Best Practices for Dealing with Harassment on Tumblr

After almost four years of actively participating in various fandoms on Tumblr, I’ve seen and experienced some awful things, and I’ve finally arrived at a set of best practices for handling the nonsense that I’ve encountered on the platform. I’ve made a bunch of stupid mistakes on Tumblr, and I’ve used those mistakes as a foundation for these guidelines, which are intended to help you protect yourself while avoiding unintentionally hurting other people.

(1) If someone sends you hatemail, report them and then block them. If someone reblogs your post with hateful tags, report them and then block them. If someone tags you on a hateful post, report them and then block them.

(2) If you suspect that a specific person is sending you anonymous hatemail, block them. If it was indeed them, then the hatemail will disappear from your inbox, even if it was sent anonymously. If the anonymous messages don’t disappear, then it’s possible that they weren’t being sent by the person you suspected (although it’s still possible that they were, as there are many ways to mask an IP address). Nevertheless, you should probably keep this person blocked anyway, because there was something about their behavior that made you suspect them in the first place. Trust your instincts!

(3) A vaguepost is a post in which the poster criticizes a type of behavior without specifying who or what has triggered this post. If someone has made a vaguepost that you suspect is about you, block that person. Even if they didn’t intend to hurt you, they intended to hurt someone, and that person ended up being you. You’re not socially obligated to tolerate a hurtful atmosphere, no matter how vague it might be.

(4) If a mutual follower sees someone making hateful posts about you but continues to behave in a friendly manner with that person, unfollow them. They’ve made a conscious choice by remaining friends with the person who has harassed you, and their decision is essentially that it’s okay to harass you. No one who is comfortable watching you being harassed is your friend.

(5) If someone engages in racist, sexist, homophobic, or ableist behavior, or exhibits any other type of discrimination in what they post or reblog, unfollow them. It’s 2018, and they know exactly what they’re doing. Tumblr is a terrible forum to challenge someone’s political position, so don’t try to engage them directly. Even if they seem like a nice person, the best strategy is to unfollow them as soon as they start to make you feel uncomfortable.

(6) Tumblr is a place for people to express their unique interests and opinions, and everyone is entitled to a few vent posts every once in a while. If someone seems to be taking a slow train to Crazytown, however, it’s okay to unfollow them. It’s important to use your best judgment, especially regarding someone you’ve known or followed for a long time, but it’s also valid to unfollow someone as soon as they start to make you feel uncomfortable.

(7) Recognize that mental illness, as well as any other type of neurodivergent positionality, is not an excuse for bad behavior. The assumption that people with mental illnesses and other neurodivergent positionalities are unable to tell the difference between right and wrong (or otherwise unable to control themselves) is not only inaccurate but extremely offensive. Don’t feel that you’re expected to tolerate harassment because of the positionality of the harasser.

(8) This goes without saying, but do your best not to spread hate. Don’t send hatemail, don’t make hateful vagueposts, and don’t reblog people’s posts with offensive tags or comments. If you have to vent, don’t use popular fandom tags to spread negativity. This also goes without saying, but try to stay off social media if you’re drunk, angry and crying, or in an otherwise altered state of mind. If you’re unsure of whether something is offensive, don’t post it.

(9) Do not engage with harassment. Unfollow or block someone, and report them if necessary, but don’t call out their bad behavior on a public forum. This ends up hurting other people, and it never fixes the original problem; no one in the history of the internet has ever stopped harassing people because someone told them it was wrong. As an adult, you’re responsible for demarcating your boundaries, and only you can ensure that they’re respected.

(10) If the harassment you’re experiencing on Tumblr is so pervasive and severe that it’s affecting your mental health, take a break from the platform. There are vibrant fandom communities on sites like Twitter, Discord, DeviantArt, Facebook, and Reddit, and they often don’t have any overlap with communities on Tumblr. The world is wide, and your time and talents are valuable! Don’t let your voice be silenced, and don’t let a bunch of antisocial creeps get you down. Turn your back on hateful negativity, walk away from toxic communities, and keep doing the things that make you happy.

