A journey into the ravaging vortex of Tumblr drama
Read to the end for a two good orb memes
What Exactly Was Tumblr Drama?
Yesterday, I sent out a paid Garbage Day to subscribers digging into the story of “Miss Officer And Mr. Truffles,” the most infamous failed Kickstarter in Tumblr history. If you’ve never heard this story, it all started with a viral photo of a Canadian police officer and a bear cub. A small newspaper published the photo in 2011, and, a few months later, in 2012, the photo ended up on Tumblr, where it bounced around for a few years.
Then, in 2014, a Tumblr user named Typette shared the post, musing, “This would be a great cartoon. Like, this RCMP lady and a bear just going around solving crimes and mysteries and helping folks out.”
That’s when a then-18-year-old artist from Mexico drew a few pictures imagining what this cop and bear cartoon might look like, calling it “Miss Officer And Mr. Truffles”. It went insanely viral. The original RCMP officer from the photo even made a Tumblr and posed in a photo with the fan art. Users made an original theme song and even started building out a cast of characters to go with the show.
The viral frenzy turned toxic when the 18-year-old artist was approached by two older users on the site, who asked her if she wanted to try kickstarting a seven-minute test animation to pitch to TV networks. Over the course of the first half of 2014, the entire project blew up in the most public way possible. Animators took to Tumblr to claim they weren’t being paid for their work on it, companies were claiming that the Kickstarter was lying about collaborating with them, and the original artist behind the project was “canceled” after users discovered her previous username on various platforms was “livethefaggotry”. By June 2014, the Kickstarter had raised about $7,000 of their $80,000 goal and, in the end, they ended up not funding the project, but did become an immortal part of “Tumblr lore,” dissected at length by various YouTube channels and Tumblr retrospectives.
And the teenage artist who found herself at the center of the blowback has never spoken about what happened until now.
The artist requested to be referred to as “A” and she’s now in her mid-20s and is working as a professional artist, but she told me that it took a lot of therapy to process what she now sees as her being exploited and taken advantage of by older users she met on Tumblr. “They were doing everything. I was still in school,” A said.
When A’s drawings first went viral, she believed that this could be her chance to break into the animation industry. She said that growing up in Mexico she didn’t think she’d ever get a chance to work for an American studio and decided to trust the older users who approached her . Which is how she ended up in the middle of a crowdfunding scandal that would eventually end up a bonafide news story in the US while still in high school.
“I was obviously super depressed,” she said. “At the beginning, you think it's dumb because it's like, ‘how can something from the internet hurt me so much?’ But just because it's online doesn't mean can’t hurt you, you know?”
But what I was struck by most of all was how similar A’s experience was to Lochlan O’Neil’s. If you don’t remember (or weren’t reading Garbage Day yet), O’Neil was the original user behind the Tumbl-Con blog, the Tumblr that would eventually evolve into DashCon. I interviewed O’Neil over the summer and she described an almost identical journey into the ravaging vortex of Tumblr drama.
O’Neil made a fun thing when she was 16 years old and shared it online. Other users got excited about it and it went viral. Older users then approached her and asked if they could help her turn it into something “real” — in her case, a fan convention for Tumblr. And then things went completely sour and the teenager at the center of it was left as the public face of the disaster, taking in all the hate and vitriol and ridicule.
I suspect the more I dig into these kind of Tumblr dramas from 10 years ago (and I plan to) the more of these stories I’m going to find. But I think they can help us understand what may be happening to a new generation of internet users who are having their own “Miss Officer And Mr. Truffles”-esque scandals on TikTok and Discord. Is kickstarting a TV show based on a viral Tumblr thread all that different from the Minecraft YouTube fans who built Discord servers to roleplay as fictitious Minecraft YouTubers? Well, maybe it’s a little different, but the impulses are the same.
Every new social platform for young people, whether it’s Myspace, Tumblr, or TikTok, seems to create these moments of random viral excitement, which attract weird manipulative adults, who push young users into wildly overhyped projects, which eventually crash and burn. And I think it’s important to make sure we aren’t making the same mistakes we made 10 years ago when we write about these things.
