The Role of Dōjinshi in Comic Fanzine Discourse

I’m looking forward to presenting at “Histories & Futures of Comics Communities,” the first academic symposium held in conjunction with the Toronto Comic Arts Festival. Here’s the abstract for my presentation…

In December 2021, a conversation concerning the definition of the term “zine” unfolded on Twitter. This conversation arose from anxieties surrounding the recent rise of fandom zines that, while organized by amateur editors and limited in distribution, are nevertheless professionally printed and highly selective. Many comic artists lamented what they perceive as a betrayal of the DIY ethos of North American zine culture, while others have used quote tweets as a platform to remind their followers that anyone can make a zine.  

Surprisingly absent from this conversation is an examination of the largely separate zine cultures that have developed in parallel at comic festivals and anime conventions. Many exhibitors at local indie comic festivals continue to produce artistic but relatively low-budget personal zines. Meanwhile, exhibitors in the artist alleys of anime conventions have gravitated toward professional production methods for fanzines and associated merchandise, often taking advantage of the services of manufacturers based in East Asia.

I argue that contemporary North American anime fanzine culture has its roots in Japanese dōjinshi, which are typically created by aspiring and early-career creative professionals and tend to be manufactured by specialty presses that guarantee a high level of production quality. Dōjinshi-style fanzines spread to North America during the early 2010s via anime conventions hosted in cities on the western seaboard, particularly Los Angeles, Seattle, and Vancouver. While tracing this transcultural development, I will reflect critically on the tension between DIY zine counterculture and big-budget fanzines and address how neoliberal values have affected public conversations on amateur artistic production.

. . . . . . . . . .

The “Comics Communities” event takes place on June 17, the Friday before the TCAF. You can find the schedule (here). The main exhibit floor of the TCAF is completely free and open to the public, but registration for the academic symposium is limited and already completely sold out. Which is very exciting! The symposium organizer is a fellow contributor at Women Write About Comics, and I hope to be able to publish my paper there soon so that it’s accessible to anyone who’s interested.

The Capra Demon Is for the Gays

While waiting for more news about the Breath of the Wild sequel, I started playing Dark Souls on my Nintendo Switch. I’m not into character customization, so my Chosen Undead is the basic male character. I named him Tulip. I am very bad at this game, and Tulip has been having a rough time of it. Yesterday evening, for example, Tulip fell down some stairs and died.

Tulip is currently spending a lot of time with someone called the Capra Demon. The Capra Demon infamously functions as a gatekeeper who blocks the player’s access to the majority of the game. It’s impossible to beat him without knowing exactly what you’re doing or getting help from real-life friends, and the game makes getting help difficult for reasons that are complicated to explain. Everything about this game is complicated to explain, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I leave it at “it’s just very hard to beat this boss.”

The Capra Demon exudes Pyramid Head energy in that he’s extremely fit, shirtless, and carrying two heavy meat-cleaver swords in such a way that his shoulders are pulled back, his chest is thrust forward, and the muscles of his arms are bulging. I made a stupid pastel-colored sketch of him and put it on Twitter, and I immediately lost five followers. I lost five more overnight.

When I say that I hate Pride Month – and sometimes I do hate Pride Month, kind of a lot – what I mean is that I hate the commodification of queer identity, and I hate how this commodification necessitates the sanitization of queer sexuality. Everyone is happy to see cute Disney animals dancing with hearts and rainbows, but nobody actually wants to see gay people being gay. And the Capra Demon is just about as gay as gay can be, which I think is charming and delightful.

I know the history of Pride Month, and I know why it’s important. Still, I wish people were able to accept difference not because it’s fun or attractive, but because… I don’t know, because it’s the right thing to do? Because we’re not animals? Because we’re capable of moral reasoning and extraordinary flexibility concerning what we’re able to accommodate into our worldview? And I just don’t feel that corporate rainbow merch and police-sponsored city pride parades are really helping people outside the community understand that being gay isn’t like Christmas, meaning that it isn’t a “special” thing that we collectively tolerate because it only happens once a year.

Like, being gay is being thirteen years old and playing Dark Souls because your friends are playing it, and then you get to this one boss, and you don’t know what’s going on but there’s just something about him, and the next thing you know you have your pants down and a wad of tissues in your hands, and then when you go to school the next day, maybe the way you talk about this video game character is a little weird, and your friends would never say that they’re homophobic, because of course they aren’t, but there’s just something about you that they don’t like, so they stop talking to you. You’ll make other friends as you find your community, but now you’ll have to live with the anxiety that there’s an element of who you are that a lot of people are always going to understand as being bad and wrong. Just like the Capra Demon is bad and wrong… but don’t his legs look fantastic in that cute little skirt?