Bullying on Tumblr

About a month or two ago I posted a picture of a man holding a pig on Tumblr. It was a cute drawing of a cute anime character holding a cute cartoon pig in a cute way. It wasn’t exactly like the manga cover above, but it was close. The caption I used for the image was essentially this: “Even though this character is a jerk, I like to think that he has a soft spot for animals.”

One of my mutuals reblogged this picture with the hashtag “animal abuse” and then proceeded to reblog several posts about how pigs don’t like to be held and how cruel it is to pick them up. Because this person frequently writes about Steven Universe, my drawing came to the attention of a small but vocal segment of the Steven Universe fandom that has dedicated itself to “calling out” people who post “problematic” things on Tumblr. I ended up being sent a dozen violently angry messages, and I was tagged on several posts featuring videos in which pigs were harmed in legitimately upsetting ways. I didn’t respond to any of this, so the activity faded after a day, but the episode was quite disturbing.

This is not the first time that something like this has happened to me on Tumblr, and it didn’t surprise me. It still took me more than a month to decide how to respond to it, however. Should I unfollow the person who reblogged a cute drawing of a cute anime character holding a cute cartoon pig with the tag “animal abuse,” or should I just accept it as normal and move on?

To anyone who isn’t active on Tumblr, the answer should be obvious. If someone feels comfortable looking at the cute cartoon art you created and calling it “animal abuse,” then they are not your friend. You should unfollow them, and you should probably block them for good measure. Even if it wasn’t personal, and even if they didn’t intend for me to feel (or actually be) attacked, this sort of behavior is extremely unkind. Yesterday I wrote that it’s important to be patient with people who make mistakes on social media, since we’re all figuring out this method of social interaction together, but there is a world of difference between tagging someone’s face on a group photo on Facebook in 2009 and sending someone a message that says YOU DESERVE TO BE SLAUGHTERED on Tumblr in 2018.

The problem is that this sort of thing is normal on Tumblr. Sending someone hate mail or tagging them on a video depicting graphic violence is clearly harassment, but this type of harassment is so commonplace that even sane adults in their late twenties and early thirties seem to think it’s acceptable to do hurtful things if it’s for the purpose of promoting social justice. It goes without saying that harassing someone online has nothing to do with social justice, however, and the discursive atmosphere on Tumblr has become so radical that people’s views of what is offensive are completely skewed. Of course it makes sense to critique something that celebrates or otherwise promotes misinformation or discrimination, but “critique” is so valued by the affective economy of Tumblr that many people go out of their way to find and denounce problematic messages that don’t really exist. In other words, it makes sense to critique real animal abuse, but placing a cute anime drawing in the same discursive category as real harm done to real animals is bananas. To give an analogy, I think it’s fair to say that most rational people would not get as upset about the manga cover above as they would about the sort of cruelty depicted in the film Okja. Unfortunately, on Tumblr, there’s no longer any distinction between the two.

So this was my dilemma. On one hand, I don’t want to be associated with the Tumblr hate machine in any way, and I certainly don’t enjoy it when it targets me. On the other hand, isn’t this just the price of admission for Tumblr? And how can I be sure that it’s not me who’s the guilty party? Maybe it was in fact wrong of me to have posted that drawing? Maybe I should think long and hard about what I did to deserve being sent death threats from strangers…?

I recently started rereading the Harry Potter books, and that ended up being what it took for me to reorient my moral compass. There are a lot of bullies in the novels, and they’re bullies because they can get away with it. Other people see this happening, but they do nothing to stop it. Reading these books for children helped me remember something very simple: Bullying is cruel, and people who are friends with bullies are cowards. In order to be a good person, it’s not enough not to be a bully; you also have to refuse to be friends with people who tolerate bullying. Watching something awful happening and staying out of it because it’s none of your business is not a neutral action. By being friends with people who instigate bullying, or by remaining friends with people who don’t care if other people get bullied, you’re essentially saying that you don’t care who gets hurt as long as it isn’t you.

