The Internet Conspiracy Machine

About a month ago, a post that felt weird to me started circulating within my small circle of Tumblr mutuals. To make a long story short, there was a smart post by a popular Tumblr artist that someone had reblogged with an inflammatory addition. The inflammatory addition was from 2018, so I was curious why it had started circulating again in December 2020.

I asked my mutuals if they were reblogging the post because something specific had happened recently, but they couldn’t give me any background. It seemed that the reblog was nothing more than clickbait making the rounds while riding on the back of the original post. Tumblr being Tumblr, this happens all the time.

But this reblogged addition still felt strange to me. The user who created the reblog had deactivated their account, so I searched for their username to try to figure out who they are. I wanted to figure out if the inflammatory addition was referring to something specific or whether it was just someone venting on Tumblr – which, again, is fair. I honestly didn’t expect to find anything, but I was working on an academic essay on the general topic of the original post and thought it might be interesting to follow up on this lead.

What I found was that the inflammatory addition had originated in 2018 and spread within a circle of blogs dedicated to video games whose users openly identified as male. All of these blogs were only briefly active and hadn’t been updated since 2018. Their reblogs alternated between memes, game release announcements, and incendiary “social justice” posts.

I’m not sure how to explain the particular flavor of circa-2018 “social justice” posts on Tumblr, save to say that they are totalizing, polarizing, and extremely aggressive to an absurd degree. In aggregate, these posts engender a sense that there is an elite group of enlightened people who all share the same position and values, and who must foster their anger in order to stand against their enemies, who are presumed to be an equally monolithic group. Let me be clear that these posts are not about any specific real-world issues or political groups, but more along the lines of general ideological programming spread through discourse surrounding fictional characters and entertainment media. Such posts have nothing to do with critical readings or cultural critique, but instead take the form of brief and easily digestible “this thing is bad” slogans with jingoistic “people who don’t agree are also bad” insinuations.

In any case, what I found regarding the circle of video game blogs on Tumblr seemed suspicious, so I tried to figure out who these users were and where they’d gone. (I was no longer doing research for my essay, by the way; now I was just morbidly curious.) Tumblr has an optional function that allows users to crosspost to Twitter, so I ended up tracking down a few of these blogs via reposts on Twitter, where I ran across a surprising number of deactivated accounts. Between one thing and another – and this was a very deep rabbit hole, so I’m afraid I didn’t document my process as well as I could have – I ended up on Parler, a social media platform for the sort of alt-right people who tend to get kicked off Twitter.

Along with 8kun, Parler is one of the main seeds of the QAnon material that makes its way to Facebook and YouTube, and the conversations I saw on the site were completely divorced from consensus reality. There’s an excellent article about this on The Atlantic (here); but, to summarize, “the QAnon conspiracy” holds that the American government is rotten to its core, and even conservative politicians are almost literal comic book villains. Donald Trump, as someone coming from outside these evil political circles, is only person that “real” Americans can rely on, and he must therefore be defended from Democrats and Republicans alike.

At the time I encountered Parler in mid-December 2020, it was filled with people talking about contesting the election results, by force if necessary. Many of the hashtags, like #HoldTheLine, were military in tone, and people were sharing state-specific resources for obtaining firearms. There were a lot of links to videos associated with the Dorr Brothers, who oversee various regional organizations devoted to “no compromise” “Second Amendment rights.” (NPR has a limited-run podcast about this, if you’re curious.) There was also an extraordinary deal of antisemitism, with coded references ranging from “global capitalists” to “lizard people.”

I did not stay there long. I got super creeped out, to be honest.

The worst thing was that, between all the “Take Back America” rhetoric, links to QAnon videos on YouTube, and announcements for the Facebook Live events of reactionary political groups, people were sharing memes and joke posts about video games… and a lot of them were really good. To my shame, that’s why I stayed on the site for as long as I did, even after it had become painfully clear what I was looking at.

