Episode 91: Casey Fiesler
In Episode 91, “Casey Fiesler,” Flourish and Elizabeth welcome the information science professor back onto the podcast to discuss her research, especially her study on the way transformative fandom migrates across platforms. Topics covered include feminist HCI, if you can truly get a “representative” sample of fans for a survey, privacy concerns as fandom comes under more scrutiny from researchers, and what Tumblr could have done—and still could do—better regarding the Great Porn Crackdown of 2018.
[00:01:59] Our interstitial music, here and throughout the episode, is “Try Anything Once” by Lee Rosevere from Music for Podcasts 2. It’s used under a CC-BY 3.0 license.
[00:04:39] If you want to learn more about Amy Bruckman’s work, here’s her website!
[00:15:50] Brianna Dym’s website is here, if you want to learn more about her! And, here’s her work with Casey on privacy and LGBTQ fandom.
[00:29:42] We talk about FanLib in Episode 86, “The Money Question.”
[00:38:25] Cecilia Aragon has a book about her work studying fanfiction.net, forthcoming in 2019!
[00:39:26] The Fandom Tropes survey!
[00:42:16] Destination Toast has been on the podcast several times, but most notably in Episode 13, “Destination: Stats!”
[00:50:58] As far as we can tell Parker Molloy deleted the whole exchange about this, leaving only lonely individuals yelling at her with no context.
[00:54:33] Since recording the episode, Elizabeth has discovered that one of her posts was flagged. It was this one:
[00:59:27] Casey’s article in Slate about Tumblr.
Flourish Klink: Hi Elizabeth!
Elizabeth Minkel: Hi, Flourish!
FK: And welcome to Fansplaining, the podcast by, for, and about fandom!
ELM: This is Episode 91; it’s called Casey Fiesler, who is our guest!
FK: And who is a really exciting guest! We have had her on once before when we were talking about “Death and the Fangirl,” a very long time ago now.
ELM: That was in January of 2016, I believe, because it was after David Bowie and Alan Rickman died.
ELM: Yeah. We had Casey and one half and we had Kathleen Smith—the Fangirl Therapist, I believe her official title is [FK laughs]—talking about collective grief and also a few... Whatever. You can go listen to that in the archives. I don’t know why I’m summarizing the whole thing.
FK: But that’s not Casey’s, like, main thing. Casey is a professor of information science?
FK: At the University of Colorado Boulder, and a lot of what she works on is...
ELM: It fell within her realm of research.
FK: Yeah, absolutely. But her main thing I think is more about, like, the platforms that fans are on and the way that they use those platforms and go between them.
ELM: I think that she asks—she has a number of areas of research, but that is the thing that I think we’re going to be mostly talking about. Information science—I think we probably can explain a little bit of what that encompasses with her.
FK: Yeah. She might do a better job than either of us! [laughing]
ELM: But, you know, it’s... A lot of the research is studying digital communities and both quantitative and qualitative sense—so, you know, collective grief, online platforms, things we do on the internet...
FK: Things we do on the internet!
ELM: Et cetera.
FK: Et cetera. OK. Should we just call her? And let her, like, answer these questions?
ELM: Yes. A hundred percent.
FK: Great. Let’s do it.
FK: All right. It’s time to welcome Casey to the podcast. Hi Casey! It’s so good to see you again!
Casey Fiesler: Hi. Thank you. It’s good to see you too!
ELM: I’m so glad that we’re having you on for... We just had Rukmini Pande on, who had only been a guest to talk about specific topics, and that’s what we’ve had you on as as well. We finally had her on to, like, be the star of the special—or, you know, the episode.
FK: And to actually talk about her own stuff and herself as being, like, random.... “Hello, random expert!” Like...
ELM: Yeah. And we’re doing that with you too. So we’re very excited about this turn of events.
CF: I’m so glad to be the star!
ELM: That’s right. OK. Star, on the spot. I’m going to ask the first question. I’m going to keep saying “origin story” cause I think this works. So you know, you are a professor, you study fandom, you are in fandom... I don’t know if you are currently in fandom. How did this all come about? Both the professional side, the fannish side, when they came together, et cetera.
CF: I actually love the term “origin story.” I wrote a good piece for Slate a couple of years ago called “How I Learned About the Internet From The Babysitters Club.” And it was basically my origin story, because I first heard about the internet in an ad in the back of a Babysitters Club book when I was 11.
FK: Oh my God!
CF: For Prodigy. Part of the reason that I was excited about this internet thing—which I assumed was just a place for people to talk about Babysitters Club books...
FK: Oh my God, that’s so pure! [all laughing]
CF: I really wanted people to talk about Babysitters Club to, because all my friends read Fear Street [Elizabeth squawks indignantly]. I was not into, like, dead cheerleaders. I was very into babysitters. So. I was also writing Babysitters Club fanfiction. I didn’t know that’s what it was. So when I finally did get the internet, AOL, in like 1995 or something, one of the first things I discovered was Star Trek fanfiction on Usenet. So that was how I discovered fanfiction. And then when I was an undergrad, which would have been 2000 to 2003, this is when I read the Harry Potter books. And then I was very deep into Harry Potter fanfiction for quite a while. And this first started intersecting with my academic life when I was a master’s student in Human–Computer Interaction after my undergrad degree—which was in psychology—and I was working with a professor who studied online communities, Amy Bruckman, who eventually became my PhD advisor many years later. I said, “Hey, there’s this thing where people are pretending to be Harry Potter on LiveJournal. I think that it’s very interesting.” [all laugh]
FK: Wait, which one? Which one?
CF: Oh, like, all of them. [laughter]
FK: Okay. There wasn’t a specific RPG that you were...
ELM: Flourish, way to fish for a mention of your own...
FK: No, no, no, it wasn’t my own! I wanted to know if it was the big one. Anyway.
CF: So I actually—when I was an undergrad, I ran Star Trek play-by-email RPGs. [FK reacts with pleasure] RPGs were, like, something that I was very into when I was an undergrad, and then when I saw them happening on LiveJournal I thought, “Well, this is an even cooler kind of environment for that.” So my master’s project was, I did interviews with people who participated in blog-based roleplaying communities. And I never published a real paper about it, I think in part because my advisor thought I was a master’s student who would never be heard from again in academia. [laughs] But I did present the findings from this study at the Witching Hour conference in 2005 [FK laughs] and I was very excited because Henry Jenkins came to my talk!
ELM: That’s really good.
CF: Yeah, I have these very strange circuitous educational routes, because after my master’s degree I went to law school—in part because my interest in online communities and fandom got me very, very interested in copyright and internet law. And I thought, “Well, this seems very practical.” [all laugh] And then about halfway through law school I was like, “Wow, this is still very interesting, but I have no interest in becoming a lawyer.” [laughs] Which, once you’re halfway through and discover that, you might as well finish, right?
ELM: At that point! If you figured that out in the first, in the first month, like, save your time.
FK: But halfway through!
ELM: But you’d taken torts, I hear that’s the first thing you do!
CF: Torts is more interesting, though, than, like, contracts and....
ELM: You know, I just, all I hear from friends who in law school is “torts, torts, torts.” And I’m like, “I don’t even know what a tort is, but I’m glad that brings you happiness.”
CF: Torts are more interesting than other first year classes, which is probably why. [All laugh] In law school they stack all the boring classes at the beginning.
ELM: To weed people out?
FK: [simultaneously] Oh, to weed out people who aren’t serious about it.
CF: But also all the boring stuff is the stuff that’s on the bar. And also it’s because it’s all the general stuff. So you don’t get into things you’re specifically interested in until your second year. So, my law school experience basically looks like me, like, wading my way through classes that were uninteresting and then getting A-plusses in anything related to intellectual property or the internet. [all laugh] And I wrote a law review article—or when you’re a student it’s called a note—about copyright social norms in fandom that actually won a big fancy award. And at the award ceremony I met Justice Scalia. [all laugh]
ELM: Oh my God.
CF: But more exciting than Justice Scalia, I met David E Kelley, who I was very excited to tell that I was, like, a writer. [laughs] But also this law review article that I wrote, which was basically in the heyday of YouTube just becoming a thing and everyone was freaking out about user generated content and copyright?
FK: Oh yeah.
