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.

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.

Call Out Culture in Tumblr Fandom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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