The appeal of QAnon conspiracies is that they speak to the marginalized in their own language, whether that language is video game memes, “traditional feminist” slogans, or decontextualized Bible verses. These conspiracies provide both an “it’s not your fault” justification for why individuals don’t succeed in neoliberal capitalism and a concrete path of action that elevates a normal person sitting at a computer to the status of a righteous crusader.

This sort of messaging is designed to appeal to anyone who feels as if they’re under attack from forces they don’t understand, which is perhaps why it has appealed so strongly to Donald Trump himself. Once I started picking up on QAnon codewords and hashtags, some of Trump’s more bizarre tweets from 2020 (such as “Nothing can stop what is coming”) started to make much more sense.

When Trump posted a video telling the rioters who stormed the Capitol building on January 6 that they’re “special” and that he loves them, this also made sense to me. Trump seemed to genuinely believe, as the rioters did, that they were on the righteous side of a holy war to protect the rights of the marginalized and prevent the fall of civilization at the hands of a nebulous and unspeakable evil.

Given my actual research interests, which have very little to do with American politics, you can probably guess that this whole thing started with Legend of Zelda. There may be some people reading this essay who might feel tempted to jump to the conclusion that the Zelda series is to blame for fostering an apocalyptic mindset because [insert racist generalization about Japanese people here]. I’m not saying that the Zelda games – or gaming culture and video games in general – aren’t without their problems, but please don’t let that be your take-away point.

I’m also not suggesting that the people on Tumblr who reblogged a post I found upsetting are ignorant. After all, most people on the platform are fully aware of how misinformation spreads, and we rely on a carefully curated grassroots social vetting system that serves as something of a Geiger counter to make sure we’re not getting close to anything radioactive. We’re all doing the best we can, and a few isolated posts from malicious actors aren’t going to hurt anyone.

Rather, what has struck me about this whole mess is how the tendency toward authoritarian thinking transcends political lines. I can’t say whether the Tumblr blogs that were active in spreading inflammatory “social justice” posts in 2018 were real people who ended up gravitating to the far right or the sock puppets of people already involved with far-right groups, and I don’t know who started circulating their posts again in December.

What I do know is that “us vs. them” essentialism is just as appealing to online communities in favor of progressive social justice as it is to online communities that propagate QAnon theories. Because of the way social media algorithms privilege content that evokes “engagement,” this type of thinking can spread far beyond these communities and become normalized even for people who don’t know anything about Wojak memes or video games or Tumblr or 4chan, whether they’re financially precarious retirees or recent college graduates who have just started to understand that they will never be able to pay off their student loans.

The key word here is “normalization,” because this is what makes extremists feel as though they have broad support for what they’re doing. For every one person who creates a social media account solely for the purpose of telling an artist or showrunner that she should kill herself because her content is “problematic,” or for every one person who showed up to the riot in DC on January 6, there are thousands of people in each of their extended communities who are directly supporting their actions online.

I think that, if both young people and older people could envision an actual future for themselves as valued members of society, then perhaps they wouldn’t be so invested in fantasies about destroying society. I know this makes me sound like a moderate apologist, but I’m not advocating for “compromise” or “seeing both sides.” What I’m trying to say is this: If there are multiple generations of people who are unemployed, underemployed, deeply in debt, and one random accident away from complete financial ruin, of course they’re going to be upset and looking for guidance, especially while they’re stuck at home or trapped in “essential worker” jobs during an ongoing pandemic. This is not a controversial statement to make.

Neoliberal capitalism is irreparably broken. So many people wouldn’t be in such a precarious position if it weren’t. Something needs to happen, because people need to be able to live without feeling as though they have to fight each other to survive.

In the meantime, social media corporations need to change their algorithms. It’s unnecessary, undesirable, and impossible to destroy the platforms on which authoritarian and apocalyptic discourses are created and disseminated. That being said, these fringe beliefs should not be as accessible, widespread, and normative as they are.