CF: This article that I wrote was basically, “Hey guys, don’t worry, it’s going to be fine. Look at fanfiction, which has been policing their own community when it comes to copyright for decades and everything is just fine.”
ELM: Oh my God, that was your takeaway!
CF: That was my takeaway. And I actually recently wrote an essay for a law review—that’s coming out pretty soon I think—that’s “How I turned a law review article into a dissertation: Here are all the things that I was right about, and one really big thing that I was wrong about.” [all laugh] And the thing that I was wrong about was that this could possibly work in any context besides fandom. [laughs]
So as I was finishing law school, I really needed to move back to Atlanta for family reasons. And I also kind of wanted to get a PhD at that point, because I was frustrated by the lack of empiricism in legal scholarship and I missed doing that kind of research. So I applied to Georgia Tech’s PhD program. That was where I had done my undergrad and my master’s before. And I said, “Well, if I get in, Yahtzee! I’ll live with my parents for a while to make myself feel better about my law school loans. I don’t get in, I'll be a lawyer for a few years and then reevaluate.” And so I got in, which surprised me a little bit, but I guess there were people there who thought I could do cool things. After law school, I started this PhD in Human-Centered Computing, and I spent the next six years doing empirical work about social norms and copyright in remix communities online, which was mostly fandom.
ELM: Can we pause and say for our listeners: So when you say “empirical work,” can you briefly explain what that means?
CF: Yeah. So I did research studies, usually interviews. I did some content analysis of people talking about copyright and online communities. I did a little bit of survey work. I would think of empirical work as doing something new to create new knowledge—as opposed to, say, the way that you would write a law review article, which would be to synthesize a lot of stuff that already exists. Or to just think things, to come up with smart ideas.
CF: I can do that too! [laughs]
ELM: Yeah, but you were not just observing the conversations, you were actually asking people, you know, via surveys and interviews, you were asking them what they thought about these things and then that’s creating the new information.
CF: Yeah. I mostly do qualitative work, which sometimes is talking to people directly like this. Sometimes it’s doing some kind of systematic analysis of trace data, like people talking about copyright in the help section of YouTube. So that was part of it as well.
FK: That sounds like it must be the perfect way to find out what people’s sort of... “innate” is not the word, but, like, their unresearched or their just, like, gut feelings about what copyright is are. Right? Like, “Here, obviously everyone knows X” and you’re like, “Does everyone know that?”
CF: One of the reasons that I really like mixed-methods work is that if you talk to people and you get some sense of how they’re behaving in the natural world, you can kind of triangulate those things. But it really was fascinating to find these conversations of people talking about copyright because there were so many misconceptions that you were kind of seeing in their natural environment. One of my favorites was, someone asked a question—I believe this was on YouTube about a remix video—and someone responded and said, “I think that might be fair use.” And someone else responded and said, “Fair use isn’t a real thing.” Like it’s this unicorn myth. And the original person responded and said, “Oh, okay.” And I was like, “This is the, this is the problem!” [laughter] People are getting this bad information. Because the crazy thing is they’re not asking questions of experts. They’re asking other people who don’t know anything more than they do.
CF: And actually, when I was looking specifically at fanfiction writers, I looked at some forums on fanfiction communities as well. And you get a really good sense of social norms about copyright, because people think that they’re actual rules—but they’re just social norms.
CF: So that was my whole dissertation, was social norms and online communities and how the law interacts with how people behave online. And it was in the domain of fandom. But I will say that when I was on the job market, my pitch was not, “I’m a fandom researcher,” it was, “I am a social computing, online communities researcher who is very interested in particular in different kinds of regulation, like law and ethics and social norms.” And one of the really interesting domains for this is fandom. But even now my research is much broader than fandom, though fandom stuff is some of my favorite research that I do.
ELM: And now you are a professor of... is it Information Science or is it something more specialized within InfoSci?
CF: So, I am in Information Science, and interestingly, I actually helped found our department. This is at University of Colorado in Boulder, and our department is four-years-old. I was one of the very first hires, which is part of the reason I took the job. It was so exciting to build something new! I know that you had Ludi Price on the show and she was talking about Information and Library Science. Information Science is a broad field and it tends to be very different, depending on its origins. So programs that are Library and Information Science are quite different than those that are just Information Science or those that are Computer and Information Science. So there’s kind of this spectrum of Information Science departments that are either more on the library side or more on the computer science side—and ours is way more on the computer science side.
CF: So though I’m in Information Science, my research community is mostly computer scientists—but computer scientists who are very interested in the human side of computing.
FK: That’s really useful knowledge to have. I feel like this is one of the areas in which academia is sometimes really opaque, because to anyone coming from the outside you would just see this bunch of, you know—“Everything has Information Science in it, what’s the difference?” Including, you know, I think a lot of... I would have this question, but then I think a lot of our listeners might also have these questions, because you know—a lot of people who listen to this are maybe thinking about, “Gosh, what should I study?” And, God, it's so hard. When you don’t have someone in those different disciplines to tell you.
CF: It’s pretty confusing.
ELM: Yeah. Yeah.
CF: I am actually in the middle of running our PhD admissions process right now, and I have talked to a lot of prospective PhD students. And in addition to trying to tell people how great our program is, I’m always trying to find the right fit for someone. Because sometimes it’s not even Information Science, or it’s not our kind of Information Science. It really depends on sort of what you want to do.
One of the things that is important about my department is that the structure of it looks a lot like a computer science department, which means that it's highly collaborative. It’s a lab-based culture. So for example, if you look at my publications, I almost never write anything by myself. When I was a PhD, all of my publications are with my PhD advisor and other people, and now most of my papers are led by my PhD students, which I think is really fun. I like working with lots of different kinds of people. And it also means that now, because a lot of my work is led by my students, I get to do lots of different kinds of things. And I’m very fortunate right now to have a PhD student, Brianna Dym, who’s doing work in fandom, which means that I get to do more of it than I would be otherwise.
ELM: Yeah, you know, I didn’t actually realize Brianna Dym was your student, because you guys publish together so often that I was like, “Oh, you know, look at these two colleagues,” or whatever. It was like very—I was like, “Oh, that's so lovely,” when I found out that—to be collaborating at that level... Also, like, you’re writing articles in Slate together, I don’t know. I think that’s really a delight.
CF: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s a big difference between a more sort of STEM based PhD or a more humanities based PhD—is that STEM is far more like a research lab. So it’s been great. And also Brianna then pushes me in directions of fandom research that I wouldn’t necessarily have done on my own. So she is doing a lot of work around fandom as a support space for queer people, thinking about privacy norms and fandom from that perspective, and that’s been really interesting for me.
FK: Well, maybe this is a good time to start talking more about your actual research! And one of the reasons we were really excited to have you on is because you've done so much work looking at different platforms and thinking about the way that, you know, the technology of computing and the affordances of that interact with the way that humans use it, in fandom especially. And right now with everything going on with Tumblr, it seems like it’s a really, really appropriate time to begin talking and thinking more about that. Right?
ELM: But, but, you don’t have to start with Tumblr. You can tell us other things. Cause I feel like once we go down that Tumblr hole... Tumblr hole? That’s not allowed now.
FK: No, no, no! Yeah, we don’t, we don’t need to go down that path instantly. But just, like, thinking in those terms, it’s such a.... So you did this study about the way that people have gone from platform to platform within fandom, right?
CF: Yeah. So actually let me start at the origin of that. So as I was finishing my PhD and I had done all this work around social norms and fandom and the context of copyright—but other things come up as well, of course—I had a summer in between finishing writing my dissertation and starting my new job, and I really wanted to do one more study during that time. As I mentioned, I speak mostly to computer scientists in terms of where I publish and who I'm engaging with in a scholarly field. And for years I had been bringing up Archive Of Our Own as this fascinating platform that everyone should be studying because it’s so awesome and why is no one studying this platform? And I would explain it to people and say things like, “Well, did you know that there is an open source platform that was built almost entirely by women and it is hugely successful and it does all of these cool things?” And then they would say “Whaaaaat?”
So I've been part of the legal committee for OTW since my last year as a law student, which was in 2009. I was also still pretty active in fandom in 2007 during Strikethrough and AO3 being being developed and all of that. And so I had seen all of that happened and I had seen how cool AO3 was. And as someone who studies online communities, it’s just so awesome! And so I decided to do a study about the origins of AO3, and in particular how it was designed, and how it was designed for a specific community that already existed.
