The Backlash Against Tidying Up with Marie Kondo

If you’ve watched the Netflix show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, then you can confirm that its appeal is a combination of three things: One, judging other people’s lives, two, psychoanalyzing other people’s damage, and three, Marie Kondo’s facial expressions. The first two are standard reality television, but the third is really special. I don’t say this ironically; Marie Kondo is an interesting person, and it’s a pleasure to watch her interact with people and move through space.

As far as I can tell, the reaction to the show on Twitter has been humorously nihilistic, like, “How do I throw myself away” and “The joke’s on you, Marie Kondo – I no longer know how to experience joy.” In print media, the running joke about The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up has been that none of us can escape the awful capitalist hell we’ve trapped ourselves in, and not even Marie Kondo can save us now. (See, for example, this cartoon that ran two years ago in The New Yorker.) Also, some people have gotten passionate about not wanting to throw away their books, and other people have mocked them for their performative intellectualism, and this exchange has become a meme in and of itself.

And then, after two weeks of people having fun with a silly show on Netflix, other people started bringing race into the equation. If you watched the show, you’re racist. If you didn’t watch the show, you’re racist. If you make fun of Marie Kondo, you’re racist. If you respect and appreciate Marie Kondo, you’re racist. If you have no idea who Marie Kondo is but still insist on folding your shirts in a certain way, you’re racist and you don’t even know it.

The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up was originally published in translation in 2014 by Ten Speed Press, a small outfit in California that specializes in “healthy lifestyle” and crafting books. They have a good list of nonfiction and autobio comics as well; and, if you’ve ever seen one of those ridiculous “How to Draw Manga” books in a chain bookstore, they probably published it. The press commissions a lot of translations, and their scope is fairly international. When they put out their translation of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, they gave it the subtitle “The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” not because they were playing to some sort of “Oriental mysticism” but because there is a huge market for books like The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living and The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter and Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. Essentially, people in the United States want to escape the awful capitalist hell we’ve created for ourselves, but we don’t want to give up our perceived standard of living, so we want people in other “developed” countries to tell us what we’re doing wrong and how to fix it.

I won’t deny that racism may play a part in this, because we live in a system of global white supremacy in which racism plays a part in everything, but what the publishing market has done is to group Japan with what I think it’s fair to call “fancy Europe,” which is problematic but not, I think, overtly racist. In the book itself, which is a translation of something originally published in 2010 in Japanese (人生がときめく片づけの魔法), Kondo does indeed talk to her Japanese readers about “ancient Japanese cleaning rituals.” Japanese writers have been doing this before America existed, however, and they will probably continue doing this after America fails. I therefore don’t think it’s fair to make American conceptions of Orientalism the center of a conversation about what’s going on there.

This is what bothers me so much about the application of American configurations of race to who Marie Kondo is and what she’s doing and how her work has been received – America is not the center of this particular transnational cultural phenomenon, and assuming its centrality is not “racist,” exactly, but extremely arrogant. Within the specific context of American conversations about the Netflix show on Twitter, there are so many different voices from so many different people that you would specifically have to go looking for white people being racist. They exist, obviously, but who does it benefit to treat their gross fringe options as the most important voices while ignoring everyone else?

Meanwhile, speaking of Japan-America relations, the nuclear waste from the Manhattan Project is still under St. Louis, and it’s still giving people cancer; and, if you care about such things, it’s still disproportionately affecting African-American communities. Flint, Michigan still doesn’t have clean water, and we’re still imprisoning the children of refugees, and the federal government is still shut down because of a legitimately racist pissing match over a “border wall,” and… I mean, you know, everything. I feel that we’re all constantly under assault during the administration of POTUS45, and the sort of incessant angry buzzing noise generated by endless waves of thinkpiece articles about how some innocuous Netflix show might be covertly racist only makes everyone more exhausted without actually doing anything to help anyone.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t like the “Which One of Your Friends Is A Secret Racist?” game that I’ve seen (white) people play on social media. If the basis of judgment is liking a tweet of a round animal or watching a self-improvement Netflix miniseries on New Year’s Day, then we’re all racists; and, by implication, we’re all just as guilty as POTUS45 in making the world an awful place.

It’s like, then why even do anything, you know? Why even try.

The problem with an insistence on ideological purity is that it denies the existence of allies and punishes people who don’t have the resources to devote to following the minutiae of the social media conversations surrounding whatever cause or movement they’d like to support. This is especially upsetting at the current moment, as trying to help people affected by the administration is not some sort of abstract intellectual game, especially since so many of us are doing our best to stay afloat ourselves.

Post-Tumblr Fandom

On Monday, December 3, Tumblr announced that it would ban all adult content starting on December 17, 2018. This is a result of the demands of its clients, who pay for advertising space on the site, and these demands more than likely have something to do with Tumblr being removed from the Apple App Store.

Along with this announcement, Tumblr implemented an algorithmic image filtering system that is laughably flawed, and people have been posting humorous examples of images that were tagged as “NSFW” by this system, including a screenshot of Super Mario in a bathing suit, Bowser with a Pride Flag background, a drawing of Garfield the cat, a drawing of an alligator in an Aloha shirt, a link to an article about the flaws of this system that uses an image of a desert as its header, and the announcement post itself. For what it’s worth, the drawing of an anime man holding a cartoon pig that I posted about earlier was also flagged (thankfully, I was able to make a successful appeal for this post, which remains completely harmless).

