You Did the Thing
A conversation with Gretchen McCulloch about the language of fandom
As long as fans have been online, they’ve been shaping internet language—and internet language has been shaping fandom in turn.
Internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch was one of our very first Fansplaining guests—to this day, episode 15 is the only one to earn the true honor of sparkly ~semi-ironic tildes~ in the title. When her first book, Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language (!!) was published recently, I called her up to talk about memes, AO3 tags and comments, fanfiction’s blend of formal and informal language, and all sorts of other fannish linguistic topics.
What follows is a transcript of two Extremely Online people having a conversation with our actual voices 😂. Many thanks to expert transcriptionist Allyson Gross.
Elizabeth Minkel: I wanna start with memes.
Gretchen McCullough: Let’s talk about memes.
ELM: I think that the most fannish part of the book is the meme chapter—would you agree?
GM: Yeah, absolutely. The meme chapter is ostensibly about memes, but it’s also about creating things on the internet. There’s a bit where I talk about creating things that feel amateurish, and how that can be a more accessible or more exciting way to start creating something than when you are only faced with creative works that look too polished. So it’s like, how do I even start doing this?
ELM: That paragraph jumped out at me on so many levels. Like how when fanfiction gets compared to professionally-published stuff, people rarely talk about the value of these missing levels of polish. Or it made me think about how many ‘fic-like’ works don’t actually foreground the source in that way—so many things are influenced by other things, but fanworks are really explicit, ‘here is the source right here.’ The point of it is that you see it.
GM: Yeah, one thing I cut from this chapter in the book was in an earlier draft, I had a big discussion of intertextuality, the idea that texts refer to other texts and things can build on each other. And fandom makes a lot of that intertextuality very explicit, like, this is gonna be a crossover between Pride and Prejudice and the Temeraire series, just to take an example of a fic that I was reading recently—now we have Elizabeth Bennet and dragons. Fanfic makes that act very explicit. I love any time I read a fic and I see “so and so made me do it.” Or like, “Tumblr made me do it,” or “this person made me do it and I blame them.” I know that’s gonna be a good fic.
GM: It makes that communal aspect of creation that much more explicit, where you know you have an Author’s Note that’s like, this person egged me on, this was this person’s idea and I can’t stop thinking about it and I had to write it. That’s not something you get so much with traditionally-published writing. You get the acknowledgements, ‘so and so was very helpful,’ but you don’t get that intimate involvement with the act of creation.
ELM: It also makes me think a lot about your writing on formal and informal kinds of language. If you had a whole chapter on fandom specifically, I’d want to read about how fanfiction winds up blending that a little. And I think what you’re describing there is actually a really good example of it.
GM: Yeah! I think that’s a good point. Because you know, there are aspects of fic, it has more traditional paragraphs and punctuation and these kinds of things. But sometimes, especially when it tends to experiment with form a bit more, you can have something that’s written entirely in text message exchanges, or characters commenting on each other’s LiveJournals, or something like this. They’re using the written medium in that more informal sense, in a more experimental sense. Especially like, comments on fanfiction?
ELM: Mmm hmm.
GM: So this has become a bit of a meme now, “describe your novel in terms of its AO3 tags.” But you also have, like, what if blurbs on books were actually written as if they were comments on fanfiction. It’s like, “Ahhhhh! Oh my God! I can’t believe this! It did the thing!”
GM: Or like, “They’re sharing a bed! There’s only one room left in the hotel and they have to share a bed! I can’t believe it, they’re huddling for warmth!”
GM: So you have these very excited reactions to things. Whereas the kinds of comments you see on a book is like, “This is an effervescent study of the whatever thing-a-majig. Highly readable.” We have this way of talking for book reviews, it’s like, you can be very positive and very superlative, but it’s still not how anyone actually talks. When you like a book you’re like, “Oh my God, I love this book, you have to read this.”
