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.
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.
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?
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…
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.
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.
The problem is that Disney has the brand recognition and the deep pockets to freeze out anyone else who tries.
Any other time anyone does anything with fairy tales (or princesses, or talking cars, or talking fish, or pirates, or…) Disney can make their own version and sell it at a loss, driving their competitors out of business. They have more money than God. They can afford to lose money on one theme park, let alone one toyline or one movie.
The problem with Disney is that it’s a monopoly. And like any other monopoly, Disney can freeze out anyone who tries to compete with them. I think if you trustbusted Disney – left them with their animation studio and maybe their theme park division, but took away Pixar and Marvel and ESPN and all their television outlets and all the other crap they own – they’d have a harder time undercutting everyone else. You’d see more stuff based on folklore and fairy tales, and it’d have more than a snowball’s chance in hell of being successful.
One of the reasons I love Tumblr is because it gives me so many windows into subcultures I had no idea existed. Members of these subcultures often have unique insider information about things that most people probably take for granted, and it’s interesting to view the world from these perspectives.
I take everything I read on Tumblr with a grain of salt, but it’s still fascinating to learn about, for instance, how groups of people devoted to doll collecting see Disney as using its enormous amounts of capital to monopolize and then destroy the market for toys targeted at young girls. Whether Disney is actually doing this (as they most certainly are) is immaterial; what’s worth paying attention to is that resistance is coming from a subculture that most people would probably assume would be supportive of Disney.
I routinely encounter posts like this that help me remember that the culture I’m familiar with is just the tip of the iceberg. Once you start looking deeper into subcultures, you begin to realize that there are powerful currents underneath the water that shape global mediascapes in ways that aren’t immediately recognizable.
Going onto Tumblr sometimes feels like climbing into a submarine and exploring by the narrow beam of a headlight, and there are any number of odd and unexpected things swimming around below the surface.
One month after controversial adult-content purge, far-right pages are thriving on Tumblr
This subtle far-right creep echoes a 2017 study by the Institute of Strategic Dialogue which warned that the far-right had become extremely adapt at using internet platforms to normalize their ideas. “The weaponisation of internet culture is deliberately used by extreme-right influencers to bring about attitude and behavioural change, in particular among the younger generations,” the report warned.
This sort of normalization of white nationalist talking points was what tech companies were supposedly shocked by – and promised to stop – in the wake of Charlottesville, as they provided an easy way of “red-pilling,” or radicalizing and recruiting, new members, most of whom are young, white, disaffected men.
White Supremacist Propaganda
The intent is to convince racist white people (who don’t think of themselves as racist, but who clearly are, and clearly feel angry when their entitlement isn’t immediately gratified) that the hate group in question is just ‘misunderstood’ and is really about pride and celebrating your own culture, etc.
The intent is that once someone falls for that bait and hook, they can play up on their underlying resentment and entitlement. If you already believe that you should be able to celebrate being white, and they can bring you from that belief to the belief that people of color are preventing you from your right to have pride in that, then they can foster anger against people of color. From there, any time there is a collective societal reaction of disgust towards the hate group or towards the notion of white pride, the recruited whites can be relied upon to feel victimized by society collectively.
Both of these essays accurately reflect my social media experience with mainstream white supremacy and white supremacist messaging, which is worded and coded in such a way that it seems plausible that a decent, reasonable person would agree with it if they didn’t know where it was coming from. “Loving your heritage doesn’t mean being a racist” is representative of this type of entry-level messaging, which is intended to target people who feel socially alienated and are searching for positivity and affirmation.
At the beginning of 2019, I expressed concern about people on Twitter getting upset over chunky otters and Marie Kondo. I understood why people were getting upset, of course, and there were some important discussions on the subject of Marie Kondo in particular. Still, there needs to be a serious and public conversation about covert white supremacist messaging, and I’m not sure that we took advantage of the opportunity to have it.
