I'm Amanda Brennan. I just turned 30 this year and I spend my time split between New Jersey and New York City. I most intersect with videogames as kind of a fandom expert in my job at Tumblr, and just as my person.
I love gaming culture -- but here's the weird thing, the gaming culture that I'm super into is not what people automatically think of. I'm really into Animal Crossing and I'm really into shitty iPhone games that I play until I delete them because I'm sick of them. I'm really into that -- full disclosure, I love Candy Crush. I think that games like that, and not typical console games or PC games are part of it, too. It's not traditional gaming culture. There's something there that people look down upon, but it's totally healthy and good -- people sharing and community-building around even the Kim Kardashian game.
The sneering you're talking about, I feel like there was such an uptick of that about five years ago -- do you still run into that, where people are hassling you about playing Candy Crush or playing Kim Kardashian's phone game?
Oh, I mean, sometimes.
Or Animal Crossing? [Laughs.]
I've seen Animal Crossing really have this renewed joy online. I spend so much of my time in internet space, just thinking about communities and how people interact -- the different mediums online. Animal Crossing has been such a joy to follow the tags and the blogs about it, because people are making beautiful fan art, and participating in this way that feels like what people do with World of Warcraft fandom. I've seen OCs, or original characters for both titles, beautiful fan art, and fanfiction about those titles. So I think it's just -- maybe not the hassling, but I feel like the communities are looked at a little differently, and maybe it's because of the people that participate in them.
So there's question I can ask you about that, and I will, but to give more context -- sort of in my head, what I had you filed away as was you're Tumblr's librarian. Is that accurate?
Yeah, that's correct. I monitor trends across the network and work with data to better understand the Tumblr ecosystem. I manage the blog thefandometrics.tumblr.com where a chunk of that analysis get published.
I got my job after working for Know Your Meme for a little over two years. While I was there, I was writing most of the entries about Tumblr memes and events, as well as fandom subcultures, so it felt like a really natural transition.
My job has evolved a lot over the two and a half years I've been with Tumblr and allows me to really dial down on the intricacies of the community using data to better understand the conversations that happen here.
To ask the inevitable question, and probably something you answer all the time: What does that really mean, that you're Tumblr's librarian and are trying to better understand your ecosystem there? Is it the Desk Set but for the internet? I don't know if you know that movie.
So that didn't help. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Ask me about weird internet shit from 2002, I got it. But movies? Like a black hole for me.
Okay. So that was a movie about bringing computers to a company that had a whole research department responsible for looking up anything that employees at that company wanted or needed for whatever reason in the course of business. Is that like what a librarian at Tumblr does?
A lot of things. I am an actual MLIS Degree librarian. I studied at Rutgers University and graduated in 2011. When I was there, I really specialized in social media and how people interacted online. Internet databases, taxonomy-building, all this kind of stuff, but spun around internet culture, and kind of bringing metadata to all amorphous stuff.
Maybe that's a good place to start. One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you, or someone like you, but specifically you -- we mentioned Twitter, before. The term "follower" on Twitter, does that inform the way people behave or does it influence them? What are your thoughts about the terminology that's given to users or consumers? Does that influence the way people act or interact on any platform, whether it’s a Tumblr or a website or any social media thing?
Oh, wow. I have a lot of thoughts about this. [Laughs.]
This is my starting point. [Laughs.]
I'm here for it. Specifically, to use a good example -- when Twitter changed from "fav" to "like."
That's my next question! [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] I just read your mind! We spend a lot of time thinking about what word is the right word to choose. There are so many different contexts of “friend” and “follower.” You think about your Facebook friends, but are they your real-life friends? With Facebook, probably, because Facebook's the real-life network. But "follower" has evolved, and it means something different to different types of people. Your next-door neighbor who is really into fitness and posts all these fitness Instagrams, she's got lots of followers. But are they people she knows? Whereas my mom just got an Instagram, and she gets so excited every time she gets a follower -- but it's got a different weight. For her, her followers are the people in her social circle in real life, whereas some people are trying to build out followers from across the globe.
Separated from a platform, what does that word, "follower" or "friend" -- does it feel like it means something different? Like "follower" -- am I building an army? [Laughs.] Am I starting a cult? [Laughs.]
"Follower" is definitely a weird choice in some spaces. But I can see people choosing that because they don't want to necessarily harp on the mutual-ness of it. You don't want to feel required to follow back. Every time some teenager posts a selfie, it's like "F for F" because they're looking for that mutual connect. "Follower," to me, is saying this person is here to watch you. You don't have to build that connection. I think I'm getting a little off-track here, thinking about connections, but the word itself I think was chosen -- because MySpace was "friends." Friendster, "friends." Facebook, "friends." When did we get to "follower?" It was Twitter, probably, right?
Probably had to have been. I'm trying to remember what ICQ --
No, ICQ was "friends."
AOL was also "friends."
Your buddies! Even more informal. Or maybe that's more distant than friends?
When I think of the word “buddy,” it kind of evokes this sitting around, drinking beers in a backyard with a grill. Friends feels a little more spaced out to --
Wait. Are we saying, the chronology, we've gotten more distant with the terminology?
I do think so. Because "followers" feels like a step away. I think it goes along with the evolution of the social media celebrity. If you're famous, you have a bunch of followers, but they're not all your friends. You know?