ELM: I think what you’re talking about is the kind of reaction, the keysmash, the “it did the thing,” is putting the affect directly into the language. More formal critical language that you put on the front of the book removes that, deliberately. As a critic I’m not gonna be like, “It did the thing!” Not least because that would be incomprehensible to many readers, specifically those who are not Extremely Online. But I’m not trying to tell them that it hit me emotionally like that. Because even if it did, I’d have to find a way to say that with more distance. Whereas on the internet, I don’t need to do that.
GM: That gets to exactly one of the big differences I find between formal and informal language, whether that’s speech or writing or signing. Formal language is disembodied. If you’re telling a news story, whether you’re a news anchor or journalist, you’re trying to remove yourself from the news. It's really obvious in that sort of, The Economist, “Your correspondent did this thing,” but even in a regular news story, or criticism that’s about your reaction to the work, you’re having your reaction be an avatar for the audience. You’re not having your reaction be personal—“this reminded me of my mom”—you’re trying to have your reaction say, “this speaks to this broader cultural conversation,” or “readers may wonder whether...”
So you’re projecting this different reaction, trying to make yourself… well, I was gonna say “self-insert” for the audience, which is another fannish thing. But you’re trying to have this more detached reaction. Whereas one of the things we do with informal writing is we try to reembody it, we try to have this reaction in real time. You try to express the emotions as you’re feeling them very viscerally, whether that’s keysmash, emoticons or emoji, or just incoherent screaming. This is the reaction I am having, me specifically as a person, to your work, not just someone else is thinking this or someone might have this reaction, but this is me in particular and I am having this reaction to it.
ELM: Right, but now you have me thinking about all the layers going on here. Like, say you wrote my favorite fanfiction and I met you IRL. Would I be like, “Oh my God, oh my God, I died when I read it,” and just fall over you? Probably not. Well, I might, because well...
GM: You would be like, oh, I need to have some chill.
ELM: Yeah, right? I don’t know what I would do in that situation, I would probably freak out. But on the internet you feel like all those layers are removed, you feel like you’re able to have your truest reaction, but you’re also doing it in a semi-anonymized space. You’re probably using a pseudonym, talking to someone else using a pseudonym.
GM: And you’re doing it in a semi-performative sort of way. So I wrote this article for WIRED about the AO3 tagging system, right?
ELM: I love that article so much.
GM: I had so much fun writing it. And in it, I talked briefly about fandom as a gift economy. Someone writes a fic and releases it into the ether, and people enjoy that, but part of the social contract, if you really like a fic, maybe you’re going to leave that over-the-top comment so the writer can have the emotional gratification of, “people really liked this.” So for example, in the WIRED article, one of the examples I had from a tag wrangler named spacegandalf—I was really pleased to be able to cite everybody by their fannish pseudonyms in that article, my editor didn’t even question it, which was great.
ELM: Good job, WIRED.
GM: So spacegandalf gave me this example. There are two characters in this fictional podcast called “The Man in the Tan Jacket” and “The Man in the Brown Jacket,” from Welcome to Night Vale and The Penumbra Podcast. And you might expect an automated system to get them confused, especially when “The Man in the Brown Jacket” is sometimes named “Big Guy Jacket Man” in the tags. And so obviously my immediate response to, “there are two jacket characters?” was, “I ship it.”
ELM: Good! Amazing.
GM: I don’t know anything about Brown Jacket Guy, but of course I ship it. Can there be crossover fic of this? And spacegandalf was like, “Hmmm,” and when the article came out and I had this line in there like, “Is there fic containing both of them? Alas, no.” Spacegandalf was like, “OK, I will take pity on you and write you this jacket fic.” It’s a complete crack fic, but it’s an amazing crack fic. There’s a bar, and all of the characters in it have jackets. So there’s a girl in a short skirt and a long jacket, there’s three children in a trenchcoat. All of your iconic jacket characters.
ELM: Oh my God.
GM: It’s delightful. I was so pleased. So I was freaking out about this on Twitter, but of course I got the link on AO3, and I was like, wait a second, I need to leave a comment on AO3 about this fic particularly because part of this gift economy of fandom is not just enjoying the fic but also performing my gratitude for the fic in the socially-approved sorts of ways.