The individual and social formation of identity and ideology that happens online is real, and it has real consequences. I think it’s high time to start taking this seriously.

Social Media Self-Care

During the past few days, I deleted about four hundred posts on Tumblr:

Posts where I reblogged people’s stories, meta, and art with supportive comments and tags, posts of original art and stories and jokes I made for people’s ideas and headcanons, and reblogs of people’s creative projects and commission info.

I applied the same level of attention to weeding my blog on Tumblr that I’ve devoted to developing my island on Animal Crossing, and it was incredibly cathartic.

I don’t need to see a snapshot of myself going out of my way to be kind and friendly to someone who thought it would be a good idea to send me a message asking if they could commission me to drink an entire bottle of NyQuil and pass out with a plastic trash bag over my head, for example.

I was never friends with any of these creeps. It never happened.

For me, the purpose of Tumblr is and always has been to create a small garden of things that make me happy. I scroll through my own Tumblr when I’m stuck in a waiting room, or during some impossibly long train or car ride, or when I’m exhausted but can’t sleep. “Interesting but relaxing” is the vibe I’m going for, and I think I’ve gone a decent job, for the most part. After all, I’m fairly skilled at catering to myself as an audience of one.

I’ve never been comfortable with the expectation to behave like a brand; and, regardless, activity on Tumblr has declined rapidly during the past month or so. I’ve gone from getting well over a thousand notes a day at the beginning of the year to getting less than a hundred a day during the past three weeks, and it only takes me about fifteen minutes to scroll through an entire day’s feed – if I even bother, which I mostly don’t.

What has ultimately come out of my social experience of fandom on Tumblr are lowkey but lasting friendships with professional artists and writers who have mostly moved to Twitter. I understand the value of online anonymity, but I think there are benefits to allowing yourself to be a real and fully-rounded person online. There are also benefits to being able to mute people, as well as being able to choose never to see certain tags and keywords. I’m not saying that Twitter is a good platform, because it’s objectively awful, but it’s become a much easier place to manage the social aspects of fandom.

To be honest, it’s because of Twitter that I no longer think of “fandom” as a discrete area of my life that needs to be contained and concealed as a shameful waste of time. I am a writer who writes reviews and critical essays about media. Sometimes I write fiction and draw comics. This is who I am, and I’ve found it much easier to interact with people when I don’t have to hide aspects of myself. I’ve also found it much easier to pick up the sort of high-quality freelance assignments that enabled me to quit the soul-crushing job that was making me sick.

Maybe it took me a little longer than other people to find my voice and surround myself with a supportive community, but I’m happy I’m here now.

A Golden Mean

I’m currently working with someone on a comic commission, and it’s going great. We’ve developed something of a friendship, and over the course of our exchange we traded a few paragraphs about Ganondorf’s nose as it relates to his character design. I had a few years of research and observation to contribute, and it was fun putting everything in down in writing. I realized, however, that I can never, ever post any of this on Tumblr.

I first joined Tumblr because I used to love reading the essays people posted there, but the general culture of the site has shifted so far to “performatively woke” that it’s become really scary to say anything that might be taken out of context.

For example, this morning I reblogged an interesting post about how Lord of the Rings isn’t really “heroic fantasy” in the way that many people criticize it as being. The context, for me, is my continual process of working through the narrative structure of the games in the Zelda series. What I’m afraid of, however, is that someone is going to read my act of reblogging this post as a defense of certain fantasy tropes with unfortunate implications in light of a recent (conversation?) (debate?) (trashcan fire?) about D&D on Twitter. A normal person would say, “That’s a crazy thing to think,” but the truth is that I’ve received disturbing hate mail for far more innocuous things.

The Discord interface continues to annoy me, and Twitter is deliberately designed to be awful and upsetting. I never thought I would say this, but I’m spending more time on Reddit these days. People posting there tend toward the pedantic at times, and the site sometimes feels like one of the last bastions of the “well actually” school of comic book guys (who are super annoying in the Zelda fandom, btw); but, for the most part, everyone is relatively sane and hate speech gets moderated out.