This is basic schoolyard logic, but this scenario is being played out by adults on Tumblr for the ostensible purpose of promoting social justice, which is why it’s been so difficult for me to recognize bullying for what it is. Nevertheless, I’ve come to the obvious conclusion that going out of one’s way to send hate mail or to leave awful tags on someone’s post is a choice, as is associating with people who routinely do such things.

I’m not extremely active on Tumblr, but I maintain a solid presence there, and I’m starting to get the feeling that the platform has passed its peak. The community has become increasingly toxic, and many content creators are leaving for greener pastures. For most of the writers and artists and genius shiposters I once followed before they left Tumblr, “greener pastures” seems to mean Twitter, which is sad, because… If Twitter seems like a friendly and sane alternative to your social media platform, then you might be in serious trouble.

In the meantime, I’ve been experimenting with PillowFort, but there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of activity there at the moment. More on this story as it develops, I suppose.

Social Media and Character Development

I got on Facebook in June 2007 but didn’t really start using it until July 2008. At the time, there wasn’t a well-defined code of Facebook etiquette, so I did what everyone else was doing. What everyone else seemed to be doing back in 2008 was posting tons of pictures of themselves and their friends on Facebook while tagging everyone involved, so I blithely jumped onboard. My friends and I were all young and beautiful, so everyone was happy and no one complained. When I posted a picture of myself and my classmates in March 2009, however, one of the people I tagged sent me a message asking me to take the photo down. I told her that I would just untag her, so she followed up to insist that I delete the picture entirely. I was a bit confused at first, but after another exchange of messages I apologized and did as she asked.

Now, of course, I would never post a picture of someone without asking for their permission first. Common standards of civil online behavior have evolved since Facebook went public in 2006, and I’d like to think that I’ve grown as a person and developed a more nuanced understanding of how social media works since then.

Earlier this year, someone sent me a link to a long comment my former classmate posted on a popular cosplay blog explaining how upset she was when she had to ask someone multiple times to remove a picture of her from Facebook. It’s likely that she wasn’t talking about me, but seeing her comment triggered my memory of this interaction. I’m not criticizing this person for being upset, because she had every right to be upset. The reason I’m telling this story is because it seems so strikingly obvious to me now that what I did then was thoughtless and wrong.

About a month ago, a friend of mine retweeted something that someone I used to know had written about a short conversation we had on LiveJournal at some point during 2012, when she was struggling with depression. I was also in a dark place at that point in my life, but my attempts to seek treatment had failed, so I was managing as best I could on my own. I therefore didn’t have any formal language to communicate my sympathy to her, so I left a comment on one of her posts saying something to the effect of “I hope you feel better soon, but in the meantime it sounds like you could really use a drink.” She sent me a long response telling me how insulting it was for me not to have taken her depression seriously, and how ignorant I was for not understanding that alcohol and anti-depression medication don’t mix. I apologized immediately but then, like an idiot, tried to excuse myself by saying that I didn’t mean to offend her – which is, of course, not something that someone who’s just been offended wants to hear.

Since then, there’s been an ongoing discussion on social media and in the broader culture about how conversations relating to disability and neurodivergence can and should play out. I now understand that the correct response to the situation I described above would have been for me to express concern at the escalating despair evident in my friend’s posts, to ask if there was anything I could do, and then to step away. I also recognize that it would have been appropriate in that situation to explain that I was speaking as someone who was struggling with depression myself. Talking about mental illness is always going to be tricky, and I don’t think there are ever going to be solutions that work for everyone. Still, it’s much easier to stay educated and informed about how to reach out to people who seem like they might need help in 2018 than it was in 2012.

Again, I’m not criticizing this person for complaining about the stupid thing I did, because what I did was obviously wrong. It was wrong of me to make a facetious remark about someone’s mental illness, just as it was wrong of me to post a picture of someone on Facebook without asking for their permission first.

