The True Story Behind Tumblr's Most Infamous Kickstarter
"I would press refresh and the follower number would increase. I was like, ‘wow, what the hell.’"
Welcome to Extra Garbage Day! These Thursday issues are typically paywalled interviews with people I think are on the forefront of tech and web culture. Allegra Rosenberg contributed to the research and reporting for this piece.
The tangled story of “Miss Officer And Mr. Truffles” starts in 2011, with a small and, honestly, kind of sad news story for a tiny Canadian newspaper. On June 22, 2011, The Telegram, a Canadian newspaper covering Newfoundland and Labrador, published a story titled, “Bear cub meets sad end”. The story was accompanied by a photo of RCMP Constable Suzanne Bourque being approached by a tiny bear cub.
Bourque was reportedly interviewing people at Terra Nova National Park about bear cub sightings when a bear cub wandered up to her. The Telegram story initially reported that the bear cub in the photo was then euthanized, though, in another story in 2014, Bourque said that it was a different cub that was euthanized, not the one from the photo.
But tragic backstory be damned, the photo of Bourque was shared to Tumblr a year later, in November 2012, according to Know Your Meme. A now-deactivated user named teamcocket posted the photo with the caption, “officer come quick there’s been a robbery.” From there, it bounced around Tumblr gathering notes until January 6, 2014, when Tumblr user Typette shared the post, writing the now infamous caption, “This would be a great cartoon. Like, this RCMP lady and a bear just going around solving crimes and mysteries and helping folks out.”
Seven days later, another Tumblr user, who asked I only refer to her as “A,” drew a few pictures of what that cartoon might look like. A titled the fictitious cartoon “Miss Officer And Mr. Truffles” and to say that it was a hit is an understatement. The original teamcocket post has 171,000 notes as of 2021 and A’s followup post, sharing more fan art of Bourque and the bear cub has 271,000 notes.
But the only word for what would happen next is “massive clusterfuck,” with accusations of fraud being thrown around, with vicious and public infighting playing out in front of Tumblr’s then extremely rabid and young audience.
A told me this week, “I think I messed up so bad that I don't think it can be something that can happen again.”
Getting hard numbers on Tumblr user activity is tricky because it is, effectively, two different websites existing at the same time. There is the dashboard, which offers users a Twitter-like feed of content that you can like, reblog, and comment on and then there are the actual fully-customizable blogs users have, which function more similarly to something like Wordpress. Also, Tumblr on mobile and Tumblr on desktop are also very different beasts.
Over the last decade, there have been a bunch of attempts at measuring exactly how big the site’s community is — monthly active users, number of blogs, raw traffic, etc. And most of these metrics say that 2014 was Tumblr’s peak, at least for a while. (Tumblr does actually appear to be larger now than it was in 2014.)
In 2014, the year of “Miss Officer And Mr. Truffles,” Tumblr was bigger than Instagram, at one point reaching 100 million posts a day. And over half of the website was under the age of 34 according to some estimates. 2014 was also the year that DashCon happened, which would effectively end the platform’s first big era.
In the years since Tumblr's “peak,” a few of the platform’s biggest personalties have unmasked themselves, most notably in the 2016 New Republic Tumblr deep dive and, then recently, Liat Kaplan coming forward as the author of Your Fave Is Problematic in a New York Times Style piece this year. But. for the most part, the people behind the usernames that caused so much grief and stress deactivated and moved on. Though, as I learned from my interview in July with Lochlan O’Neil, the creator of the Tumbl-Con blog, the Tumblr that would eventually evolve into DashCon, teenage Tumblr dramas aren’t super easy to shake, even years later.
And the story that A told me this week about her time as the main character of Tumblr isn’t so different from O’Neil’s, either — a young internet user swept up in the mania of Tumblr virality only to have it all come crashing down when the internet decided to turn on her.
A, who is from Mexico, said she made an account on Tumblr when she was around 14. “I just started posting art because that's the only thing I've ever done since I was able to, like, post stuff online,” she told me. “I was posting fan art, mostly. Like Homestuck fan art and other things I liked.”
She said she didn’t have a massive following, but by the time the photo of Bourque and the bear cub crossed her dashboard four years later, she had enough followers to immediately get some eyeballs.
“I just made like, I think, three-or-four mock-up pictures like there was a cartoon. And that's it,” she said. “I closed my computer at one point. When I came back, I was like, ‘holy—holy shit.’ I would press refresh and the follower number would increase. I was like, ‘wow, what the hell.’”
Just a day after A had uploaded her art, a YouTube account named Flikkof uploaded a short animation, complete with an original theme song. It’s since been deleted, but there are reuploads still on YouTube if you want to check it out. Honestly, it’s genuinely pretty good. Extremely twee, but good!
Two days after that, on January 16, Bourque made a Tumblr account and took a photo of herself in front of A’s art. It was then picked up by The Daily Dot, where it became a bonafide viral story. Even by today’s standards, things were moving extremely fast.