A week or two ago I read through an archived thread about how people in multinational marriages tease each other, and it was very sweet and wholesome. “One day I asked my Russian wife why she has to put dill on everything,” one post read, “and she got annoyed and asked me if I wanted a side of guns with my big American hamburger. I love her so much.” I’m in a line of work where almost everyone I know is in a mixed race/nationality/culture relationship, as I am myself, and it was nice to see people making silly jokes about how they resolve the tensions that can sometimes rise from different expectations, communication styles, and life experiences.

I can’t even begin to imagine what a thread like this would look like on Tumblr. There would be assumptions and accusations all over the place, and it wouldn’t be pretty.

The problem with Reddit, however, is that the person who is super helpfully walking you through the latest Zelda clone you’re playing might also be a moderator on one of the boards dedicated to political action meant to keep the American South gerrymandered in order to facilitate voter suppression. I offer this as an example because it happened to me a few months ago. About three years ago I received a similar shock when I realized that one of the stars of a Neko Atsume subreddit was heavily involved in an ultranationalist group operating out of r/The_Donald.

What I’m trying to say is that it sure would be nice to belong to a large and active online community that occupies a comfortable middle ground between xenophobic white supremacy and sending death threats in the name of social justice.

How Instagram and Tumblr Work

I’m a big fan of Gal Shir’s texture brushes, and yesterday I read his self-published book View Insights, which is about how to grow a following on social media, specifically Instagram.

The first 2/3 of the book contains good general life advice, such as:

(1) Do what you actually enjoy doing
(2) It’s not necessary to quit your day job
(3) Divide your ideas into “big projects” and “small projects”
(4) Learn how to balance and prioritize your projects

The book also contains a few pieces of advice that are predicated on assumptions that strike me as somewhat “masculinist,” such as the idea that no one cares about pictures of your face or your personal life – which is not even remotely true in the online spaces I have experience with, where people tend to care just as much about the artist as they do the art. So your mileage may vary, I guess.

What I found interesting about this book was the last third, in which the author digs deep into how Instagram’s algorithms work and why they work in the ways they do. Tumblr is an altogether different platform that works in different ways for different reasons, but Shir corroborates some of the tendencies I’ve noticed on Tumblr, such as:

(1) The “value” of a post is algorithmically ranked within a limited number of tags
(2) This “value” is partially dependent on the “user rank” of the poster
(3) This “value” is also determined by interaction from other “high-rank” users
(4) The level of interaction needs to be significant, like commenting or sharing (and not simply liking)
(5) This “high-rank” interaction needs to happen within the first few hours of posting

A while ago I speculated (here) about what I called “anchor blogs” on Tumblr, which are blogs that may not necessarily post original content but still manage to be influential. I was thinking about how actual person-to-person social networks tend to function within fandom; but, if this algorithmically based “user rank” theory is true, this would help explain the patterns I noticed relating to how any given post spreads.

Tumblr has passed its prime, so I’m not sure if any of this still applies; but, according to this theory, this is what you would have needed to do in order to become a “high-rank” user:

(1) Interact with a lot of content
(2) At a significant level
(3) Within hours of it being posted
(4) And follow a lot of people
(5) While having “high-rank” followers

What all of this boils down to is that these two platforms reward “engagement,” which is essentially extroverted behavior combined with the condition of being on your phone all the time. Shir says that, when he first started trying to build a following on Instagram, he would devote three hours a day to interacting with other posts and people on the platform during peak hours. Unlike Instagram (and Facebook), I’m almost 100% certain that Tumblr doesn’t apply a secondary “positivity rating” to posts and comments, but actually being genuinely friendly probably doesn’t hurt.

