The Subreddits That Ruined the Internet

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S1: All right, I found something good already, and I think I’m getting a sense of what kind of sobriety this is.

S2: Hi, I’m Rachel Hampton and you’re listening to I. Why am I? In case you missed it? Slave podcasts about internet culture. And as you can tell, Madison is not here. I have finally become the supreme. No. She is actually on vacation. Everyone take your PTO before runs out at the end of the year. So today we’re joined by one of our editors, Allegra Frank. Hi, Allegra.

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S3: Hi, Rachel. Thanks for having me.

S2: I’m so glad you’re here. Not least because every single time the cat’s away, the mouse gets to play a.k.a. Madison’s away, and we’re going to talk about Tumblr.

S3: I honestly feel like any time I come in, it’s to stop you from having your Joker moment of like the longer I’m not allowed to talk about Tumblr, the more likely I am going to go rogue. And this story, this podcast from me?

S2: Exactly. You’re really kind of a backstop to keep me from going for Joker on the podcast and like fully just ripping our team apart. So thank you for that public service.

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S3: I’m happy to be the glue.

S2: So we’re talking, of course, about Tumblr, but specifically as social justice Tumblr, because what a wild and weird place that raised me. Sorry, mom. So I’m going to start off light because it gets a little dicey on social justice. Tumblr. But what’s the most ridiculous social justice post you saw in your days on the platform?

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S3: Yeah. So we were talking about this and I was trying to rack my brain off all the things I had deleted from it, of my leg, from my days of sifting through people, getting very angry on my dash. So I was also asking some of my friends, and they reminded me of one from 2015. It was this post that has become known colloquially as down with this bus because it was this post where someone was telling a story about a time they were like on the sidewalk with their friends and then a bus came up next to them. I don’t know if you remember this, but a bunch of people come out of the bus like it’s a clown car and they’re all wearing. They’re all wearing shirts that say down with cysts on them. And then they beat up the person who wrote this post because I guess the person is cisgender. And these are people who are not aware

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S2: that God had been a social justice warrior.

S3: What was what was the post that ruined your life? Tumblr.

S2: I feel like the one that I remember the most. Back when Lord put out pure heroine, her best album and roils was taking over the chart. There was this take the hardest thing I’ve ever seen, which is that Lorde is anti-Black because of this lyric in royals, where she talking about like wearing gold jewelry and how she doesn’t do that and how, like Lorde is talking shit about hip hop because they’re super flash in ostentatious. Therefore, Lorde is anti-Black. But the result is like gold teeth, grey goose jumping in the bathroom, bloodstains, ball gowns stretch in the hotel room. And I remember thinking this is just just close enough to something that could be true if I was on Tumblr when I was a child. So I was just like, maybe. And now as an adult, I’m like, What the fuck? But it’s like the razor’s edge of plausibility where I was like, Maybe. And that that razor’s edge is important for today’s topic because we’re not talking about social justice Tumblr just because I’m obsessed than Allegra agreed to come on the show or Madison’s gone. It’s because of the lasting impact of the post that Allegra and I are describing aren’t just that they’re stuck in our brains for our lives. It’s the entire forums like the subreddit Tumblr. An action sprang up around making fun of people or posts that in in, you know, I’m going to say, egalitarian desire to promote tolerance, but we’re just a bit too far. Hmm. But the thing is Tumblr and action. Other subreddits like it very quickly transformed from places that poked fun at people, saying things like pansexuality is better than bisexuality. Or that, like calling your introverted friends on the phone is basically a hate crime. Tumblr and action started as calling that out, and it quickly transformed into this extremely toxic space that declared open season on pretty much anything that vaguely resembled social justice language. And these communities weren’t just passively making fun of users. Forums like Tumblr and Action or Social Justice Inaction, or Kotaku and Action They Love and action engaged in some of the worst targeted harassment I’ve ever witnessed most often of trans people are people of color who dare to say, Hey, perhaps we deserve rights.

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S3: Absolutely. And like when we say targeted harassment, we mean the absolute worst level of harassment you can think of. Like when you think of internet harassment, you’re thinking of what happens on these inaction forums.

