Well, it’s happened again. Steven Universe writer/storyboarder Lauren Zuke has been hounded off of social media by supposed fans upset that their preferred ship isn’t the one being teased at the moment. This isn’t the first time a creative force has been forced to flee Twitter after being hit with absurd and uncalled-for harassment – just last month it was Leslie Jones. It’s not even the first time the Steven Universe fandom has done this sort of thing (discussions of suicide within, and then discussed again below), which is absurd given that Steven Universe is about as friendly and inclusive a show as it possible to make without going full saccharine.
I’m not interested in getting into the substance of the complaints made against these people, or any number of others who have endured the same sort of treatment, both because it’s not particularly relevant to their critics’ shitty behavior, and because it serves as a distraction from the main topic: whether it stems from right-wing reactionism or left-wing kookery, too many people within fandom think that they’re within their rights to act like complete shitbirds to other people, and it seems to be getting worse.
A lot of ink has been spilled over this problem, generally identifying the problem as some new attitude of entitlement and usually involving a lot of veiled fist-shaking about those danged millennials being on the lawn. I don’t think that’s correct, because there is absolutely nothing new about the kinds of behaviors which lead to these incidents. What is new, however, is the platform it’s carried on. Tumblr and Twitter alike are terrible platforms for fandom activity, and as a result of fandom largely moving onto them, these kind of behaviors are amplified until they become the dominant form of fandom activity. Hashtag fandom is great for throwing bombs and starting witch hunts; it’s not so great for actually having a conversation.
Twitter and Tumblr are, essentially, the same service wrapped up in two different GUIs. Though there are differences between them, most notably Twitter’s 140 character limit, the basic design of both websites is fundamentally the same: All user content is searchable by hashtags, which renders all postings essentially public, while users can cultivate a feed of other users who they have, for whatever reason, decided to ‘follow’. When you post to either service, your content may be read by friends and acquaintances, who have your account on their feed, or by strangers who found your content through hash-tag searches. Thus, even though both websites have different user bases, they function in more or less the same way, structurally. As such, for the purposes of this article I’ll be conflating the two services under the term ‘Hashtag Fandom’. Any time I use that term, I intend for my comments to apply to both. Hashtag fandom has been the dominant form of fandom discourse for about five years now, and so far its track record…isn’t great.
Part 01: In The Beginning
Before we talk about where fandom is currently, it makes sense to talk about where it’s come from. Bear in mind, this is not intended to be a comprehensive history of fandom platforms, and will by necessity be a simplification. I’m not qualified to write a comprehensive history, and it would be a subject better served by a dissertation than a blogpost. Some parts are inevitably going to be left off (like Usenet; I don’t fucking know how Usenet works, so I’m ignoring it altogether!) while the chronological way I’m setting this out would suggest that, say, private fandom websites had gone away entirely, which simply isn’t true. This is also not covering in-person fandom (that is to say, the convention scene) at all.
All that being said, I would categorize fandom into four rough periods:
- Fanzines. Technically speaking, what we think of as modern fandom got its start with Sherlock Holmes in the late 1800s. However, it wasn’t until fanzines started circulating in the early 20th Century that it really took off. Fanzines were homemade magazines published by fans, for fans, about fannish stuff. Sometimes they were just collections of letters by fans about a fandom topic, while others contained fanart and fanfiction. They had a pretty small circulation, and you needed to be pretty invested to get involved, even as a passive reader, but in the time before the internet they were the primary way that geographically distant fandom members corresponded. Now that we have the internet, though, they’ve kind of lost their raison d’etre, and only a handful are still published at all. If you want a blast from the past, check out this archive, or one of the many others available online.
