It Was Fun While It Lasted

“The Linux of social media” — How LiveJournal pioneered (then lost) blogging
https://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2019/01/the-linux-of-social-media-how-livejournal-pioneered-then-lost-web-blogging/

But perhaps there’s no better microcosm for LiveJournal’s epic journey than the blog that belonged to the man behind Game of Thrones. Even though George R.R. Martin managed to hang out for a decade after the site’s initial downfall, nothing in particular seemed to trigger his 2018 move to a personal site. No fanfare accompanied it, just a brief message from one of the fantasist’s “minions.” Such is the nature of the erosion of our once-beloved digital spaces: there’s none of the collapsed majesty of a physical space like an abandoned castle, ivy threading its way through the crumbling latticework. Instead, LiveJournal moves forward as an aging pile of code, one day potentially rendered obsolete by something newer and better and remembered by those who lost countless hours to rigging it up in the first place.

The passage I quoted above is the conclusion to a wonderful essay about the rise and fall of LiveJournal and the creation of Dreamwidth. This is a bit narcissistic, but it always makes me happy to see people writing substantial articles about things that actually mean something to me personally. LiveJournal used to be a big deal to a lot of people, but I often get the impression that not even that many professional Media Studies scholars know what it was or how it nourished and enabled online cultures that have since become mainstream. Then again, the platform died almost ten years ago, and perhaps there are always going to cultural black holes like LiveJournal that exert a huge gravitational influence even though most people can’t see or measure them.

Gaslighting, Therapy, and Fanfic

Gaslighting is the process of attempting to convince someone that their accurate perception of a situation is incorrect; and, moreover, that there is something wrong with them personally for having perceived the situation in this way.

Based on what I’ve seen, a lot of the disagreement over this definition has to do with how many people need to be involved in order to a situation to be “gaslighting” and not “abusive behavior” or simply “being an asshole.” For example, if Person A says “There’s a strange smell coming from the kitchen” and Person B says “No there’s not, you’re just crazy,” then that’s probably not gaslighting. I would contend, however, that there is so much atmospheric discrimination against certain groups of people that even an isolated “you’re just overreacting” contributes to a broader system of systematic gaslighting. As a result of this atmospheric gaslighting, some people from marginalized positions can feel that there’s something inherently wrong with their point of view, especially during times of stress and vulnerability.

So there’s this thing that many American therapists do, which is to try to gently lead a patient to arriving at a revelation on their own, generally over the course of several sessions. I understand the theory behind this, but I still hate it.

I’m going to give a personal example. I was in a toxic relationship for more than a year when I was in college. I feel as though I’ve been conditioned to claim partial responsibility and say something like “the abuse went both ways,” but that wasn’t really what was going on. Essentially, the boy I was dating would be a disgusting assclown until I snapped and reacted, at which everything that was wrong with the relationship would be my fault because I got upset. I had never been in that sort of unhealthy relationship with anyone before, and I otherwise got along with most people really well, so I had no idea what was going on. I therefore went to a therapist and told her, in so many words, that I was “forcing” my boyfriend to abuse me verbally and physically, and that I needed her to help me figure out what it was about me that compelled him to hurt me.

If a scared teenager came to me and said this, my first response would be, in no uncertain terms, “Honey, you need to get out of there, because no one should be assaulting you for any reason. We can talk about this for as long as you want later, but you are in real danger and right now you need to get out.” What my therapist – and then another therapist – and then another therapist – said to me, however, was “Well, what do you think is wrong with you? Why do you think he hits you and calls you a dumb cunt?”

Even if this sort of thing isn’t technically gaslighting, it still feeds into the pervasive social narrative that teenage girls are crazy and irrational and deserve whatever happens to them if they don’t follow all of the contradictory “rules” about dating and relationships. Between one thing and another, I had never found a safe space where I could talk to other people my age about real relationships without being judged or losing face, which is why I didn’t immediately jump to the obvious conclusion that the reason why a boy would want to physically strike anyone is a conversation that needs to happen between him and his therapist.

Around this time I got on LiveJournal and discovered fic. What this meant is that suddenly I was exposed to all sorts of models of romantic and sexual relationships, and this was when I started to understand what was going on in my life. It’s not so much that the fic I was reading was explicitly like “this is what a healthy relationship looks like” or “this is what abuse looks like,” because Lord knows the BDSM Sailor Moon and Trigun femslash I was reading did not get even remotely close to that sort of thing. Rather, what I got from reading and discussing and eventually writing fic was that women’s stories are valid, and young women’s stories are valid, and queer women’s stories are valid, and nonbinary female-presenting people’s stories are valid. No matter how transgressive the fic or meta you wrote may have been, it was no less worthy of being taken seriously because you specifically wrote it.

That sense of “being valid” and “being taken seriously” is, in my opinion, an effective antidote to gaslighting. I don’t think fandom is or ever was inherently an activist space or even a safe space, but I do think it’s a place where a lot of female and transgender and nonbinary people first get the sense that it’s okay for them to exist in the world as themselves, no matter how weird or strange or non-normative or queer they might be.

I think this is one of the main reasons why the purity culture of anti-fandom bothers me so much. If people are only supposed to write “pure” relationships – or even, to take this a step farther, if they’re supposed to be so pre-enlightened about social justice that they need to tag everything they write with all applicable content warnings – then that’s tantamount to being told that they need to police themselves at all times in fandom, just as in real life. In addition, because the rules about “safe shipping” are so arbitrary and contradictory, this feels very much like the same sort of “Well, what do you think is wrong with you?” nonsense I got in therapy as a teenager (and then later, when I tried therapy again at several points as an adult).

If we can call fandom a safe space, and if we can think of fandom as an activist space, I think that’s because it’s a space where the voices of people who are so often silenced, marginalized, and discounted in the real world are allowed free expression. In this sense, a sentiment such as “don’t like, don’t read” can be a powerful and almost politically transformative expression of tolerance and empathy.

By the way, I get that not all therapists are incompetent jerks. Many of them are, though, and finding one of the good ones (who also happens to be a good fit for any given client) is not just a difficult and time-consuming process but also a community effort in many cases. I don’t want to suggest that fanfic is an alternative to therapy… but it sure is a hell of a lot cheaper.

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.

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.

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.