I don’t really have a thing for the Capra Demon myself, to be honest, but as soon as I saw him I knew what was up. The Pride Month version of “this is for the gays” has become whatever sweet and wholesome child character is trending from whatever sweet and wholesome children’s cartoon is popular at the moment, but I don’t think that’s an accurate reflection of the reality of queer identity and sexuality. The Capra Demon is for the gays.

Keep Making “Bad” Art

This is a copy and paste of (this post on Tumblr) in its entirety:

I think everyone should make dumb ugly zines and bad music and write shitty books with weird premises and publish them for pay what you will online. I think people should write plays that are only ever intended to be performed with their friends in their living rooms. I think people who like ttrpgs should explore bizarre itch.io games and new systems that have no affiliation whatsoever with any major publishing house. If youre lucky enough to have a cool local community radio station nearby you should listen to that and what people close to you have to say and what they’re creating that has no focus on being nationally appealing. I just think creation should be more joyful and local both in a geographic sense and a personal and social sense and unconcerned with whether or not it will be commercially viable or slick or even good beyond your own pride in it. And I think it’s good to seek out art that exists for its own sake or to appeal to the community it was created within.

Also relevant is (this tweet) that reads: “The key to making ‘better’ art is to keep making ‘bad’ art shamelessly and consistently.”

I linked to this tweet in (my recent post) about all the bad art that goes into the creation of halfway decent art, but I’ve been thinking about the larger implications. This is a bit of a story, so bear with me.

The other day, a scholar I admire gave me an opportunity to write a short review of an academic essay collection I’ve been looking forward to ever since I learned about the project two years ago. I’m thrilled to hear that the book has finally been published, and I replied as quickly as I could to say that I would love to write a review.

The person responded a few days later to let me know that he’d had a copy of the book be sent to me, and he apologized for taking so long to reply. It turns out that he was busy because he was doing something really cool. I went to his account on Twitter to see if he was talking about it, as I wanted to learn more and perhaps retweet a bit of what he and other people were saying. When I checked his account, however, I found that he’d unfollowed me at some point.

I seriously doubt that he unfollowed me because he dislikes me or because I somehow offended him. What I suspect is that he respects my work on artistic subcultures but doesn’t particularly want to see the work of emerging artists on his Twitter feed, and that he simply doesn’t know enough about social media to understand that he can mute people. Which is fair. No harm, no foul.

Unfortunately, I am a delicate flower with delicate feelings, and I ended up spiraling into a vortex of self-doubt that has nothing at all to do with this person. Or rather, it has nothing to do with him specifically and everything to do with the broader culture of what it means to be a serious adult who cares about art. Namely, there’s a certain unspoken consensus regarding what gets to be “art,” and a lot of major cultural currents fall so far outside this consensus that they don’t even register with people who aren’t creators and thus aren’t directly involved in creative communities.

I had a similar moment of vertigo during a recent conversation with a friend who invited me to attend a First Friday gallery event. While we were drinking and waiting for some other friends to show up, we got into a conversation about the effects of social media on artistic production. What my friend essentially argued is that you can’t count something as “art” unless it’s produced by hand and worthy of being sold at a gallery. It’s a stretch to say that digital art is indeed “art,” and it goes without saying that fan art is worthless.

Because I’m so immersed in creative communities of people who produce most of their work digitally and draw fan art because they enjoy it, it was wild to me that someone my own age would have what I consider to be such a conservative perspective. I want to be clear that I’m not friends with assholes; and I think that, if we were having a serious conversation that wasn’t fueled by alcohol procured at a pay-what-you-want shot bar, my friend would have gladly discussed the matter of “art” with more nuance and specific examples drawn from his own personal history as someone who has been involved in the curation of pop-up art galleries at fan conventions. Let’s be real, this dude has probably seen some crazy shit.

But at the same time, I think most of us have to make an active effort to ignore this sort of perspective on art if we’re serious about creating meaningful work. I think most people would agree that “good” art is specific, and probably the vast majority of “specific” art isn’t going to speak to people outside of a specific community. So while the maxim of “create for yourself” has serious limitations, I also think that it’s important to do what you enjoy while not worrying about creating “bad” art.