Technologies of Behavior Modification

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff review – we are the pawns
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/feb/02/age-of-surveillance-capitalism-shoshana-zuboff-review

While insisting that their technology is too complex to be legislated, there are companies that have poured billions into lobbying against oversight, and while building empires on publicly funded data and the details of our private lives they have repeatedly rejected established norms of societal responsibility and accountability. And what is crucially different about this new form of exploitation and exceptionalism is that beyond merely strip-mining our intimate inner lives, it seeks to shape, direct and control them. Their operations transpose the total control over production pioneered by industrial capitalism to every aspect of everyday life.

I’m not sure I’m up for reading the actual book, which sounds miserably depressing, but this is an interesting review. Two paragraphs are devoted to a blunt deconstruction of Pokémon Go, which is fair.

Even though most of the people (especially artists) I used to follow on Tumblr have moved to Twitter and Instagram, I still feel a bit weird about engaging with those two platforms. Despite its flaws, I appreciate that Tumblr is relatively chaotic and isn’t making money for anyone. Activity on the site has dropped off since the beginning of the year, and I’ll miss it when it’s gone. Also, as much as Discord annoys me for being exclusive, inaccessible, and difficult to use, I’ve found myself spending more time on art and sketch channels during the past few months.

Meanwhile, AO3 remains the Gold Standard of Internet and continues to be my happy place.

Storytelling Is A Blade

This is a good post:
https://jenroses.tumblr.com/post/189772851336/ive-had-a-number-of-moments-of-shock-and

However, knowing how not to do this sort of garbage accidentally doesn’t fix the problem of the willfully ignorant or bigoted. It doesn’t spare us McCaffrey’s ignorant homophobia or Card’s malignant homophobia and warmongering. It doesn’t save us from Rowling’s transphobia or Dahl’s antisemitism.

But it does make it a little easier to understand how people whose fundamental worldviews are so profoundly warped can nevertheless produce works with characters whose experiences and difficulties resonate with our own. They’re painting a picture. They just aren’t always understanding what they’re painting. Does the camera know what it captures?

The thing these four authors have in common is that they are or were adept and evocative storytellers. But there is nothing inherently benign about storytelling.

Storytelling is a blade. Blades can be used to cut down grain, cut food, or slit a throat. The blade doesn’t have to be perfect to be effective. And sometimes even the blades that are useful to us hurt us. Sometimes the dullest blades hurt the worst when they slip.

This sort of sharp yet accessible mini-essay is why I first came to Tumblr, and I miss seeing posts like this. I used to encounter them much more frequently, but the people I followed who were reblogging them tended to get caught up in the “queer is a slur” and “if you ship the wrong thing you’re a pedophile” discourses of 2018. Activity on Tumblr has declined since then, but I’m still finding interesting people doing interesting things as I scavenge the ruins.

Writers Have to Be Supported to Survive


I’ve recently seen several posts with tens of thousands of notes circulating around Tumblr that are extremely critical of the idea of fanfic writers accepting donations to support their activities. Many of them, such as the one excerpted above, refer to the guidelines of AO3, which are meant to defend the right of the site to exist on the basis that the content it hosts is purely transformative and not intended for profit. The undertone of these posts, however, is a strong pushback against the idea that fanfic writers might aspire to the same levels of professional success and support as other creators in fandom.

I would like to argue that the idea that fan writers deserve to have a choice whether to receive compensation for their work is reasonable, especially since many highly visible fan artists, YouTubers, and Twitch streamers can receive hundreds, thousands, and even tens of thousands of dollars every month through donation sites like Patreon and Ko-fi.

Yes, intellectual property is protected by law and legal precedent, and it’s important to understand fandom history and to respect the ongoing battle AO3 has to fight. And yes, fan writers use copyright-protected names and scenarios. At the same time, fan artists use protected names, scenarios, and images, while YouTubers and streamers use protected sound and video – and sometimes the entirety of the protected work. If the “transformative work” and “added value” and “critical commentary” and “performance” arguments of fair use laws apply to visual artists, video creators, and streamers, why don’t they work for writers?