I don’t wanna say I didn’t enjoy the fic and I wasn’t grateful for the fic, because I very, very much was, but I was also like, oh wait, I need to go leave a comment on the fic using my name, not a fannish name, so the people know that the person who this fic was written for has acknowledged it. And that was part of this whole interaction. I did it very quickly, I wasn’t thinking about it too consciously, but it was just like, this whole system is that this person who this fic was written for needs to acknowledge it in this explicit sort of way.
ELM: But that’s so interesting because it just feels like it takes away some of the spontaneity or informality of it.
GM: I dunno, I don’t expect people to give me a birthday present, but if I get it I’m still thanking them.
ELM: Absolutely. I’m not saying it’s insincere, but there is something very interesting in this sort of… the idea of a performative immediate reaction, or not necessarily prescribed… or, maybe, templated?
GM: Part of the reason I think this is a little constructed is that I’ve seen fic comment templates make their way around Tumblr.
ELM: Yes, so have I.
GM: Let’s say, “If you like a fic, you should leave a comment. It’s OK to leave kudos but it’s really good to leave a comment. Maybe you’re wondering what kind of comment you can leave. Quoting a specific line that you like is a good way to start, or here are some templates for ways you can feel more comfortable about leaving comments.” This was very interesting to me, I’ve seen several of those.
I mean, it's also like... I don’t know how to write a real postcard to a friend anymore, because I wrote too many in language classes in my formative years. I only know how to write, “Dear Pierre, I have recently arrived in France. I went to the Eiffel Tower yesterday.”
ELM: That’s all you need to say. "I have arrived, I saw the sight, goodbye." What more?
GM: “I have seen the sight. The baguettes are very good. I wish you were here.”
GM: I don’t know what else one writes in a postcard. But I think in the same way, seeing templates for AO3 comments, it always makes me very self conscious about making comments on AO3 because I’m like, should I be following the template at this point?
ELM: I feel like the conversation around this stuff has gotten a lot more formalized in the past few years.
GM: Going back to making creativity more accessible, breaking down what a successful thing looks like—there’s this study that I cite in the book, a great quote from Limor Shifman, “‘bad’ texts make ‘good’ memes.” When the patchwork, when the seams and the pixels are more evident in something, people feel more inspired to create their own version. So if breaking down what a comment could actually look like actually helps people leave comments, and feel more comfortable leaving comments, maybe that’s OK.
ELM: Sure. It’s not necessarily bad to me, it’s just interesting to think about the amount of emotion going into it, the kind of language that gets used while simultaneously actually being kind of a little more formalized than it may have been in the past.
GM: Yeah, but it’s the same thing with keysmash.
ELM: That was a really interesting part of the book.
GM: Here’s this incoherent mashing of fingers against the keyboards, but the majority of people will actually adjust their keysmash so it looks more like the socially-prescribed keysmash. So you can only go so far down in coherence or authenticity or whatever because we’re always doing things in a social context, looking at the people around us.
ELM: One thing I’ve been really interested in lately is talking about irony and sincerity in fandom. I’m wondering how you see this language manifesting. The internet is full of this kind of ironic protection language, but I think fandom online is one of the places where you see real, true, unfiltered feelings, to the point where people wind up putting a little distance on it again, like, I belong in a trash heap because I am so consumed by these very sincere feelings loving this thing. And I wanna talk about that sort of language, and how people navigate that.
GM: The sort of self-abnegation.
ELM: Yeah, and also like, sincere, “I don’t know how to stop watching this, I’m so obsessed.” Being able to express that, to write that down using the language we use online only. Stuff that, I don’t even know if it would work if we tried to say it IRL, you know?
GM: Yeah, I think some of that stuff, especially the use of all lowercase, or the use of short forms of these kinds of, or very in-groupy forms, saying you’re trash for something, it’s partly a way of making your emotions legible to the right sort of people.