So I interviewed a lot of AO3 users, and I talked to them about what they liked about AO3 and in particular how they compared it to other platforms they had used in fandom over the years. I also talked to a number of people at different staff positions on AO3, like tag wranglers. And I managed to also talk to six or seven people who have worked on the development of AO3, including the person who was the head of development at the time, a couple of people who had been around in the very beginning but weren’t anymore, and Naomi Novik, who—every time I see her, I just want to give her a giant hug, because I feel like her interview was so instrumental in all of the work that I’ve done and that she’s been very helpful in my career.
FK: Yeah, the “My Favorite Informant” badge.
CF: Yes. So, so helpful. So the first paper that I wrote based on those interviews was about the design of AO3 as an example of designing for the values of a specific community and of feminist HCI.
ELM: Okay. Pause. HCI. I feel like maybe we should quickly define that for the listener.
CF: That’s a good point.
ELM: Just saying!
CF: HCI stands for Human-Computer Interaction, which is actually what my master’s degree was in and my PhD—Human-Centered Computing is pretty similar. Basically, anything that has to do with computers and people—though HCI often has a lot to do with user experience and interaction design and how people use computers.
FK: So, like, looking at the way that the user interface impacts people sometimes?
CF: Yeah, so that can be part of it.
CF: I mean, someone who for example, has a graduate degree in HCI and then goes on to work on industry might do things like user interface design or usability testing or that kind of thing. If you ever think about how when you use a website, sort of what the flow of what you do is, and how you can figure out what to do, and that kind of thing. And there’s probably people who are doing research about that at the company that built the website.
CF: A number of years ago, a professor who is at Indiana now, Shaowen Bardzell, wrote a paper called “Feminist HCI” that said [that] good interaction design is imbued with a lot of the same characteristics of feminism. Things like universality, like not designing for a universal point of view, inclusivity, advocacy, some of these kinds of things. And when I was doing the AO3 interviews, I was not thinking about that. But as I analyzed the data from the interviews, and I’m coming up with themes that I’m seeing over and over in this data, I had a discussion about it with my PhD advisor and I said, “Tell me if I’m crazy, but the themes that I’m coming up with are the exact same things that are in this Feminist HCI paper.” Yay! [laughter] Then I had a way to frame a paper.
It ended up being about the design of the archive as doing these really neat things around accessibility, around inclusivity, identity... Just the way that the site is designed looks a lot like people who care about the kinds of things that feminists care about designed this site. And this paper was very well received in my research community, it won an award, but more importantly I posted about it on Tumblr and everyone was really excited about it! Like, that meant more to me than winning an award, was that it got around Tumblr. This is also right when I had started my new job and I was getting really excited about being able to do more things that I wanted to do, and so that really made me want to do more fandom related work, because it was well received both by computer scientists and by fans.
I also wrote a second paper based on those interviews. One of the things that I found when I interviewed developers of AO3 was that a number of them actually learned to code by working on the Archive. Another theme that I saw that I wasn’t expecting was something called legitimate peripheral participation, which is a theory in learning that says: one way for people to learn within a community is for people to start off doing kind of peripheral goals, and to watch other people doing more complicated things, and so they eventually kind of go from being novices on the periphery to being experts who are doing more expert tasks and that this is a way to learn. It’s kind of like an apprenticeship model. And this is part of what was happening in AO3, is sometimes people would start out as code testers or tag wranglers, and then learn more, and eventually work on the development of the Archive. Which was particularly striking because, again, it's mostly women and I thought it was this great example of like a way to broaden participation in computing: get people who love a thing so much they want to help the thing [laughs] and they’re willing to pick up technical skills in order to do that. I’d always seen this in fandom anyway. People learn really complex technical skills to create fanvids, for example. So that was the other piece of that research.
And then the third theme in these interviews that didn’t make it into those other papers was all of these people talking to me about how AO3 compared to other platforms that they had used. And they would often tell me stories about how they moved from one platform to the other. So I had, you know, 20 different versions of what happened to LiveJournal in these interviews—though I didn't think there was quite enough there to write another paper just based on that. So when Brianna started her PhD last year, I often like to start students off by working on something with me, so that they’re... Actually, it’s very similar to legitimate peripheral participation! Starting in an apprenticeship role and then kind of moving towards doing their own thing. And so I had her take the interview transcripts—and by this time they were two years old—she went through them and pulled out these themes related to platform migration. And then we used those to develop a survey that we deployed.
We looked for participants who had been part of fandom for at least 10 years, even if nonconsecutively, because we really wanted to look at something that happened over time. And we asked what platforms they used, what years, and then questions about why they left and joined certain platforms and the consequences of leaving and joining certain platforms. So we deployed that survey and very easily got almost 2000 participants. We analyzed this data... Gosh, this was over a year ago now... Along with the interview data, we’ve written a paper about how people move across platforms over time in fandom, which is a really interesting thing in fandom in particular because I can’t think of many other examples of this—where over decades a very similar community of people are just nomads. You know? Moving from one platform to another. A lot of online communities are very specifically on a platform. So, like, if YouTube died tomorrow, where would the YouTube community go? It doesn’t feel as much like a cohesive community I guess.
FK: Right? Like some people might go to TikTok and some people might go to, like, Twitch and some people may go other places, but…
ELM: People will—they follow individuals, like, you know...
ELM: I don’t know. I’m thinking about one person who’s popular on YouTube who was, like, a Vine star, that I can think of—I’m sure there’s many of them, but. To watch him rebrand himself as Vine was shutting as, like, he could see the writing on the wall... You know what I mean? But it’s so personality driven.
ELM: And it’s also monetarily driven, right? Whereas, like, in transformative fandom, you’re there because—yeah, it’s like minded people, but the source material is actually divorced from the platforms on which you're creating the works. Right? So that’s the constant and, like, you’re the constant. Does that make sense?
CF: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s a lot of what I saw, was that people were more interested in the community than they were in the platform. So you can kind of move wherever. And this is starting with Usenet. I mean, there’s a great spectrum of things in between Usenet and Tumblr, for example, and lots of interesting things happened along the way. I mean, and one of the reasons that I was particularly interested in this was that, I mean, I saw Strikethrough and all that firsthand. I mean, I was moderating a community that was affected by that. And I had this sense that something interesting had happened here that we don’t see a lot, which is policy changes heavily impacting a community and their decisions on, sort of, where to be. And that was something that then I saw evidence of in the survey and these interviews.
FK: That’s, well, that’s interesting because it seems like... I don’t want to totally push back against this, it just seems like it’s related also to the way that policy changes around monetization change some other communities, right? Like, within YouTube and Vine, like, YouTube and its monetization strategies radically change, like, the content that’s put out and the way those communities function. Or like the way mommy bloggers were on blogs, and now like a lot of them are on Instagram because it’s very trackable and there’s this influencer economy—but that’s all very money-based. Which is, I guess, the point you were making, Elizabeth, that this is different because it's just the community. It’s the community and it's not the content necessarily, per se. It’s the... There is content, but it’s like your circle, you're, you know, you’re organized around something else.
ELM: But the vast, vast majority of money that’s connected to transformative fandom is separate from the fannish activity.
CF: I think that’s true. And, I mean, also AO3, a sort of inciting incident for that... It wasn’t just Strikethrough, it was also LiveJournal changes around advertising. And it was also FanLib, which was a great example of violations of social norms.
FK: Right. So FanLib was people coming in and trying to create, like, a for-profit fanfic archive and that really violated these community norms.
ELM: Which, we discussed that in the monetization episode which we had recently. So, yeah.
FK: Okay. So you were, you were studying the way that people went between this, and there were all these different platforms between UseNet and Tumblr and different paths...?
