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Wednesday, 29 August 2012

One Direction, teenage Tumblr fandom, and how to be safe and private online.

Thanks to this Daily Dot article about Larry Stylinson "believers" (fans of One Direction who, rather than taking the more conventional fannish route of merely writing fanfic about their favourite boyband, truly believe that two of the bandmembers are secretly in a real-life relationship), I've been seeing way more of 1D fandom than I ever thought I would. But while I found the subject of the article to be very interesting (as was the near-immediate fandom backlash against the article), the points in this post aren't specifically targeted at Directioners -- just a particular subset of Tumblr fandom that seems to include a lot of 1D fans. I've been in a few fandoms myself and have no problem with anyone shipping whoever the hell they want, provided they're courteous to other fans. What I am worried about is the attitudes a lot of younger fans seem to have about fandom, Tumblr, and online privacy.
Larry Stylinson being super adorable. (source)
Aside from the large quantity of messages/comments/tweets the Daily Dot received regarding the actual content of the article, there were a lot of complaints that the article had "broken the Fourth Wall" of fandom. This phrase was bandied about quite a lot and seemed to mean something a little different from its more typical meaning. Another way I've seen this sentiment phrased is "what happens on Tumblr stays on Tumblr". I totally understand these fans' discomfort at the discovery that non-fandom people are suddenly aware of their secret online hobby, but I also find it very troubling that so many of them seem to think that Tumblr is a private place.
    Fandom isn't a secret
    I found out about fandom around 2002, when I was still a kid. Tumblr didn't exist yet, most of Harry Potter fandom lived on Livejournal and fanfic sites such as FictionAlley, and the way I found out about all this was via a newspaper article about fanfiction. So in my personal experience, without even having to do any research on the subject, I know for a fact that the mainstream press has been reporting about fandom for at least ten years. In recent years, fan culture has come into the mainstream in a big way, with entertainment news and gossip magazines regularly reporting at Comic-Con, and 50 Shades Of Grey topping all the bestseller lists for months. A lot of reporting on fanfiction/fandom is still pretty ignorant and disrespectful because most of the journalists aren't involved in fandom themselves, but fanfic isn't the secret society it was twenty years ago. And I'd find it vanishingly unlikely for anyone currently starring in a fandom-popular TV show or in a band like 1D to not be aware of fandom. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if winners of reality shows like American Idol and X-Factor were actually briefed about RPF as part of their press training, just so they wouldn't alienate fans by seeming shocked or appalled by the concept.

    Patrick Stump replies to an RPS fan on Twitter. (source)
    That being said, I totally understand why someone would want to keep their own involvement in fandom secret or private. A lot of non-fandom people still think it's a weird hobby, particularly if you're into RPF/RPS, and that kind of thing is important to take into consideration when you're applying for jobs or starting at a new college or school. Which brings me to my main concern about fandom and privacy.

    Tumblr isn't private or "safe".
    To me, the most confusing thing about the "what happens on Tumblr, stays on Tumblr" philosophy is the idea that Tumblr is remotely private, AT ALL. I was baffled when I noticed people complaining about their Tumblr posts being linked in the Daily Dot's 1D articles, not because I didn't understand the sentiment of being freaked out by the sudden publicity it gave to certain Tumblrs, but because I didn't understand how anyone could fail to realise that all Tumblr posts are public and insecure. Once you make a post on Tumblr, you're inviting other people to blog it. The platform is specifically designed to make it easy for people to spread information and pictures as quickly as possible, meaning that once you've posted something you have no control whatsoever over where it travels.
    (source)
    On more typical blogging sites like LJ, you write a post and people comment on it. Occasionally someone might quote you on their own blog, alongside some accompanying commentary. Chances are, the only people who will ever see that post are the 60 people who have you friended, plus one or two silent lurkers and some random passers-by. On Tumblr, though, you can spend 15 seconds writing a text-post saying, "I LOVE KRISTEN STEWART!", which is then read by your 300 followers, reblogged by 10 of them, and then maybe reblogged by 10 of each of their followers. The next thing you know, you're waking up to see that your post has 15000 notes, a third of which are from people who hate Kristen Stewart and are arguing with the people who love her. Tumblr is designed to make it as easy as possible for memes to spread virally, and sometimes memes just happen. Sometimes things spread rapidly on Tumblr because they're witty and clever (ie, cartoons by Gingerhaze), but sometimes it's just down to random chance or the fact that they were reblogged by someone with a lot of followers. Basically, it doesn't matter if "what happens on Tumblr stays on Tumblr", because not everyone on Tumblr is in fandom and if your post goes viral then it's inevitably going to end up being viewed by some non-fandom people. Tumblr doesn't have a Fourth Wall; Tumblr doesn't have any walls at all. Being quoted once in a popular blog post by someone like Gawker or the Daily Dot is nothing when compared to that. Which brings me to my next point:

