Divergence Culture

Beran, Jenkins, hindsight & foresight.

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.

The other blue hellsite

Ten years a Tumblr-er.

I starting using Tumblr in earnest right around the time I graduated middle school. It was spring 2010, and I loved Darren Criss (BEFORE he was on Glee) and, newly, Doctor Who. Thanks to Tumblr, and the people I befriended immediately when I started reblogging (my username was tardis-girl), I was soon introduced to the whole smorgasbord: Misfits, Sherlock, Supernatural, The Mighty Boosh. I learned how to make gifs, how to edit graphics, how to put together a slammin’ fanmix. I hit the Megavideo 72-minute limit, I read fanfiction by people who are now bestselling authors, and I was introduced to concepts of gender and sexuality that now dominate the mainstream cultural conversation. I would come home from my freshman year of high school, feeling newly isolated and ugly and weird, and log on to spend hours with the people who got it.

Back in February of this year, at the tail-end of the Before Times, I wrote an article for Fansplaining about Tumblr that I’m still really proud of. I touched on a lot of stuff I still really stand by, regarding Tumblr's unacknowledged but ongoing vital role in the content ecosystem of the internet; the unique affordances of Tumblr that makes it still the best place for artists, creatives, and people who disdain the profit- and number-obsessed aspects of other platforms; and the potential for Tumblr to remain a living and active community in amidst the chaos of the 2020s internet. 

The article really resonated, which was gratifying. People massively responded to one of the article's excerpts that Fansplaining posted on their own Tumblr: it's racked up over 65,000 notes since it was posted.

"But [Tumblr’s] value, of course, is more than just what it isn’t, and what it points away from. Despite all the drama and discourse lurking in its corners, it’s easy to make your own Tumblr life as simple and as happy as you want it to be. There are no algorithmic threats lurking around every corner, no onslaught of promoted posts from politicians or influencers. More than anything else, Tumblr in 2020 is a self-sustaining ecosystem. It’s a semi-sealed and increasingly fertile terrarium, a nigh-impossible perpetual-motion machine of a platform going productively psychotic in its isolation.

Clearly since that article was published, a LOT has happened! Tumblr felt the effects right away: people who were already active users began leaning more heavily on the site during the troubling times of quarantine. And there was a steady trickle of returning users, though it was still a bit of a hard sell. 

But in my corner of the site (mostly fandom-focused, porn-indifferent queer twentysomethings), the real upheaval came not with the beginning of the pandemic, or even the long hot middle, but with the Supernatural finale insanity, beginning with the first Destiel canonization on November 5 and continuing between then and the finale, and now beyond it. College graduates who thought their fandom days were behind them are, as a collective, rediscovering the joy of earnest, sincere shitposting (and combining it with unironic academic analysis). The speed at which this relatively new niche community identity has coalesced is astonishing, leading to posts like:

i keep catching myself thinking about all the big brains here dedicating hours to the critical analysis of a text never meant for that, and I wonder perhaps what could be made better if we put our thought towards something else, more meaningful, more important, more productive - but i dont know. theres something important about this, too, that its not productive. its for fun. Its engaging, it fosters discussion and analysis and connections that have real meaning, and theres a reason passionate people are drawn to it. its a perfectly acceptable intellectually stimulating hobby built on a passion for creation and understanding and im willing to defend it as that honestly 

It's been interesting to see all the communal self-reflection going on throughout this year, in which long-time users are growing more and more grateful for the changes to Tumblr's userbase and the simultaneous comparative stability of the platform itself. 

Currently over on TikTok, the #Tumblr2014 hashtag is blowing up, with thousands of videos romanticizing the mid-decade Tumblr culture that was the petri dish of my current adult personality. Young Zoomers are wishing they could have been a part of it, and cuspers/young millennials are reminiscing and saying they might go back to the site.

