Essay on Comic Fanzine Discourse

I’m excited that the essay I presented at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival academic symposium, “The Role of Dōjinshi in Comic Fanzine Discourse,” has been posted on Women Write About Comics (here).

Although this piece began as an overview of the culture of comic fanzines in Japan, it gradually evolved into a discussion of how English-language fanzines have been impacted by the intense pressures of a creative market that provides neither stability nor opportunities for emerging artists. Here’s an excerpt:

This level of competition in formerly free-for-all online spaces has resulted in the widespread frustration succinctly expressed by @rogvaettr’s tweet. From the perspective of someone who simply enjoys fandom culture and indie publishing, we’re living in a golden age of comics and illustration. For many aspiring artists and writers, however, these glossy fanzine anthologies are another shot of anxiety onto a battlefield already pierced with arrows.

The tensions always implicit in any creative industry have been exacerbated by prolonged economic recession and steeply rising costs of living in urban areas, the combination of which has forced freelancers to take on more work while also maintaining an active social media presence. To many people, the intrusion of professional-level competition into ostensibly amateur fandom spaces feels like a betrayal of the sense of community based on affective attachment that formerly provided a relief from professional pressures and anxieties.

This essay was an enormous undertaking that spanned almost half a year, and I want to acknowledge the support of my brilliant editor Kat Overland. Writing about online discourse is difficult, and Kat helped me make good decisions while also directing me to number of useful resources on indie comics. I should mention that Kat is a lot of fun to follow on social media, and you can find them on Twitter (here). I’m also highly indebted to Masha Zhdanova’s essay “A Brief History of Webcomics: 2010 to Now,” which is an interesting and excellent discussion of webcomics in a transcultural context. You can read the essay on WWAC (here) and follow Masha on Twitter (here). Last but not least, I want to thank Anna Peppard (on Twitter here), who organized the TCAF Academic Symposium and encouraged me to share my initial draft with an amazing group of Comics Studies scholars.

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.

ETA: My essay is now available on Women Write About Comics (here).

#PitMad for Social Media Introverts

I participated in the #PitMad event on Twitter yesterday. You can read more about it (here), but basically, the goal is to pitch your ready-to-submit novel in a single tweet. If an agent or publisher is interested, they will like the tweet, signalling that you should feel free to get in touch with them. Many agency representatives will also comment directly on the pitch tweet, asking you to send a set of materials to an email address.

In theory, this is an interesting way to get yourself and your work out there, especially if you don’t live on the East Coast and run outside of traditional publishing circles.

In practice, Twitter is still Twitter, and #PitMad is a popularity contest.

Tweets generally gain traction because people “like” them (by which I mean that people click on the heart button), which causes them to appear on other people’s timelines, as well as on the feed for any hashtags you’ve used. Once a tweet accumulates a certain number of likes, that’s when people start retweeting and commenting.

Because the rules of #PitMad say that you can’t like a pitch tweet if you’re not an agent or publisher, however, the tweet needs to receive other types of engagement in order to appear on the tag and on people’s timelines.

For people who aren’t on the Horrible Birdsite, I should probably clarify that Twitter doesn’t show users a chronological feed of content, and that its algorithm doesn’t display the tweets of the people you follow unless it deems them noteworthy. Someone’s tweet can be noteworthy either because you’ve made an effort to go onto their individual page and “like” everything they post, or because the tweet has already gotten enough attention from other sources. Otherwise, the tweet is invisible, and it most certainly doesn’t appear on the tags.

So, in order for #PitMad to work, you have to make plans in advance for people to comment on and retweet your pitch tweet. These markers of engagement will render your tweet visible and will also push it far enough up the tag for agents and publishers to actually see it.

If you have friends in the literary community, or just friends in general, you’re going to need to convince enough of them to shill for you that your tweet passes the minimum threshold of algorithmic engagement to start getting attention organically.

And there is no shame in this! This is what friends and colleagues are for, to help and support each other and work together toward your shared and mutual success.