    Think before you post personal information on Tumblr
    I first noticed this trend for posting personal info just after I started writing my Avengers costume design posts. A bunch of people started following me on Tumblr all at once, and I was kinda curious who all these people were. The obvious answer was "Avengers fans", but I was alarmed to notice that a lot of the time when I clicked on a new follower's username, their Tumblr homepage would have a little blurb like, "Hi, I'm Katy, I live in Birmingham, Alabama, I'm 16 years old, I'm bisexual, and I love Avengers and Sherlock!" and then a photo. Perhaps as a person in my early twenties I already qualify as an old woman in some fandoms, but to me this kind of behaviour seems very dangerous, particularly on Tumblr where your profile is likely to be read by a lot of complete strangers.
    (source)
    In the context of the Daily Dot article, something I found even more troubling was the number of people who were posting comments to the effect of, "I can't believe you linked to peoples' Tumblrs without permission!"/"I can't believe you broke the Fourth Wall like this!" while logged in using their Facebook accounts. Facebook, the social network that most people use for their real-life personal interactions and will probably use to interact with coworkers, family members, and people they met at a party six months ago and never interacted with again. In any other context I'd be happy to see people be so open about their love of fandom, and maybe even interpret it as a sign of a new era in fandom wherein fans can feel comfortable about revealing their internet subculture to their real-life acquaintances without fear of being labeled a weirdo. But if you're simultaneously posting under your real name and freaking out about the concept of fandom going "public" or fans/shippers being perceived in a certain way by "outsiders"? Then I can only assume that a lot of young fans really have no idea how information can be accessed on Tumblr, Facebook, and the internet in general.

    A good way to look at this would be through a Sex Ed metaphor. Have fun with fandom, but make sure you always use protection unless you're absolutely prepared for the consequences. Take control of your personal info, and don't post anything in an easily-rebloggable setting like Tumblr or Twitter unless you're OK with anyone seeing it, because the internet gives people the opportunity to be infinitely more creepy than they are in real life. By and large, internet fandom is a great place where you can talk to the kind of geeky, awesome people you might not get to meet IRL (especially if you're still in school), but for every friend you make there are potentially hundreds of people silently passing through and looking at your Tumblr or Twitter without you ever knowing they're there.
    I'm going to end this with a story about something that happened to me a couple of days ago. I bumped into an acquaintance and he and his friend stopped to say hi. Me and this person barely know each other so it was only the most basic of exchanges, with the only thing I said to his friend being, "Nice hoodie", because he'd painted graffiti art all over it. He asked for my name, and when I told him all he said was, "See you on Facebook," in a suddenly super creepy voice, before walking away. He went from zero to serial-killer in less than thirty seconds. In retrospect, I wouldn't even have told this guy my name, and I'm pretty sure you wouldn't either. So if you wouldn't do that, why would you reveal your name, age, hometown and taste in fanfiction to every single person who happens to stumble upon your Tumblr profile?