CF: Yes. And I’m sure you can link to this in the show notes or something—I have this graph that I created of the rise and fall of different platforms over time. And it will show, for example, you know, when Usenet rose a little bit and then dropped off, and fanfiction.net and livejournal also rising and then eventually dropping off a bit. And then it also shows AO3 and Tumblr rising very together over a long period of time. And I would say that some of the interesting things we learned from the survey were the different kinds of reasons that people would join a platform or leave a platform. Sometimes they had to do with the platform itself. So for example, design, whether that is design changes that they didn't like or it’s just, “Oh, there’s this new shiny thing that’s so much better than the old one.” I mean, it’s not like there was anything bad about Usenet. People didn’t leave Usenet because suddenly they did something that fans didn’t like. It was just, why would you keep using Usenet when there are other better platforms? Because technology gets better over time and you get better things.
ELM: Like Geocities. [all laugh]
CF: Poor Geocities.
ELM: Look, it had a glorious sparkly run.
FK: How are eGroups better than Usenet? Like... Huh. I don’t remember why that was better than Usenet actually.
CF: I mean, if you think about it, Usenet—in structure—is a lot like Reddit in terms of, like, interest-based communities.
FK: It’s true.
CF: When I started in the Harry Potter fandom, the big thing was still email lists, like Yahoo.
FK: Yeah, eGroups! eGroups and YahooGroups.
CF: Again, people left those kinds of spaces just because LiveJournal became a thing. And so actually, LiveJournal and to some extent Fanfiction.net were the only platforms I saw where people talked a lot about leaving those platforms for various specific reasons as opposed to just because they wanted to join a different platform. And then AO3 is a really interesting example because there were so many things about AO3 that drew people there because it was built for this community, and so it did the things that people wanted it to do. And then Tumblr became very popular in tandem with it because AO3 doesn’t provide social functionality and there needed to be a place to be social as well. And so if you want to think about AO3 plus Tumblr in some ways replacing the role of LiveJourna in fandom—where LiveJournal was both of those things before, both an archive and a social space, then you see AO3 as the archive and Tumblr more as a social space.
ELM: That is the tricky thing about it though, to me—like, exactly what you’re just saying. Like, you kind of, if you’re looking at a scope of 20 or 25 years now—it kind of goes in and out of times when you need simultaneous... Like in Harry Potter Yahoo Groups, I think all three of us were in a variety of them, and I still get the monthly default emails from some of them. I don’t know if you guys also get this, with the rules? And it's just blank, but the rules? And you’re like, “This is really freaking sad.” But like, you know, when I started in those in like 2000 or 2001 or whatever, people were sending whole fics in the email.
FK: Oh yeah.
ELM: And that really faded away as fanfiction.net rose. Right. And so it’s just, I’m just kind of, I stumble a little, and even—I really love your research on this, but it is a stumbling block that kind of... There is some element of apples and oranges, and like, moments when a whole platform is a fruit salad, and other times when you have very separate apples and separate oranges. And it’s never, it’s not like AO3 plus Tumblr is new. Right? Because there were definitely times when you were not posting fic in the same place that you were talking about it.
FK: Well, or I was going to say, like, the two things sort of were weirdly related, right? Like if I’m thinking about Usenet and the way that in the X-files fandom, you had the Usenet groups and then you had Gossamer, which archived fanfic that had been originally posted to the Usenet group. [ELM makes agreement noises] So an automated archive that would take that fanfic, like, put it in a more permanent space that was easier to search and so on. Right? So you know, again, maybe that was a little bit like, “Oh, here’s the social area that's going to be live and we’re all going to be talking about it, and then there’s going to be this archive that's going to be the sort of, you know, older... archive.”
CF: Yeah. So all of that is absolutely true. I actually, I really liked the fruit salad thing [laughs].
ELM: Good. Roll with that one. You can have that one.
FK: Sometimes we like it separated out. There's, like, Cool Whip over there and it’s like...
ELM: Oh, Flourish, you just brought your Nebraska self right into this fruit salad. I—mine has no dairy.
FK: I think of Cool Whip as much more Utah.
ELM: Oh wow. All right.
CF: So we actually asked people, for each of the platforms I talked about, what their use of it was—like, whether it was archive or social space or something else or both. And most platforms fell into kind of one category or the other—except for LiveJournal, I think, would be the really big exception. Though like you said, there was a time when a lot of people were using email lists for mostly social things and then fandom specific archives like Gossamer for archiving. And I think you were still seeing that even during LiveJournal. Some people still mostly used external archives. I mean, all of this is very messy. It is indeed a lot of fruit salad.
What's happened with AO3 and Tumblr also, it’s not new, it’s just the newest instantiation of it. And it's also not that black and white. I mean, there’s certainly lots of fans who don’t use Tumblr. And there’s certainly lots and lots of fans who are still using fanfiction.net instead of Archive of Our Own or are using fandom specific archives. It's just the dominant thing right now—at least out of our survey participants for this survey, which is not representative of all of fandom, in part because we wanted to look at things over time. So it means that our demographics skew older. So I think, for example, that we don’t actually have a really good sample of people who are active on fanfiction.net because the demographics tend to skew younger. So I think that’s another reason we're seeing more AO3 plus Tumblr in this particular research study.
ELM: I would be very curious to... I think for the migration question, obviously talking to people who have been in fandom for a decade plus is really helpful. But I would be really curious to know what a kind of use study, a platform use study would look like for people who have been fandom, like, five years or less. In transformative fandom. Cause I dunno, I just find it very, very interesting. I think a lot of the attitudes, that what you see around the discourse about AO3—there’s a very loud contingent of people who are like, you know, native to Tumblr and AO3. Especially about about commenting. You get some what I consider ahistorical discussions about commenting—but if you have only known fandom on AO3, like if you've only known fanfiction on AO3, it’s not ahistorical. It’s perfectly historical to your experience. Right. But it’s a little frustrating knowing that there’s been a lot of different ways that people engage with fic over the, you know, over the digital, the span of the internet.
FK: Yeah. I’m also curious about how you, Casey, how you frame up the fact that you are looking at a particular community, a particular fic community too. Right? Because it’s not as though there aren’t people who engage with, like, Reddit and Fanfiction.net—people in especially, like, video game fanfic communities. Even people using, like, DeviantArt as a space for their fanfic. There’s a lot of those people out there as well. And I feel like they’re in areas that maybe don’t cross over as much with the AO3 demographic, which... That’s not to say that your study is bad, I think your study is amazing.
ELM: [laughing] We brought you here to critique the study.
FK: But it’s interesting to see like, you know, to think about it in terms of, like... No, no, no, I’m just—I'm often, like, because of my own work, I’m often studying communities that don’t actually necessarily fall into this group. And it seems like a real challenge of how to frame that to, like, clarify what you’re really looking at.
CF: Yeah. I mean I think that’s absolutely true. For this particular study, because we were looking at this very specific research question about platform migration, that’s what we cared about. I will say that an additional challenge is that when I’m doing other types of research where it’s not necessarily about that, there is an upside and a downside to the fact that when I tend to advertise for—for example—survey participants, it'll go viral on Tumblr.
CF: So you have to take that into account. I mean, I also think that it’s important that people are intentionally studying other types of fandom communities. Even within my research field, in sort of computer science and social computing, there’s a professor at University of Washington, Cecilia Aragon, who has been doing a lot of work around fanfiction.net specifically. And so her work looks very different than mine because the demographics of people on that site are so different. So, like, she has a book coming out about young fanfiction writers and how they learn writing skills through fanfiction. Like, they have this really cool paper called “Thousands Of Positive Reviews,” colon something. [laughter] And it’s about positivity of the fan community around people helping each other and mentoring each other when it comes to writing, which I think is really interesting. And also, I don’t know how different that might look if we had done it on AO3 instead of fanfiction.net or if my work was done on fanfiction.net instead of AO3. Very interesting questions. Hashtag future work. [all laugh]
ELM: This is something that—I mean not that, you know, with our amateur couple of of studies we’ve done as podcast.... Flourish is doing a little dance. That’s a, that’s a survey dance.
FK: Little amateur survey dance.
ELM: But, you know, the first one we did was the Trope Survey, which you know, I think we got a great response. We got like, what, 7,500 people took that survey, which is a really nice sample size. But Flourish really actively was trying to get people who weren’t just AO3 and Tumblr focused. Cause we asked where do you read.
FK: And it did not work, by the way.
ELM: But Flourish, you worked really hard. I mean you, you were talking to people at Wattpad, they put it in, like, some Wattpad—they featured it.
FK: Yeah, we tried.