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to appeal posts that have been flagged by the algorithm, as a user can only make an appeal by clicking on a button attached to the original post as it appears on their internal dashboard. If the post is recent, this is mildly annoying; but, if the post is older, the user will have to scroll through hundreds or even thousands of their own posts to find the original, as the appeal button will not appear on a reblog. There is no way to find posts that have been flagged except to scroll through all of them. In addition, since flagged posts no longer appear on internal searches, there is no way to call up a post that the user knows has been flagged. What this means is that Tumblr is going to delete an extraordinary amount of inoffensive and totally safe-for-work content, and there is very little that anyone can do about it.

There has already been a massive migration from Tumblr, and many people have closed their accounts in protest. In my circles of fandom, artists have been announcing a move to Twitter (where most of them have been active for some time), while writers have largely gone silent. I’ve also starting to come across a few conversations concerning a potential split in fandom.

I think this already happened to a certain extent in 2016, when cultural tensions surrounding the American election had a major effect on the radicalization of fandom spaces. Specifically, people who could migrate to Twitter did so, mostly because it was easier to mute people and block tags there. The people who successfully made this transition tended to be artists who were already popular and comfortable with using their real names for the sake of professional advancement. After all, the creative industry expects that artists are going to make fan art, right? Meanwhile, writers don’t seem to have been able to make this transition, or at least not in the same way. I suspect this has to do with their livelihood being more dependent on their privacy. Like, Heaven forbid that a librarian writes gay fanfiction about Harry Potter; they must be some sort of deviant!

I don’t know the full story behind the planning and launch of Pillowfort, but I think it probably had something to do with the frustration of all the people who felt left behind after communities on LiveJournal and Dreamwidth stopped attracting substantial traffic and activity. I personally feel that the platform has incredible potential; but, in its current beta state, it’s ugly and clunky and not particularly active. It had also been temporarily shut down due to security concerns, a planned outage that could not have had worse timing. What I genuinely hope is that Pillowfort replaces Tumblr in the same way that AO3 has become the preferred platform over FFN, a shift that may create an initial division but just might make everyone happier in the long run.

I think the transition from Fanfiction.net to Archive of Our Own is a more useful model for what may happen to the central hub of fandom than the transition from Tumblr to Twitter. The collective migration from FFN to AO3 was essentially a shift from a proverbial pit of (distressingly young) voles to a platform managed by experienced community organizers, while the migration to Twitter has been a shift toward more explicitly stated and concretely realized capitalist value structures. There’s always going to be a need for lawless and mostly unmoderated spaces with no barriers to entry, and there’s always going to be a need for a space where creative people can make the jump from amateur to professional, but I don’t think either of those types of spaces are a good place to host common forms of self-expression that have been essential to fandom communities for decades.

The alternative may indeed be a split into smaller factions that are almost impossible for an outsider to find or access, such as servers on Discord. Although this is almost impossible to document due to the nature of the platform, I can say from personal experience that I’ve seen horrifying things on Discord, both on servers I joined from Tumblr and servers I joined from Reddit. Because they’re private, exclusive, and almost hermetically sealed, communities on Discord are in danger of becoming echo chambers where truly awful things are said and done. In the same way that private chatrooms associated with 4chan facilitated Gamergate, private Discord servers have led to younger fans being mobilized to participate in harassment campaigns targeted at both fan creators and showrunners. On the older end of the spectrum, many refugees from LiveJournal are still active on Dreamwidth, but communities on DW tend to be deliberately esoteric and opaque, a holdover from LiveJournal culture specifically meant to keep these communities hidden from “outsiders.”

Despite the annoyances and petty dramas of Tumblr, I enjoy being active on the site, which has introduced me to amazing people and helped me discover cultures, communities, and perspectives that I never would have been exposed to otherwise. Tumblr’s enthusiastic embrace of fandom and queer sexuality also helped me come to terms with my own identity and express myself creatively, both of which I had been struggling with my entire life. Although obviously – obviously – everyone wants child pornography and pornbots removed from Tumblr, I’m afraid that the ban on NSFW content is going to disproportionately affect LGBTQ+ people, people of color, neurodivergent and differently abled people, and other minorities who found something resembling a safe space within the inclusive and left-leaning social ecosystems on the site.

By using an algorithm to institute a blanket ban on all potentially “adult” content, Tumblr has committed itself to destroying a lot of healthy and creative self-expression, which will be driven underground into potentially dangerous and radicalized spaces. As I wrote last week in my post Censorship in Fandom, I don’t think deleting “problematic” content serves anyone except advertisers who attempt to monetize social media in order to generate revenue. After all, we’ve been through this before, and it wasn’t pleasant for anyone. I’m worried about what will happen to the communities that were dependent on open self-expression, and I hope that fandom, as a collective community, finds a better place to exist online. As for me, I’m going to give Pillowfort another shot.

Bullying on Tumblr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social Media and Character Development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The State of Airbnb in Japan

Nick Kapur has a great thread on Twitter about the controversy (or rather, the catastrophe) concerning Airbnb in Japan. This is something I’ve been following closely as it’s descended into true madness over the course of 2018, and Dr. Kapur gives an excellent summary of what’s happening and why it’s so upsetting. This perfect storm of xenophobia and irresponsible market capitalism is going to impact a lot of people, and it’s well worth taking a minute or two to read the thread all the way through.

https://twitter.com/nick_kapur/status/1004930586954420225

As a grad student friend of mine wrote in response to a Facebook post on the matter, “The big issue that [Kapur] doesn’t mention is that Air BnB has been a lifesaver for foreigners doing research in Japan for less than a year. Almost all Japanese housing contracts are for two years, and most home owners don’t accept foreigners (often being openly racist about their preferences). This leaves students and other researchers with extremely overpriced long-stay hotels, or with share houses that offer a dormlike setting with little privacy, often questionable living spaces, and sometimes a complete unwillingness to communicate with foreigners.”

Tumblr vs. Social Media Algorithms

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

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

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

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

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

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