    18 comments:

    1. I came across this brou-ha-ha the other day as well. Nice wrap up.

      I couldn't help noticing you didn't address the complete butchering of what the "fourth wall" is, though. Because it's definitely not a wall between platforms or inside fandom at all, as some of these tumblr-ites seem to think. (Sorry, the few comments I saw about it were just driving me up a wall.)

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    2. This is an really great post! I addresses a problem that a lot of young people on tumblr seem to have. People give out way too much personal information on tumblr these days.

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    3. Excellent post. I've been active on FB for a few years, and Twitter the last year or so. But, Tumblr kinda took me for a loop when I signed up a month or so ago. I was looking for pictures of my fave celebs, films, interesting things. Pretty much how I discovered your blog (googling for Avengers news - yep, I came for those posts too). I got way more than I bargained for, and some of the things people post just make my skin crawl. Maybe at 36, I am waaayy too old for fandoms? I try to keep my info as private as possible, but your warning is still scarily relevant.

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    4. I'm a reporter who started my career just as the Internet was going mainstream (yes, if you're an old woman, I'm an ancient one), and one instructive thing I learned was just how much you can legally find out a person even from offline sources, if you really look. The thing is, most people just aren't remarkable enough for anyone to really look. So people get accustomed to other people not knowing a lot of things about them, and assume that this is due to some privacy rules instead of them just not being that important to society at large (because of course, they are important to themselves and everyone they know!). It can be a shock to find out otherwise, but better to find out sooner rather than later.

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    5. Great post!

      I have no clue if that applies in the case of the 1D fans who were commenting on the Daily Dot article, but I feel compelled to add that I remember hearing someone sort of in the know re: privacy & internet usage - probably Danah Boyd? - that teenagers often *look* like they're using Facebook w/ their real IDs but aren't.. It seems a lot of teens create real-sounding accounts, use them for a few months, then delete everything and create a new one. (I personally wouldn't trust FB for deleting shit off their servers, but it's still not the same as using your super-real-for-serious FB account all the time everywhere forever).

      Anyway, that's just an aside. Thank you for this post. :)

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    6. Very, very good points. It's been a long time since I've thought about "internet safety," despite growing up in the '90s and seeing probably hundreds of PSAs and ads about stranger danger and internet predators and whatnot. I mean, I've been in online fandom since around 2002 or so, and I'm in my twenties now; I know how to take care of myself! But I'm a newish adopter of tumblr, and I'm so used to LJ-style blogging/culture/communication that I sometimes forget how very public tumblr is, especially relative to the culture I came from (several layers of flock, people i've known for five years, etc). So this is a great post, especially in light of the newer generations of fans, who are dealing with an internet that's already pretty radically different from the one I grew up using.

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    7. I really agree with everything you are saying here. I have been in fandom for around 10 years, I think I found it about the same age that you did. I used to think of it as a small community of people who shared my interests (harry/draco) who were also supportive and friendly. And though I never liked or used the term 'bnf, but people like Aja or Cassandra Claire (sp?) had wide-spread influence over fandom. That was before anything had the capability of going VIRAL and before we all moved over to Tumblr.


      tl;dr i'm electing you and Aja to be the voice of fandom-reason. good day.

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    8. The notion that internet forum of any kind is private is laughable. The power of exponential exposure is just too great and somehow people (age irrelevant) just cannot grasp this. I guess everyone still feel entitled/expect some kind of privacy - not be hacked, not have profiles laid bare, etc. However unless you actively try and get around it

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    9. the thing is, the format of tumblr is was more impersonal than things like twitter or LJ, so maybe people are overcompensating by putting their identity right out there?? which is obviously a terrible idea.

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    10. yeah, i've heard stuff like this too, but i wouldn't put too much trust in it. i think it's way more common for kids to have multiple TWITTER accounts than multiple facebook accounts (altho i think kids and teenagers are way more likely to think of facebook accounts as disposable than adults are -- many of my own friends want to delete their facebook accounts but feel like they "can't".)