I've seen a lot of responses to this over on Tumblr itself, my favorite being a remark that "seeing this made me feel like i just got a letter informing me of my own death". Another common joke/theory is that all those people who are like "we should go back to Tumblr!" are the ones who, by leaving, made Tumblr the only good place left on the internet, and that absolutely nobody wants them back. 

There has also been a lot of discussion about how far ahead Tumblr has been of every other social network, such as this post which posits that: 

it is so interesting to me the “gen z humour” is obviously sooo influenced by tumblr despite most of gen z probably being too young to have spent much time on tumblr at its peak. like it’s known that 2020 twitter is literally 2015 tumblr but like 2020 tiktok is also 2015 tumblr the world is literally just stuck at 2015 tumblr

Similar observations about the persistence of Tumblr-originating digital behavior patterns are being made on other platforms, such as this classic tweet from over the summer:

you can tell who on twitter used to spend most their times on tumblr because they reply to half their tweets with an afterthought as if they were talking in the tags 

(I was amused that clearly the belief that everybody "used to" spend time on Tumblr is dominant over the fact that many people spent 2020 double-fisting both Tumblr and Twitter, to cope™) 

One of my favorite Substacks is Ryan Broderick’s Garbage Day. A few weeks ago he discussed the decay of Twitter, and set out a set of criteria that indicated the decay of a social network, positing that Twitter has existed in a state of atrophy since 2013.

I observed happily that Tumblr pretty much fulfills none of those criteria. To date, it's fairly democratic and not dominated by power users—with a few exceptions, who are pretty easy to ignore. There's an INCREDIBLY strong internal cultural memory—going back a full decade at this point, for the most long term users like me. It even has its own chroniclers, like the hard-working heritageposts. But far from being wholly “a meta discussion of itself,” as Broderick put it, Tumblr users have generally continued their streak of being incredibly creative in every direction, spawning new memes and driving new fandom and innovative aesthetic trends. 

This recent post, with 73k notes, puts forth a pretty succinct thesis that mirrors (probably independently) a lot of the conclusions I circled around in my article: 

THESIS: the real reason that people stay on this hellsite is not “chronological order” or “the drama” or whatever (per se), but is instead linked to how tumblr, unlike most social media, is not optimised to give content as short of a half-life as possible, but instead is optimised to let content continue to cycle for months, years, even decades. this has in turn led to a more consistent centralised site “culture” in which there is more coherent linkage among different areas of the site, thus also explaining why its content permeates so thoroughly throughout the internet.

And it’s true. Being a part of Tumblr in 2020 is the opposite of obligatory. You’re not on there because all your IRL friends are and you want to fit in, like you might have been during “peak Tumblr” in the halcyon days romanticized by the TikTokkers; you’re not on there because it’s a flash point of culture filled with celebrities and journalists and tastemakers who you need to keep up with. You’re probably not even there because you’ve just discovered fandom: these days the kids are going straight to Twitter, Instagram, and Discord for their shipping and kinning and vidding.

No, you’re there simply because you want to be, because you trust it, because it is good. Which is pretty much the most unexpected, unbelievable thing a social network can be in 2020!

I'm about to start my MA in Experimental Humanities at NYU and have vague plans to do my dissertation on the social history of Tumblr, due to the fact that I care A Lot about this stuff, and feel that Tumblr really hasn't gotten its due in tech-industry/digital culture narratives of the last decade. For example, I really enjoyed Joanne McNeil's Lurking, but the fact that Tumblr only got like a page or two worth of coverage rubbed me the wrong way. I am going to try to be the change, in the way that only an idealistic grad student with a niche passion can be.

I’m also going to be relaunching my podcast, which I ran seven episodes of back in spring 2019! The relaunch will take it from a Tumblr-nostalgia-specific podcast to a more general podcast on internet nostalgia/phenomenology through a humorous semi-demi-hemi-academic lens, co-hosted with someone I met on Tumblr when I was 14 blogging about Doctor Who and is now getting her PhD, aka my friend Sam.