Right. I was just trying to figure out, when did LinkedIn come along? Because I think those are just "connections," and that's even more sterile. But it sounds like we're drawing some sort of conclusion -- do you think we are? Are we getting more distant with one another, online? Or in fan culture? Any of these umbrellas we're here talking about.
I think the distance is being placed by the words. Instagram is followers, too, right?
I think so. I can check.
Yeah, I don't have my phone with me.
I recently joined, so.
Congratulations! Do you have the chronological timeline, or the algorithm?
I don't know. I'm so new. It's called "followers," yes.
Okay. I have a lot of feelings about algorithms. [Laughs.] That's neither here nor there, right now. I think the terminology of followers, it's really to, in a way, build an internet community of larger span than "friends." People tend to use "friends" as someone closer, whereas "followers" -- they'll be like, "Oh yeah, I followed Taco Bell." But Snapchat uses "friends."
So, for people who are unfamiliar -- it's such a broad thing to even say Tumblr has a community because there's a billion communities and subcommunities, but how does it generally differ from a Twitter or a Facebook or a Snapchat?
In this specific context, the follow count is not visible. So if I visit your blog, I have no idea how many followers you have, and you have no idea how many I have.
So how does that influence interactions?
From my personal view, it gives a level playing field. If you really like a blog, you're not influencing: "Oh, 300,000 people follow this blog. It must be good." It's good because I like this content. I like what's happening here. This person appeals to my interests, and I am interested in this person as a human. It removes that kind of game of, "Oh my god, I'm at 600 followers." Some people will post that, when they hit a milestone. They'll be like, "Thanks, everyone," and that's fine -- but it's their choice. It's not something forced.
Right. And it's not on the dashboard advertised passively.
So compared to Twitter -- I read a thing in the BBC which described it so simply and greatly: it said on Twitter, the shift from stars to hearts caused a "furor."
I've heard from people who are Tumblr famous -- they aren't publicly Tumblr famous, they're Tumblr famous under another assumed identity. They don't want it connected to their real identity for whatever reason. I mean, this person told me that there's similar stuff that happens on Tumblr: Any time there's a shift in the dashboard or whatever, there’s a strong reaction. I don't know if furor is the right word, but is your perception with all the data you have that there are there similar strong reactions to changes in the service?
Totally. I think it's the internet across the board. If you change something people are used to, people will flip out. Like Instagram: They recently switched over from a solid, chronological feed to this algorithmic feed, trying to show you, "Oh, we see you interact with this cat Instagram a lot. We're going to push that up, no matter how old the picture is. If you haven't seen it, our engagement levels show that you're probably going to like this, so we want you to see it.”
I think it's built more for the casual user, where they're not checking their phone six times a day. Maybe they're checking their phone twice a week. And for them, algorithm is great, because if the computer can ID, "You are going to love the content," every time they open the app they're going to love the content and they're going to open it more.
But for power users it just throws a wrench into everything because sometimes the computer is not right. Sometimes they want that completionist feeling of, "This is is where I was before, and I've scrolled all the way back to where I was. I've seen everything." They want that full experience.
This is a question that sometimes comes up in these. I wasn't anticipating asking it but -- you remember the days of no DVRs? Where you had to tape it, and you might miss a thing. And you would never see it. Or never know what it was. Never hear about it.
Do you feel like today, are we better gatekeepers than when we had gatekeepers?
That's a good question. I don't know.
Because now we can, you know -- we're just limited by whatever we can think of to look for.
Yeah. But FOMO plays into it, too.
Well, we're limited by what also is out there as well. That's kind of the bigger limiting thing. Sorry.
No, no. Thinking about no DVRs is funny, because for part of my job, I spend a lot of time looking at what's trending. That usually means a day after a TV show airs, all the TV spoilers are out. There are a few shows I watch very intently and am big fans of. I have to watch them when they air, or else I can't go to work. [Laughs.] It's a job hazard, but I haven't really thought about what it's like for a normal person because this is just something I do for work. If I didn't have to see spoilers, I probably would be okay with missing something. I don't know.
You're keeping eyes on it. I don't know how granular you can get about what you specifically do over at Tumblr beyond what you’ve already told me, but when mentioning algorithms it just makes me curious about the ways the tech shifts or decides what people sees. Can you talk a little bit about that, and whether you think it’s helped forge surprising groups of fan circles? Or just in general, the more surprising groups of fan circles that you've seen pop up on Tumblr?
Oh my goodness.
I think of fandom as a lot more than entertainment. I apologize if this is not what you were expecting, but one of my favorite groups on Tumblr is the ball-jointed doll community. They're really into buying these porcelain dolls -- I think they're made in Japan -- and painting them. And then putting them into miniature rooms, giving them real-life situations. Some people even have blogs in the voice of the doll. Dolls creep me out, in general too. I don't know why I look at this all the time. [Laughs.] They'll get really in-depth into their dolls. They'll buy plain ones and hand-paint them to make them look exactly like they want to. They use the tag #BJD. And kind of on a similar note -- Simblr is huge.
What is that?
Oh! Of course.
Yeah. So again, that's another community where people will make Sim families and then blog about what's happening in the game. And they'll give them all these names -- it's almost like a fan fiction experience, because in the game you've got your limited actions. And you can do whatever, but they don't have human voices. They say, "Deggdegg."