There are three things going on here.

The first is that AO3 is an independent NPO, not a giant media conglomerate. Even if YouTube is forced to take down certain videos that violate intellectual property laws, YouTube itself is not in danger of being taken offline. AO3 is in a much more precarious situation and therefore has to be extra cautious. This is an issue specific to AO3, however, and it’s not universally applicable to other hosting and sharing sites.

The second is that many media corporations in the United States consider digital images to be ephemeral, meaning that they have a short shelf life in the popular consciousness. Fan art and video streams shared on social media will help to promote a piece of media while it’s still trendy, but they also tend to be quickly consumed and discarded and thus aren’t perceived as being in danger of becoming long-term competition for the original media property. Because it used to be published in the form of physical books and magazines, fanfic was considered to be competition, but this perception has changed, partially due to the support fanfic has received from commercially successful writers like J.K. Rowling and George R.R. Martin.

The third is sexism. This is complicated; but, to make a long story short, fanfic has been treated differently because, unlike illustration and video editing, it is primarily associated with communities of women.

Media industries overwhelmingly dominated by men, such as comics and movies, have always provided ways for younger male fans to enter the industry as professionals. There is a long history of commercial studios actively scouting emerging talent from popular fan artists and amateur video producers, so media corporations have a vested interest in not completely shutting down spaces in which these creators can develop and exhibit their talents. For example, an aspiring comic artist can take his portfolio of X-Men character illustrations to a comics convention to show to an industry representative, and Marvel will hire him if they like his fan art. Because these industries have traditionally been male-dominated, however, the work of women was seen as derivative and embarrassing. A male artist who drew a fan comic would get a job, and a woman who wrote fanfic of the same media property would get a cease and desist letter.

Moreover, women have historically been expected to be the keepers of public morality. For instance, a male professor who writes mediocre novels about cheating on his wife with underage female students can easily be promoted to the head of a prestigious creative writing program, while a woman in any profession can be in danger of losing her job for writing any novel at all. Because of this, many female writers have had to hide their creative careers in a way that male artists and video producers have not. Even though these prejudices are fading, many fic writers are still very serious about protecting their real names and identities. At the same time, many fan artists and other creators use their fanwork to promote themselves while using their professional names – and, thanks to social media, we can now see that not all of these creators are male.

Because a new generation of female and nonbinary fan artists, animators, video producers, and streamers are now comfortable pursuing their creative careers while using their professional names and accepting donations while they establish themselves, it only makes sense that fan writers would want to do the same thing. After all, if people like Rebecca Sugar and Noelle Stevenson can go from posting popular fan art and fan comics on Tumblr to becoming mainstream showrunners, why couldn’t a female or nonbinary fanfic writer go on to become an actual scriptwriter for the next, say, Star Wars or Pokémon movie? If illustrators, comic artists, YouTubers, and Twitch streamers can receive donations to support their fanwork while they establish their careers, what arbitrary rule says that writers can’t do the same thing while still respecting AO3’s legal guidelines?

There is an entire generation of younger writers who have come into fandom with ambitions of professional success and no understanding of why they should feel pressured to separate their fandom identity from their professional identity or why they shouldn’t have the choice to receive the same support as creators working in other mediums. Instead of mocking younger writers for not knowing fandom history – and instead of shaming older writers for resisting outdated prejudices – I think it’s worth it to support them and hopefully change the culture.

Most people don’t want donations and only think of fandom as a fun escapist hobby, but writers should still be able to access the same choices as other creatives. I’ve already shared my thoughts about the issues I personally have with Patreon, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want other people to explore that option for themselves. After all, writers have to be supported for fanfic to survive.

I feel like I could write an entire book about this – and I have! I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the publisher can stick to the May 2020 release date, because I’d really like to talk more about fandom and cultural change, as well as what the achievements of artists might suggest about the future of fiction.