S2: On today’s show, we’re going to take you through the history of the R and action forums and their lasting legacy on the internet. Buckle up. It’s a wild ride. And we’re back with Allegra and Tumblr. In the beginning, there was social justice Tumblr, which, you know, I refer to again as the burning pile of trash that perhaps for my social consciousness.

S3: Yeah. You were big on social justice Tumblr, or at least relative to me, so I’m definitely excited to hear about your coming of age on such a volatile place on the internet.

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S2: I’ve spent a lot of time on Tumblr as a teenager because Tumblr had a reputation for all the things that I loved, which was fandoms, porn and social justice. You know, that’s pretty much all I was interested in as a 14 year old soccer mom. But in our one of our early episodes, we interviewed the founder of a really popular social justice blog that I follow called This is White Privilege, and he basically said that the strength of social justice Tumblr is also its weakness, which is that the point of that side of Tumblr was to turn what amounts to very dense theory into like digestible little posts that you could blog and say, like, Yeah, I relate to that, which is admirable as an exercise, but in practice meant that it turned concepts like privilege and anti-Blackness and transphobia and capitalism into these bite sized nuggets. Except the Nuggets are made by people who perhaps that have never been in the fucking kitchen, you know?

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S3: Yeah, exactly. It’s just like a very reductive place. But I mean, it’s still like formative for, yeah, for good and bad.

S2: I mean, like, I I can’t. I learned a lot of things on social justice Tumblr. It’s like one of the first places where I really started to understand, like my experience as like a black girl in suburban Texas within a broader context. So Tumblr, you know, I learned some good things. I also saw some weird shit there because on one hand, you have like really basic concepts like being encouraged to straighten your hair. The black woman is like a remnant of white supremacy and like gender and biological sex are not the same thing. And like people refusing to pronounce your name correctly is in fact racist. And then there was also stuff like introversion is a form of oppression or asking people to shower regularly is fucked up. There is a blog called This is clean privilege, and the issue is that a lot of people like me were children and our brains were mush, and we could not distinguish between the first set of things I’m describing and the second set. And so you’re just like, all of this is true, and I am learning so many things on this blue health site right next to this porn gifs. But when you’re a kid who’s just, you know, trying to do the right thing, you know, you kind of just take whatever your reading of gospel because you’re like, OK, right next to these set of facts that I know are true. Are these set of conjectures that have the kind of veneer of truth? And it wasn’t until I went to college and started taking like ethnic studies classes with professors who had like PhDs in this shit that I realized how much I learned on Tumblr. It was just not completely wrong, but like two to like 50 degrees off base, you know?

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S3: Which is a really big margin.

S2: So this is the context of social justice Tumblr and some of its more ridiculous moments, which eventually became a kind of form of humor unto itself. And this is where Tumblr in action and all its various inaction can enter Allegra, do you want to explain Tumblr in action?

S3: So Tumblr and action started around 2013, really picking up steam in 2014 as a subreddit that was specifically dedicated to sharing a first Tumblr posts. And then it evolved past there to be things on other platforms like Twitter or Facebook, and specifically the kinds of posts that you were seeing a lot. Were you like the social justice warrior posts, whether or not they were more earnest and accurate or really outrageous, super reductive. So no matter how many degrees off from actual critical theory you were, you were probably going to be mocked for those beliefs on Tumblr and action. So users on their Redditors would call out a lot of those posts that they categorized as kind of over the top or that they found incredulous. Specifically, ones that were sort of asserting more progressive views, even if it was something just like, I think racism is bad, like they would often find a way to mark that on the forum, and they would just use these posts that they pull from Tumblr as a way to portray Tumblr to the rest of the Reddit community and the internet at large as a place where liberal bias and marginalized believes in marginalized people could all just come together and turn into this really laughable or histrionic, almost feral kind of place. So it came it started with a pretty bad meme intention, but I think in 2013, as you said, like a lot of these things, we did still kind of find funny, like there was still humor to be found. But the fact that Tumblr is that kind of place where you can just say these things has been a big part of why Tumblr in action has existed, because it’s where people who want to make fun of those people go and broadcast their disagreement with these posts or saying like, look at these dumb asses and inviting everyone else to mock these users.

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S2: I feel like we need to hear some of those Tumblr in action posts to really kind of get the gist of what we’re talking about. So here’s YouTuber Felix Fantastique reading a few on her channel.