Yeah. So they're translating that into actual words and conversations, building these whole worlds around the game. It's so fascinating. I've definitely gotten lost in these blogs, where I'm like -- man! I'm on generation three, I need to know what the next family is going to be like, come on!
[Laughs.] Last year I had interviewed a former biz dev guy from Microsoft. He was around for the introduction of the Microsoft Flight Sim, which you may also vaguely remember. I think it basically came packaged with Windows at some point.
I definitely played it.
And he told me there were people -- you know, this was in the early-ish days of the internet that we know today, although not web 2.0 or whatever of today, the previous internet where you had to dig around a lot more, and things were not as centrally connected. There was no Google yet. Pre-DVR, pre-Google. But he was talking about how they had heard from their fan community that they had started to do things -- the Microsoft Flight Sim community -- people had coordinated internationally in the real world doing digital international flights.
So basically, the people playing this game were managing an imaginary airline, doing flights in real-time, going from the UK to Los Angeles or something, and they would be flying for eight hours in the game. So I ask this question and I mention this, I'm not at all mocking it, but I do wonder and I did ask him so I would ask you: do you ever wonder, before these things were possible, what were people spending their time doing? Did they feel a lack of an outlet, or did their lives feel not complete? Do you have any sense if these people couldn't be marking these generations of Sims or posing their dolls for the internet -- that sounds, for the transcript just want to make it clear I'm not making fun of it. It's going to sound like I am.
No, I don't think you are.
In a transcript it'll maybe sound like it. Do you ever wonder about that or do you have any insight into what people were doing before they could do that?
Well, I love ancient internet, so I did a lot of research into Usenet groups. Which, again, is still people connecting via the internet, but even there, there was so much fan fiction happening. But before that, paper zines. I could totally -- if The Sims were a thing in the ‘60s, in some weird alternate universe, I'm sure that there would be zines with these types of stories and these kinds of interactions, documenting "here's what happened in my game today, this, this this." I love zine culture, I have a whole collection of current zines. But thinking back to mailing it to each other, and really having to dig to find your fanzines. Fan fiction dates back to Jane Austen. I can't even imagine a world where people are not writing fan fiction. [Laughs.]
I've thought of Tumblr in the past as kind of a re-visiting of zines. It's like how, ostensibly, podcasts are similar to pirate radio. Circling back specifically to Tumblr, and maybe that is part of why, but can you tell me a little bit about advocacy on Tumblr? Why has Tumblr blossomed into a place for a lot of unheard voices and opinions?
I think this ties together really nicely to the following count. It evens the playing field in every category. I've spoken to a lot of users throughout my life, even before I worked at Tumblr I was obsessed with Tumblr. I joined in 2008 -- so many of my internet friends from that era were from Tumblr. Back then, it was just kids hanging out, talking about pop-punk. It was a lot of not-white dudes on Tumblr at that time. I compare it to my experience with pop-punk message boards, which were all white dudes. Tumblr just felt like this free, creative space. And maybe it's the dashboard that really draws in the creative people, because you can do so much with the post types and just really get creative. It was like all of the weird nerdy kids I knew in highschool -- all three of them -- had multiplied.
Every weird nerdy kid from every high school was drawn to Tumblr. As it started like that, I think it extended out to different types of communities, and became a space where people could really talk about their feelings in constructive ways and not constructive ways. Also, not having comments really plays into it, too. If you make a post that's talking about some serious issue and I want to comment on it, I've got to reblog it into my space and all of my followers are going to see not only your post but what I'm going to respond, too. So in theory, it's going to be more civilized, because why would you talk shit on your own space?
But I know that's not what happens all the time.
Right. But I don't think that necessarily has anything inherently to do with Tumblr, though.
No, people are assholes all over the internet.
This is true. [Laughs.] To circle back to the guy from Microsoft, we did talk about that. I asked him about it, and he said -- it's one of the most pragmatic answers I've heard to a question like that in all my time doing this project, he said, "Well, people are assholes offline and everything that exists offline has to also exist online." I had never thought about it that way.
This is a very broad question, but how has your time at Know Your Meme and Tumblr -- it's probably given you incredible insights into fandom and cycles of it, but how has it helped you better understand it? What are things you feel you've learned directly as a result of doing that type of work?
Oh, man. That's a heavy question.
Sorry, that alone could probably be an interview.
Yeah. I'm going to start at the beginning. This is going to be a long answer. I was always the kind of kid that just sat in my house and didn't go outside. I got a computer when I was 13, and I immediately embraced internet culture because it felt so removed from what my real life was. When I was 13, I got in trouble for role playing as a dragon. I'll never forget the moment of my mom being like, "You don't have scales!" and I was like, "Mom, it's just fan fiction, chill!" and she was like, "No, you cannot tell people on the internet you have blue scales. This is not right." [Laughs.] When I got to Know Your Meme, I had already been very embedded in internet culture, very embedded in fandom. Although, at that point, I was no longer writing fan fiction, because I was "too cool." I went through my cool pop-punk phase.
What was really good about Know Your Meme was that anyone can submit an entry from anywhere. So even if I necessarily didn't participate in a fandom or a meme, I could see what someone who is participating is seeing. And from there, I was able to connect the dots, because I love research. I love finding out these nitty-gritty pieces of information -- even if I don't necessarily know the whole situation, from the details people submitted I was able to put it together in a more academic way.
