In the 2019 book It Came From Something Awful, author Dale Beran draws on in depth research and reporting, as well as his own experience, to create an overview of the movements in digital culture that won Trump the presidency.
He relies on his insider knowledge of 4chan and Something Awful to present a fairly nuanced and thoughtful picture of the disillusioned young men who gathered in forums, chatrooms, and imageboards and found communal strength in their perceived powerlessness.
At first I was excited to see in the table of contents that he included Tumblr in his narrative—I’ve been saying, over and over since 2016, that you can’t write the story of 4chan without Tumblr. But then I began to worry. As I read, and got closer to the chapters in question, I was thinking: will he get it right? Will he fall into the easy trap of characterizing Tumblr as a cringe jumble of kinnies and snowflakes?
Well, it definitely wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been, but I was also not really all that impressed. While obviously this is a book mainly about 4chan, Something Awful, and related communities, I was disappointed to see that the actual discussion of Tumblr’s history and culture was less than nuanced. I would say that he certainly Makes Some Points, though—it isn’t so much that he got stuff completely wrong as that his picture was incomplete, at times uncomfortably so.
Naturally, as a counterpoint to 4chan’s move to the right, he focused on Tumblr as the crucible of the 2010s’ version of identity politics. He correctly identifies it as the site of a mass conversion of young people to leftist causes; he utilizes a third-wave feminist approach to identity-skepticism in order to present a clear view of the pitfalls of Tumblr’s identitarian ideology and its essential relationship to the entertainment products of late capitalism.
But as much as he returns again and again to the idea of a widespread youth obsession with “fantasy worlds,” and keeps a motif of the capitalistic corruption of counterculture running throughout the book as a factor in the rise of the alt-right, he fails to deal conclusively with the difference between 4chan’s engagement with popular culture and Tumblr’s.
Likely both because of a lack of understanding and a need to quickly characterize Tumblr in a general sense as oppositional to 4chan to ground the conflict upcoming in the next few chapters, he visibly skirts around the complex politics of fandom. He says “fandom” approximately one (1) time and goes on to define it as “a group […] which often denoted one’s […] sexual interest” which, sure. He mentions “slash” once, and the citation for said reference was posted in literally 2002. There is no engagement whatsoever with the well-established concepts of transformative culture, and certainly no discussion of how 4chan’s obsession with remixes, manips, memes, and violent appropriation existed in contrast with Tumblr’s more participatory and self-aware mode of escapism.
The blame he lays on “young people” for reviving adversarial identity politics as a reaction to their perceived powerlessness in the face of systemic inequality neglects to take into account how in addition to spurring sometimes-frivolous demands for representation in popular media, Tumblr also gave young people a sometimes overwhelming and terrifying awareness of the precise shape of that inequality, its causes and symptoms and potential cures. “Structural inequality” became a buzzword right alongside “intersectionality” and “representation,” as PDF collections and critical theory quotes went viral alongside memes and gifs.
Beran understands the fundamental fact that Tumblr was 4chan’s mirror image in ideology, but he fails to fully comprehend how it was also its mirror image in affordance. He discusses 4chan’s famous anonymity, so central to its culture that it named the activist group that spawned from its boards in the late 2000s, but he barely touches on Tumblr’s corresponding pseudonymity—the affordances of its sideblog and analytics structures, its culture of ask-and-response education, its tricky penchant for the spread of viral misinformation, the cycles of aesthetic trends and ideological movements that kept it in a constant state of renewal and ongoing self-definition.
He makes some strange claims about Tumblr culture in general, authoritatively stating that Tumblr users were a universal hivemind with established rules of discourse who regularly and calmly came to “rabbinical” consensuses on issues like cultural appropriation and self-identification.
To anyone who actually was immersed in Tumblr in its heyday, this is pretty ridiculous. While general leftist sentiment pervaded the site from 2011 onwards, when the grown adults of Livejournal made their way over and re-potted their established mechanics of discussion, at literally no moment in time was the website a monolith of opinion. Far from it—at one point the term “the discourse” became synecdoche for the feed itself, even, representing the interminable, overwhelming chaos of debate that personified the site’s culture.
A post that came across my dash recently made me laugh:
People who used tumblr for 8 months in 2014 are like “haha people still on tumblr. Still reblogging gifs of effy stonem” No I am participating in the premiere literary salon of strange women. We are inventing the culture
Not knowing literally anything about Beran other than what’s on the about-the-author back flap of my hardcover copy, I assume automatically that he is one of those people—that whatever direct experience with Tumblr he had came from that short stretch of time when it seemed like the “next big thing” of social networking, and the rest was based on research done after the fact, from the perspective of an outsider whether first or second-hand.