So if you come across fannish stuff and you’re a real hardcore, everything-must-be-punctuated-and-capitalized-like-it’s-a-real-book kind of person, you’re just gonna leave, basically. “These people are putting everything in all lowercase and they use too many exclamation marks and I can’t stay here because it’s too painful for me to watch.” You’re gonna opt out of that, and that’s actually good, because they didn’t want you there.
It’s a way of self-selecting for a particular type of audience. Using a deliberate type of stylized language preemptively removes you from being in a position where you could be criticizing other people for their language. You’re showing you can’t possibly be that person because you’re putting yourself in a position where you’re very clearly not enforcing that.
ELM: Do you think that we’re thinking of that consciously?
GM: I don’t know. I think it’s partially conscious. I think it’s partially also, I’m trying to participate in this particular community and this is what this community does? I don’t know if this was your experience of the early days of the internet, or days of like, blog post comments, or threaded forum comments: when you make like one typo and people just jump on you.
ELM: Yes, I do remember this era.
GM: And the whole comment thread turns into like, well, you misspelled that, and you had this error and you should know better, and people are only welcome on our forum if they have proper punctuation. And even now there are some blogs that I read where if the blogpost makes a minor typo in the thing, not even one that changes the meaning, just a minor typo, you will get commenters being like, “I found a typo for you and I thought you would want to know.” And they're kind of being helpful but they’re also kind of being annoying.
GM: So there's one ethos where, if you see a typo, the morally correct thing to do is point it out, versus another ethos where, if you see a typo, the morally correct thing to do unless you’re actually confused about what’s being said is to just not bother about it. Don’t say anything, don’t worry about it, you understood it, don’t occupy anyone’s neurons with thinking about this anymore.
And I think that’s a shift that happened earlier in fandom, that’s more durable in fandom right now than it is in more formal contexts. If you see a typo, the thing to do is, maybe partially assume the typo was actually intentional, it conveyed some sort of tone of voice. Like the Spiders Georg meme has a couple deliberate typos in it, it has “adn” instead of “and,” and nobody’s like, “Oh, you misspelled this.” It became part of the meme, even if I’m quite sure originally it was actually a typo. But like, it’s part of the meme now, and if you wanna do a proper Spiders Georg meme, you need to misspell that particular “adn.”
ELM: And the fact that it was originally probably a typo makes it feel more authentic—on Tumblr in particular, if you feel like someone’s trying to do a deliberate misspelling you’re like, you’re trying too hard. It’s much more enjoyable when it’s like, your fingers went across the keyboard. I got it.
I actually feel like this connects to fan-creator interaction—like when official accounts for shows try to talk like fans. Sometimes that works—especially when they’re saying things fans want to hear—but sometimes fans get really mad and they feel like their conversations are being imitated, or the language their using as fans is getting appropriated. I feel like we’re seeing a big backlash right now towards Brand Twitter in particular.
GM: It’s such a weird cycle—the brands want to seem cool so they try to pick up the stuff that the cool people are saying, and for awhile they can get rewarded for that, and if they are seen as a brand that’s not already aligned with things that are cool it could backfire. It can be very “how are you, fellow kids?”
ELM: Yeah. And is that something you wanna be around? If you look at it from a point of evolving fan-creator interaction, is that kind of chasing people the way to create… is that gonna make fans wanna spend time around you? They’ll follow you in spite of the fact that you’re weirdly appropriating their language at all times. And it seems like the “How do you do, fellow kids?” meme, which I heard is the “How do you do, fellow kids?” of “How do you do, fellow kids?” memes now. I don’t know if you heard this. There’s an article about it.
GM: Hold on one second. The “How do you do, fellow kids?” meme is the “How do you do, fellow kids?” meme of memes?
GM: Because it’s not actually cool anymore and you’re just trying to fit in?
ELM: It’s jumped the shark. But I use that one all the time, I’m sorry. I’m not letting that one go.
GM: If someone wants to come up with a newer meme that conveys the same thing I’m happy to switch, but it still conveys something essential to me.