- Private websites. This is where I came in. Fandom migrated pretty quickly onto the internet as it started to become mainstream, and started establishing websites dedicated to fandom interests. A variety of free webhosts were of course happy to help – I can’t even remember how many shitty GeoCities and Angelfire websites I started as a young bloke – but there were also plenty of people out there with the money and time to run proper sites. If you wanted your work published on one of these websites, you would submit it to the site’s owner, who would consider it for publication. These isolated islands of fandom were connected to one another by ‘webrings‘, arrangements in which large groups of independent websites organized around a single theme would link to one another in exchange for links back. These websites frequently, although not always, had a forum on which users could freely discuss the site’s content, among other topics, but a posting to the forum was by far of a lower status than getting something published to the front page. If you want to peer into a time capsule for this period, have a look at Icybrian’s RPG Page, a site I spent many an hour on in my youth. The website itself has been defunct since 2010, but Brian helpfully left it up as an archive of a simpler time.
- Open communities. Probably the biggest name in this period (and certainly the one I’m most familiar with) is Livejournal, which was founded in 1999. Livejournal and its contemporaries were blogging sites by design, which were essentially coopted by fandom to serve as an open forum. Communities on Livejournal were public blogs, owned and controlled by the user who created them, but to which anyone who joined the community could post at will. Although there were some Communities which moderated membership, most large-scale fandom communities were open for anyone to join (although if you abused your posting privileges, they could easily be revoked). Unlike private websites, you generally didn’t need to submit your work to the community’s owner to have it posted on your behalf; if you had something to say or a piece of fanart or fanfiction to share, you simply posted it yourself. Open communities still exist and operate, although many are a shell of their former selves now. If you want to walk down memory lane, head over to Livejournal and do a search for the fandom of your choice. Odds are good you’ll find something to peruse.
- Hashtag Fandom. On websites like tumblr or twitter, posts are categorized with hashtags, and publically searchable. These hashtags are the closest things there are to organized communities, but are really a single massive stream of everything people are saying about a specific topic. There are no community rules, and if there were there wouldn’t be anyone to enforce them.
Again, this is a simplification of a much more complex history, and is also pretty focused on the parts of online fandom I’m familiar with. I think it does, however, chart a fairly reasonable approximation of the arc of fandom communication over the past several decades.
Part 02: The Tragedy of the Commons
One trend you’ll notice in the above history is a gradual trend away from centralized control of fandom expression, and towards a democratization of fandom spaces. In the fanzine days, you were dependent on the creator of the ‘zine to publish your work; fandom came with an editorial statement. Private websites functioned in much the same way, but with the added presence of open forums, which were driven by user content rather than administrator action. The site administrator performed the same curatorial function as the ‘zine editor did, but now fans could discuss freely with one another without having to go through that curator. Open communities, by contrast, had no curator at all. Posting was almost entirely user-driven, with administrators serving a…well, an administrative role. They kept the community running and enforced its guidelines, but in a post-hoc manner, deleting and freezing offensive or inappropriate content after the fact. And now, finally, we have hashtag fandom, where posting is completely user-driven, and there is no central authority at all. With each step, users became more powerful, and the gatekeepers of fandom diminished until they vanished altogether.
Here in AmeriCanada we tend to think of increased democracy as an unalloyed good. We like democracy, so more democracy must be better, right? Well, not necessarily. Just ask the state of California, where until recently an excess of direct democracy (in the form of ballot initiatives) completely crippled the state’s ability to raise revenue and put it on the shitlist of gay rights groups everywhere. Or just ask most of the United Kingdom. There’s a reason why no country runs on pure direct democracy; democracy is good, but there need to be checks and balances, or you wind up with mob rule.
Hashtag Fandom has completely thrown those checks and balances out. Whereas in all previous incarnations of fandom there were explicit rules which had to be followed, and authority figures to enforce them, now not only are there no rules, the very idea of rules is absurd, since there’s nobody to set them down or enforce them. The only time anybody even tries is when some people ask smutty fanartists to ‘keep the tag clean’ by tagging their adult-oriented material by an alternate name, but this just showcases the futility of trying to police Hashtag Fandom, because it doesn’t fucking work. At all. Because the only force behind it is social pressure, and some people just don’t care.
Now, let’s not be fandom neoclassicists here. Let’s not pretend that we used to live in Arcadia.