So look out for that in the new year, and in the mean time, happy 2021, and happy Tumblring.

Christmas Ghost Orientation 2020

The old firm goes remote.

Hi, everyone. So, usually around now we’d all be together in the big auditorium at headquarters, and it’s really such a bummer we can’t do our in-person training because of the pandemic. But as I’m sure you know, this year, and everything that’s happened, means that the services we provide are more important than ever. 

You’ve all seen the headlines. Unemployment claims are at historic rates; the wage gap is increasing; hundreds of mom and pop businesses across the country have been forced to close; families everywhere are in danger of eviction, starvation, bankruptcy. 

Yet meanwhile the bankers and CEOs of this country are lining their pockets with massive holiday bonuses, made off the backs of their underpaid, exhausted, essential workers. These same people that put their workers’ lives on the line in meatpacking factories and big-box stores, are the ones lobbying in Congress to avoid liability for the harm they’ve caused, and to be the first ones to get the vaccine!

So now more than ever, they need a wakeup call. They need those chains rattling! They need that graveyard revelation! They need that change of heart. They need to see exactly the hurt they’re causing, and we are here to show ‘em. Am I right? Yeah! 

… Uh, so, I really appreciate you all taking the time to go through our audition and vetting processes. Yeah, it was a bit of a gauntlet, but we’re known for high quality service, we are the original, we’ve been doing this since 1843 and we’ve only got the one night a year to make a difference and we just want to make it count. 

Last year we had eight hundred forty three agents on the ground on Christmas Eve. Our analytics department, tracking client progress throughout the year, showed a 65% increase in philanthropic giving, a 21% increase in employee compensation, and over four hundred political disaffiliations from the Republican Party. Wow! Let’s try to hit five hundred this time, huh guys? Shouldn’t be too hard!

This year we’re proud to welcome seventy-six brand new agents to the fold—that’s you! I’m sure you still have a lot of questions; I’ve been getting a bunch of them in my inbox, it’s great to see everyone so curious and enthusiastic. Most of it will be covered in this weekend’s training, I promise. But I’d like to reassure you up front that of course we have a conflict-of-interest protocol—we get a ton of people every year who apply because they are inspired by a greedy boss or a terrible father, but our algorithms will make sure you do not get matched to someone you know personally. Would be totally awkward, right?

Okay, so here’s what today looks like—first we have a presentation from one of our top-performing agents, who has run all three roles very successfully for the past ten years. He’s got some amazing stories, super inspiring guy, I really hope he tells the one about the art collector’s mother-in-law. It is a riot. 

Um, then we’ll put everyone into breakout rooms to do a quick bit of roleplaying, you should all have been assigned a group in your orientation email, so that’s groups A through C, and you will all take turns acting as Past, Present, Future, supervised by one of our trainers who will be acting as Client. Just a quick note, it’s new this year, if you were referred by a friend who did the training before they might have referred to the Client as “Scrooge” or “The Miser” but we are looking to reframe that for brand reasons. 

Tomorrow we have a morning session in which we’ll be going over the software, including all of the fun effects you can use—these things come and go, last year “icy fog” was huge across the board, “golden shimmer” is always a classic for Past, but we did just add a new “floating skull on fire” filter that we think will be a big hit.

In the afternoon you’ll get broken back into your groups, A through C, to go through the roles one-by-one in a bit more in depth. So if you’re assigned as Past or Future it’s the same as it ever was, but for everyone who ends up as Present, things will of course be a little different this year, but that’s part of the challenge, that’s part of the fun, I’m sure you’ll rise to the occasion, and use the sights and scenes of a pandemic Christmas to get your Client where you need them to be by the time the sun rises. IT has been totally on it with the solutions—we can go inside phones, computers to look at messages, video chats from the inside—it’s really cool, um, super cyberpunk, so, we’ll show you all of that. 