And as the Tumblr post suggests, it’s fun to seek out super-indie work that wasn’t created to appeal to a large audience. I’m not saying that everyone needs to watch depressing arthouse movies about political refugees and dysfunctional marriages in order to build character. Rather, if you like horror and you like video games, maybe it might be fun to go play some free ten-minute horror video games on Itchio. Maybe you might even be inspired to download some free software and make one of these games yourself. This specific example probably only applies to me, but the point still stands. Once you make the decision not to care about what’s “good art,” it’s much easier to have fun and be creative.

Solidarity with the Etsy Strike

The Etsy Strike isn’t just about the platform increasing its fees for sellers, although that’s a wild move for the company to make after bringing in record profits for two years straight. Rather, it’s about how these fees are structured to hurt small businesses.

In essence, Etsy is forcing independent artists to operate according to the same business model and practices as Amazon. The most egregious instance of this is the platform’s insistence that we offer free tracked shipping.

Shipping costs rose steeply during the past two years. The pandemic also resulted in significant delays, and the new regulations regarding shipping packages to and from the UK haven’t helped. To ensure “customer satisfaction,” Etsy now penalizes sellers who don’t include tracking on every order, even if it’s just a single sticker. In addition, Etsy is aggressive about its policy of burying the listings of sellers who don’t offer free shipping.

What this means is that sellers are expected to absorb the rising costs of shipping. We are encouraged to purchase mailing labels through Etsy, which generally overcharges and also levies additional shipping fees on the seller. To give an example of what this looks like in practice, an artist would be expected to pay about $4 in order to mail a $3 vinyl sticker. This is exponentially worse when it comes to international shipping.

In other words, this protest isn’t about paying a few more dimes to Etsy for storefront rent. Rather, it’s about how Etsy is forcing small businesses to choose between losing money or raising their prices to levels that would substantially decrease sales. Artificially inflated prices also effectively shut out artists and crafters who don’t already have substantial online followings.  

This is only one of many instances of how Etsy’s recent policies and fee structures hurt small businesses and independent artists. The situation is especially upsetting because it doesn’t have to be like this. Although Etsy was never without its flaws, the platform was relatively welcoming to part-time and amateur sellers, and this inclusive environment resulted in record-breaking profits for the company.

Unfortunately, this profit has led Etsy to consider licensing itself as a storefront for large international distributors such as AliExpress and Rakuten, who are already operating on the same scale as Amazon. This is especially unfortunate because Etsy forbids independent sellers from reselling professionally manufactured goods, thus creating a double standard that puts actual artists at a distinct disadvantage.

Etsy is a major platform for independent creators, especially as competition to table at in-person conventions is at an all-time high and platforms like Gumroad and Kickstarter are quickly losing their viability. Even if you doubt the efficacy of a grassroots strike against a giant multinational corporation, I think it’s still important to stand in solidarity with the artists, crafters, and other creators who are taking a stand against the entire online marketplace becoming like Amazon.

You can learn more about the strike here:
https://etsystrike.org/

You can read and join the strike’s Reddit group here:
https://www.reddit.com/r/EtsyStrike/

You can sign a petition to Etsy here:
https://www.coworker.org/petitions/cancel-the-fee-increase-work-with-sellers-not-against-us

ETA: I want to acknowledge that it is in fact possible to send tracked first-class letters through Pitney Bowes, which has partnered with Etsy to offer tracked shipping directly through the seller interface.

That being said, there are two problems with using the Pitney Bowes letter tracking offered by Etsy, both of which have been well documented, even on Etsy’s own forums. The first is that this option is difficult for many sellers to access, and Etsy Support doesn’t help with troubleshooting. The second is that letters mailed via Pitney Bowes aren’t directly trackable via USPS (or via the Pitney Bowes site) and seem to have a higher instance of becoming lost, thus resulting in sellers having to refund orders.

The Reddit group for Etsy is constantly filled with variations on this second issue. One of the more common of these variations is that tracking never updates beyond “pre-transit,” making it seem as though the order was never mailed. Another common variation is that first-class letters aren’t actually tracked, with the “tracking” being more of a delivery estimate. This means that letters and packages are frequently marked as “delivered” even though they haven’t been. Because sellers are penalized for not responding to complaints within 24 hours, the easiest course of action is to apologize, refund the order, and hope that the buyer doesn’t leave feedback saying that there was a problem.

In addition, the Pitney Bowes labels are larger than regular first-class envelopes. More “professional” sellers therefore use stiff cardboard mailers even for first-class shipping, which is an additional expense, as is a label printer. What I wanted to argue is that sellers shouldn’t be penalized for simply using a stamp and an envelope to mail small paper goods, and that we weren’t penalized for this until very recently.