Decontextualizing Harry Potter

From the beginning of the 2016 American election cycle, a popular way to signal social belonging on Tumblr has been to reblog angry posts about J.K. Rowling like the one above.

J.K. Rowling isn’t perfect. No human being on this earth is perfect, and Rowling is no exception. Rowling’s books are far from perfect, and I have to admit that I personally don’t particularly like or enjoy them. It’s important to critique popular media, and it’s reasonable to hold public figures to basic standards of decency. Still, I’m concerned about posts like this, which promote decontextualization as a performance of progressive political ideology.

It’s difficult to make generalizations, so I want to refer to the post above to demonstrate what I mean.

To begin with, most of these posts about the Harry Potter books are coming from an American perspective that doesn’t attempt to address the cultural context of the original books. For example, while Americans tend to think everything is about race, British people tend to be much more sensitive about class. Class intersects with race, because of course it does, but class is widely perceived to be the basic framework of social hierarchy in the United Kingdom, and it’s coded in complicated ways that may be unfamiliar to many Americans.

What’s going on with the “house elves” in the Harry Potter books is that the author is taking the well-known figure of the brownie from Celtic folklore and using it to make a statement about class, specifically the class of people whose labor has always enabled the “great institutions” of the United Kingdom to function properly. Without bothering to talk to them or to listen to what they have to say, Hermione sees this class of people as “slaves,” which the house elves themselves find extremely insulting.

This plot line is resolved as Hermione gradually learns that it’s offensive and counterproductive to claim to speak for an entire group of people whom she believes, as an outsider to that group, to be marginalized. Meanwhile, actual members of the group take up activist work based on their own experiences and achieve real change; but, in the end, the “group” is a collection of diverse individuals who have different opinions regarding their “oppression,” and many of them subtly or actively challenge the notion that a privileged group should be allowed to ahistorically define their entire existence as “oppressed.”

Ron tells Hermione that she’s crazy for caring and that nothing should change because this is the way things have always been, but his traditionalism and intellectual laziness are shown to be just as misguided as Hermione’s naive activism. Harry (who is still a teenager, after all) admits that he can see both sides but doesn’t care about the discourse. Nevertheless, when someone close to him is clearly a victim of discrimination, Harry will stand up to protect them, even if he doesn’t like that person.

I don’t agree with the position that ideology doesn’t matter as long as you treat other people decently, which I think is simplistic and reductive, but I can understand how it works as a thematic element in a series of books written for ten-year-olds.

Rowling herself doesn’t entirely agree with this position either, and she addresses the very real and practical problems of the “I see people as individuals” mentality directly in her work for adult readers, including the book she wrote immediately after concluding the Harry Potter series, The Casual Vacancy. The people writing and reblogging posts like the one above don’t acknowledge this, however, perhaps because their only encounter with contemporary British fiction is a series of kid’s books about teenage wizards written during a decade in which a lot of the conversations we’re currently having about social justice were still evolving.

I should add that these books only got as popular as they did because of their cinematic adaptations. These movies are gorgeous and artistically well-crafted, but they tend to flatten and even erase the nuances of the novels. The posts on Tumblr that are critical of Rowling don’t hold the directors and producers accountable for failing to emphasize the progressive themes of the books in order to achieve a broader commercial appeal, nor do they challenge the systems of privilege that have limited the contributions of minority voices to the cinema industry. Instead, these posts pin all faults of the franchise, both real and imagined, on an individual female writer who was very poor for most of her life (thus her various explorations of the theme of class) while decontextualizing what she wrote decades ago in fantasy novels meant for young readers.

Again, it’s vitally important to think critically about popular culture, and I strongly believe that public figures should be held to basic standards of decency. I am all for critiquing the Harry Potter series and Rowling’s creative decisions. That being said, the trend of posts on Tumblr that hold one progressive female artist or activist responsible for everything that’s wrong in the world by means of aggressive decontextualizations of what she’s actually doing and saying are frightening, especially since they’re starting to recirculate within left-leaning spaces in advance of another election cycle.