To give an example of what I mean by “covert white supremacist messaging,” back in 2016 or so I followed a few people who occasionally reblogged lovely nature photography. Tumblr’s algorithm then began to recommend all manner of weird gender essentialist and white supremacist posts. What I was eventually able to figure out is that the nature photography was of scenery in Germany specifically, and that the blogs posting it had tagged these posts as “featherwood,” a term that may have once been associated with female prison gangs but has since spread to people who have embraced a Quiverfull-style ideology concerning race and gender (namely, that it is the duty of white Christian women to have as many white Christian children as possible). As soon as I blocked the word “featherwood” on Tumblr, the problem was mostly fixed. I also had to unfollow three or four people who reblogged these posts, often alongside Steven Universe photosets and radical leftist “are the cishets okay” memes.
What I’m trying to demonstrate with this example is that there are in fact codewords and ideological patterns that are strong indicators of veiled white supremacist leanings. Because it’s entirely possible for intelligent people in progressive communities to spread alt-right memes without understanding what they are, I wish the huge public conversations about race and representation happening on social media would touch on this sort of thing.
Another example is the expression “the coastal elites,” which has been a white supremacist codeword for “the Jewish global conspiracy” since I was in college (and long before that, I’m sure). When people associated with the American left wing started talking about “coastal elites” during the lead-up and aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, that was a huge red flag for me. There were people on Tumblr reblogging all sorts of authoritarian craziness in the name of social justice, and I had no idea how to tell them that the ideological purity they were advocating was using the language of hardcore white supremacy. When I tried to explain my understanding of what was going on to a few people close to me, the response was inevitably something along the lines of “well you’re a racist for not understanding that Hillary is just as evil as Trump.”
It’s 2019, and you’d think we’d have figured this mess out by now, but that’s not the case. To give yet another example, I’ve recently seen a few of my friends and professional contacts on Twitter retweet things coming from people who advocate #humanscience and #humanbiodiversity. What the people who use these hashtags are specifically referring to is “race science” (here’s an archived webcapture of a widely circulated “human biodiversity reading list” for reference), whose main guiding principle seems to be the “scientifically proven” assertion that melanin is a chemical that causes violent and antisocial behavior. The message that these people (many of whom are writers whose work has been published in respected tech journals) are advocating is that, if we accept that science tells us that climate change is real and that we need to vaccinate our children, then we must also accept it when science tells us [insert whatever racist bullshit is currently trending here].
During the past month or so, when I’ve messaged a few people whom I know personally and have been friends with for years with a gentle note of caution, the responses have been along the lines of “So you’re an antivaxxer then” or “I wouldn’t have pegged you for a climate change denier.” It’s like, “Hang on there friend, I was just trying to give you a heads-up that the person you’ve been retweeting constantly for the past week is a secret white supremacist!” Except it’s not even a secret, because all the codewords are right there in their Twitter profiles.
What I’m trying to explain with these examples is that some people are indeed “secret racists,” and the reason that most decent people don’t see them for what they are is because most of us (thankfully) don’t have much exposure to white supremacist vocabulary or alt-right online spaces. The only reason I know a tiny fraction of what’s going on is because I grew up in the rural Deep South (where people tend to feel more comfortable with being openly racist) and now spend time on gaming forums where MRA-style misogyny can often serve as a gateway to more radical belief systems. My first instinct is to block and avoid this sort of thing when I encounter it, so I’m not an expert, and I still experience the occasional unpleasant surprise when I realize that something I thought was silly and harmless is, in fact, deeply disturbing. (I actually just reblogged something that turned out to be propaganda for the Church of Scientology, and I was mortified when someone told me what it was.)
This is why I wish the conversations people engage in on Twitter and other social media platforms about covert white supremacist messaging would focus more on identifying and explaining codewords and exposing and calling out creepy individuals. If we had more of a collective awareness that this sort of hidden messaging exists and is carefully designed to spread throughout mainstream social networks, it might be easier to identify and quarantine it. After all, the reason that cult-like belief systems are so fringe is because most people find them uncomfortable and strange and don’t want anything to do with them, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t real danger in inadvertently spreading this type of messaging.