Surrendering authorial agency and practicing transindividualism in Tumblr's role-play communities

K. Shannon Howard

Auburn University at Montgomery, Montgomery, Alabama, United States

[0.1] Abstract—The writer who engages in acts of online role-play or make-believe is often thought to promote him or herself as an individual agent. However, when members of Tumblr's role-play communities engage in play, they create scenes together that prompt surrender of authorial agency. In doing so, they engage in transindividual work, which allows them to work across, among, and between other entities until the boundaries of the self become porous rather than fixed.

[0.2] Keywords—Fan community; Transindividualism

Howard, K. Shannon. 2017. "Surrendering Authorial Agency and Practicing Transindividualism in Tumblr's Role-play Communities." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 25.

1. Introduction

[1.1] While the founder of the microblogging network Tumblr, David Karp, created his network in order to allow viewers to share concise bits of texts, film, and images, some users on this network have chosen to compose posts with significant word counts (Howard 2012). Many of these posts are by fans coauthoring narrative threads—threads that act as a hybrid of fan fiction and online gaming—as they transmit responses back and forth. This practice is most commonly known as role-play (also abbreviated rp). While Tumblr role-play has previously been described as a hybrid of fan fiction and online gaming (see McClellan 2013), the unique quality in role-play is the synergy created when strangers surrender authorial agency in favor of the improvisational process of play. This surrender comes, in part, from the divisions of selfhood performed online—divisions labeled as mun, muse, and anon.

[1.2] Tumblr role-play is unique because the players involved differentiate between the mun and muse. A mun, short for the mundane, refers to the author who creates and maintains the Tumblr account. Like a Twitter or LiveJournal user, the mun will select the basic blog design, the information on a short biography, and the handle that will be used to attract other role players on this same interface. The muse is the character(s) portrayed in role-play. Muses are often characters from the mun's favorite stories from film, television, literature, games, or graphic novels. If the mun is a fan of Grey's Anatomy (2005–), for example, he or she will select Meredith Grey as muse and then select an icon, or face claim, of Ellen Pompeo, who plays Grey.

[1.3] If another role player wishes to engage someone's muse, he or she will submit a starter, which launches a dialogue between the characters. This dialogue will be housed primarily on Tumblr's ongoing dashboard of posts, or its feed. Unlike other role-playing scenarios where the characters and game moderators place most of their energy into world building and clear adherence to canonical interpretations of characters, independent role players on Tumblr create new scenes of interaction between characters, ones that often transcend the canon or established narrative of a given universe. For example, some place characters from different universes into the same dialogue, creating an intertextual moment between the Meredith of Grey's Anatomy and one of the angels from the television show Supernatural (2005–).

[1.4] Additionally, role players on Tumblr occasionally perform the role of anons, which gives them a third option to consider when they engage in dialogue. When one player wishes to interact with another player without revealing her username, the role player will submit feedback via the inbox in order to share admiration for another person's writing or performance of character. By submitting information anonymously, one player may also ask another player questions without fear of rejection. The anon option acts as an invitation to other players, players who might be too shy to approach a new player outright but who wish to offer narrative challenges or ideas. In allowing anons to communicate with her, the mun shows how willing she is to surrender to the unpredictability of encounters with other players.

2. Current theory and past scholarship

[2.1] Role players on Tumblr, rather than capitalize on individual potential, embrace moments of humility in their encounters with others, allowing them to do what Brian Massumi (2014) and other scholars have referred to as transindividual work. Transindividualism may be defined as a phenomenon during which players work beyond, across, within, and among boundaries of self until such boundaries become porous, although, as in the case of Tumblr, they are not completely erased. As stated above, role players on Tumblr typically refer to themselves (the authors) self-consciously and ironically as the mundane, or mun. When answering questions or prompts as the mun, the readers get a glimpse into the daily lives of the writers who author scenes. Conversely, when executing a fictional exchange among characters, the muses are in charge.

[2.2] A somewhat common description of the mun and muse interaction is one in which the mun acts in opposition to the fictional muse she attempts to control. This phenomenon echoes Latour (2005), who describes the limits of human agency in terms of puppets and the master who holds the strings. He extends the analogy to say that "puppeteers will rarely behave as having total control over their puppets. They will say queer things like 'their marionettes suggest them to do things they will have never thought possible by themselves'" (59–60). Like the puppeteer, the blogger may originally pull the metaphoric strings on her muse, only to find the muse rebel against her original plan. Once a role-play scene begins, the muse's spirit prevails.