But what happens if you’re a shy and introverted person like me? Which is to say, what if you are deeply afraid of ever causing trouble for anyone or creating awkwardness by asking for help?

This may seem like an unreasonable thing to be worried about, since “Even if you delete it later, could you please retweet and comment on my #PitMad tweet” isn’t that big of a favor, especially if it results in someone you know getting a publishing deal and thanking you in the acknowledgments of their book.

My own experience, however, was that I lost almost ten followers on Twitter during #PitMad yesterday. In other words, a handful of people who followed me got so upset and offended that I’m trying to pitch an original project that they didn’t just mute me, but they actually went through an additional sequence of button presses to unfollow me. And that’s tough to handle, especially since my pitch tweet didn’t actually go anywhere. I think it’s fair to say that this experience didn’t inspire me with a sense of self-confidence.

I know there might be people out there reading this and thinking, “Well, maybe your pitch just wasn’t that good.” And you know what? Maybe! But this isn’t about whether any given pitch is actually good or not; it’s about how Twitter functions as a platform.

Essentially, if you’re not comfortable enough on Twitter to already have the sort of following that you can reach out to, both broadly and at an individual level, in order to get people to shill for you and engage with your #PitMad tweet, then you’re going to have a disappointing experience.

If you are comfortable with this level of interaction on Twitter, then you’re going to need at least a hundred retweets and two or three dozen comments (including your own replies) in order for your pitch tweet to start gathering steam. Based on what I saw ysterday, publishers and agents started to be interested in tweets that had at least three hundred retweets and fifty or sixty comments. Again, this is just based on what I saw, but the people who were able to pull this off tended to have at least 2,500 followers.

To emphasize this once again, #PitMad is a Twitter popularity contest.

And being on Twitter isn’t that easy. Some people take to the platform naturally, of course, but it can be difficult to gain and retain followers, even if you have a brand and a niche and the time and energy to produce a constant stream of content. It’s been a struggle for me personally, especially as someone who’s become very sensitive to the general ambiance of outrage, hot takes, and assorted unpleasantness that feeds Twitter’s engagement algorithms. It’s important to be able to curate your online experience, but Twitter is infamously bad about showing you things that are specifically designed to upset you. Even if you surround yourself with friends and allies, and even if you’re diligent about blocking and muting, Twitter can be a mental health nightmare.

So I guess I have two recommendations.

First, if you’re going to participate in #PitMad, you need to plan for it in advance, and you need to be aggressive in signing on friends and colleagues to boost your pitch. In all honesty, this is probably good practice for promoting your published work.

That being said, a lot of people – especially other writers – tend not to like it if they feel that you’re cultivating their friendship or goodwill for the sole purpose of promoting yourself, and being around someone who is constantly hustling can be exhausting. If you’re the sort of person who is naturally extroverted and crowd-pleasing, and if you don’t mind certain quieter people drifting away from you, then you probably have a ton of followers on Twitter already.

And this isn’t to say that people like this don’t write and publish amazing and fantastic books! I also don’t want to suggest that “fake it till you make it” isn’t a legitimate strategy. Really, go out there and live your best life, but be aware that participating in #PitMad requires planning and prepwork.

Second, if you’re more introverted and tend to keep the time you spend on social media limited, then #PitMad can be a good way to strengthen the ties you have with your writer friends while hopefully making a few new friends along the way.

Still, because of how Twitter works (and doesn’t work) as a platform, the event has the potential to be a disappointing experience that punches you right in the self-esteem, and you might be better off connecting with potential agents and publishers on a more personal level.

In any case, all of the pitches I saw yesterday were excellent. If nothing else, it was a lot of fun to read through the hashtag, and I would happily sit down and spend time with every single one of those books in the making.

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.

Book Cover Studies

I’ve been thinking about graphic design a lot recently, especially as a tool to help writers promote their work. Contemporary mainstream social media is extremely image-oriented, which puts writers at a disadvantage. I therefore think it’s worthwhile to figure out how to create graphic images that focus on text but are still visually striking and easily shared.