ELM: And we got like, what, less than 100 people who said they read regularly on Wattpad. To the point where it’s just like, could you, could you even design a survey that crosses over? If the readership, if people looked at that and just thought “I don’t even know what you’re talking about,” right. “Cause I’m on Wattpad, and my language is completely different for the way I think about this stuff, so I’m not going to engage.” You know what I mean?
CF: I mean, I think the challenge is recruiting when you’re looking for people who use a platform that isn’t primarily a social space. Because then how do you get people? I don’t really know how to recruit people from fanfiction.net, except for to use other sites and ask to find people who use fanfiction.net, for example.
ELM: Yeah, it's really hard.
FK: In retrospect, I think I would have reached out to more individual Wattpad authors and asked them to promote it to their readers. Like, if we were going to do this again I would have... But also, at the time, I don’t think that I knew as much about the way that community worked.
ELM: It’s also, I mean, it’s really hard. It’s like, at what point are you then... You know, if you’re sending individual messages to specific people, that’s kind of, that’s getting a bit heavy handed in terms of...
FK: And it’s also going to skew who shows up, right? Because who the authors are who actually share it is going to determine what tropes people like. Because obviously if you’re reading this author, then, you know.
ELM: Especially if it;s an author, right? As opposed to, like, you know, when Gav and I promote a survey in The Rec Center, obviously our readers have preferences and tastes and biases and et cetera. But it’s not quite the same as, Gav and I are known coffee shop AU writers and everyone who reads it... You know, in fact we are the opposite of that.
CF: So, the important thing here, for people who are doing research in this space, is to understand what your limitations are. Like, to understand the limitations of your data and to describe them well. So as long as you're doing that and you’re not trying to over-generalize, I mean... I do worry about “All of fandom is like X” because I know that’s certainly not true for my work. And so this is also—I mean, I could have a whole rant about this, but it’s also why it’s important to be careful about science communication. Because the problem is that if most people are reading about research from news articles about research, they’re not reading the methods section that explains the limitations of how this may or may not be generalizable.
FK: Yeah! I was going to ask you about whether you had... “Problems” isn’t the word I’m looking for, but what your sort of challenges and opportunities are around that, with your stuff going viral on Tumblr. I know I’ve had conversations with Destination Toast—who’s been on the podcast before, does a lot of fandom survey work—about, you know, “Should I even present this result to people knowing that they are invariably going to take it in a very over-generalized random way, or how can I frame that best to to try and help people really understand what it does and doesn’t mean?” That must be extra challenging for you, because you’ve got, you know, the weight of actually being a professor and having, you know, all of this stuff behind you.
CF: Yeah, I mean I think that that’s always a worry. I mean, part of my non-fandom-related research is around research ethics and I recently did a study with a student about public reactions to the Facebook emotional contagion study, which was a big research ethics controversy. And that study was so interesting because the public reaction to that was so dependent on the way that the media framed the study, where it’s like “there’s this big interesting finding!” And then in the paper it’s actually, like, not that interesting. And people aren’t going to go read the original article. This is also a reason why I encourage academics to blog about their own work, because then you have control over how it’s communicated to the public.
ELM: Sure, sure. Yeah. And I feel like, speaking as the representative of the media amongst the three of us here, too, you know, like... Spirit of full disclosure also, you know, I’ve published you as an editor about technology, not related to fandom. Obviously I think this is a big problem in science and technology journalism. Because, you know, there’s often, there's not... Some editors and journalists don't even know to do this. But otherwise, also, it’s a hard thing. The way a news story is structured, you don’t really have the space to do this, right?
But on the fandom side—there’s so few people writing about fandom in the mainstream media who even know about, like, who aren’t just making basic factual errors. Right? So then your big takeaways, if you have them, are going to get really distilled. Which obviously you’re kind of circumventing by writing the articles yourself. You know what I mean? But it’s just like, it’s a real... It’s, I think it’s a real limit to how your research can be communicated, when there are so few people even in the media talking about fandom in ways that aren’t, like, factually wrong.
CF: Yeah. I mean, I’ll also say something sort of broadly related to both this kind of research and to journalism: Brianna and I have done some work recently around how fans feel about their data being used in various contexts. And there’s definitely a big feeling that we trust researchers and journalists who come from fandom, and maybe not other people. And there’s a perception in particular that a lot of journalists write about fandom without understanding it. And that can make people uncomfortable.
ELM: A perception based in reality.
CF: Well, yeah, I’m being polite, but. [all laugh]
ELM: You don't have to be! Look, I mean like, I don’t know, it’s just—it makes my job harder too, right? Because, like, while I’m over here trying to do stuff... They’re not my colleagues, but like, peers, I guess, diminishing trust by mining with no context, like mining... Saying “People are talking about this on Tumblr. People are writing fanfiction about this ship,” you know, “and I’m going to link to it in New York Magazine,” or whatever. You know what I mean? It’s just like, it makes my job a lot harder because then people, how are they going to know to trust me? Then I have to put a big disclaimer in the beginning every time being like [laughs] you know?
FK: The irony being that I have the opposite issue, which just... Sometimes I’m like, “You guys should trust me a little less. Like, you really should trust me a little less,” you know?
ELM: Good! Good. Say that out loud. That’s great.
FK: No, I mean I can! People should be more worried about their data and how it’s being used and what people can see! Like, they actually should be. I wish people were more careful in this way because they should be.
CF: So that’s, like, the big other piece of my research. And I will say, as much as I am like, “Oh my gosh, fandom is so amazing and more researchers should be looking at this space”—because like, I don’t know, you know, Wikipedia has X number of active editors and AO3 has X number of active users and why aren’t we looking at AO3 too? On the other hand, I worry a lot about more researchers coming into fandom because it's an interesting source of data and not understanding the norms of the community and not understanding the kinds of harm that they could do by taking that data out of context. I actually worry about that a lot. So I sometimes kind of am hesitant to be as “Rah, rah, fandom is such a cool source of data” as I sometimes am. And at least when I talk to people, I emphasize that this is really important. Because, I mean, there are thousands and thousands of research papers using Tweets and Twitter users have no idea that they could be quoted in research papers.
ELM: Sure. Yeah.
FK: Yeah! Dude, the Twitter firehose, everything you Tweet that is public, like, my God. Please understand this.
CF: I did a study about this a couple of years ago and the result was basically, most of the Twitter users in our survey had no idea that their Tweets could be used for science. And the problem is that the usual ethical heuristic for researchers, is it public? And if it’s public, it’s free game. It doesn’t, under normal ethical review, it’s not considered human subjects research. So I would really encourage people in fandom to be careful about what they’re making public.
FK: Because it’s not just researchers either, right? Like, I have access to this, doing this work for television shows, for film producers. You know, anybody can pay a certain amount of money and get access to every Tweet that was ever twat, you know.
ELM: Wow. Wow, Flourish.
FK: You love that, right?
ELM: No, I don’t love that! You’re saying, though, what you’re saying I think actually would inspire plenty of fans to say more. Because they would like to let you know that their ship should become canon.
CF: And that’s fine too.
FK: Well, that's it, though, those two things right? Like, sometimes people are really excited about it and sometimes people don’t realize, and it’s a complicated question, I think, cause not everyone has the same feelings about privacy. I’m sure that you had discovered this or [laughs] already knew this as well.
CF: Well and it’s really different depending on the person. I mean, one of the things that we’re finding is that the privacy concerns and the risk of amplification is really different for, like, LGBT people who aren't out in their real lives. Because let’s say you are an artist and Buzzfeed takes a piece of art from your Tumblr and puts it in an article about fanart, and then someone in your real life recognizes your art style and it sends them to your Tumblr, which is a place where you were out. And even if it’s under a pseudonym, if they recognize your art style, it could out you. And so these are the concerns that people have. I mean, I would like to think that most researchers and journalists or at least thinking about these kinds of things and I never—
ELM: Most journalists are not. They’re not.
CF: Some researchers are and some aren’t, too. [laughter] And I never want to scare people. Like, when I talk about this kind of thing, I’m like, I'=’m not telling you that you shouldn’t tweet or whatever. I mean, obviously I’m not telling people that, cause I’m all over Twitter, but I’m usually like, you know, “Tweet like Buzzfeed is watching.”