I understand that this may look different from the perspective of a store with thousands of sales and a smooth workflow, but my sympathies lie with artists and other creators who aren’t operating on a large scale and don’t yet have the experience (or personal connections within the community) to be able to understand things that are easy for more established sellers.

There are a lot of nuances to this argument that I simplified in order to provide an accessible summary for why so many smaller storefronts went on strike. The point I want to emphasize is that there’s no need for Etsy to be so hostile to amateurs.

Digital Literacy and Digital Natives

Danah Boyd, “Literacy: Are Today’s Youth Digital Natives?” from It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (2014)

This is a chapter from a longer book that I found a link to on Tumblr, of all places. I’m not sure I want to read an entire ethnographic study about “networked teens,” but this chapter is illuminating. Every year I find myself working with a surprising number of students who have close to zero digital literacy. For years I’ve been trying to ask my colleagues where this lack of digital literacy comes from, but to no avail.

Thankfully, I finally have an answer to my eternal question of “why don’t they just google it.” Apparently, a lot of Gen Z kids understand the idiomatic usage of the expression “just google it” but don’t know how to access Google. Many children and teenagers only interact with the internet through apps on their phones and tablets, so typing “google.com” into a web browser would never occur to them.

According to the author, the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act bears a lot of the blame. Because they were forced to focus their resources on standardized testing, many schools were no longer able to offer once-a-week special elective classes on subjects like music, computers, home economics, and so on. This means that most American kids who went to public school in the 2000s and 2010s never had an opportunity to sit down in a computer lab with a teacher telling them what a search engine is. On top of that, there’s an ongoing education employment crisis in which very few relatively young people have been able to get jobs in primary or secondary schools, while many of the older teachers have no idea what sites like Google and Wikipedia are and how they work, only that they’re “bad.”

A lot of kids manage to pick up some degree of digital literacy purely by osmosis, but what the author argues is that we shouldn’t take this osmosis for granted. Which is fair, but I still can’t help but wonder how a reasonably intelligent American teenager from a reasonably middle-class background can manage to get all the way through high school and into college and still not know how to use Google.

Anyway, (this is the link) to the PDF of the book chapter if you’re interested.

Words of Wisdom

Ask Polly: How Am I Supposed to Make Friends in My Late 20s?
https://www.thecut.com/2014/08/ask-polly-how-do-i-make-friends-in-my-late-20s.html

So the first thing you have to do is accept that, despite appearances, you’re not all that different than most people your age. The mid- to late-20s are often an apex of friendless desperation. To make matters worse, people feel very self-conscious about their friendlessness at that age, as if everything should’ve fallen into place a long time ago. Considering how often urban, career-focused Americans move around and turn their lives upside down in their 20s, you’d think most of us would know better.

This is a long essay, but every single word is golden.

I’ve been seeing a lot of posts on Tumblr recently (like this one) setting 25 as an arbitrary cut-off age for tolerance of bad behavior. The underlying message seems to be that, by 25 years old, you should have your shit together and shouldn’t be messing around in fandom.

Dangerous and toxic behavior shouldn’t be tolerated or excused at any age, of course. Saying that young people (or neurodiverse people, or differently abled people) have no control over their behavior is basically saying that they’re subhuman animals with no capacity for rational judgment, which is both offensive and untrue. Putting that aside.

The idea that you have to have your shit together by the time you’re 25 years old is wild. I feel like 25 is actually the age when a lot of people’s shit starts to fall apart, honestly.

While you’re in high school and college, you have a structured set of milestones and multiple ready-made groups of peers. For the first few years out of school, you likely still have structured career goals and probably still keep in touch with many of your friends. By the time you hit 25, however, things start to get weird. A lot of your friends are pairing off and getting married, and some are even buying houses and having kids, which can create subtle conflicts and a lot of pressure. You’re probably also, for the first time in your life, surrounded by people who aren’t your age and don’t share your values and life experiences. Your relationship with your family will probably change as you start being expected to pay for expensive things you formerly took for granted (like insurance) while you begin to take on a larger burden of financial and emotional support. After working in entry-level positions for a few years, you might be considering a career change. You might have even been fired. You might make a terrible life decision and apply to grad school. You might move to another city, or to the suburbs, or to a different timezone.

25 is an incredibly awkward age, and it takes time to figure out how to be an emotionally mature and self-sufficient adult. Some people are innately blessed with wisdom (and money, and a supportive family), but most of us need about ten years or so to get our shit together.