Since book covers serve the same purpose, I decided to launch this project by thinking about how certain compositions are used to convey specific moods, and I’ve been drawing quick studies along the way. Silja Götz’s online class Book Cover Illustration has been an incredible resource!

It probably won’t surprise anyone to learn that I love horror novel covers. “Modern gothic” is one of my favorite genres, and I could sketch these types of covers all day (and night).

We Don’t Live in a Patriarchy

In the spring of 2014, back when people still used Facebook, I came across a post from a male friend who was a grad student at a West Coast school known for its progressive social climate. He had put together a proposal for an event with a female grad student in his department. She sent the proposal to their department chair, who returned it with a brief comment saying that it was unprofessional of her to submit such a shoddy piece of work. My friend and his colleague therefore sat down together and rewrote the proposal. This time he submitted the papaerwork, and the department chair congratulated him and told him that their administrative assistant would be in touch soon to help set up the funding.

When my friend forwarded this response to the female grad student, she pointed out that, lo and behold, he had made a mistake and attached the first draft – the very same one that she had submitted the first time around.

My friend was upset, as he rightly should have been, that such an obvious display of sexism could happen at his Progressive Liberal™ institution. I replied with “I blame the patriarchy” as a comment on his Facebook post and then thanked him via DM for being a good ally and talking about this in a semi-public space.

I didn’t think too much about this exchange until I got a notification that someone had replied to my comment on his post. A white woman around our age, who was a grad student herself, wanted to let me know that she objected to my use of the term “patriarchy.” She threw the Merriam-Webster dictionary at me, saying that, if “patriarchy” is defined as a “social organization marked by the supremacy of the father in the family,” then we haven’t lived in a patriarchal society for a long time.

I literally saw red when I read that.

Within the space of ten minutes, I had posted more than a dozen responses to her comment, each of which cited and linked to accredited sources of statistics strongly suggesting the male dominance of various political, economic, social, religious, and cultural fields in the United States.

When I came to my senses, I sent a DM to apologize to my friend. He got back to me right away, saying that my responses were important and asking me not to delete anything. I thanked him again and then took a nice long break from the internet.

I was still upset a week later, though, so I copied all of the text from my responses to that comment on Facebook and made a zine that I called “We Don’t Live in a Patriarchy.” Several dozen of my friends (and friends of friends) wrote to ask me for a copy. I also took copies from three print runs to Quimby’s Bookstore in Chicago within the span of two months, and I sold out of all the remaining copies almost immediately after I put them on Etsy. I think I probably ended up giving away or selling more than a hundred copies of this zine, which I found surprising, especially given how quickly put together and cheaply made it was.

The world has changed since the spring of 2014, but not as much as you’d expect, and not always in a sane and reasonable way. I’ve considered updating this zine several times, but I always decide against it. The truth is that I dislike being angry. I feel like anger is a tool that no one person can hold for an extended period of time, so it gets passed from one feminist to the next like a baton. I made my angry feminist zine back in spring 2014, and now it’s time for me to step back so that the next group of young people can speak and be heard.

No Drama, Not Today

This comic was drawn by Vreni Stollberger (here’s her website) and written by me, Kathryn Hemmann (@kathrynthehuman on Twitter).

I routinely get a lot of strange comments on all of my blogs and social media accounts. What this has taught me is that, if you exist on the internet, people will send you hate. You can be the kindest and most conscientious person in the world (although I’m certainly not), but mean people don’t need a reason to harass you. I’ve learned that it’s best not to engage with trolls, since there’s no better way to shut them down than to deny them a platform to stand on. Still, it’s frustrating to have to deal with people like this when all you want to do is stay in your lane and enjoy your time online. The pressure to maintain a “positive” attitude and pretend as if nothing is happening when you’re trying to cope with threatening messages can get a little intense and unreasonable sometimes, to be honest.

Ah, well. Haters gonna hate.