There has been drama in fandom for as long as there has been fandom to have drama in, and Fandom Wank stands as a monument to the fact that open fandom communities were not immune to them. But the difference was, there were adults in the room. When people started fighting, there were moderators and administrators to step in and break it up. The kinds of harassment campaigns force drive writers and actors off of social media, or that drive a fanartist to attempt suicide, had a lot more trouble getting off the ground when they were liable to get the perpetrators banned from the community. And while tempers have always flared when shipping et al is up for discussion, the tone wasn’t as consistently extreme because everyone knew that there were rules that needed to be followed.
These authority figures were rarely perfect, of course, and when they were the bad actor you were in for a really bad time. But they served an important purpose: simply by existing, they served as a moderating force on the conversation. Hashtag fandom is the Wild West without any sheriff.
Part 03: A Series of Tubes
It’s not just the rules of engagement that have changed, though; it’s the entire way conversations are structured.
Back in the halcyon days of 2008, Nickelodeon cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender was ending. It was a great show, but I have never in my life borne witness to a fandom that was as much of an utter shitshow as that one. It was riven right down the middle by a particularly nasty shipwar: on one side, proponents of the two main characters, Aang and Katara. On the other side, people who preferred to see Katara hook up with angsty anti-villain Zuko, who introduced himself into her life by threatening to burn her favorite grandmother to death. Not to rehash old fandom beef, but in a nutshell, Zuko/Katara was, if not actually more popular, then certainly more popular with the fandom’s creative set. The amount of fanart and fanfiction produced for it completely eclipsed every other pairing. At the same time, however, it was clear to anyone with eyes to see that the pairing simply wasn’t going to happen in canon. From practically minute one, it was incredibly obvious that Aang/Katara was going to be the endgame pairing. The show didn’t even try to be subtle about it. Many Zuko/Katara fans accepted this and enjoyed the ship for its own merits. However, an extremely obnoxious and vocal minority of the ship’s fanbase were convinced that Zuko/Katara was destined to be, and jumped on every piece of cherry-picked evidence to support this increasingly tortured theory. Some of them even kept the faith right until the last episode came out, publishing half-hour videos explaining why they were justified in believing there would be a sudden reversal mere hours before their hopes were crushed. Which is kind of impressive, but not in a good way.
I have never seen as much shade thrown as was thrown between those two sides. I myself didn’t care that much, but fell nominally into the Aang/Katara camp, and on more than one occasion found myself called a pedophile and sexist for it. On the flip-side, there was a lot of smugness and accusations of idiocy being thrown back across the trench lines, especially after the final episode vindicated the Aang/Katara fans. The two sides couldn’t seem to coexist at all.
And yet, for all the conflict, the main Avatar fandom community was relatively peaceful. There were flareup every now and then, of course, but relative to how much shit was being thrown around, it wasn’t much at all. And the reason for this was simple: both ship fandoms had their own communities to go to in order to talk shit about the other side. The general community was practically a DMZ, and the moderators did their best to keep it that way.
Here’s the important thing about this fact: because the conversation was segmented into different communities, you didn’t actually need to deal with the other side at all unless you wanted to. Looking at the Zuko/Katara communities made me angry, but I had the option to simply…not. Which is what I did, for the most part (although I’m not going to claim I was 100% a mature coolguy about it). Unless you were looking for a fight, you didn’t need to expose yourself to 90% of fandom drama. You could just hang out with your community of like-minded people and talk shit about how terrible those other guys were.
Obviously, this had some downsides, but it was a net benefit. It let people curate their own experiences by involving themselves only in communities relevant to their interests, and kept the main fandom communities clean of shipwar nonsense. Well, clean relative to how they would be if they were the only destination for discussing the series, anyway.
Hashtag fandom has thrown this out. Instead of individual communities which each provide its own unique stream of discourse, creating a metaphorical network of waterways for fans to navigate as they so choose, we instead have one big puke funnel with everybody in it. Check the tag for your fandom or ship, and you’ll find every single thought any yahoo felt like sharing about it. There’s no real way for like-minded people to isolate themselves from people they have the Ship War Blood Hatred for while still engaging with the fandom as a whole.