The first thing I learned is how to understand something you're not really a part of. I don't know if you follow a lot of meme stuff online, but Miles Klee from the Daily Dot is currently getting a ton of shit for all of these meme articles he's writing. Super-cool dude, really into shitposting, and he's embedded in the culture. But the argument is: "Memes aren't for everyone, don't tell people about things that they're not a part of! You're selling us out to the greater populace." It's also kind of like writing a history book. I see it like you're writing the news and sharing all this stuff, and you don't necessarily have to be a part of it to see that something is interesting and wanting to be a part of it.
By selling it out, are you talking about the feeling or attitude of "this is our secret" or "this is our utopia?" You mentioned being a fan of pop-punk, and it’s totally the same thing of when you like a band and don’t want it to be too successful, that, “Oh, this band is ours!" I've seen that elsewhere on the internet where it's like, "Kickstarter was ours! This funding platform was ours! And then Zach Braff came and ruined it!" That's the kind of thing you're talking about there, right? By telling people about it, it somehow taints it or spoils it?
Yeah. It's huge in meme culture, because memes are their inside jokes. It's their escape from whatever is going on. But a lot of memes are just weird shit that you couldn't say to someone in real life because you wouldn't know how they would answer. When I was still at Know Your Meme, I wrote an entry on Weird Twitter -- are you familiar with Weird Twitter?
Oh, I probably once a month send out the Buzzfeed oral history on Weird Twitter. Have you read that?
It's so good.
[Laughs.] It's this weird space. And that was the first entry where I actually got emailed death threats. They were probably not serious, no Anita Sarkeesian-level death threats, but it was like, "Oh, you've exposed our weird jokes. I'm going to come leave a horse head in your bed and a knife." I was like, “Woah. I was explaining an internet phenomenon. It's not life or death, it's just saying this is a thing that happened.” But the people that own it, it's so close to their hearts, and such a part of who they are, that they feel having it explained to someone invalidates it.
Who owns it? Because it doesn't really belong to anybody, and I think when people attack other people like that, they forget the fact that someone else told them about it, as well.
Ownership in meme culture is so complicated.
But it's the same thing with videogames. It's what we've seen, it's not new, it wasn't new two years ago, but it's the same thing. It still doesn't belong to anybody.
Yeah. But fans will get so worked up. It reminds me of when you're a teenage, no one understands you. If you're really into this thing, other people aren't going to understand it, so you don't want them to take part in it. You feel like only a certain type of person would, and you don't want to see someone who isn't in your stereotypical idea of this kind of consumer. If you see someone that doesn't fit your idea, you're like, "No! This isn't right!" It's more a personal feeling that this content, this game makes me feel a certain way, and seeing someone else experience it in a different way invalidates my personal feelings.
Right. It's identity stuff. You're not the only one to have told me that. It's weird, because for me personally, it's just stuff I like. I'm never going to get mad at someone else if they're like, "I don't like it!" Or if they tell someone else. It doesn't diminish it, and it doesn't displace it. It's still there. I don't say that to pat myself on the back, but what do you think is the disconnect between that attitude, and people who don't see it that way? I know it's not that simple, but what do you think?
I think people can get very embedded in a thing. As someone who has done this in my past, and probably will continue to do it for my entire life, you just get so into the thing that you can't see anything else.
What's your "thing?" Or are you going to ruin it by mentioning it and then telling people about it? [Laughs.]
No, no, no. I'm an anomaly because I'll get really into something, and then I'll just stop. And then I'll be really, really into something else. Right now I'm really obsessed with learning how to lift weights. [Laughs.] So that is currently my thing. But it's not something where I don't want other people to do it, but if someone says, "Oh, that's stupid," I'll get really upset! It's like, "No, I'm spending all of my time reading books about this!"
Which, also, people in the past have said is a waste of time. Obviously you've seen, just in the last week alone we've had this crap with the Ghostbusters, all these articles about whether fandom is broken? Is it toxic? I guess I have two questions: Is fandom broken? Who gets to decide that?
Full disclosure, I refuse to read that article.
Oh, you know the one I'm talking about?
I'm familiar with it because I've read all the response articles.
Oh goody. [Laughs.] Full disclosure, I have also not read it because -- you go ahead. This is your interview.
Oh, no, I want to know why you haven't read it either!
Because well, I do this project, and I don't want to direct your answer, but it's really nothing new. The concept of fandom being broken is like asking when math will go extinct. I have a friend who edits an online zine and I ask him about why he runs certain types of things that are so clearly wrongheaded or vapid or caught up in being reactive and he told me sometimes it helps to indulge a point of view so it runs out of steam.
I was just reading earlier in the week about an actress on a soap opera who had played a character for 19 years, and she got punched outside of a Lord & Taylor store in the ‘80s for things she had done on the show. The creator of Sherlock Holmes was assaulted on the street with a 19th-century insult, people called him a brute after he killed off Sherlock Holmes. It's nothing new, so I don't think that it's necessarily broken.
But I do think that there is more today, people looking to stir people up. This is one of the reasons why I started this thing. You're not going to change people's minds by basically creating more terrorists for whatever your belief is. It’s gridlock. It’s entropy. If you're just going to try to piss people off and try to attack people who don't agree with you, it's not going to change their minds. So I see that article, and who knows if that writer wrote that headline, and the flip of it is well, it's probably enlightening for somebody else -- so I'm not going to say it shouldn't exist. I would never say that about anything. I don't need to read it, but I feel obligated to read it. Just in the way that you feel obligated to watch shows before it gets spoiled for you.