S1: This person says How the fuck a white person going to tell me that others are appropriating my own culture? Sit down making tacos is not offensive to any Mexican on this planet. Enjoy them literally. W t f r y’all on. Here’s another promising one The title of the post is all writers have to like their fan bases or their self-entitled, say people without a sense of irony or self-awareness. And it is a screenshot of a Twitter post and the woman’s name is blocked out, but it says smug writer with pronouns in her bio. Anyway, the tweet itself says there is for sure a weird thing that happens when dudes think they’re writing for other dudes. But then it turns out they’re actually writing for women. And instead of being like, Wow, OK, me love a big, passionate audience. They get like, very mad and need to punish another good one, a tweet that says, Can you be racist again against a white cis males? And if you can, can they do anything against it?

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S2: So now they all kind of know what a typical Tumblr in action post sounds like, and we’ve given you some context on the history of this forum. When we come back from the break, we’re going to discuss what Tumblr and action looks like today and some of the other forms of influence in its wake. And we’re back and just a heads up, we are going to be talking a bit about GamerGate towards the end of this episode, so if that’s something you don’t want to hear. Feel free to turn it off now. So like before the break, we talked about the kind of roots of places like Tumblr in action and basically what started as a way to poke fun at stuff that we are admitting is ridiculous, right? Basically, kind of prime the generation of mostly young, mostly white men to immediately and almost violently I.M.F.. They almost like violently dismiss anything they have, like a whiff of social justice about them. And the mostly white, mostly young is not just something I made up. The Daily Dot wrote a really great piece and cited some statistics about who was mostly looking at Tumblr in action, and it was mostly young white men under the age of 24. Which, you know, in the past few years, we’ve seen what mostly young, mostly white men under the age of 24 on the internet have wrought. So the way this kind of priming most often manifested was in a deep hatred of trans people and women and people of color. And one of the very standard targets of places like Tumblr in action is the Council of Neo Pronouns, which are pronouns outside of she, her he him and they theirs. And so Tumblr was definitely a place where people would say their pronouns were like bun or something else. And again, Tumblr collapse collapses context. You can’t exactly tell who’s trolling. And so Tumblr in action would take the most extremist views and be like, this is indicative of the entire community, and this is what Tumblr in action did. Basically, like the same context collapse that I experienced as a 14 year old was the same context collapse. The Tumblr inaction encourages, but in bad faith.

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S3: Absolutely. Being a skeptic was almost like a celebrated mode of being, especially during the peak of these forums.

S2: You’re just asking questions.

S3: Yeah, it’s like, Oh yeah, I’m just a curious person. I just want to make sure we’re all on the same page here. And you being the one who dares to ask the questions or immediately makes you superior to the ones that you are questioning.

S2: And there was this way in which any kind of appeal to emotion immediately delegitimize anything you were saying. I mean, that’s where the the tears come from, or like the special snowflake, where it’s like, Oh, your trigger, like your feelings are hurt. Like, you know, it’s like, why are you, as someone who doesn’t experience is an expert on this just because you aren’t emotionally impacted by it? And that was kind of what these forums encouraged. So I feel like at this point, we’ve mostly talked about the online dynamics of these forums, but this shit has real world effects too, right?

S3: Which is enter GamerGate. So we mentioned before a little inaction brother or sister or mother, brother and another in action kin. I’m sorry. Thank you for writing Reddit. I mean, action kin called Kotaku and action. So this was a sort of an in action kin that was focused not on Tumblr or other social media platforms, but specifically on games journalism in the gaming industry, which, as we all know, has its own huge fandom and community and discourse. And they basically use their forum to assess the work of people whose job it was to review video games or report on industry happenings. And Kotaku is one of the longest running video game news websites that also has criticism, commentary, videos, reviews, all kinds of content. And as a part of the R.I.P. Gawker Media Group, it had a very, I mean, openly liberal slant, and that’s what a lot of readers came to Kotaku for, myself included. But because Kotaku was writers and leadership would say, Hey, we don’t love that, you know, this game treats women as objects or we don’t love that this game. All the enemies are black. All the people you’re killing are black. Like they would have commentary on like, Hey, we need to hold the gaming industry accountable for this kind of content because millions of people are playing these things and are being radicalized to believe it’s okay to just treat women like sex toys and play. Psycho Talk and action was dedicated to posting, sharing those articles and saying, Look at these stupid SJW trying to brainwash US gamers into believing that the liberal agenda should be infecting gaming. Are we not safe? Are we not free?