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    11. yes! i'm so sure that it'd be pretty fo find out my real ID (and many peoples') if you really tried, and for kids like this on tumblr? WORRYINGLY EASY. i actually remember reading something a while back that ties into this, regarding "trust" and internet safety/privacy. parents were teaching their kids to tell them all of their passwords as a sign of trust, and when those kids grew into teenagers they'd then tell their close friends and boyfriends/girlfriends their passwords to prove how close they were -- which, of course, resulted in those passwords being leaked whenever they had an argument. whereas someone in their 20s or 30s would probably only tell one person their passwords -- in case of death or emergency, or whatever.

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    12. eh, i decided not to bother trying to argue with any of the content, just in case a bunch of 1D fans did come my way and end up reading the post. i find larry stylinson culture to be a bit baffling & the usage of "fourth wall" is wrong and/or different slang from what we're used to, but i didn't want to muddy the overall message of STOP PUTTING YOUR PERSONAL INFO ALL OF THE INTERNET.

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    13. As others have said, everything you've said here goes for pretty much all blogs and forms of online presence, not just Tumblr. (Except sites where you can set your posts to private, like Livejournal. Even that doesn't guarantee that they won't get out somehow.) Nothing publicly visible on the Internet is secret. Tumblr is only different in that it's designed to make it super easy for anyone's random post to go viral.



      To be honest, most of the time that doesn't matter. The vast majority of the stuff that people post online is not particularly damaging to them - most fandom stuff, for instance, might be a bit embarassing at worst but is not really going to harm your reputation, especially given how mainstream fandom is these days. And most of us aren't important enough to have significant reputations to harm anyway.



      That said, it does happen every so often that a completely random person posts something which goes viral for the wrong reasons and makes them the laughing stock of the Internet. That's always something a risk worth remembering: "How would I feel if this was on the front page of reddit?" For most of us though, it's never going to happen.


      The real dangers, I think, are from people posting their personal information online, in ways that make it possible for others to stalk and harass them, or commit identity fraud. That's what we should really be warning the kids about, more than posting silly stuff on Tumblr.

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    14. argh, do i want to be the voice of reason for anyone?? sounds like a lot of pressure. regarding BNFs -- i have no idea how that works on tumblr, or even if there ARE BNFs in tumblr fandom?? or maybe because i'm not really "in" any fandoms at the moment i just don't know.

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    15. well... yes, the privacy thing is true of any social network where you're not starting off by using your real ID (ie, facebook), but my experience has definitely been that with tumblr fandom + the current generation of younger teenage fans, the culture is DEFINITELY more trusting and open (in a dangerous way) than it was five or ten years ago. for example, people are way more open about having their picture online, and revealing their IRL name to fandom people. the reason why this is particularly important for the 1D fans is that they ARE in a really heated environment where someone COULD easily stalk or harass them -- in fact, fans on both sides of the larry stylinson "debate" have been complaining of casual death threats, harassment, etc, and their rumour mill seems to go at lightspeed thanks to the rapidity of tumblr and twitter posting. plus, a lot of the actual content of larry stylinson posts are more embarrassing than what i'd class as typical fandom fare, because they edge more into the realm of straight-up conspiracy theorising -- for example, many of them openly posted angry messages on tumblr (or via facebook messaging on the daily dot) that the writer of the daily dot article was paid off by "management" to help in the cover-up, etc.

      i wasn't trying to criticise people AT ALL for posting "silly stuff" on tumblr, because the way i see it, that's what tumblr is for! more like -- post whatever the hell you want, just don't put your real-life identity anywhere near it unless you think you'll be happy about your IRL acquaintances finding it now or in the future.

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    16. There are BNFs on tumblr.

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    17. Even scarier is I've seen people put their actual PHONE NUMBER in tumblr posts. Like their real number and asked people to text them! I come from the dark age of the internet started back in 1996 and that...was something you just don't do...even in a locked or private post you didn't even want to do it in email. Now they throw around this information like it's popcorn and think they're safe and then turn around and freak out when a fannish post gets linked to in a fannish way...eek.

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