I'll get around to reading it eventually. It's just that I kind of know what's going to be mentioned, and I don't need to spring it on you. And it does nobody any good to inflate something that’s already over-inflated.
Well, luckily that did not direct my answer, because I have a very strong, solid answer. No. 1, I have never read another fandom piece by that author. Maybe he has written them. I'm not saying that he hasn't, but it has not come across my desk. I follow a lot of fandom journalists. I'm friends with many of them -- at Daily Dot, at New Republic, lots of people who consistently write about fandom and cons, and I read a lot of their stuff. So, for me to see this article saying "fandom is broken" by some dude I've never heard of before is very jarring.
I don't think fandom itself is broken. Also, I would like to know what fandoms that guy is in. What is he actively participating in? I know I spoke earlier how with memes, I learned to be able to understand a thing that I was not participating in. But I wasn't giving a subjective argument to them. It was objective. It was: "This is the thing." And I feel when it comes to subjectivity, when you're actually giving opinions on a thing, that's when participation is super-important. If you're saying fandom is broken, okay. But what in your experiences brings you to this conclusion? It's good to mix objective and subjective into there, say, "Oh, I see all this Ghostbusters stuff, but also in my fandom, maybe I'm a big vinyl collector. Here's how vinyl fandom is broken."
Just to give that flair of -- I'm making this big blanket statement from what I see objectively and what I see in my personal life. That kind of rubs me the wrong way. I don't think that fandom is broken, I think that fandom is still an amazing space for people to grow and for people to learn about themselves, and share the things that they love. However, from what I've seen from how fans react to the powers that be, and a lot of stuff that I saw with The 100 fandom -- people are acting the way they would act with other fans, with the powers that be. And harassing them to really scary points. They think, "Oh, I'm just tweeting at this person, they're never going to see it. I'm just gonna tell them to go die." But there's no line to say that that's not okay -- and that I think is where the problem lies in fandom right now.
Know Your Meme, when that happened, was that first time that that kind of reaction was elicited for an article posted? You said you received death threats -- has that happened before? Was there a protocol at Tumblr? I've gotten that before, too, at jobs. Maybe it's different in journalism, where it means I did my job. I should have pissed somebody off there. But in your thing, it's an encyclopedia! [Laughs.]
Yeah! I remember that night so vividly. As a woman in tech and in internet culture, I see my peers get this all the time in Twitter, and this was the first time this had happened to me. I was alone in our office, in a dark room because the lights weren't turning on -- it was motion light. I was sitting in the back corner, and it was late, and I just remember getting this email and being like, “I don't even know what to do now.” So I just tried not to think about it, and tried to live my life. It was to my personal email, it wasn't even my work email. They found my personal email on my Twitter and thought, "This sounds like a good thing to email this person."
I've drawn the ire of Gamergate a couple times -- this is going right into my press clippings, I was called "Tropes vs. Women in Videogames on steroids." So I know a thing or two about having those kinds of days, where you're just like, “Is something going to happen? Do I need to tell my family to watch out and be aware?”
At Know Your Meme, it wasn't actually that bad. But once my Washington Post article came out, where they did this amazing article about my job and what it's like to be a meme librarian -- that was kind of a tipping point, where I started getting a lot more bizarre tweets. People pulling up old photos of me that they found on Google. Raiding them. Someone mistakenly sent me a link to the CringeAnarchy subreddit, where there were four threads about me.
Did you read it?
I did. I made the mistake.
You can't read that. You can't read that stuff. I know, I'm sorry. It's completely understandable, either way, but it's poison for soul.
Yeah. It's so sad. I used to have a necklace that said "never read the comments." It's so easy to tell everyone, just don't read the comments. But when it comes to your own life -- I remember there were nights after that article came out that I had a Google Alert go off all the time, and it was just like the worst things I've ever seen. The internet, people don't realize -- or maybe they do realize, that there are other humans on the other side.
I say that all the time. I think when it comes to -- and I think it's reductive to generalize about the types of people who do those kinds of things because there are so many different reasons. But I think there's a disconnect. They either may not realize, or they do realize and they don't care.
But I've run into that, too. I'm selective about the kinds of things I put out there on the internet and things I tweet about. Sometimes people just come at you and it's like, you know I am a person, right? Behind this avatar, I have a family. I don't know what it is.
They don't realize that the internet I see is the same as the internet you see. It's making you angry, it's not just you, maybe you should be angry. But sometimes you don't need to be angry.
Anyway, to shift things back, I wanted to ask you about Undertale. [Laughs.] You said you wanted to talk about it. [Laughs.]
So this is a game, a personal game by one person with a positive message. I'm wondering, because it did at some point get its own kerfuffle -- is there something about the internet in the way it is today, that turns any kind of passionate fandom into something toxic? Is it like accelerant? Or is it just sort of teenagers being teenagers?
Can you tell me which kerfuffle you're thinking about? I just want to make sure we're on the same page.
Uh, I know there was a few. Was there one that was specific to Tumblr?
Not that I can think of.