Let’s put this another way. Suppose you were commander of a space station, and tasked with keeping the peace, but half the station’s inhabitants are Romulan, and the other half are Klingon. Which approach do you think would make more sense: keep the Klingon and the Romulan communities separated, and carefully police all common areas where they might interact? Or mix all of them together in one big group, and then not police their interactions at all? Well, if you picked option B, good for you, that one’s a metaphor for Hashtag Fandom where there is no station commander, so I guess you’re already halfway to Risa and entirely unconcerned about the shitshow of violence you’re leaving behind you.
Perhaps even more problematic, however, is the way that by removing the structure that shaped fandom conversation, Hashtag Fandom has created a space in which the loudest voices are always the dominant ones. Shout loud enough, get your post reblogged enough times, and it doesn’t matter whether your point makes sense or not; there’s no real mechanism to overcome someone who is loud but wrong except to be louder than them, and the voice of reason is not typically the best screamer in the room. Especially given that there’s reason to think that postings which make us angry are simply better at getting shared, because when you’re angry you want to find someone to be angry with. Hashtag fandom hugely advantages bomb-throwers: people who delight in running in, tossing out an outrageous claim that blows up any semblance of a civil conversation, and then sitting back while everybody else shits themselves with rage. A true bomb thrower doesn’t care about intellectual honesty, or whether they’re any truth to what they say. In their minds, the simple fact that they’ve pissed people off validates their opinion, and is an invitation to toss more bombs.
These people have always been around, but Hashtag Fandom couldn’t be a better platform for them if you designed it specifically for that purpose. They’re able to be louder and angrier than everyone else in the room, so they control much more of the conversation than they should.
Part 04: Cutting Entitlements
We hear a lot about fandom entitlement these days. Every time one of these incidents happens, you can expect half a dozen thinkpieces from various blogs, blaming the problem on entitled fans, who think that they are owed the exact story they wanted. Entitled fans, haranguing creators and twitter and other social media to change their stories to fit their exact wishes. Entitled fans, unable to grasp that their favorite creators are real human beings whose feelings matter as well.
These thinkpieces are not wrong, as such. Fan entitlement is a problem! But it’s not a new problem. Remember how I mentioned above that Sherlock Holmes started what we would consider fandom? Well, when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle decided it was time to end the series by killing off Sherlock, those fans refused to have it. One furious letter-writing campaign later, Doyle bowed to fan pressure and resurrected Holmes. More recently, when Hal Jordan went off the deep end in the mid-90s and murdered all the other Green Lanterns and then died, a bunch of his fans, calling themselves (I love this) Hal’s Emerald Advancement Team (HEAT) started up a campaign to have him returned to his rightful place as Earth’s Green Lantern. And remember that whole Avatar fandom shitshow I talked about above? Well, you better believe that there were some Zuko/Katara fans who took the series ending very personally, and spoke about the series finale in terms that would be very familiar to anyone who saw the internet lose their mind about Mass Effect 3. Fan entitlement has always been there. The difference is that our creators are now sharing the same space with us.
In the fanzine days, you didn’t get much interaction between creator and fan on fandom’s terms. There wasn’t an insulating wall between them or anything, but I don’t know of any instances of a creator writing in to his or her own fanzine. When the internet came, many authors established their own private websites, and sometimes even had forums to go with them, but these were not fandom spaces. In the Livejournal days, plenty of creators had their own journals (including Young Wizards author Diane Duane and Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin), but they didn’t use them to post to fandom communities. If you wanted to interact with your favorite author or artist, you had to enter their relatively private space in order to do so.