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S2: Even in our past, not America.

S3: Exactly. And so GamerGate sprang predominantly from that forum because these sort of self-appointed watchdogs of games journalism, they turned their spheres from games, journalism as an industry toward the games, journalists and game developers and game sympathizers. They turn their their ire toward them. They must now find ethics and games journalism and hold all these rights and hold all games journalists to account. And if those games journalists had any potential lapse in ethics as they defined it, they need to be taught a lesson. And that lesson was taught through doxing as in broadcasting someone’s personal information online and sending them targeted abuse, whether it’s over the phone via email, via DM and taking over their accounts, hacking into all of their accounts. Just awful, awful things. Basically browbeating people completely off the internet.

S2: And like to be clear, when these people were talking about ethics in video games, journalists, what they were talking about were any games journalists who on any social media platform or in any way publicly espoused any kind of outspoken feminism or anti-racist or like pro trans views. And so it wasn’t even just what you were writing it, it was what you said anywhere online.

S3: So tons of people in the gaming industry were kind of ran off the internet or feared for their lives. It was very traumatizing for those people who were attacked for months and months and months, and Kotaku and action slowly evolved into a forum that was really proud of its efforts and ability to target and harass people. It basically created an entirely insecure landscape for many people online who used to be able to find some sense of safety while sharing these views of equality.

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S2: Suffice to say, the GamerGate was a trial balloon for a lot that came after, including what is happening right now with that exact same context collapse, wherein anything that has a whiff of here we go wokeness or critical race theory is gone. No, it’s ghastly. It’s just like it’s most people could not. If you asked anyone who hate who was anti woke or anti-Semite to what those terms meant, it would be impossible to describe because it is just a way to signal at a broad group of people in the same way that SJW and Tumblr and Kotaku were a way to signal at a large group of people that were to be met with disdain and or violence. And. That has huge, long ranging impacts, because now everything is critical, race theory like integration is critical race theory. And I don’t know, man, I feel like integration should probably not be banned in schools, right?

S3: The inaction forum’s the inaction Kim or proof positive that, hey, actually, you can all come together online and take people down.

S2: And it’s going beyond these forums. But, you know, despite the kind of grim note of this, there is, I would say, some hope or there’s some action. We’re not still in 2014. I think that platforms as a whole have started to recognize their responsibility in curbing this, even if they haven’t quite figured out what those tools should look like and how to implement them. I don’t know that I feel like in 2014, it felt like there was this thought that platforms just didn’t feel like they needed to do anything.

S3: Yeah, we definitely are seeing platforms trying, if not totally take responsibility for the harassment that can fester upon them, like they are taking steps toward better protecting their users like we’re far more aware of. Like there are ways to protect themselves and that there are other people out there who do believe in what we’re saying. And, you know, people on the internet as we feel more and more empowered to speak our minds against the ills of the inaction can maybe one day will even have our own subreddit will even have. And I see. Why am I inaction?

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S2: Oh my, absolutely the fuck. Not Allegra. This is your last time on the show. Yes, but all right, that is the show. We’ll be back in your feed on Saturday, so definitely subscribe. It’s free and Madison will be back and I will not be talking about Tumblr. Please leave a rating and review in Apple Podcasts. Tell your friends about us. You can follow us on Twitter. I see why I underscore Pod, which is also where you can be immature questions like Please let Rachel continue talking about Tumblr. And as always, you can drop us a note. I see. Why am I at Slate.com? Who knows? We might have you on the show.

S3: I see Why Am I is produced by Daniel Schroeder, our supervising producer is Derek John. We’re edited by Force Wickman and me Allegra Frank. Alicia Montgomery is executive producer of Slate Podcasts and special shout out to Amber Smith. See you online

S2: or on our Reddit forum. But today we’re joined by one of our editors, Allegra Fang, who has been on the podcast before, and we’re so excited to have her back. Hi, Allegra.

S3: Hi. It kind of sounded like you said Allegra Fang, but I don’t want us to retake it. Sorry, the rest is perfect, though.