Between Tumblr book deals and the explosion of Welcome To Night Vale, there was a real sense in 2014 that if the website’s young audience wanted something bad enough they could manifest it into reality. In many ways, we’re seeing this impulse happen again with kids on TikTok. The only difference now is that commerce and virality are so intrinsically tied together that TikTok users can actually pull off what they want to accomplish, whether that’s a cult or a massive rager.
A said that amid the viral frenzy she received several messages from other Tumblr users asking her if she’d be interested in working on turning her art into a TV show. She said they planned to launch a Kickstarter for “Miss Officer And Mr. Truffles”.
As an 18-year-old student living in Mexico, A said that she thought maybe this would be her chance to break into the animation industry. She said there aren’t a lot of chances for young artists in Mexico and hoped this could be her way to connect with American TV networks or animation studios.
A declined to name or comment on the other users who were involved with launching the Kickstarter, but according to versions of the announcement post still bouncing around Tumblr, there were at least two other Tumblr users involved with the project. And A said they were much more active than she was.
“They had a group chat with the animators, who I honestly never met,” she said. “They were doing everything. I was still in school.”
She said that they took charge of the entire project. But they were using her character designs. And, crucially, her name and her username were on the Kickstarter. The Kickstarter page went up on June 3, 2014, and almost immediately things started to get very messy.
First, users discovered that A had been using the username “livethefaggotry” on various social accounts. And then that post was reblogged and turned into a callout post by a former animator who had worked on the project, who accused the team behind the “Miss Officer And Mr. Truffles” Kickstarter of bullying, withholding payments, and defrauding supporters by claiming to work with artists and companies they weren’t actually working with.
Users also balked at the amount of money the Kickstarter was asking for — $80,000 for a seven-minute short to pitch TV networks. There was also a tremendous amount of confusion about what was and wasn’t officially part of the project. This was likely a side effect of Tumblr’s young and decentralized creative community getting excited about it. On a platform of fan artists, separating out the fan works from non-fan works is near impossible once things start going viral.
After barely a day, the drama surrounding the project got big enough that Your Kickstarter Sucks aggregated all the callout posts, writing, “Here’s a big mess of a thing that’s making its way around the tumblrverse.”
According to A, the “livethefaggotry” username, which she regrets, came from an internet culture in Mexico in the late 2000s that was she said was based on internalized racism and homophobia. “Turns out this is bad,” she said. “Which is obvious now. It's so much clearer now. But back then, the humor was way, way meaner.”
By the time The Daily Dot had written a second story about the Kickstarter, which drove even more abuse and harassment towards A’s blog, things were already pretty much over. “The Kickstarter never fully got funded and, honestly, I was so relieved,” A said. “Because when it doesn't get funded, all the people that donated get their money back.”
As for the animators who claimed they were never paid, A said she still doesn’t know everything that happened. She said that time in her life is blurry for her, but she did spend a considerable amount of her own money that she never got back.
In one of those weird quirks of fate, it’s likely that Tumblr community moved on from the Kickstarter because less than a month later DashCon would happen, eclipsing any and all other drama happening on the platform. A real Bean Dad/Capitol Insurrection situation.
Nowadays, A is working as a professional artist in Mexico. She said things are much better for her, but she’s aware that she’s become a permanent fixture of Tumblr lore. She also has a better understanding of everything that happened.
After the Kickstarter timed out, she largely abandoned Tumblr and has spent the years since trying to process what happened. “Something that sucked was the due date was my birthday. So yeah,” she said.
A said she now recognizes that the users who approached her about turning “Miss Officer And Mr. Truffles” into a show were older than her and now feels like they exploited her and took advantage of her.
“I needed therapy, 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?”
Ten years ago, our internet communities were smaller and felt more personal, but, weirdly, it seems like we knew way less about the people were interacting with online than we do now. A teenage girl from Mexico could suddenly be working with professional artists she met on the internet and get wrapped up in a high-profile crowdfunding scandal and suddenly be trying to field requests for comment from reporters in America in between her high school classes. Reading back everything that was written at the time, the stakes felt so high and the emotions were so intense, but it all just seems really silly.
What happened with “Miss Officer And Mr. Truffles” is interesting especially because of how prescient it all was. It happened a month before DashCon, four years before Fyre Festival, and almost a decade before our current NFT/DAO crypto crowdfunding boom. In many ways, the messy and chaotic implosion of “Miss Officer And Mr. Truffles” paved the way for an internet — and pop culture at large — defined in its image.
Random viral moments turn into legitimate entertainment all the time now. Zola, a film based on a Twitter thread, won an independent film award. Within every community, all over the internet now, there are projects like A’s, birthed from a fun random idea and crowdsourced by groups of users, which either completely shit the bed or become a Netflix show — or become a crypto scam, I guess.
“I guess I had to swallow all the all the guilt,” A said. “I really hope no one goes through what I went through — I know it will happen, but not on the same scale.”
If you’ve been forwarded this email, welcome! You can check out a full list of the previous Extra Garbage Days here. And here’s a short list of who I’ve interviewed recently:
And, lastly, because we’re talking about Tumblr and it’s now officially December, if you haven’t ever heard it before, go check out this MIDI version of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You”.
***Typos in this email aren’t on purpose, but sometimes they happen***