I'm not trying to get you to talk about Tumblr. I remember there was a thing that was like a poll, Undertale overtook Legend of Zelda.
And this couldn't have happened. [Laughs.] This must not be! I remember a bunch of friction and various cyclical bullshit that happens online. It got written about as news. There's stuff that you're thinking of?
The stuff that I'm thinking of is how people split off into their own tags, if they want to talk about certain aspects of the game. I don't off-hand know what the tags are, but it's like how Sleepy Hollow fans used the tag #ShadyHollow to talk shit about the show. There's a specific tag for certain types of NSFW content for different shows. Steven Universe I think has #StevenGalaxy. It's just fans self-policing in this way, but I wasn't sure if that came out of a kerfuffle. But there's, like, a million Undertale tags that I've seen in my life.
Do you think -- is it the internet that turns people that way? I did mention the Sherlock Holmes thing, I did mention the As The World Turns thing, I think it was. Has it always been there, or has the internet changed it in some way? Or is this just sort of the way we are?
Well the internet makes it much easier to be mean to each other, because you're behind a screen. It's just like, "Oh, I'm gonna type this out and it's not gonna affect the rest of my day!" I feel like we are a little more self-centered, especially when it comes to typing online: "Oh, I'm so mad! I'm going to say this thing and forget about it." But whoever you're saying it to, they might dwell on it for weeks, because that's a terrible thing that you said.
People I've interviewed who their specialty or the thing they were really prolific about was The Well or Usenet or BBS early internet, the way that they phrase is on the old internet, there were fewer avenues of consequence. That's the way they phrase it. It used to be: Someone's an asshole to you on Usenet, you get off the internet ‘cause you weren't on it all the time. Maybe at dinner you mention, "Ugh, someone was an asshole to me." And then you just kind of forget about it. There was never that recourse, or very rarely that recourse of they're going to call you, or they're going to show up elsewhere. That was the extent of it.
There was a time, probably in the late 2000's, where we shifted from "don't ever tell anyone on the internet who you are!" to "oh no, we need to have everything about yourself on the internet." I think Facebook was really the tipping point of that. Now you have to have a verified name. That switch really turned everything on its head. Plus the internet's in your pocket. It's always there. It's always hanging out with you. You can't just shut it off and walk away from your computer.
Don't feel like I'm asking specifically about Tumblr here, but you mentioned things that people hide behind. I have this observation, I don't know if there's really a question in it, but trolls, whatever that means to you, they can often hide behind memes. Particularly the things that you see on 4chan, image macros and stuff. They tend to treat harassment as a big game. Whereas the really nasty people seem quite fine to show their faces. Why do you think that is?
I mean, 4chan attracts a very specific type of person. I don't know.
I mean, I don't think it's only 4chan.
Reddit attracts a very specific kind of person, too, but I've seen like b - what do they call themselves, now? They're probably still calling themselves btards. But yeah, the users of b, they don't necessarily approve of what happens on these Cringey subreddits. It's a different type of person and a different type of harassment.
This is one of the things you had mentioned, you want to talk about: You said that gaming fandom as a whole tends to feel isolated, especially contrasted against something like TV multi-fandom. Can you tell me what you mean?
So a lot of my time is spent in the muck of looking at what's going on on the internet - the internet in general. I feel like when it comes to finding fan art or finding fan activity, it's way easier to do with TV. A lot of movie blogs are about Marvel Universe, and they'll be into movies, they'll be into the Marvel shows. Those people have a lot more multi-faceted internet presences.
Whereas a lot of the videogame stuff I see is very specific -- like one videogame. All I do is post fan art of LoL. Or all I do is post fan art of World of Warcraft. It just feels a lot more in its own world, and it's not crossing over into TV, or it's not crossing over into other things that this person likes. The videogame fandom -- that is their main thing. They may like other stuff, but not on the internet. They only like Assassin's Creed.
The way that it's diversified, I feel like that's always been -- not always true, but largely true. The way it split off -- they pick a series, and that's the thing they like. It took me a long time to realize, oh, I'm kind of weird because I'm an omnivore. Not only in terms of there's a lot of different types of media, but I don't just stick to one series of games. So why do you think, not for me specifically, but why do you think that that has been the case, and continues to be the case?
I have a suspicion that it's not cool to like other things if you like videogames. Maybe it's a stereotype, “Oh, I'm a gamer, I'm a real gamer.” Fake geek girl or something. When you're into many things, and have this robust online experience or online persona, you're showing off so many facets of who you are as a person. And with some gaming communities -- not all the gaming communities are like this, and I think Undertale is a good example of people just considering it one part of their persona. There's something I want to say about Undertale, but I'll come back to it. But with the really hard console games, the series -- Assassin's Creed is the first one that comes to mind -- it's just like, I'm going all in. All I want to do is think about this one thing. I don't know why. I think I would need to talk to more gamers to understand.
There may not really be a logic to it. I’m not sure. I’ve talked to a bunch of people and I’m still trying to understand. But I think there’s something to what you’re saying about certain fandoms for some games, for some reason, attract or enable people to be more multifaceted. That’s pretty interesting.