In the end, who does it benefit to say that books about respecting difference and resisting authoritarian violence even when not everyone on your side is perfect are “problematic” and are only read by bad and stupid people? Moreover, given that the Harry Potter series is the primary gateway a lot of younger kids have into enjoying books, who does it benefit to say that reading itself is something that’s only done by bad and stupid people?

What Makes Something “Interesting”

I’ve been using the Tumblr Top tool to look at some of the blogs I follow in an attempt to figure out what makes a post interesting to other people. As far as I can tell, viral posts have three things in common. They are…

(1) Specific
(2) Relatable
(3) Nonjudgmental

To give an example, “Nintendo please let us pet the dogs in BotW2!!” is (1) about a specific feature in a specific game, (2) relatable because people like petting dogs, and (3) nonjudgmental because Nintendo isn’t being overtly criticized for not including the feature in the first game.

To give another example, this bizarrely popular post of mine is (1) about a super-niche manga, (2) understandable to anyone who’s familiar with internet culture, but (3) not mocking the manga, furries, or the sort of people who are REALLY into horses.

I have many more examples that fit this model, but I’m not sure what to do with this knowledge. It’s a worthwhile observation, but I have no desire to artificially engineer viral shitposts on Tumblr. If I have ever done or said anything interesting in my life, it has been entirely by accident.

Vetting and Sharing on Social Media

I used to think that, the more followers a blog has, the more popular its posts will be. It only stands to reason, right? I also had this idea that artists have a lot of influence on Tumblr partially because of how the platform privileges images but mainly because of their relatively high follower counts.

I’ve since figured out that what’s actually going on is that a post needs to be “vetted” in order to spread. In other words, a post needs to be reblogged by someone whose taste other people trust. Or, well, “taste” is a strong word, as is “trust.” What I mean is that people are far more likely to reblog a post if someone they’re following reblogs it, even if they’ve already seen it posted on the original blog. If that “someone else” is associated with the same fandom as the post, then it will spread farther. In this case, “fandom” can be very broad; like, say, the “intellectual shitpost” fandom.

At this point I have far more followers than my small blog on Tumblr deserves, but it’s not my follower count alone that enables any given one of my posts to spread. By itself, one of my fandom-related posts might get forty to ninety notes, and it’s only when someone associated with the fandom reblogs it that it will get more than a hundred.

I’ve seen this happen on posts I’ve reblogged as well. Sometimes I’ll reblog something from a few months (or even years) ago, and it will go from having about twenty to thirty notes to having several hundred almost overnight.

Once a post reaches a certain level of critical mass, the number of notes alone will indicate that it’s already been vetted, and it will also be picked up by the site’s promotional algorithms. Before it can go viral, however, a post first needs to have community support.

I feel like the same applies to Twitter – albeit to a lesser extent, as Twitter’s septic open wound of an algorithm aggressively prioritizes a handful of tweets while hiding most of the rest, even if you turn off the “best tweets first” feature. As far as I can tell, Twitter doesn’t have the same “recommended for you” algorithm that Tumblr has, in which the posts liked by your mutuals – and the posts posted by people followed by your mutuals – will sometimes appear at the top of your feed. Rather, Twitter has figured out what types of tweets are most likely to provoke a reaction (generally negative) from you and show those tweets to you over and over until you either like them, hide them, or blacklist whatever keyword or hashtag they’re using.

Regardless, I’ve noticed that there’s still something of an influencer culture on Twitter, whereby people are more likely to respond to or retweet something if it’s already been vetted by someone they trust, even if they already follow the OP.

Meanwhile, Instagram is testing a feature that will hide the number of likes a post has received specifically for the purpose of protecting the mental health of their users, and I for one could not be more relieved.