Best Practices for Dealing with Harassment on Tumblr

After almost four years of actively participating in various fandoms on Tumblr, I’ve seen and experienced some awful things, and I’ve finally arrived at a set of best practices for handling the nonsense that I’ve encountered on the platform. I’ve made a bunch of stupid mistakes on Tumblr, and I’ve used those mistakes as a foundation for these guidelines, which are intended to help you protect yourself while avoiding unintentionally hurting other people.

(1) If someone sends you hatemail, report them and then block them. If someone reblogs your post with hateful tags, report them and then block them. If someone tags you on a hateful post, report them and then block them.

(2) If you suspect that a specific person is sending you anonymous hatemail, block them. If it was indeed them, then the hatemail will disappear from your inbox, even if it was sent anonymously. If the anonymous messages don’t disappear, then it’s possible that they weren’t being sent by the person you suspected (although it’s still possible that they were, as there are many ways to mask an IP address). Nevertheless, you should probably keep this person blocked anyway, because there was something about their behavior that made you suspect them in the first place. Trust your instincts!

(3) A vaguepost is a post in which the poster criticizes a type of behavior without specifying who or what has triggered this post. If someone has made a vaguepost that you suspect is about you, block that person. Even if they didn’t intend to hurt you, they intended to hurt someone, and that person ended up being you. You’re not socially obligated to tolerate a hurtful atmosphere, no matter how vague it might be.

(4) If a mutual follower sees someone making hateful posts about you but continues to behave in a friendly manner with that person, unfollow them. They’ve made a conscious choice by remaining friends with the person who has harassed you, and their decision is essentially that it’s okay to harass you. No one who is comfortable watching you being harassed is your friend.

(5) If someone engages in racist, sexist, homophobic, or ableist behavior, or exhibits any other type of discrimination in what they post or reblog, unfollow them. It’s 2018, and they know exactly what they’re doing. Tumblr is a terrible forum to challenge someone’s political position, so don’t try to engage them directly. Even if they seem like a nice person, the best strategy is to unfollow them as soon as they start to make you feel uncomfortable.

(6) Tumblr is a place for people to express their unique interests and opinions, and everyone is entitled to a few vent posts every once in a while. If someone seems to be taking a slow train to Crazytown, however, it’s okay to unfollow them. It’s important to use your best judgment, especially regarding someone you’ve known or followed for a long time, but it’s also valid to unfollow someone as soon as they start to make you feel uncomfortable.

(7) Recognize that mental illness, as well as any other type of neurodivergent positionality, is not an excuse for bad behavior. The assumption that people with mental illnesses and other neurodivergent positionalities are unable to tell the difference between right and wrong (or otherwise unable to control themselves) is not only inaccurate but extremely offensive. Don’t feel that you’re expected to tolerate harassment because of the positionality of the harasser.

(8) This goes without saying, but do your best not to spread hate. Don’t send hatemail, don’t make hateful vagueposts, and don’t reblog people’s posts with offensive tags or comments. If you have to vent, don’t use popular fandom tags to spread negativity. This also goes without saying, but try to stay off social media if you’re drunk, angry and crying, or in an otherwise altered state of mind. If you’re unsure of whether something is offensive, don’t post it.

(9) Do not engage with harassment. Unfollow or block someone, and report them if necessary, but don’t call out their bad behavior on a public forum. This ends up hurting other people, and it never fixes the original problem; no one in the history of the internet has ever stopped harassing people because someone told them it was wrong. As an adult, you’re responsible for demarcating your boundaries, and only you can ensure that they’re respected.

(10) If the harassment you’re experiencing on Tumblr is so pervasive and severe that it’s affecting your mental health, take a break from the platform. There are vibrant fandom communities on sites like Twitter, Discord, DeviantArt, Facebook, and Reddit, and they often don’t have any overlap with communities on Tumblr. The world is wide, and your time and talents are valuable! Don’t let your voice be silenced, and don’t let a bunch of antisocial creeps get you down. Turn your back on hateful negativity, walk away from toxic communities, and keep doing the things that make you happy.

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.