ELM: But let’s go back to formal versus informal language, because I was thinking, I’m going like nine steps back in the conversation but it’s also a future-looking question. You’re talking about oh, back in the old internet, people would jump on you if you wrote a typo. One thing I’ve noticed in fandom, and fanfiction in particular, is this proliferation over the last 10 years of people saying like, “this is un-beta’ed, this is not britpicked.” “I wrote this last night, I just popped it up.” I think you see it from holdovers of even 10 years ago, people saying, “this started in the comment thread on the kink meme and I turned it into a story,” or “this story started from an ask on Tumblr.” And people using the Archive of Our Own in particular as a space for polished, formal work, but just as you were saying, you see the Author’s Note where it’s like, “I wrote this because X made me do it.” But literally it’s sort of a record of this hybrid, formal-informal. Do you know what I mean?
GM: Like, “here’s where that came from. Don’t expect a polished, 100K fic with chapter breakdowns.”
ELM: Yeah, “I wrote this at 3 in the morning, I’ll edit it later,” and they posted it five years ago. I have no idea if you edited it later. You never updated to tell me.
GM: You know what it reminds me of? You know when you were in school and people would be like, “I haven’t studied for this test, I haven’t studied for it at all! Who knows, I’m gonna fail.” And they generally wouldn’t fail, but it was a sort of preemptive, “Oh I’ve got a class presentation to do but I haven’t prepared and I’m not ready and it’s gonna be terrible.” A preemptive self-abnegation to give you cover if you didn’t do as well as you expected. If I’m embarrassing myself in front of my class, I’ve already given myself an out, this wasn’t my best work. Because if you actually admit, "I did put a lot of effort into this. I polished it and I edited it and I’ve been working on it for weeks," and then if people don’t like it as much as you were hoping they were going to, then that’s a bigger threat to your self esteem.
GM: “I just threw this together.” And that may be true, right. It can be a good thing to feel OK having a space to post things you didn’t spend hours and hours and months of your life on. It’s nice to have that space for interaction where you can put something up that’s a bit rougher and people can still enjoy it and comment on it. But if people don’t enjoy it as much as you were hoping to, maybe you only get a couple of kudos, you don’t get any comments or you only get a few comments or whatever, then you can say to yourself, well, if I had britpicked it, if I had beta’ed it, then people would have liked it better, but this is the salve to my ego.
ELM: This is interesting. I often take it more face value, but I think you’re right, I think it’s probably a mix of both.
GM: I think it’s probably a mix of both. Tracing the origin of something, saying this started as an ask on Tumblr or whatever to say “this is the particular genre that I was following at the time” or “this is the record I wanna leave for myself and my friends about where this came from because so and so asked me for it,” I think that part of the record keeping is also true, but I also wonder if there’s not part of it that’s also saving face.
ELM: And also, if it is proliferated, because you agree, you’ve seen more and more of it over the decade as it’s gone on, I don’t know how much fanfiction you read back in the day.
GM: Hmm… I think it’s a very AO3 thing to do. I don’t remember seeing anything like that on fanfiction.net.
But we’re also seeing this proliferation of informal language online, and it’s less strict, we don’t need to do capital letters and punctuation and grammar. So I wonder: Do you see a widening of the potential for fiction more broadly? Or are we gonna still have this divide, this big, wide world of internet fiction can be whatever, but what gets physically published is the real stuff that has capital letters and periods and everything. Do you see the culture shifting that way—or is that too big of a question?
GM: It’s an interesting question. I think what we’re already seeing but will continue increasingly seeing in fiction, is things that play with the internet as a genre. You can write an epistolary novel where you have characters exchanging emails or text messages, and there are a few books already that have been written in chat format, or instant messaging format. Which are interesting. Not everyone wants to do this, definitely not a thing for every book, but it’s a possibility that expands the potential for the genre.
I think the more durable changes that we’ll see are more subtle. One I’ve been tracking is the gradual reduction of the comma. Especially the vocative comma in English. Because if you go back to Jane Austen you’re like, oh my God, you used so many commas! But I think we’re in the middle of that. I don’t think we’re at the end stage of the comma reduction. Because the Tumblr ramble style of the long, run-on sentence, especially where there’s a subset of that where you have an adverb like “hopefully” or “unfortunately,” or an adverbial sort of phrase like “of course” or “in fact,” people have become less likely to set off those phrases from the sentence with commas.