[2.3] This opposition from the muse acts as a humbling device rather than as an obstacle. Even if users deploy such a bifurcation ironically more than seriously, the desire to involve oneself in a loss of agency is worth examination because this phenomenon suggests that writers are moving beyond selfhood and toward something else. This is important because most descriptions of online character work, whether in gaming or in improvisational writing, have often stressed the value of the individual self as empowered. Michelle Nephew (2006) historicizes role-play in her research on identity and desire, stressing its value in psychology where it helps people "achieve greater self-awareness" (122). According to Nephew, role-play provides players with the chance to create "a dream-world of their own creating that affirms their sense of self-worth and power" (127).

[2.4] Past role-play scenarios in studies of tabletop or live-action role-play also feature a quest for self-empowerment, both in the way they feature leaders and the way certain traits are valued. As Mona (2007) explains, role-play activity in games like Dungeons and Dragons features a dungeon master who emcees the game as it unfolds (29–30). Likewise, in another game, Vampire: The Masquerade, the storyteller is in control of what happens (Hindmarch 2007, 49). Today's online games build on these experiences, as MacCallum-Stewart (2014) explains. She stresses that online players "have a proactive attitude towards games, which means that they regard them as texts which they have the power to change" (36). Furthermore, she argues that the tabletop gaming traits of "strength, stamina, charisma, intelligence, dexterity, wisdom and constitution" are valued in online scenarios just as they are in Dungeons and Dragons (23). Here again, individual power matters a great deal, even when a player cooperates with a community of others. We return again and again to the idea of "empowering the player-as-creator" (MacCallum-Stewart 2014, 53). Certainly role players, particularly dungeon masters, in such tabletop gaming scenarios are often more concerned with world building than with character development, yet the power required to build a world necessitates a division between the leader and her players.

[2.5] As stated earlier, Tumblr role-play acts as a hybrid of gaming and fan fiction. Therefore, we might find less emphasis on power or self-worth in studies of online character work where narrative is the objective. However, this is not the case. For example, Osborne (2012) studies narrative role-play happening on LiveJournal, where players "improvise written responses in the course of play" and also "partake of the transgressive elements of fan fiction" (¶2.4). Osborne returns to ideas of the author as commander and storyteller, just like in the tabletop gaming examples mentioned above. Although she emphasizes the development of empathy that allows players to connect to others, she says that such creative work by bloggers is designed ultimately to help players "discover new parts of themselves" (¶5.3). She goes on to explain that partnership, while important, helps individuals overcome "fear and irrational worries" and teaches players how to relate to the world around them (¶5.12). Again, this reinforces the benefits gained by the individual, even when that self enters a community of like-minded players. Likewise, in Louisa Ellen Stein's work (2006), the setup on LiveJournal reinforces this notion of authorial control because comments and threads among characters are hosted on one character's page and subject to deletion at any given time. Characters like the Draco Malfoy of her case study also worry about designing their personal diaries so that the look and feel of the page reflect a character in his own right; for example, he says, "I do hope they have my colours in stock" on LiveJournal so that the Slytherin green and silver are featured prominently when others visit the page (246).

[2.6] Past scholarship in literacy and fan studies has also articulated play as a manifestation of individual agency or self-empowerment. These scholars have taken productive and thorough note of online communities centered on fan fiction writing, role-playing, and the development of avatars (Black 2008; Gee 2007; Johnson 2012; Kaplan 2006; Warren 2013; Williams 2009). Booth's (2008) research is important for documenting early examples of MySpace user profiles that are based on characters from television programming. His article highlights the power of these fans to identify with television characters and "become proprietors of their own textual spaces" (520) as they engage in "identity play" (533). Although Booth (2008) carefully attends to the fluidity of such practices of character impersonation and how such role-play merges "the real and the simulated" (534), the idea of becoming a proprietor of a space suggests a concrete territorialization of online space, of gleefully planting one's flag in a corner of the Web.

[2.7] Role-play on Tumblr does not allow its users to plant flags in selected territories as much as it invites them to transcend any singular moment of Web site creation or character impersonation. Because multiple overlaps of characters and partners occur simultaneously, humility and a lack of agency become essential to the player who moves beyond selfhood toward something greater. In What Animals Teach Us about Politics, Massumi (2014) explains how transindividualism works by describing animals who engage in acts of playful combat, acts that reveal "active potential not only in the animal who executes [them], but also in the other" (35). Massumi explains further, "When I make the kind of gesture that places me in the register of play, you are immediately taken there as well. My gesture transports you with me into a different arena of activity than the one we were just in. You are inducted into play with me. In a single gesture, two individuals are swept up together and move in tandem to a register of existence" (5). When moving in tandem, two beings no longer operate as master storytellers in their own right but as part of a transindividual flow, or channel, that requires complete surrender of the ego in addition to community participation.