I didn’t do either of these things out of a sense of malice; rather, I just didn’t know any better. That doesn’t excuse my behavior, of course, but I think this general situation is probably relatable to anyone who’s grown up along with the internet. We’re given rules about how to behave in real life, but we’re more or less on our own when it comes to figuring out how to be good people on social media. I think that, as a result, we’ve probably all done something that, in retrospect, was undeniably unkind.

After reflecting on these snapshots of my past self, there are two lessons that I want to take away. The first is that it’s important to learn from your mistakes and keep growing as a person. Second, and more specifically, it’s also important to give the benefit of the doubt to people who make stupid mistakes online. This is not to say that you have to perform emotional labor for everyone who insults you on the internet, because some people are just assholes. If someone does something offensive but seems to be coming from a good place, however, it can be useful to remember that it’s probably not personal. After all, social media hasn’t actually been around all that long, and we’re still figuring out the best practices for how to interact with each other online.

Tumblr vs. Social Media Algorithms

Listen fam, I know we all like to hate Tumblr, but let me tell you about Twitter.

After Nintendo gave its presentation at E3, I spent some time on Twitter to see what everyone’s reaction was. All I do on Twitter is post, like, and retweet cute video game art, so you’d think Twitter’s algorithms would shove all the sweet Nintendo E3 content right to the top of my feed. I know Nintendo pays Twitter to promote its content, and I know that Twitter knows that video game preorder announcements are irresistible clickbait for me, so it’s like I’m paying Nintendo to pay Twitter to show me Nintendo-related content.

But that’s not what happened. Instead of showing me cute pictures of Zelda and Daisy, my Twitter feed exhibited a constant ratio of five Nintendo-related tweets to one super-upsetting tweet about current events and identity politics, like “three people were attacked and injured at a local pride march” and “it’s racist to say that someone draws in an anime style.” These were generally tweets that someone I follow had liked hours (and sometimes days) in the past, and Twitter’s algorithms were putting them on my feed because that’s just what they do.

The algorithms that control your feed on Twitter and Facebook have calculated that people, on average, are more likely to engage with the platform (or to exit the platform to buy something) if they’re upset. This is why, for example, it can sometimes seem like everyone you know on Facebook is always happy and successful all the time – Facebook’s algorithms know this bothers people. Meanwhile, Twitter’s algorithms know that discussions related to issues such as gender, race, religion, sexuality, disability, body shape, and so on tend to trigger intense emotional responses, even if you’re presented with views and opinions you generally agree with. By “know” I mean that, over the course of billions of data points gathered during the past decade, these algorithms have found patterns that they attempt to replicate by manipulating the content feeds of individual users. (Jaron Lanier has written a great deal about how this works, if you’re interested.) These algorithms make the owners of these supposedly free social media platforms a ton of money, which is why they’re probably not going anywhere anytime soon.

This is why I appreciate Tumblr so much as a platform for online fandom. You can block ads, you can block sponsored content, you can block an unlimited number of tags, and your feed consists of nothing more and nothing less than the posts of people you follow in reverse chronological order. There are algorithmic shenanigans concerning which users and posts are promoted and which posts disappear from tag archives, but this is something that most users will never have to worry about. The important thing is that, if someone brings bad mojo to my Nintendo party, I can just unfollow or block them without constantly having to click on drop-down menus to inform the platform that “this is not relevant.” In other words, I have almost effortless control over my engagement with Tumblr. This level of control is crucial to the experience of people who use fandom as a safe space where they don’t have to worry about things like, for example, whether they’ll be attacked if they go to a pride march.

Tumblr isn’t perfect, but it’s what we’ve got. If you live in a country where laws regulating internet access are currently in dispute, I think it’s a platform worth fighting for. Even if you’re unable to take political action, I hope you’ll take care of your fandom communities. The world is awful, but kindness and joy can go a long way.