And people are becoming less likely to set off people’s names from the rest of the sentence with commas. Like I tweeted at you before we did this interview, “something something something Elizabeth,” and I didn’t set off your name with commas, whereas in a more formal setting I would have done that. But I didn’t do that in internet style. I think that’s a kind of subtle change this is more likely to creep its way into formal writing. The kind of individual piecemeal changes that individually make their way in.
But the other thing is, we have various genres when it comes to speech. You have your formal public speech, or your prepared actor or newscaster. You have your semiformal job interview, podcast interview, not necessarily scripted but you pay more attention to the words you’re saying. You have your relaxed conversation, your silly conversation that you have with your dog or your cat or your friend or housemate. Speech exists at all of these different levels simultaneously. So I think it’s less a question of like, is writing suddenly going to only become this informal thing, where everything we do in the informal genre is going to make its way into the formal kind, and more a question of, how can we expand the range of possibilities for what writing can do? I considered writing this book entirely in internet style, but I decided that wouldn’t exactly accomplish what I was trying to accomplish.
GM: Which bits of internet style do I want to write down in this book, and which bits of internet style do I want to keep just for my text messages or my tweets?
ELM: Can I just praise you for this, because I think that you are so masterful at register switching literally sentence to sentence, in a way that gives you authenticity on both sides of the register switching, you know what I mean? A very skilled traditional writer, but also a very immersed internet writer. And that not only gives you a level of authority on both sides, but also kind of raises up internet writing. And while I hate to like, define it only on the terms of traditional writing, I also think it helps make it seem serious.
GM: This is something I was trying to do very consciously, and I’m very pleased that it worked. Because if I wrote the entire book in only Peak Internet Style, if I wrote it like it was a Twitter thread—which wasn’t a serious contender, but it was something that was in the back of my mind—should I write this as some sort of very postmodern writing exercise? And yeah, I considered doing this, but I thought, one of the things that I want to do is that I want to encourage people who see themselves as more guardians of the language or traditional grammar authorities to take internet style seriously. So I’m able to do that more effectively if I slip in certain things that are chosen, like choosing to write compounds like fanfiction without the space in between, because honestly that’s how people write them, that’s how people will write them in a couple of decades, why not just go there now?
GM: Or like, internet with a lowercase, because it’s just gonna seem dated to write internet with an uppercase. We know this! It’s happened to website, it happened to email, we know it’s gonna seem dated in a couple of decades. Why not just go for the one that’s gonna seem more current in another couple of decades? Or things like, the book just casually uses singular “they” occasionally, and I don’t make a big deal about it, because I want it to seem normal, not like this big thing. And the names of people in example sentences are all non-gendered, and kind of funny, but also not “John” and “Mary.” I wanted to accomplish particular things, but I also figured it would be easier to accomplish them in a frame that was still fairly formal. I still use periods, I’m not saying that all the periods are passive aggressive. Because in terms of writing a whole book without any periods, it’s really difficult.
ELM: Not a good idea.
GM: Very James Joycean. If James Joyce already did that, I don’t need to prove that point.
ELM: No, move on. We’re past that.
GM: But on the one hand it’s asserting authority as an internet speaker to say, I have command of the internet language and I can use enough internet slang so you know that I know how this really works, but on the other hand it says to people who are more traditional, it’s not that I don’t know any different, it’s that I’m choosing to use this style. And a big thing that people who are traditionalists think is that "oh, people who are writing in a different style from me must be because they don’t know any better." When you know, the assumption that it’s better is a big assumption, and so is the assumption that people are doing this out of ignorance. I wanted to make them question both of those things. One of the ways to do that is writing in a style that says, I’m aware of what I could be doing in a more formal way and the decisions that I’m making to not do that are also very deliberate. Which hopefully makes them think of other people’s decisions to write in internet style as also deliberate.