Reading back this week through some of what was written about the “Miss Officer And Mr. Truffles” drama was, honestly, kind of upsetting. There was a meanness and a deeply ingrained feeling of spite surrounding internet culture a decade ago that I think is a lot better now, but I think the blogs covering these “scandals” made things so much worse for the very young internet users who were involved. Tumblr’s pseudonymity is partly to blame for this. Nowadays, it’s very rare that you don’t know exactly who is behind something happening online, while in 2014, it was totally possible to be unknowingly leading a hate campaign against a random Mexican teenager who drew fan art of a bear. But also I know that some of my own reporting from back then was meaner than it needed to be. Part of that, I think, came from trying to explain internet culture to older editors who were looking for clear and concise ways to cover what the heck was going on online. But I, honestly, think there was also just a real anger and distrust towards people who were going viral. There was some feeling that what was happening wasn’t natural and these kids were actually exploiting us by forcing us to be aware of them, when in reality, it was usually them who were being exploited and then thrown to the digital masses to be torn apart.
“I think I messed up so bad that I don't think it can be something that can happen again,” A told me this week. “I guess I had to swallow all the guilt,” she quipped.
Unfortunately, I’m not so sure she’s right. I think as we reach some kind of exit path from the pandemic there will be many failed internet projects led by equally optimistic, but naive teenagers. And there will inevitably be drama. I just hope that instead of pointing at laughing at these kids for trying to build stuff — even if they do go about it in a completely boneheaded and dumb way — we stop and try and get a sense of the full picture of what’s going on first. Because, as I’m learning, behind every internet teen drama there seem to be a lot of weird adults involved who should absolutely know better.
A Beginner’s Guide To C-Ent
Anecdotally speaking — which is to say, from my perspective as an American who is active in fandom spaces online — one of the most noticeable changes over the last few years has been the rise of C-ent (Chinese entertainment) properties as a major presence on English-speaking social platforms. Korean and Japanese dramas have been popular for a while now, especially once legal ways to stream them started popping up in the 2010s, but few, if any of them, ever made a big splash in fandom the way that Cdramas like The Untamed have.
The newfound popularity of these properties can be attributed to accessibility, certainly, but, more importantly, it’s their content. Generally adapted from popular danmei (or BL, a.k.a. Boy’s Love) web novels, the shows all star a central M/M pairing, which, inevitably, ends up as canon in the novels and as close to canon as it’s possible to be under state censorship in the dramas. The plots are extremely trope-heavy — a well-tuned mix of the sort of pining, miscommunication, tension, and loyalty that drives the most popular slashfic stories.
It’s no wonder these novels and their adaptations have been irresistible to the type of fans who made Migratory Slash Fandom a thing. In 2020, only the main pairing from The Untamed made Tumblr’s top ships list, but this year there are pairings from three: The Untamed (again), Word of Honor, and Heaven’s Official Blessing. On AO3, Lan Zhan/Wei Wuxian from The Untamed was the #3 most popular ship written between August 2020 and August 2021, and the corresponding RPF pairing (shipping the two actors who played the characters) also made the list.
Being a Western fan of Cdramas means getting an education in not only the expansive Chinese mythology and history behind the central tropes of xianxia and wuxia, but in the contemporary mainland politics governing the production, marketing, and censorship of the novels and dramas. This year, a massive scandal unfolded in the Cdrama fandom world when the heartthrob Zhang Zhehan, a.k.a. ZZH, one half of Word of Honor’s main pairing, was deplatformed and boycotted after the surfacing of years-old photos of him near a Japanese shrine devoted to, among others, members of the Japanese military convicted of war crimes against China. Within days, his social media profiles were banned, the shows he starred in were removed from streaming platforms, and he lost all of his many high-level sponsorship deals. A prominent journalist nicknamed “Uncle Li,” who has high-level government connections, has committed to trying to help ZZH, but, as of now, it’s unclear whether he will have any success.
This is just one small element of the larger crackdown across industries (including entertainment and social media) that has been taking place in China this year. But it’s the element that a lot of young English speakers are becoming familiar with first and foremost because of their fandom interests. There is a booming fan-industry, found across Discord, Twitter, and Tumblr, devoted to translating not only Chinese-language media and press, but helping to make understandable the complex cultural politics that are concomitant with its existence. Stuff like getting politically blacklisted is not something that your average American teen fan is familiar with on first blush.
Unlike the highly visible popularity of anime and K-pop in the West, the C-ent stuff hasn’t quite bubbled up into the mainstream yet, though. Based on its explosive rise within fandom, and clear popularity with young people, one is tempted to declare it inevitable — yet, it’s unclear if larger factors, like internal reforms in China or the general geopolitical situation, will affect it getting a solid foothold.
A New Framework For Radicalization
There’s a totally fascinating new paper out in Nature this week. Ashton Anderson, an assistant professor of computer science at University of Toronto, and Isaac Waller, also at the University of Toronto, published a study titled, “Quantifying social organization and political polarization in online platforms”. In a Twitter thread, Anderson called it, “a new paradigm for the analysis of online platforms”.