Unless you want to elaborate on Undertale, you had something in our emails that connects here. You had asked the great question that sort of sparked where we started from: “What does it mean to be someone’s friend in Candy Crush?” It’s a great question, because it’s one of those ephemeral, personal connection things that happen in games but isn’t given much thought. This stuff connects to real life and other people, a lot of stuff is just taken for granted, or not acknowledged. As someone who doesn't play Candy Crush for no particular reason -- it's not a judgement, it's just I don't really play games on my phone -- what does that mean to be friends with someone in that game?
I have two separate lines of thought. The first one is Candy Crush actually has this thing where you don't have to have friends anymore. It just shows up being like, "Send lives to people!" And it picks random people in the system, and you can send them a life. I don't know if the nomenclature is friends, or if it's just "send lives," but it's really interesting because it used to be so friend-based, and now it's like, "We know that you're embarrassed to be part of this community. So we're just going to give you this option to get more lives from strangers." That's really interesting. But a few years ago -- this is gonna be so embarrassing -- when I was in grad school, I went through a phase where I was super into FarmVille on Facebook. I love collection games, I love simulation games, I love tapping on things -- it was a perfect storm.
And my friend's mom was also really into FarmVille. So we would be at her house, just checkin' on our farms. And then one day, she told me -- she's older, she's in her forties, maybe fifties, and she was like, I gotta get you into my FarmVille club. And she would just add these strangers to her Facebook, and they were just the people she played FarmVille with. So I was like. “Cool. Let's do this. I need more chickens or whatever.”
I got maybe 20 or 30 friend requests from these people in her group, kind of almost like a web ring, where I locked them out, they couldn't see any of my posts except FarmVille posts. [Laughs.] It was this weird I guess friendship of -- we just played the game together, and didn't really know each other's lives. When you think of Facebook, you think, “Oh, I know everything about my Facebook friends.” But I'm very into privacy and very weird about it, so I was like, “Oh, they can't see any of my posts.” But I would still see theirs. So I knew all about their dogs and about their children. It was this very weird time where we were combining our forces to have the best internet farms. But also there was this level -- I remember one of them graduated from whatever they were studying, I remember leaving them a nice comment and being like, this is probably very weird. [Laughs.] They were all mostly older people. Why do I have a bunch of 50-year-old people as my friends? [Laughs.]
I think it’s interesting and it’s not as weird as you might think. Like, it's as shallow in Destiny as it is in FarmVille. Which is weird and it gets into a lot of other nomenclature of how being social has changed -- the social aspect of games used to be you met in an arcade, and now it's much more performative. You'll go on Twitch, and people will rally around your personality rather than talk to you. I feel like games, historically all the way back to ancient Egypt were supposed to help connect us, but how do games seem to help us connect now? Is it just in a shallow way, or are there deeper ways that we may not be aware of?
My immediate thought to that, and it's probably because you mentioned Twitch, is the Let's Players. Just these cults of personality, like The Game Grumps, Achievement Hunter, all of that. They have huge communities around them, and maybe the fans are not necessarily playing the games, but they feel like they are participating because they're watching it. The watchers feel like they're a part of it and really connect, not only with the Let's Player but the other people who like the fandom, too.
Oh, for sure. I've interviewed a couple Let’s Players, but also Let's Players who have burned out on playing games. I think there is that risk, too, of generationally sounding like, "Oh, that's a waste of time and it's stupid."
I think it's just -- connecting means a different thing, and they connect in a different way than what you and I have grown up with. So it gets tricky, because they're younger and they may not know how to articulate what it means to them. It's like Facebook friends. [Laughs.]
Something different than what “regular” friends means.
My partner is really into Let's Play. They love Game Grumps and Sips. Sips was on Yogscast I think. But whenever they get really bummed, it's like, “I'm just gonna watch this Sips playthrough because it feels like they're an old friend.” The way that the Let's Players interact, not only with the game, but with each other when they're playing, it gives you that feel of community without a lot of effort.
And also, I think on a more basic level it's like leaving the radio on or the TV on, and someone is there with you.
I didn't know if this fell under the umbrella of things you couldn't talk about -- you mentioned The New Republic, do you know about “The Secret Lives of Tumblr Teens,” the longerish piece that came out this year? Can I ask you questions about that, or is that going to be off-limits?
I didn't know about it until it was published.
It's not specifically about the article, more about things that it talks about.
Maybe. What is your question?
I have a few. Just reading it, it was super-fascinating. Probably once a month I send that oral history of Weird Twitter around, I also send this piece out. One of the things that struck me about that piece -- Danielle Strle over at Tumblr, she mentions in there that teens are better marketers than anyone else in the game right now. That's a literal quote from the article.
I guess I was curious -- what is it that teenagers seem to have figured out that companies don't, when it comes to that?
I just don't think I have an answer.
I can respect that. Well, one of the other things you mentioned you wanted to talk about was that you had read Armada recently?
Oh my gosh, yes. That was awhile ago, because I've been reading like two books a week. [Laughs.]
Good. No, that's good! You said what sort of blew your mind was the thought of what games are training us to do, and how they're training us to interact with each other. If you could tell me a little bit about that?
Let's see if I remember. I've also been reading so much that everything gets pushed out.
I loved -- I wanted to love Armada so much, because I loved the idea of the story. But it turned into just a white boy's dream about his dad. [Laughs.] So frustrated. I wanted more of -- I forget the girl who did the mechs. There's this really cool girl in the story, and of course he meets her and they immediately start flirting, and they eventually kiss. She was such a cool character. She piloted mechs in the game -- there's two games, it's “armada” and I forget the name of the other one, because I'm bad at retaining information. But she played the ground-level fighting version, and her story just seemed so much more interesting than, "Oh, my father's dead and I'm bummed about it. Oh no, wait, he's alive!" Spoiler alert.