I guess my main issue with his approach to Tumblr is that it diminishes the cultural independence and diversity of thought of its users, and thus their agency. Also, this:
“Defining oneself via social media was the opposite of real-self confidence, in which a person received their self worth from themselves alone […] It was also the opposite of an alternative theory for selfhood in which a person derives their sense of value from their community. Not the ersatz communities of the internet, but real and actual people with whom one shares a direct and personal bond.”
Here is the digital dualist fallacy in full fledge. A critical lens like that of theorist Nathan Jurgenson, for example, that points out the inherent flaws in presenting what takes place on the internet as somehow “less real” than in physical space, would have been useful to Beran here, I think.
Also useful would have been if Beran had taken the time to speak to one or more queer or trans or female Tumblr users of the type that helped shape the culture of the website at the same time that the alt-right was fomenting on 4chan and associated boards. Perhaps then he would have maybe come closer to an understanding that incorporated the necessary subjectivities of 21st-century marginalized digital existence.
Calling Tumblr “a false substitute for confidence and community” is a tired misrepresentation of the vital role it played in the growth, self-determination, and consciousness-making of a new generation of scholars and activists—many of whom, all the while active users, were spurred to participate simultaneously in “real life” movements and join “real life” causes and make “real life” changes, as he so attentively details in a chapter called “Tumblr Goes To College.”
We are far past the era when online communities should be characterized as lesser, or as replacements for the IRL “ideal.” Doesn’t the existence of his own book and the events that inspired it prove that?
For no real reason at all other than to give myself a grounding in a seminal text of my chosen field, I decided to read Henry Jenkins’ 2008 edition of Convergence Culture cover to cover. I had purchased it as a required text for a class in transmedia studies that I took from him in 2016 at USC (I don’t recall ever meeting him, I believe it was taught mostly by a TA), but never read beyond the few pages assigned.
It was an enlightening choice, but also a mildly upsetting one. Jenkins’ sunny utopian attitude towards the grand possibilities of knowledge cultures and participatory media feel, in the era as described so vividly by Beran’s chaotic bildungsroman, painfully naive.
Reading through the chapter on the 2004 election, especially, was one long full-body cringe. I did a lot of writing YIKES and OUCH and LOOK HOW THAT TURNED OUT in the margin. The assumption that participatory forms of “digital democracy” would change everything was correct, less so the optimism with which it was framed.
His observation that “so far, the most active cybercandidates have been insurgents who have not been able to ride digital media into victory but who have been able to change the nature of the debate” reads like a terrifying prophecy.
Of course, this retrospective pain doesn’t change the fact that he was absolutely, spookily prescient about a lot of things—the rise of streaming media, the dazzling emergence of niche content catered to every possible audience, the triumph of transformative fandom over copyright vultures.
But his blind spot, visible only in hindsight, that characterized his approach to the potentialities of mass participation, is incredibly enlightening and revealing from a post-Trump perspective.
While he claims that he doesn’t “mean to put forward popular culture or fan communities as a panacea for what ails American democracy,” it’s clear he did genuinely believe in the possibilities for digital tools to bridge the gap between political standpoints.
However, in underestimating people’s ability to interpret media in ways that fit their own preexisting ideology, he could not predict the emergence of what Beran described as a “new sort of naiveté, in which the distinction between reality and fiction, trolling and trolled, identity and anon erased itself as people made a sport out of their politics and the discontents it bred.”
In 2006, Jenkins wrote that “[p]articipation is understood as part of the normal ways that media operate, while the current debates center around the terms of our participation.” Fast-forward 15 years and those terms have been more or less definitively settled.
What we face now is their consequences. Convergence culture is, less than two decades after Jenkins theorized its birth, in its death throes. Shit has fucking converged, bro. What we have arrived at in the 2020s is not Kurzweil’s singularity or Fukuyama’s end of history but a new era of dynamic, restless paradox—in which any and every microcosmic cultural niche can be created and inhabited, but only underneath the heavy ponderous context of corporate consolidation.
We’re on the other side of the black hole; we’re through the looking-glass. For proof, you can take a look at Beran’s well-written though sometimes flawed tale—which I think might possibly be summed up by the responsive phrase I just made up, “divergence culture.”
Or you can just look at this really funny screenshot I saw on Tumblr, and it’ll probably have the same effect and take much less time.