So what did Anderson and Waller find? Well, most interestingly, it wasn’t that Reddit radicalized users, but that users radicalized Reddit.
Anderson and Waller’s research found that the 2016 Trump campaign created a massive polarization event within Reddit’s communities and it appears to have affected almost every community on the site. But here’s where it gets most interesting:
“The intense increase in polarization in 2016 was disproportionately driven by new (and newly political) users” Anderson wrote. “In short, we don’t see much evidence for the platform polarizing people. Instead, new people polarized the platform in 2016.”
It’s important to note that this study is specifically about Reddit, which is run by a central algorithm — upvotes vs. downvotes over time — but is a very different ecosystem than something like Facebook or YouTube. But, also, Anderson and Waller’s findings confirm something that many long-time watchers of internet culture I follow are becoming more and more vocal about: Digital spaces were actively brigaded by extremist users in the lead up to the Trump presidential campaign.
Websites like 4chan and Reddit were fertile ground for white nationalists (like all digital spaces predominantly used by bored young men), but they did not radicalize by themselves. Going through the open source PDF of Anderson and Waller’s study, I couldn’t find any mention to gamergate (which is kind of weird), but I’m going to guess that if you dug through the data looking for it, you’d find exactly how and when these platforms were turned into recruitment centers via gamergate content and end up with a pretty clear picture of who was doing it and to what end.
The Post-Jack Era Of Twitter Has Begun
As my long-time cyberbully Rusty Foster described it, the great “@Jack Off” this week was quickly followed up by a bunch of changes on the platform. First, Twitter announced that it would be changing its policy regarding photos of non-public persons. You can no longer share “media of private individuals without the permission of the person(s) depicted” on Twitter. The way this works is that if a user feels that their image or likeness is being shared without their consent, they can flag it to Twitter, who will take it down.
This has already been weaponized politically as a way to silence users crowdsourcing information about January 6 insurrectionists. Very cool.
There also appears to be a pretty sizable purge of accounts happening right now. The Guardian reports that thousands of accounts linked to the Chinese Communist Party have been taken down. Meanwhile, a lot of Twitch streamers and YouTubers with a ton of nazis in their fanbases are complaining that their follower counts are decreasing by the thousands.
Good to see that Twitter will keep its commitment post-@Jack Off to being the messiest, most short-sighted platform on the internet when it comes to moderation. Literally might as well just start making policy decisions with a dartboard.
This Song Goes So Hard
The Fan Fiction World Is A Very Small Place
Two days ago, a Reddit user asked the members of the r/whatsthatbook subreddit for some help:
help solve a fight with my girlfriend - book with monster clown that can turn into fears but NOT king's IT???
i say it's not king's IT she says it is. we've been disagreeing about this on and off for a year because she keeps bringing up scenes and going on about how good they were in the book but i've read IT and those scenes aren't in it.
The scenes that the OP’s girlfriend remembered involved the IT kids going to summer camp and, at one point, fighting a rabid bear. Well, it turns out that OP’s girlfriend was remembering something related to Stephen King’s IT, but not the official thing.
“Hey OP, does your gf read fanfiction by any chance,” the top commenter asked.
“she says no but she didn't say no fast if you get what i mean, very suspicious stuff,” OP wrote back. “and now she's giving me guilty looks. if she's been telling me how good some random fanfiction is for the last 12 months while thinking it was the og i'm taking my pajamas and going home”
After a bit of back-and-forth, they realized that, yes, OP’s girlfriend was thinking of an IT fan fiction, but a new question appeared: How did this random Reddit commenter know about this fanfic?
“she left the room when i told her it's a fanfiction and then she came back to ask how you could possibly know that and now she's left again. i think you got it. she wouldn't be so mad otherwise,” the OP wrote.
“I know because I wrote them lmao,” the commenter replied.
What Exactly Is MSCHF?
MSCHF is a very buzzy and slightly secretive marketing firm that is responsible for cool viral stunts like the “Jesus kicks”. But is what YouTuber Coffeezilla discovered also true? Is MSCHF actually just a way to covertly market-test novelty goods? Is MSCHF connected to another company called Circo Global? And if they aren’t then why does Circo Global have the same address as MSCHF and why is Circo Global selling novelty goods that are near-identical to the products that MSCHF “drops”?
Some Stray Links
***Any typos in this email are on purpose actually***