ELM: Yeah. Right. When people like just endlessly rail against... You know, I follow, I’m mutuals with the Buzzfeed, the Tumblr lead for Buzzfeed, Cates Holderness—who I think really, really respects and understands Tumblr. But they’re also coming from a perspective of like, “Yeah, you put it on Tumblr? We’re putting it on Buzzfeed.” Like, that's not—they’ve made that. It does not violate anything ethical for them. Like, they are operating on this idea of people are posting it. In their defense, people are posting it! And what are you going to—especially if that's your model.
Like, if I’m going to quote someone or highlight someone's work in a mainstream publication, I always ask permission. The only place I don’t ask permission is in the Rec Center. We always ask permission for the art because it’s actually going to be republished, not a link. But for fanfiction... Someone tweeted at me recently and they were like, “Do you ask permission before you rec to these stories?” And I was like, “No, I don’t think we need to.” But we are journalists, you know, and we write for mainstream publications. And yeah, we’re fandom journalists, and I know people who are not in fandom who subscribe to the newsletter. But that being said, like, I could also tweet a link and someone is going to [try to] stop me from tweeting saying “Read this story.” And they’re saying, “Oh, you’re violating the norms of the community”? Like I think these—it can get really, really extreme at that point.
FK: And when people decide to be mad about that, right? So, I saw someone saying that because a person was like, “Here’s this fanfic and it’s kind of weird.” And people got really angry about that—and I think reasonably so.
ELM: Are you talking about the Parker Molloy thing?
FK: Yeah, it sucked. I mean, that sucked. But at the same time, I was like, “Oh, but if someone else tweeted that and was like, ‘Hey, this is cool,’ then no one would have been angry about it.” But the way that they were framing it was “You’re bringing these people into this in a negative way,” which is true. But it was about the tone and about who it was.
ELM: Casey, did you see this? Someone said something about, like, shipping or something, and Parker Molloy, who is a well known journalist... Journalist? I guess...was like, you know, “They ship Captain America and Bucky or whatever, you know, shield yourself, you don’t want to see this.” So it was that kind of tone. And it was, yeah, if she had just tweeted it and had been like, “I love this story,” but instead it was like, “Look at what these weirdos are doing.” And it was made very explicit and she deleted it, I think, and apologized.
FK: She did delete it. It was like, a non-apology.
ELM: It was like, “Yeah, sorry. Sorry you’re mad.”
CF: Well, and this is one of the reasons why this ethical thing of, “Oh, all that matters is that it’s public” is dumb, because the context of what you’re doing matters. A lot of the people that we talked to about this were actually specifically worried about harassment within fandom. Like, If the context of their work being used... There’s a difference between, “Hey, here’s a cool story” or “Hey, here’s people who liked this pairing” and something really negative. Like “Here’s people being racist in fandom.” Like, “Here’s people being racist in fandom” is going to harm the people who you are referencing if it, you know, if it brings people back to them. And so it matters. It matters what you’re doing.
ELM: Well, that’s a hard example because if they wrote a racist story... [laughs]
FK: Yeah, but every single one of these is complicated. Maybe they wrote a racist story. Maybe they, maybe, like, it’s arguable. Maybe you know, like...
ELM: Not gonna defend this fictional racist story! Don’t make me!
FK: I don’t know, but maybe a better example would be to say, like... There are some people who would be really horrified to discover that, for instance, I had shown their fanart to the people who are the producers of of their favorite thing. Other people would be fine with that. Some people would be upset that I had shown it to the producers, but they wouldn’t be upset if it had been published in a mainstream publication. Other people, it would be the exact opposite. Right?
FK: So there's some of these questions of, like, who cares about what and what is the... is it public? Is that what matters to you? Is it that a particular person sees or doesn’t see it? Does that matter to you? It’s a really complicated question and it’s not, as you were saying, it’s not easily answerable by some of the traditional research ethics, like, standbys.
CF: It’s really hard to make generalizable rules around this kind of thing because it's so contextual to the type of data, who the person is, what you’re doing with it. So there are no good answers except that I would just really like people to be thoughtful about it when they’re making decisions. And sometimes people are going to make mistakes. And that happens, because sometimes you don't have all the information, or you know, people aren’t perfect, but I would at least like people to be thoughtful about it. That’s kind of my takeaway from all of this.
ELM: Okay. We’re running low on time, but I want to do one more question. I think we need to talk about the future of tumblr.com.
FK: Which has to do with thoughtfulness and with who sees what things, there’s a lot of these themes that are...
ELM: Does it? Have to do with thoughtfulness?
FK: Yeah! The thoughtfulness of having or not having a porn AI, the context of what is and is not, you know, in violation...
ELM: The lack of thoughtfulness.
FK: Community norms around what counts as like... Do we not want the bad porn gifs, but we do want our fanart? All of these questions.
ELM: Yeah. All right. Here’s what I'm going to say, and I want to see if either of you have had a different experience. So I know, Flourish, you don’t go on Tumblr very much these days. Since December 17th, my birthday and the day of reckoning, I’ve lost four followers—but I actually got a bunch more, so it wasn’t like there was a mass deletion of blogs. I’ve seen a few people have their blogs blurred out and then appeal it and now they’re unblurred, and I’ve seen lots of people saying they are being followed by more porn bots than ever. And that’s it. That’s all I’ve experienced so far. That being said, I’m not, like, involved in sex worker communities and fetish blogs and any other thing that may be really explicitly explicit. So I don’t know if you have had other different experiences, but it feels very, very lackluster after the drama of the first part of December.
CF: I mean, I will say that I am fairly confident that the intention—at least of people working at Tumblr, it's hard to say about sort of higher-ups... The people working at Tumblr weren’t the ones who made this decision for the most part and I think that they really do want to preserve the communities that are there. I think that the huge backlash against it had an impact, and I think that some of the initial communication around things made it sound worse than it really was. In particular, the fact that they rolled out the algorithm right when they made the first announcement was a huge mistake because it was so bad. [laughter] And if they had done what they did in the follow up, which was to say, “Hey guys, we know that the algorithm’s bad, we need you to help us make it better by telling us when it’s wrong—because this is how machines learn, it’s by knowing when they’re wrong. It’s like a child. It’s like, you did bad. You need to learn from this.”
FK: If they had anthropomorphized the algorithm, you mean, as like a two-year-old that’s like [childlike voice] “Porn! Porn!” [deep grown-up voice] “No, that’s not porn, little Timmy.” This is a terrible, terrible metaphor.
ELM: That was grim. Have you guys watched Silicon Valley? The show?
ELM: Do you remember when what’s-his-name...
CF: Are you talking about the hot dogs?
ELM: Yeah. [laughing] When he creates that... Flourish, have you seen this?
ELM: One of the side characters creates this app that solely exists to identify whether something’s a hot dog or not.
FK: Oh my God.
ELM: And then I think he sells it to, like, Snapchat or something to be, like, a...
FK: To prevent dick pics.
ELM: But the whole thing is so, it was just a ridiculous... I mean every, every plot line of his is ridiculous. But check that show out, Flourish. [laughing]
CF: Yeah. I mean, I’m less concerned about the algorithm being bad and more concerned about how the actual policy decisions go. I feel like it’s still a little unclear what kind of content is actually going to be okay and what’s not. And I think that we’re only going to learn that with time. It’s difficult to say. I mean, you know, when this all first happened, as you know, I was kind of all over Twitter. Like, “You should’ve learned mistakes from what happened to LiveJournal!” And to some extent I think that’s still true, though I do think there are some differences between this and what was going on on LiveJournal because LiveJournal had all of these other kinds of things that was happening at the same time, like becoming Russian. [laughs]
FK: Well and there was, there was a malicious attempt to shut things down, right?
ELM: But it was also a small group of people working at Six Apart. It was genuinely a few individuals. Tumblr is owned by Oath, which is owned by Verizon, right?
CF: That’s pretty new.
ELM: Right? And they’re working under this... So there’s multiple levels of parent companies and there are these new laws that they're trying to comply with and they’re, you know, it’s like a, it’s like... I dunno, it’s a huge apples and oranges to me in terms of like—it’s not like there are five guys who make Tumblr sitting there going, “I think we should do this for whatever reason.” You know, it’s very structural to me.
