security and monitors — just look at YouTube’s persistent struggle with combating child exploitation, online bullying, or extremist conspiracies.

I taught a class called “Demonic Women in Japanese Fiction” last semester, and some of my students were obsessed with the Momo Challenge. I have vague memories of the Blue Whale Challenge from an old group conversation on WhatsApp, but I didn’t pay any attention to it then, so it was interesting to watch this urban legend spread and develop in real time this past spring. I wonder, will the Momo Challenge be a bit of internet ephemera that people will forget ever existed, or will it eventually resurface and take on a life of its own?

By the way, maybe this is just me being weird, but I think Momo is actually kind of cute.

Ganondorf, Villainy, Race, and Fandom

Despite a few occasional bouts of drama, I love the Legend of Zelda fandom, and the only real unpleasantness I’ve encountered has had to do with Ganondorf. I want to talk about this briefly, because I think it’s representative of an alarming tendency in fandom as a whole.

The United States is in a strange and difficult place right now. It’s been like this for as long as anyone can remember, but the current presidential administration has brought some very ugly sentiments right out in the open. It was never particularly easy to be a Muslim or an African-American in this country, but since 2015 or so the violence of the rhetoric of prejudice has been omnipresent and overwhelming. We now have, for example, black women whose children were effectively lynched being subjected to all manner of humiliation and abuse for speaking out against police violence even as a mainstream presidential candidate won voters by belittling the Muslim family of a soldier who was killed in the line of duty.

This is just one of the myriad reasons why many of us are very sensitive to expressions of hatred against ethnic and racial minorities. Some people may feel confident in saying that ethnic stereotypes exist for a reason and that they don’t understand why people get upset over certain depictions of fictional characters, and I think it’s important to point out that not everyone who feels this way is (or identifies as) white. Fandom is supposed to be fun, after all, and no one wants to feel as if they’re being given a lecture when all they want to do is talk about video games.

I completely understand the desire to make fandom a politics-free zone, but I also think fandom should be large enough to accommodate multiple views and approaches. When it comes to Ganondorf specifically, I think there should be room for both silly jokes and serious analysis. On one hand, how ridiculous is the fact that Ganondorf built himself a giant murder castle in Ocarina of Time? On the other hand, how is Ganondorf’s intense love/hate relationship with Hyrule representative of the legacy of colonial ideologies both within the game and in the real world?

Ganondorf is clearly a villain in the Legend of Zelda universe. There are people in the Zelda fandom who love Ganondorf because he’s a charismatic and fascinating character, and there are also people in the Zelda fandom who hate Ganondorf because he’s just not a very nice person, to put it mildly. Both receptions of the character are totally understandable and valid.

The complication that arises with Ganondorf is that he is demonized according to real-world patterns of white supremacy, one of which is the common narrative that holds that “the Evil Barbaric Dark-Skinned Oriental Other” must be defeated by the virtuous heroes of a holy empire. Accordingly, the trouble I’ve experienced with fandom is that it can be easy for people to inadvertently slip into projecting negative racial and ethnic stereotypes onto the fictional world of the games.

Like men of African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian descent in the real world, Ganondorf is portrayed in a number of fanworks as unintelligent, bestial, violent, and incapable of human emotion. This is a gross oversimplification of how Ganondorf is canonically characterized in the games, but there are powerful cultural forces in our own societies that attempt to ensure that many of us become invested in the narrative of “the Brutal Evil Dark Man” to such an extent that we replicate it without intending to. Because of the nature of the narratives of the Zelda games themselves, in which Ganondorf is portrayed with very little sympathy, dealing with the character is always going to be tricky. This is why there needs to be a multiplicity of voices addressing these issues. For example, what does it mean that Ganondorf is imprisoned without a trial in Twilight Princess? Meanwhile, it’s equally worthwhile to make silly jokes and shitposts about the character; because let’s be real, you can bounce a quarter off that man’s leotard-clad ass. In other words, there needs to be room in fandom for humor and smut and serious analytical meta essays and silliness.

Unfortunately, Tumblr-based fandom has become so polarized that this sort of exchange is almost impossible. On one side of Tumblr are people who insist on ideological purity, and on the other side are people with good intentions who nevertheless feel alienated by “The Discourse,” an expression that refers to an incendiary argument that something or someone is “problematic.” What this means in practical terms is that, while one side of Tumblr is quick to attack anyone who engages with a “problematic” character like Ganondorf, the other side of Tumblr has come to ostracize anyone who’s interested in a more nuanced critique of popular media.

What’s happened within the specific context of Zelda fandom, then, is that many people will only draw and write about and reblog work featuring the light-skinned protagonists, while many of the people who are interested in the darker-skinned antagonists are surprisingly tolerant of what would generally be considered borderline racist representations in any other context. It’s not that any one approach to a character like Ganondorf is upsetting in and of itself, as it’s only natural that different people participate in fandom for different reasons, but rather that the aggressive refusal to consider or even acknowledge the validity of alternative opinions and perspectives can make the Zelda fandom a very weird and uncomfortable place to be sometimes.

To minimize potential confusion, I’d like to clarify the points I’m making about race and villainy:

IT IS OKAY to have dark-skinned characters who are not good people.

IT IS OKAY to have dark-skinned characters who do bad things and make mistakes and gradually grow and change.

IT IS OKAY to have dark-skinned characters who are irredeemably evil.

Let racial and ethnic minorities be villains! While you’re at it, let women and LGBTQ+ people and neuordivergent people and differently abled people be villains! Villains are great!

However:

IT IS NOT OKAY for a large multinational corporation to tell stories about how everything that is or has ever been bad in the world is the fault of one person whom we are supposed to know is evil because he is the only person in the story with dark skin.

Likewise, IT IS NOT OKAY for fans to tell stories that purposefully reproduce overt white supremacy in their portrayal of dark-skinned characters. For example, it’s not okay for fans to tell stories about how a dark-skinned character is “saved” by light-skinned people who teach him that his cultural heritage is bad so that he can be fully integrated into the “good” culture of the light-skinned majority ethnicity, or for a dark-skinned character to redeem himself by learning to apologize to representatives of the light-skinned ethnicity for his anger regarding the slavery and genocide of his people.

In other words, it’s totally normal to have a character who is a villain with dark skin, because expecting characters with dark skin to be perfect while denying them the full range of human experience and emotion is a ridiculous and counterproductive way to approach representations of racial and ethnic difference. That being said, it’s weird and gross to have a character who is a villain BECAUSE he has dark skin.

I’m excited that the recent Breath of the Wild sequel trailer has inspired a renewed appreciation for Ganondorf. It’s my hope that, while fans are enjoying the design and storytelling potential of a fun and interesting character, they’re also able to engage in critical discussions of the politics and ideology of the Zelda series without the conversation devolving into an exclusionary black-and-white mentality. The real-world implications of video game ideologies are multifaceted and complicated, and it’s important for these issues to be discussed outside of academia. Transnational fandom cultures are a perfect place for a wealth of diverse perspectives to come together, which is why I’d like to advocate for a better tolerance of a multiplicity of fanworks and opinions, as well as gentle and nuanced pushback that doesn’t take the form of death threats, bullying, or other forms of harassment.