ELM: Sure. Like I love that bit about how no one is writing the letter “u” instead of “you” because they don’t know the word “you.” I choose just the letter “u” constantly. And it means I’m choosing it.
GM: It’s such a common word, it’s not like “antidisestablishmentarianism” where you're like, uh, maybe I don't know how to spell that. Like, every five-year-old child learning how to write knows the word “you.”
ELM: But you still get people being like, “My eyes! What are you doing?” Calm down, folks.
GM: And it’s like, I don’t know, whatever the kids are wearing these days, the fashion trends we don’t like. Is it the baggy pants now? The wide-legged ones? Rompers!
GM: Whatever. I don’t know. Fashions keep changing.
ELM: How do you do, fellow kids?
GM: Right. Deliberately ugly fashions or deliberately outré fashions to say, I’m doing this for me, I’m not doing this because men find it attractive, or I’m not doing this because old people approve of this. You can be deliberately off-putting to the people you want to be off-put from you. Teenagers trying to put adults off is not actually surprising or new or weird. If adults don’t wanna hang out in these particular spaces because oh, TikTok is really cringey, like yeah. It’s to keep the adults out. I get that.
GM: I do feel weird about like, I’m gonna go creep on a bunch of high schoolers doing music videos. I’m happy to leave that for them!
ELM: You’re just doing research, don’t worry about it.
GM: Is it better if I’m just doing research? I’m not really sure.
ELM: Yeah, maybe not.
GM: But you know, the internet is weird and not to say “I talk about this in the book” all the time, but I do talk about this in the book. I can’t go hang out at my local high school backyard picnic tables with the teenagers pretending not to be smoking or whatever they do now. Juuling I guess, vaping. I can’t go hang out with them because they’d be like, who the hell are you? Why are you here? But I can go creep on the teenagers on TikTok, because they don’t know I’m there.
ELM: This will be the pull quote.
ELM: Amazing! That’s so good. It’s true though.
GM: It’s weird that brands can creep on fannish spaces when the fans aren’t really trying to have a conversation with them. It’s weird that adults can go creep on teenage spaces. It’s weird that I as a white person can go creep on Black Twitter and be like, what’s the new slang that’s being appropriated? These are all things that are weird that you don’t get in the offline space, because if a brand exec in a three-piece suit shows up at a fandom convention, people know what’s up. If an adult goes and tries to hang out with the teenagers in the park, people know what’s up. You don’t have this stealth.
ELM: Yeah. That’s probably one of the huge sources of tension, it’s being in the same space but not really. Who’s to decide where those lines are?
GM: There are pros to this too. It lets people find others who have interests that maybe, like maybe you’re the only nerd in your high school, you’re the only comics fan or whatever in your area and now you can find other people who are a fan of your thing, and you can find other people who also like this thing you like. The lack of geographicness is a huge plus. But it’s also got this kind of intrinsic weirdness, and it’s not clear how to make, say, a fannish space welcoming to anyone who’s a fan without making them prove their credentials, while not letting the marketing exec in.
ELM: Right, exactly. These are obviously growing pains, people are just gonna keep listening to each other, but we’re watching people stumble with what to do with that knowledge on a lot of different fronts, not just fans and creators.
GM: Yeah, I guess the latest trend is like fans are moving to Discords that are semi-private, so maybe it’s a little bit harder for a marketing executive to come in there. Because you need to know someone or have an invitation or something like that, but again, anything that makes it harder for your marketing executives also makes it harder for your newbie fan.
ELM: Absolutely. Or different kinds of fans or different kinds of conversations.
GM: Yeah, if you already have friends in the fandom then yeah, you can have a fandom Discord with them and have some fun, but if you don’t already know somebody to get an invite to that, or you don’t know where the cool conversations that are happening that you want to be a part of in the Discord, now you’re gonna be just wandering around like, does anybody else like K-pop in Denver?