Again, I’m not excusing the behavior of anyone who is creepy or hateful online, but to suggest that 25 is the age when you should stop being in fandom and stop trying to make friends with people who share your interests doesn’t make sense. And “discrimination” is a strong word, but I really do feel like giving 25 as a cut-off point is ignoring the realities of a lot of people coming from marginalized communities who just don’t have the time or money or emotional energy to devote to their interests and hobbies (or to social media in general) until they’re a bit older.

I can totally understand why teenagers might not want to interact with older people online, and that’s fair. Still, I think it’s important to emphasize that there’s no deadline for meeting new people, exploring new interests, picking up new skills, and making mistakes as you gradually learn how to communicate and exist in society as an adult.

We Should Improve Society Somewhat

This is my take on the viral Matt Bors comic. Someone actually said this to me about two years ago, and since then their comment has been living in my head rent-free. With this comic I hereby evict that unpleasantness and release it back into the wild.

I started drawing this comic earlier this year and finished it just to get it out of my drafts folder. In the time since I completed the line art, I made a firm decision to limit the negativity I post on social media. To be honest, most of the experiences that have had a major impact on my life during the past several years have been negative, but I’m not sure there’s any real use or meaning in representing them directly through autobiographical essays and comics. Instead, I’ve found much more satisfaction and catharsis in constructing analogies through the medium of fiction.

Also, I think there are a not insignificant number of people in the world (including the “yet you have a job” person) who tend to latch onto negativity to make bad-faith arguments about topics that could benefit from more nuance. Now that I’m at a stage of my life where I’m considering working on more collaborative projects, I’d prefer to keep that sort of interpersonal drama to a minimum. Thankfully, I’m in a better place now than I was when I started drawing this comic, and I hope the person who wrote this in response to one of my essays is in a better place too.

Still – fuck capitalism.

The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy

I’m a fan of the artist who illustrated The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy, and I was looking forward to becoming a fan of the book as well. Since it was originally published in 2015, The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy reads like a nostalgic glimpse into the history of fandom at a critical moment when the widespread rise of accessible social media brought a new generation of female and queer fans into conversation with more established cultures.

I enjoyed most of the book until the final chapter, “Aim to Misbehave: Geek Girl Feminism.”

I consider myself to be a feminist, so I have no problem with the chapter as a whole, but it was extremely frustrating to read dozens of pages about how “feminism is intersectional” and how it’s important “not to let other people make you feel ashamed of your interests” only to encounter, in the last section of the chapter (titled “Everyone’s a Critic and So Can You”), the author’s plainly stated view that geek girls with “problematic” interests (meaning interests that fall outside of the normative straight white middle-class American view of what should and shouldn’t be represented in fiction) are responsible for perpetuating “abuse.”

The author seems to be referring specifically to people who were fans of the Twilight series of young adult paranormal romance novels. I don’t particularly care for the books myself, but it’s odd that the author would claim to support the intelligence, agency, and decision-making abilities of geek girls but then turn around and say that a certain subset of these young women are somehow not “real” geeks if they enjoy something in a way she doesn’t approve of. Part of the author’s “Geek Girl Litany for Feminism” (pictured above) is, in fact, “Buffy, not Bella.” It’s almost as if the author is saying that female characters created by straight men to be “strong female protagonists” are more valid than the more nuanced and complicated representations created and embraced by women, which is absurd. I’m not attempting to defend the Twilight series, but I want to argue that it seems contradictory for the author of The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy to be so dismissive and borderline hateful toward its fans.

(Again, I’m not a superfan of the Twilight series, but the main critical concern I have with the books is not how they handle gender and sexuality, but rather with how they handle race. Different people in different communities have responded to this issue in different ways at different points in time, so this is another topic for another day. In the end, all media has problematic elements, and elements that seem “wholesome” now may turn out to be extremely “problematic” as time passes and the culture shifts.)

If I remember correctly, in the early 2010s, female Twilight fans were coming under vocal public attack from the men who used to dominate fan conventions and didn’t like it that a bunch of young women were now “invading” their spaces. This anger rose to a fever pitch when the San Diego Comic-Con, which was long considered to be the premier comic industry convention in the United States, was forced to institute a lottery for tickets. The men who had attended this con every year, including a number of high-profile comic creators, were furious that their opportunity for professional networking and career advancement was being by jeopardized by the sudden rise in attendance from girls who loved movies and books and comics but weren’t “real fans” because they were “amateurs” and passionate about “the wrong thing.” Saying that young women don’t belong in geek-oriented communities is clearly a misogynistic act, and the pervasiveness of this conversation in 2015 makes it even stranger for the author of to echo it uncritically and unironically.