CF: That’s true. I also think that Tumblr, at least the people working at Tumblr, care more about fandom than LiveJournal cared about fandom.
ELM: Oh, 1000%.
FK: At least by the time we got to Six Apart for sure.
ELM: Yeah. I mean we’re a little—obviously we’re a little biased because we know and are friends with Amanda Brennan who is on the content team. But to suggest that she and her colleagues who work on fandom don’t know and care a lot about fandom is bonkers.
FK: It’s also a little bit weird with LiveJournal, because by the time you got to these problems with LiveJournal, you already had Denise splitting off and taking people with her to go found Dreamwidth, which was explicitly like, “Hey, we are the people who care about fandom on the LiveJournal team. Let’s go and make a thing that we care about, that’s for our people.” Right? So it’s a little bit different in that respect also.
CF: Yeah, I mean, so in terms of the future of Tumblr, I mean... One of the things I’ve said is that regardless of what happens with Tumblr, like, fandom’s going to be fine no matter what happens to it. And I think that it could continue to be fine on Tumblr, but I’m sort of watching carefully because it’s really going to make a difference the kind of decisions that they’re making—and the human decisions, not the algorithm’s decisions. Like, the algorithm is just bad, but it’s going to depend on how the people around the algorithm are then making human decisions. It’s going to make a difference. And it’s kind of hard to say where that’s gonna go right now.
I mean, one of the things is that people were like, “Oh, well if the algorithm makes a mistake and it’s like, oh, two boys kissing is flagged as adult, all you have to do is appeal.” But that’s a barrier. I mean, and it’s a burden placed on the user, who might already be concerned or you know... Like, being told that your content is bad, even if it’s a mistake, then makes you have kind of less trust for the platform.
FK: Or particularly for young people, right, also...
ELM: Oh, I don’t think it’s just young people, Flourish. I think it's just—I think people of all ages in this entire thing have assumed that there was... Like, the number of people that were talking about how puritanical and moralizing it was when the algorithm was flagging things. And it was like—this algorithm is piece of shit and it is flagging everything. And just to think that the persecution complex behind some of this—when it was so obvious that the algorithm was just completely bad, you know what I mean? Like, and I don’t want to diminish the very real fear of marginalized groups being on the front lines of the first things to get censored. That being said, we had really clear evidence that it wasn’t, they weren’t going after things that were really specific.
FK: I just think that it’s a complex question because there are people who should know that and who are yet having this martyr complex going on, like people who really ought to be able to recognize this. But then I also think about like—maybe not even today or tomorrow, but what if in like, you know, five years, you have a teenager who is coming from a conservative area who’s found this community on Tumblr, and they post a picture of boys kissing and Tumblr says that that’s porn. And they’re like, “Well, that confirms everything that everybody has always told me that this is actually not okay.” So it’s, I mean, so that’s complex too.
ELM: The most unbelievable thing that you just said is that Tumblr is going to exist in five years. [all laugh] Extraordinary predictions right here. [FK sputters] I understand, I understand.
FK: I totally agree with what you’re saying, but I also think that there’s like this—it’s one of the reasons it’s hard to talk about, is that it’s both things at once.
ELM: Yeah. But I mean, I just think that this is... I don’t think there’s any solution to that because I think that there’s so many, so many things that—because there are malicious decisions being made, but there's so much negligence. [FK laughs] Tumblr’s algorithm feels negligent to me. Facebook’s lack of ability to moderate its own content feels like it’s founded in negligence, not in, like, an evil plot. They don’t seem competent enough to have an evil plot. You know, Casey, maybe you disagree, but like, I dunno... It was just, it’s the same thing when anyone ever says, like, conservatives saying there’s a conspiracy in the media. It’s like in the joke of “We can’t even organize a happy hour!”
FK: Or like 90% of people's ideas about what the Powers That Be are doing in fandom. No, it's not that they’re malicious. They don’t know what you’re talking about. They’re just, they just don’t know.
ELM: Yeah. You talk to, someone at the BBC about, about... No, I won’t even get started, but they’re like, “I’m sorry. We literally can’t call a meeting with two different departments at once.” I just think that there’s so many things that are not malicious and are negligent and thoughtless and are going to be interpreted as malicious, and I don’t know how we’re supposed to solve for that.
CF: I think that's 100% true.
ELM: Yes! But...
CF: But I also think that people often don’t realize how hard things are to do in the context of technology. Like, I’m sorry there’s not a perfect porn detector or even...
ELM: Hot dog or not?
CF: But like, imagine if we wanted a perfect algorithm to determine like bad porn versus good porn or something.
ELM: Yeah. Right.
CF: I mean it’s just—and same thing with, like, people immediately jumped to a technological solution for the fake news problem, but that’s so, so hard. Yeah. I mean, platforms like Facebook have definitely made some bad decisions and some of them are bad because they are prioritizing advertising revenue over other things. Some are bad because it’s just, you don’t know what the good thing to do is.
CF: And that’s also what’s happening with Tumblr. I mean, part of all this as well is that it’s harder to get ad revenue when there's a lot of really negative content, but it’s really hard to tell what’s negative.
CF: And then you can say, “Well, [use] humans instead,” which then is really hard. And also, like... This is a whole other topic, but imagine the people whose job it is to look at all of the content that is flagged as being...
FK: Yeah, yeah!
CF: That’s a whole other thing. But it’s just like, it’s insane.
ELM: So did you see the Pillowfort announcement about how they were going to handle underage stuff? Did you follow this at all? Flourish, don’t die.
CF: I did see what their policy was. I’m not sure if I saw the follow-up of exactly how they decided to handle it.
ELM: They specifically said... So Pillowfort was being asked, you know, about the big questions. Specifically, like, underage and rape and non-con and incest. I don’t know, what are the other ones? Like, you know, the big guys, right?
FK: The big ones!
ELM: But they said they were only really gonna deal with underage. And they put out this statement saying, clarifying and saying that... I shouldn’t, I’m just, I’m trying to remember and paraphrase, I don’t know if you can remember this Flourish, but it was basically just like, “Well, if it looks like the one of the parties is clearly underage, we’ll assess it.” And one of the things I saw reblogged was like, “Prepare for the return of ‘child-coded’ discourse.” [rueful laughter] You know, or like, saying that adult women with small breasts or no breasts—saying that woman is supposed to evoke a prepubescent girl. You know, that kind of thing. Right? And I just like, I dunno. And then I saw an adult man later that day with a very child-like face. And I immediately thought “child-coded,” and then I was like, “I should walk into the sea. Cause I just thought that out loud about this man.”
FK: You did!
CF: This issue in particular is really, really tricky. And since we’re on the topic, I’ll say that it’s really tricky for AO3, too. Because, speaking of people whose job it is to see the bad things, like, imagine the kind of complaints that get elevated to the legal committee [FK & ELM make affirmative noises] which is not very often, but then it’s like “Here’s the link to the fic that like someone’s threatening to send to the FBI,” or whatever, and then someone has to go look at it. And you know, AO3 I know has gotten criticism in some circles for not having stricter content policies, but the decision to draw the line at legality makes the line easy to draw. It means that there’s no value judgment. And everyone has a different line for where their value judgments would be. And this is really tricky, not just for AO3 but lots of other platforms too. Because, I mean, you know, there’s lots of really horrible stuff on Reddit [laughs] obviously. I mean, these are just really, really hard things and it’s something that my research community is thinking about and working on a lot. So lots of very smart people are working on it and we still don’t have answers.
ELM: All right. You need to give us the answers. We need them. Come back with the answers.
FK: Yeah. We look forward to you coming back with the answers.
CF: Talk to me again when I have tenure, maybe I’ll be much smarter then.
FK: [laughs] That’s how that works, right? You get tenure and, like, they just give you a second brain in a vat. It doubles the brain power.
CF: Yeah! It’s a magic wand. Also, I’m expecting my sense of style to change like Dumbledore’s did.
ELM: Oh wow. Yes. You don’t have to wait for tenure to do that.
CF: This is true.
ELM: There’s so many mistakes he made that you can avoid. You don’t have to be some kind of, like, supremacist briefly. You don’t have to date Johnny Depp.
FK: Yeah. You can just make that choice to never date Johnny Depp!
ELM: And you can immediately just put on the long purple spangly....