ELM: Exactly. We need to wrap up but before we go, one final thing: I wanna commend you, not just on your tone, your ability to change register, but on your utter lack of shame to reveal yourself as a total… What’s the word? Dweeb? Dork?
ELM: Every single page. I was reading it while I was with Flourish in California, and I was like, “Oh my God, she got herself embroidered into her ‘my fucks field is barren’ tapestry.” “Oh my God, she created a Ryan Gosling Canadian debate league ‘hey girl’ Tumblr.” I’m so impressed.
GM: The more of this stuff I reveal, it just helps me find the people that I actually wanna find.
ELM: Oh, it’s so good. I’m so pleased. You made that doge meme, right?
GM: Yeah, the one about linguistics.
ELM: Wow. That’s all I’ll say. Some of the other chapters you’re not so much this person, but in the meme chapter I feel like you really were like, “I am also this!” Really beautiful.
GM: It was partly because I had these quotes from these teenagers, right? Like, “older people don't understand meme culture,” and that pissed me off a little bit. I was like, excuse me. I was in this making meme culture when you guys were still children.
ELM: I was knitting myself into this meme before you were born.
GM: And you know, I can’t say that I’m fully part of modern meme culture, what teenagers are doing these days, but there are so many different kinds of meme cultures, and one can be fully enmeshed in some of them without being fully enmeshed in all of them. There are a whole bunch of different claimants on meme culture. And the only way I could get at the nature of this claim was to say like, here are some of my personal claims on it. Because there are other kinds of memes that I don’t know as well and that I don’t have a claim on, but like, you want me to prove my dedication to Sparkle Motion? I can do this.
ELM: Yes. And also just to say that you understand the theory behind memes. I think that’s one of the reasons that Know Your Meme is so successful. Not every meme that I encounter is on Know Your Meme. Some of them are so, so fandom-y, specific to my kind of fandom.
GM: It does certain kinds of meme better than it does others. It does some Tumblr memes, but there were some Tumblr meme documentation blogs that did that a lot more closely.
ELM: Right. But even if they’re not documenting certain corners of memes as well as others right now, they still, the point is, and the point from your book as well, it’s about social theory. It’s not about certain examples, because memes are just gonna meme.
GM: And a meme that seems fresh and interesting to you, like oh my God, this is the perfect confluence of these three things and I love it, is somebody else’s like, what? Because they don’t know two of them. It’s too big for any one person to know.
ELM: I’m in a fandom right now and I feel it, and these memes, if I was not in this fandom…my pleasure comes from the source material. You know those memes where it’s, like, the wrong quotes? And it’s the same dialogue for every fandom, it’s like, inspired by this post from Thor or something—my fandom is X-Men—and I love it because it’s the characters that I like saying the exact same random fake dialogue that Thor fans like on the Thor post. And it’s so contextual, and it’s like, it’s not about the specifics of the meme that I’m seeing, but it’s about my feelings—not necessarily the references, even.
GM: Yeah, I make linguistic mashups of all the memes these days. I do them on Tumblr and I do them on Twitter.
ELM: Because you’re a total dweeb, amazing.
GM: And people love them! People will be like, I hated this meme and then you made a linguistics version and now I get it and I’m so mad. And it brings in the people that I want to talk to, because if you also like linguistic memes, let’s be friends. Plus in some ways, writing meta about fan culture or doing academic analyses of memes is a meme in itself now, because the people who grew up with memes are increasingly in this position of mashing up the conventions of academia and internet culture.
ELM: Are you saying this whole conversation is just a meme?
GM: Absolutely. We’re just writing academia/internet slashfic.
If you haven’t already bought a copy of Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language (or ordered one from your local library) (or both) (why not both dot gif), hurry, go, now! And for more Gretchen, follow her on Twitter, and listen to her podcast, Lingthusiasm.
Elizabeth Minkel is one half of Fansplaining. She’s written about fan culture for the New Statesman, The Guardian, The New Yorker, The Millions, The Verge, and more. She co-curates “The Rec Center,” a weekly fandom newsletter, with fellow journalist Gavia Baker-Whitelaw.