Sunday morning we’ll hear from our on-call counselor, who will give you guys some emotional and psychological tools to deal with the stuff that you’ll be seeing when your shift starts. I’m just being honest, there’s no sense in trying to pretend that this isn’t an incredibly emotionally grueling gig. You’ll see heartbreak. You’ll see poverty. And the kids—man, the kids. It’s rough. But they are your main weapon, remember that. That is how you get to these guys, we knew that a hundred and seventy seven years ago, and it hasn’t changed. Human nature, for better or for worse, doesn’t change. 

But hey—there’s also a lot of fun involved! I mean, the flying alone. Nothing quite like it. I did ten years in the field… Those were the days. 

Right… okay, Sunday evening we have a mixer with returning agents, so all of you new folks will be able to mix and mingle over Zoom with the folks who you might end up working alongside on your shift. Unfortunately you’ll miss out on my classic spiced eggnog recipe, but we encourage you to mix your own cocktails at home—we sent out some recipes in the orientation email, I’m particularly fond of the “Dead To Begin With,” which is my little twist on a Death In The Afternoon, ha!  

You’ve all completed the pre-training modules, so you know how all the tech works—we’ve come a long way since the Victorian era, and this year since we’re fully remote everything will be going through dispatch straight to your personal devices. Let’s give a round of applause to IT for sorting that out in record time. Rock on.

And you know our dress code rules—don’t think that just because we aren’t running things out of HQ that you can get away with making your ragged shroud a little more low-cut than it should be! Of course we encourage creativity with your looks, because you know, based on our analysis it’s novelty that wins the night, your basic hooded figure can’t do much these days just given general cultural saturation, but remember you’re here to scare the Clients, not seduce them. 

Finally, I just want to reiterate, everyone has signed an NDA which means under no circumstances are you to disseminate any information regarding what you see or hear during your shift. The Clients friggin’ suck, yeah, that’s the point, but they’re people, you gotta remember that, and if you do your job right they’ll soon suck a little bit less, so just remember what happens on Christmas Eve stays on Christmas Eve, haha. Because we are the OGs, we have a reputation to uphold, and you gotta pull your weight. I’m sure it won’t be a problem, but I gotta say it just in case, you know, that’s my job! 

We’re still running the matching algorithms, so, yeah, it should only be a couple days before you see your role assignments, partners, and Client dossier appear in your backend. Exciting stuff, I know I remember my first Christmas Eve on the ground like it was yesterday… 

Um. Ok. Gotta wrap up here so we can start. Cool... so— Wait, can you guys hear me? Sorry, have I—was I on mute? 

Community, not audience

Don’t just like things! Like things WITH people!

I’ve been thinking about this tweet pretty much nonstop since I RT’d it the other day:

It seems to have resonated tremendously with a certain subset of people; and I hope that it goes on to have a material effect on the lives of at least some of them.

For me, it put into words the meaning behind the stages of experience that I’ve been having since graduating college, a little over two years ago now.

The transition post-graduation is a tricky one. You are thrust from a structured environment of social variety and abundance to, in many cases, a stripped-down existence consisting of Baby’s First Real Office Job, Baby’s First Real Commute, and the punishing demands of Real Fucking Life.

Blessed be the extroverts who can rise to the occasion and create for themselves a support system to shore up the hollows left by the absence of campus life; those folks who, through luck or hard work, go on to experience little to no dropoff in their meaningful practice of learning and loving and living.

I, clearly, was not one of those people, and immediately after graduation I found my world had shrunken down to a mundane microcosm. Everything seemed simultaneously wildly unimportant and intensely vital; the massive and sudden semiotic shift in my environment had me clinging for stability to things like my bank balance and my hair, while willfully ignoring such elements as my diet and the upkeep of my apartment.