CF: Look, I will promise you guys right now, I’m definitely not going to date Johnny Depp, I promise. I make that solemn vow to all listeners.
ELM: You heard it here first! Great. We can all, we can all agree to that one right now.
FK: We can all—
ELM: As a compact. [all laughing] That’s good. Fine.
FK: All right. Well, it has been such a pleasure having you on, Casey. This has been incredibly enlightening.
ELM: Thank you so much.
CF: Thank you so much. I love talking about this stuff. [laughs]
ELM: Yeah. Anytime you want to come back, anytime you want to... If you ever want to enlist our help in a survey, just let us know.
CF: You guys are so helpful.
ELM: Yeah, no, seriously. I think, Flourish, you should do another survey. It’s been awhile. Go do one.
FK: I gotta figure out what it’s going to be about! I keep, we keep saying this and I keep thinking “What should it be about?” And, y’know.
ELM: What I would actually really love to do... This is a can of worms, but like a new, like an actual census with as broad a sample as possible would be very interesting.
CF: Please do that! I would love for you to do that because then I can cite it.
ELM: Well, because someone tagged us on this, and so I looked at the Centrum Lumina AO3 census, which had 10,000 respondents. But this was five years ago. They asked about race and ethnicity. They asked about sexuality and gender. You know, it’s really interesting results, but I’d be really curious if we could get an even larger sample size and maybe take some of the critiques that they got—and obviously took on board when they presented the survey—and see if we could... I dunno, this is something I want Flourish to do for me.
FK: All right. Well, that is a horrifying task, but I will try if you want. [all laugh] I’m, I’m up for trying because I’m not, I mean, this isn’t academic. I’ve kinda got nothing—we’ve kinda got nothing to lose. Right? Let’s try.
ELM: We have a lot to lose. But that’s fine.
FK: No. It’ll be fine. [ELM laughs] The worst that we could do is be like, “Oops, that was a failed experiment.”
ELM: All right. All right. Yeah, we’ll keep you posted. You keep us posted.
CF: All right.
ELM: Okay. Thank you Casey.
FK: Talk to you later, Casey.
CF: Thank you!
FK: Casey is so authoritative in the way that she speaks, it’s delightful. I feel like I just like got professored at, which I did.
ELM: You feel that way all the time though. You’re married to a professor.
FK: Oh, I guess.
ELM: [laughs] It’s true.
FK: I’m not usually as interested in his areas of research as I am in this. Sorry Nick.
ELM: He’s not listening. I don't think he’s ever listened. We can say whatever we want.
FK: [laughing] That is not true. That is not true.
ELM: Really? He listens?
FK: I don’t know, but I think that if I say that he doesn’t, then he’s going to turn up and uh, you know.
ELM: [laughs] He’s got some kind of Google alert. But yeah, I do understand what you’re saying. One thing also, you know, Casey gives off this vibe to me of—[laughs] It’s funny because I do feel like we’re peers, we’re about the same age, so we’re peers, right. But I’m like, “Oh, if I was your student and you would validate my ideas for areas of research...!” I think that’s a really impressive vibe to give off, because I know some professors who are one to two generations older than us who I don’t feel that way about, and they don’t inspire that kind of enthusiasm for learning. So.
ELM: There were a ton of things that we talked about, so we definitely need to do show notes for this one. Obviously do we do it for every one.
FK: Yeah, but they’ll be extensive so definitely make sure to check them out because I think that there’s a lot that you’ll want to read.
ELM: Yes, yes. 100%. so one order of business before we do the normal closing business, our next episode is “Ask Fansplaining Anything: Part Three.” We’ve done two of them so far. We did one... Maybe end of the summer? And one... I don’t know, whatever. They were last year. We did two, like, question-and-answer things where we had people...
FK: Like, full-on letterbox. Like, just answering people’s questions.
ELM: I like your commitment to the word “letterbox.”
FK: I like it.
ELM: I’ve noticed you put it on official copy, like...
FK: I like the word “letterbox.” It’s a pleasing word.
FK: Let-ter-box. It’s great.
ELM: Yeah. So there are three main ways to send in a question or a comment that we would discuss on the episode. One is firstname.lastname@example.org. Two is fansplaining.tumblr.com using our ask box. If you want to remain anonymous, you can hit anon on that one. Please be respectful. As always, you can also say in an email, “I want to be anonymous,” and we will completely respect your wishes. And number three, if you’re comfortable with your voice on air—and again, you can remain anonymous there, though if we get voice recognition software and a sample of your voice somehow... [laughing] I don’t know the scenario in which is happening.
FK: There’s a hacker movie that we’re somehow crossing over with [laughter] I don’t know, but you can call us and leave a voicemail at 1-401-526-3267. That’s 1-401-526-FANS, and I never get tired of saying that.
ELM: Yes. Also, if you want to get in touch with us about this episode or anything, you know, anytime you want to respond to us—if you’re a regular listener, you know that we often will read one or two letters at the beginning or end of an episode, but this is your big chance in the next 48 hours or so because we are recording this pretty soon. If you have any, if you have any questions for things that we haven’t covered, basically that would be really great. Like, you know, “Have you ever thought about X,” that kind of thing.
FK: Yeah. One great way to support us is to do that, you know, just to give us feedback. Another great way to support us is to share the news that Fansplaining exists and is cool. [laughing] It’s news!
ELM: Did you mean to make that Jesus-y? Spread the good word! Have you heard the news?
FK: Have you heard the good word of Fansplaining? [ELM laughs] Well, anyway, point being, that’s another way that you can help us out without spending any money at all, is just sort of telling people to come and listen. If you do have some extra cash, however, we would love it if you could kick a couple of bucks to our Patreon, which is at patreon.com/fansplaining. It’s got delightful rewards for different levels from $1 a month to significantly more than that! So depending on, you know, what you wanna do, we're here for you.
ELM: OK, pause. Two reasons to pledge at $3 a month. That’s when you get access to every special episode. That’s that level. And our most recent special episode was about Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite starring Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz, and my son Nicholas Hoult. He’s not the star. He’s more of a supporting character.
ELM: And the two reasons why we should plug this again are one, it’s finally come out in the UK. I’m very sorry to all of you that you had to wait. And number two, Olivia Colman won a Golden Globe! I love her and I’m very glad that she’s finally getting the recognition she’s long deserved for her extraordinary work.
FK: She is a delight.
ELM: So good. And she called Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone her “bitches” in her acceptance speech. Extraordinary. [FK laughs] Really great. So if you have had the great pleasure to see that film and you want to hear us talk about it, that's our most recent special episode. And we have nine other ones and we have another one in the works right now.
FK: We do indeed. All right. Is there anything else?
ELM: Well, we didn’t tell people they could, like, find us on Twitter and Facebook and stuff, but they could figure it out.
FK: They know. Right?
ELM: But it’s “fansplaining” in those places.
FK: All right, cool. Is that everything?
ELM: Yeah, I think that’s it.
FK: All right. Okay. In that case, I will talk to you later, Elizabeth.
ELM: Okay. Bye, Flourish.
Elizabeth and Flourish: Fansplaining is brought to you by all of our patrons, especially Kathleen Parham, Kitaoroshi, Bryan Shields, Boxish, Grace Mitchell, Christine Hoxmeier, Desiree Longoria, Jennifer Brady, Bluella, Georgie Carroll, Goodwin, Earlgreytea68, Chloe-Leonna Steele, Menlo Steve, Katherine Lynn, Clare Mulligan, Heidi Tandy, Megan C., Sara, Josh Stenger, Tablesaw Tablesawsen, Jennifer Doherty, froggy, nubreed73, Amelia Harvey, Meghan McCusker, Michael Andersen, Helena Romelsjö, Willa, Cynsa Bonorris, veritasera, Clare Muston, sekrit, Maria Temming, Anne Jamison, Jay Bushman, Lucas Medeiros. Jules Chatelain. Javier Grillo-Marxuach, and in honor of One Direction and Captain James McGraw Flint.
FK: As always, our intro music is “Awel” by Stefsax. This week’s Creative Commons licensed interstitial music is by Lee Rosevere. Both are used under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. Find out more details in the show notes. The opinions expressed in this podcast are not our clients’, or our employers’, or anyone’s except our own.