That's okay. [Laughs.]
So, there are these two games, and everyone's playing these games and they're really great. They're both about an alien invasion, but the alien invasion is real! And everyone can participate in saving the world by playing the videogames. Just that part is fascinating to me, because what if Assassin's Creed is getting us all ready to be ninjas? [Laughs.] Or is Animal Crossing really teaching me how to plant flowers? ‘Cause I would like that.
It’s tough to say. But I think something that is not really as written about or as widely understood is that videogames help people learn and play around with identity.
I think that's what a lot of this is starting to bubble up -- people not realizing that that's been an outlet for people. But it sounds like from what you were saying, or what I sensed in your email -- you're talking about this in a much bigger way, right?
Yeah. In the book, they were actually preparing them for a war, because they built the videogame based on the actual fighting. In the beginning, they run a quest, kind of like a World of Warcraft quest where they have a boss battle. And as you find out later, they have to get this thing called the icebreaker to -- I forget if they're protecting it or trying to break it. But the icebreaker turns out to be a real thing that's undefeatable! Both in the game and in real life! I donno, what if -- I'm also really obsessed with Homestuck. Are you familiar with Homestuck?
Oh. [Sighs.] It's a webcomic. It's this very lengthy -- it's longer than Ulysses. I highly recommend you watch Mike Rugnetta's Idea Channel about Homestuck. So good. It's about this videogame. You need two people to play the game, and if you and I were playing the game, one of us would be the host, and one of us would be the player. If I were hosting you, I would see your room on the screen, and I can move around your physical objects. So it's this very, almost sci-fi version of a videogame that ends up causing an apocalypse and all this stuff. There's so many layers to Homestuck that I can't get into right now. But I love the idea of videogames bridging into real life.
Back to the Undertale thing that I wanted to talk about. Full circle. So, the creator of Undertale, Toby Fox, wrote the music for Homestuck. I think he worked on Undertale in the creator of Homestuck's basement, if that is a true story. I don't know if it is a true story. But a lot of the Undertale fandom came out of Homestuck fandom. Homestuck also ended just this past April, and before that it was in very long hiatuses. And when Homestuck the comic was in hiatus, the fandom, which was so used to having so much content, because it's so wordy and so involved, and there's like a million characters -- I think they latch onto other fandoms very quickly. I'm like 90 percent sure it's the reason why Welcome to Nightvale blew up. Welcome to Nightvale blew up during this Homestuck hiatus, where fans were actively looking for new fandoms. And they're very spooky, they've got awesome queer characters -- Homestuck and Welcome to Nightvale felt very hand-in-hand, the same way that Homestuck and Undertale do. Undertale has the actual connection between the two.
I used to really be into Kingdom of Loathing, too. Do you remember that?
Oh, gosh. Kingdom of Loathing is just a text-based game. It's web only --
Oh wait. I do remember this. [Laughs.]
Yeah! It's very 2004. I was so into it, and when I started working with internet, I was like -- ugh. I never want to be at a computer when I'm not at work. So I downloaded a program that would play the game for me -- it was just a thing that would automate doing your daily tasks. You got 200 adventures if you stack them up, so it would just do all the adventures for me. And it was like, “What am I even getting out of this? I'm just grinding, this is terrible.”
This is an abrupt segue, but what do you feel fandom has accomplished?
Wow. [Laughs.] So many things. On the most basic level, it's made more creators, because the people who create in fandom go out and start creating in other places. Fandom is definitely a stepping stone for a lot of people. I've done a few panels on turning fandom into a job, so I know I'm not the only person who has done that. We're also in this really cool place right now where fandom is the hot new thing, and people are interested -- fandoms have their own fandoms, to steal the tagline from Everybody At Once, a company that specializes in fandom communities. We're in this space in culture where if you like a thing, you don't have to be ashamed of it and you can really embrace it and people want to market to you. I think that's cool. If I see a good ad that really gets me, if it was targeted to me, I get kind of excited because the internet is so full of garbage ads. [Laughs.] It's all five tips on how to lose that one inch of weight, or "you won't believe what this celebrity looks like now!" But when I see a targeted ad that's marketed to someone with my interests? That is what we need more of. And I'm not saying we need we need more ads on the internet, but.
I think we need to get to a place where people are like, "Fandoms exist. And if someone says they like a thing, let's show 'em an ad for that thing!" I would love if all my ads were about cats.
Well, I do think we need to get there, and we also need to let go of the fact that we don't need a consensus.
Yeah. We can have different opinions, we don't need to all -- just to go back to The 100 fandom. The fights between Clexa shippers and Bellarke shippers? It's okay! It's just shipping! It's what you do that brings you joy. Don't ruin the joy of someone else. You can like these things without having them be canon. I think that's another problem we're at in fandom -- everyone is rushing to make everything canon. It doesn't need to be canon for you to enjoy it. [Laughs.]
You can participate. Like Destiel shippers. I doubt Destiel will ever be canon, but that doesn't mean that you have to stop thinking about your ship, or writing fan fiction or making content around it, just because it's not going to be canon.