This period of my life saw me engaging in the frantic application of many balms: literal, in the sense that I couldn’t stop buying Glossier products, given that the store was mere blocks from my office at the time; and also metaphorical, in that I sought out anything and everything that would offer some respite from drudgery. I marathoned Mad Men and LOST in quick succession. I became addicted to Refinery29’s Money Diaries series, as well as the Reddit /r/personalfinance forum. I scrolled on Twitter and Instagram endlessly, watching my college acquaintances drift further and further into their own worlds, each unique, all seeming increasingly fascinating yet somehow repulsive from my lone, bare promontory of the reception desk.

Coming back to the original tweet, I believe this stage of adulthood is when being part of an audience begins to seem wildly appealing. One watches prestige event television, one closely follows the luminaries of Media Twitter, one signs up for newsletters and listens to endless hours of podcasts. One engages in high-volume levels of parasocial activity with one’s favorite writers, singers, hosts, live-streamers, YouTubers, bloggers, comedians.

One positions oneself solidly in the land of Maturity, a large and highly-populated land full of other Competent Adults With Interests, whom one desperately wants to be both fully accepted by yet wholly distinguishable from, at the same time.

Now I am not trying to discredit any of these activities in their essence. They are the delights of our modern world! But they are, I think, the equivalent of carbs, or sugar.

Actually, let me walk that back, and offer a nutritional metaphor more relevant to my current interests—they’re the equivalent of a diet lacking in Vitamin C. As such, audiences in their purest, most chaotic form have a tendency to trend towards the scorbutic: scars open up and lack a healing mechanism to knit them back together. Nostalgia is overpowering and prevents true perspective from being brought to bear. Et cetera.

It is only reliable engagement with community that stops you, The Adult, from fully coming apart at the seams. (This, of course, in the context of already being a member of a given audience—friends and family are also essential, but not precisely what I’m talking about here.)

Meanwhile, it was dawning on me, a little too slowly, that attending music industry events as a graduate working in the field was an entirely different experience to rocking up to shows as a hustling, eager teenager. Without anything to prove I felt suddenly and painfully bereft, and began to develop a curdling misanthropy towards what I perceived as the “boringness” of everything and everyone around me, to compensate for my feelings of anxiety and fear.

What I was feeling at the time, in retrospect, was the painful lack of community in my life. An industry is an audience: loosely bound by shared interest and intent, and perhaps the same few names on your paychecks, but little else. The music industry depends heavily on communities for its livelihood, and devotes thousands of hours to figuring out how to exploit and encourage them in turn, but it is not one in and of itself.

Herein lies the question: where, precisely, is the boundary between audience and community? How do you know if you’re in one, versus the other? And where does the vague and nebulous and magical term “fandom” fall in the spectrum between them?

An audience congeals around a person, topic or work as a natural sociological event. Within that audience, there may be communities, floating around like individual organelles in the larger body of the audience’s cell.

A fandom is, at its simplest, defined by what you like, and perhaps in what ways you express that like. But an affinity-based community, that is to say a community within a fandom, is defined by who you like it with.

This ties into the happy ending of my story: as if it were destiny all along, I reconnected with my fandom roots, and have spent the second of my post-college years participating in various communities within different fandoms.

These positive experiences have awoken in me the need to shout to the skies, to everyone out there feeling dissatisfied, perhaps unknowingly, with their societally-approved role as a Member Of The Audience:

Don’t just like things! Like things with people!

For some of you, this might seem like the most obvious thing in the world. Like, duh!

But for just as many, it’s not an easy ask. It is soooo much simpler to be in an audience than a community—the easiest fucking thing in the world. As the above tweet put it, it can happen by accident! You sit back, relax, listen, watch, smash that RT button. Sure, you might discuss your Thing with your friends, if they’re also interested, but they’re not your friends because of the thing.

Whereas: a community is purposeful. There is a guiding force to it, an invisible hand of shared passion.