In the era of Hashtag fandom, however, there’s no difference between a fan posting about their favorite series and that series creator posting about the work they did on it. It all goes into the same tag, and from there into the same puke funnel of fandom discourse. This creates a false sense of equality between creator and consumer, as though the two were on the same level when it comes to determining what the series is and isn’t about, or what should happen next. But that sense of equality is fake, and by encouraging it, hashtag fandom encourages our worst tendencies as fans. In short, the issue isn’t that fans have become more entitled; it’s that by breaking down the barriers between fan and creator, hashtag fandom has empowered entitled fans to take their complaints right into what ought to be the creator’s private space.
Part 05: Where Do We Go From Here?
Okay, you say. You’ve convinced me. Hashtag fandom sucks hard. So what can I do about it?
Unfortunately, the answer is ‘not a lot’.
The problems with hashtag fandom are inherent to the platforms it’s hosted on. Until fandom moves away from Twitter, Tumblr, and similar websites, hashtag fandom isn’t going to go away. And there’s really no way to force that process. I was sort of hopeful that Yahoo’s acquisition of Tumblr would result in them driving the platform so far into the ground that fandom would abandon it for something else, much like the decline of Livejournal as a fandom platform followed from Russian company SUP Media buying Livejournal up and doing everything in their power to alienate its fandom users. And Yahoo’s certainly done their best on that part! But I’ve come to the sobering realization that if fandom did ever abandon Tumblr, it would probably just move over to Twitter, which has the exact same problems.
And, unfortunately, it seems likely to me that the hashtag bell can’t be unrung. One reason why fandom has taken to hashtag-driven platforms so strongly despite their obvious problems is probably that they’re easy. Fanzines, private websites, and public communities all required a fair amount of volunteer work to keep running. All that unpaid labour was done out of love, but it was labour nonetheless, and it’s hard to see how fandom will move back to a more managed model when it’s so much easier to just slap a hashtag on a post and call it a day.
We could always cut ourselves off from the world and eke out a monk-like existence by refusing to touch hashtag platforms, but…nah. I like fandom because I like interacting with other fans, and like it or not, Tumblr and Twitter are where the fans are. So, since we’re stuck with hashtag fandom, at least for the time being, let’s at least consider what we can do to make it more tolerable. Here are a few suggestions:
- Don’t engage with the outrage machine. Tumblr and Twitter are full of people who want you to get angry at somebody else. Most of them are really good at dressing up their complaints to make them look morally justified. Don’t fall for it. If you see someone organizing a witch hunt, don’t participate, even if it really does seem like the person deserves it.
- Leave the creators alone. Follow their blogs, maybe even repost their content, but maintain a respectful distance. Don’t send them your thoughts on the latest episode, especially if you’re mad about it, and yes I mean this even if you really think they deserve it. The people who hounded Lauren Zuke off of Twitter thought they were in the right. If you follow the links in the article about Zamii, you’ll find that one of the people involved in that debacle was still claiming to be in the right ages after it happened! We are not beings of pure rationality, possessed of perfect knowledge, who always know exactly where we stand ethically. Sometimes we think we’re in the right, and we’re super in the wrong. So don’t take the chance. Don’t participate in harassment of any creator. Or fan. Or anybody, for that matter!
- Remember that your post can become bigger than you. If a post gets shared enough times, it can take on a life of its own, well divorced from the author’s original intentions. So post responsibly. Don’t describe other users in inflammatory terms, don’t make accusations you can’t back up, and generally try to be excellent to each other. Remember that your posts might be read by people who have no clue about the original context, and consider what those people might think about what you said. This point becomes especially important the more followers you have.
- If someone on your feed repeatedly ignores the above points, cut them out of your life. Even if you really like their art. That person is toxic, and the only means we have of combating toxic people on hashtag platforms is to starve the beast by denying them clicks and reblogs. Don’t call them out in a big angry public post, just quietly remove them from your fandom life. Maybe send them a message telling them why, if you think you know them well enough that they deserve it.
It’s not much, but it’s something. If we systematically refuse to engage with toxic activity, and encourage those around us to do the same, maybe we can influence hashtag fandom in a positive direction. At the very least, it’ll make our own fandom experiences a bit less stressful.