The author apparently used to work with The Mary Sue, so perhaps it’s the case that she was simply following the party line of an online magazine that had, even then, started to publish editorials castigating female fans of certain characters in Star Wars and other geek media. I have to admit that I have even less of an emotional investment in Star Wars than I do in Twilight, but it was disturbing to watch as The Mary Sue took the helm of the crusade for moral purity in fandom that ended up leading to widespread instances of terrible online bullying targeted at young women, often young women in marginalized positions.

To give a personal example of what this editorial policy meant in practice, this is the response I received to a pitch about a popular webcomic that had become a major focal point of queer communities on Tumblr.

What the editor is essentially saying is that survivors of sexual abuse should not write about sexual abuse for the purpose of addressing the issue of sexual abuse. In other words, survivors of sexual abuse need to be silent about their experiences and the circumstances that surrounded these experiences, or their work will risk being seen as “problematic” by self-identified feminists.

This is clearly not a healthy attitude, and it has led to a number of upsetting cases of queer, female, BIPOC, and disabled creators being harassed for telling stories that are true to their experiences but don’t meet the rigorous standards of the fandom purity police. Some of these creators, such as N.K. Jemisin and Roxane Gay, survived and thrived. Many other promising creators, who were perhaps a bit younger or a bit less established when their careers started to take off along with platforms like Twitter and Goodreads in the mid-to-late 2010s, were silenced.

In many ways, The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy is a snapshot of fandom culture in 2015, and most of it is indeed positive and empowering. Unfortunately, however, it concludes with the seeds of the mentality that grew into what would become known as “anti-fandom” in another two or three years after its publication. Using the terminology of social justice to violently attack and silence young women (and queer people of all genders) is not feminism, and it’s disappointing to see the author end her book about creating more inclusive spaces by advocating for a discursive tool meant to keep the “wrong” type of people out of a community that can only be “positive” and “empowering” as long as it doesn’t allow for the sort of diversity that falls outside of normative straight white middle-class American prejudices regarding what sort of stories are morally acceptable.

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.

Wizard Karen

Who Did J.K. Rowling Become?
https://www.vulture.com/amp/article/who-did-j-k-rowling-become.html

Rowling had never been a particularly controversial figure. Her books sold hundreds of millions of copies, they inspired films that brought in billions of dollars, and she used the money she made to save children from orphanages. In 2012, she gave enough to charity and paid enough in taxes to knock herself off the Forbes billionaires list. In 2020, she was tweeting links to a store that sold pins that said F*CK YOUR PRONOUNS.

Read another way, though, the latest turn in Rowling’s story looks perhaps less perplexing than inevitable. It is the culmination of a two-decade power struggle for ownership of her fictional world — the right to say what Harry Potter means. The Harry Potter books describe a stark moral universe: Their heroes fight on behalf of all that is good to defeat the forces of absolute evil. Though the struggle may be lonely and hard, right ultimately beats wrong. For fans, when it came to the matter of trans rights, the message of Harry Potter was clear. For Rowling, this was no less the case.

“She absolutely believes that she is right, that she’s on a mission, and that history will eventually bear her out,” Anelli [the administrator of a prominent Harry Potter fansite] told me. “She thinks she’s doing good work right now.”

Yikes.

I started seeing posts attacking Rowling on Tumblr in early 2018, but none of them actually explained why people were so angry with her. When I tried asking what was going on, I’d get vague answers along the lines of “she liked the tweet of a bad person a few years ago and then said it was a mistake.” 2018 was a year of people on the internet becoming extraordinarily upset about space wizards, so I brushed the accusations against Rowling into the same category as assertions that fictional characters in Voltron and Steven Universe and Star Wars were “abusive.”

I assumed that Rowling, who is active on Twitter, had probably made a few tweets about British politics or politicians that didn’t make sense to young Americans and left it at that.

Wow was I wrong about this. I was so wrong.

This became embarrassingly obvious when Rowling made her stance on transgender rights clear toward the end of 2020 in a way that was so public and performative that it was picked up by mainstream news outlets, but plenty of signs were indeed there beforehand. The article I linked to above is quite lengthy and does an excellent job of explaining exactly what’s been going on, and I appreciate that it provides the context for this discussion in a way that isn’t centered on American culture and politics.