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, of course. Communities can, and do, turn toxic. We’re only human. But a community has an immune system, so to speak: whether that’s in the form of a moderator/admin team, or a host, or a consensus system, or just a general, unspoken commitment to figuring shit out. Because vitally, a community’s inherent identity—AKA, the story it tells itself, about what it is and why it exists—lends it a vested self-interest in self-perpetuation.

Friendships want to continue. In-jokes want to be told and understood. Relationships formed through bonds of affinity and strengthened through community have a certain kind of memetic immortality. The best demonstration of this is that common occurrence, in which you and a friend, both members of one group in years past and since separated by an interregnum of differing interests, reconnect instantly over some new shared obsession, and it’s like no time has passed at all.

At the end of the day, there is nothing quite like the thrill of the knowledge that you exist in the minds and lives of other people. Thanks to my communities, I am bolstered by reminders of this every day—that people think about me, that I am real to them as they are to me.

Learning about others’ lives through the medium of affinity culture, too, lends an important element to this type of participation. Instead of seeing things through the invasive, overwhelming lens of the infinite doomscroll, you instead can directly hear personal stories and individual perspectives. It is an antidote to solipsism and nihilism in the best sense.

For me, moving from being a passive member of innumerable audiences to instead being a committed participant in a select few communities has been transformative in terms of my mental health.

Facebook groups, Discords, forums, locked Twitter circles, group chats or DMs—these are all places where community can thrive, within the context of a larger audience. (In another essay I might expand upon the relationship between privacy and community in contemporary digital spaces.)

Of course it is work, and hard work, to maintain and participate in such environments. But so is exercise, so is eating well, so is your 12-step skincare routine, so are all the little things we do to keep our human bodies and brains from disintegrating in the face of the great monstrous behemoth of society and responsibility bearing down on all of us.

On internet nostalgia

An ask I received on Tumblr recently:

Do you ever just get super nostalgic about 2012? Social media back then just felt like a bunch of dorks, and now it’s morphed into a huge popularity contest.

And my answer:

In my experience, it’s very hard to tell whether the nostalgia one has for a bygone era of the internet is more “longing for one’s own lost youth” or a more objective “it was better back then.” 

In the case of the year 2012, it’s a bit of both, given that the internet and social platforms and the way fandom works HAS changed massively in the last decade. But personally, when I think about “era of internet I’m most nostalgic for” I definitely go straight to 2010, not 2012. 

A lot happened during those years to change the way Tumblr users in particular interacted with each other. New site features, new standards of behavior in platform etiquette, etc. It’s really interesting that you narrow in on 2012, because for me, by then I was already seeing elements of what we would now deem “cringe culture,” with emergent divisions between users, and a kind of hierarchical infighting among members of different communities that wasn’t necessarily a part of the culture two years prior. 

But here’s the thing: everyone has a different age of innocence! Eden is in the eye of the beholder. Your 2012 is someone else’s 2006 is someone else’s 1993, before the Eternal September flooded Usenet with newbies. 

Of course I miss being 15, and posting earnest Impact font macros and photoshopping Doctor Who characters in stupid ways. It was a good time! But also, I’m 24 and having a blast still making shitposts about my favorite TV shows, because I haven’t changed that much, and though my platform preference and usage has necessarily shifted, my priorities with regards to what I enjoy doing for fun online absolutely has not. 

It’s definitely still possible nowadays to find (or make!) smaller spaces on the internet in which you and your friends can be a bunch of dorks, without it being a popularity contest. It might take a bit more effort, sure, but it’s more than worth it.

There’s a whole other essay in the unfortunate fact that young people coming online for the first time in 2020 are immediately subsumed into a toxic, algorithmic morass, but I’m not talking about that right now. I’m talking about you, presumably an adult, who has the ability to put in the work to find your own healthy, productive corners of a personal digital universe.

And anyway, I can assure you in 10 years someone will be sending this exact message to someone, along the lines of “do you ever get super nostalgic about the 2020 era of the internet? when stan twitter was a thing and we were all going crazy in quarantine?” —because that’s just the way human beings are. 

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