3. Methodology

[3.1] In the spirit of Brittany Kelley's (2016) recent work on cultivating goodwill through online research, I hope to stress my presence as a participant in the Tumblr community and not simply a lurker mining data for publications. My experience with role-play there began in 2013 when I wrote scenes with my first writing partner, who was patient enough to help me understand the difference in the mun and muse terms I saw circulating online. From 2013 to 2014, I was an active member of the Hannibal fandom and a participant in Tumblr's role-play communities. Between the years of 2014 and 2016, I role-played more sporadically and continued to archive posts about role-play that interested me. My archive was built around a series of screenshots, which revealed the willingness of players to move beyond ego and work toward transindividual experiences. Over the past 3 years, I have collected approximately 150 to 200 screenshots of moments in which players describe the differences between their mun and muse, articulate what role-play means to them, and/or explain the benefits and drawbacks of anon encounters.

[3.2] Like other members of this community, my blog was public, and the role-play scenes I coauthored with my partner were often archived or reblogged to an even wider audience than our initial followers. Although the materials cited here were publicly shared, I make every effort to secure permission from specific muses when I quote directly from their handle or a role-play scene (I also applied for and received Institutional Review Board exemption for this research through my university). In some cases, Tumblr users will abandon a handle and seek an alternate muse quite frequently, which makes it difficult to maintain contact with the role-playing community, as it is constantly in flux. Some of the work that others and I posted occasionally became fan fiction works that we would later submit to places like Archive of Our Own. Other scenes existed purely for the joy of creating something, even if it was temporary, with someone who shared similar passions for certain stories and worlds. While most work was archived according to a specific set of hashtags, other examples of role-play acted as fleeting interchanges between strangers who might never complete the scene at hand.

[3.3] In order to analyze the screenshots of role-play activity that follow, I engage in what Clifford Geertz has referred to in his ethnographic work as "thick description." Geertz explains that thickness of data results from considerable investment in a community during which the researcher wallows in a "multiplicity of complex conceptual structures, many of them superimposed or knotted into one another, which are at once strange, irregular, and explicit" (1973, 10). In narrowing my data set, I was particularly drawn to moments of role-play that others have referred to as "bleed" (Montola 2010), where "bleeding in" refers to the author's real life influencing the character and "bleeding out" describes the way a character influences the player. Still, I found that such terms alone did not fully account for what was happening on Tumblr, since the act of bleeding itself was compounded by bleeding both in and out of the character while also simultaneously bleeding into one's partner. This led to me to consider how role players embrace humility and willingly forsake individual goals to enter into play.

[3.4] Because of my own involvement in role-playing, my perception is, no doubt, influenced by the positive experiences I had in my own corner of the Web. A search of the hashtags role-play, rp, and mun or muse reveal thousands of posts that exist across scores of fandoms on Tumblr. While I frequently engaged in such searches and made preliminary notes on the basis of how many posts contained references to the mun/muse relationship and how role players engaged with their anon readers, I was still frequently drawn to examples that had some connection to the narratives I enjoyed, and in this sense the examples presented here are not meant to represent all of Tumblr or even all of the role players active there. Additionally, not all role-playing communities facilitate a positive experience. In some cases, role players have been bullied and/or threatened by anons. Some role players even turn off the anonymous post function to secure their own composing space and avoid such problems. On a less dramatic level, many role players struggle with feelings of isolation when other players refuse to accept their invitations to play. Likewise, some role-play groups on Tumblr, those established by a moderator, are more like the groups of tabletop gaming participants where one person exercises considerable control over a group of players and establishes what could be considered arbitrary rules of engagement. The examples that follow, then, focus on independent role players whose experiences are largely positive. In doing so, I stress the ways in which authors learn to trust others and to surrender agency.

4. Features and forms of digital role-play

[4.1] In order to begin a study of Tumblr role-play, it helps to look first at common examples of character identification online, examples that often reinforce the fan as a single role player or agent. For instance, character identification activities on Facebook or other networks where quizzes are found online tell us which character from a given story we identify with most. These moments are designed by fans as well as by producers. Just recently, I took a quiz on Facebook that informed me that I did not just identify with Haymitch Abernathy from The Hunger Games but that I was Haymitch. In this case I am told that I "am principled and independent," a loner," and "have my own way of doing things." This result pleases me, so I share it online with my followers (see Williams 2009). Still, as I share this quiz result, I remain Haymitch without a Katniss Everdeen, and this lack of a mentor-mentee bond, according to Massumi's (2014) terminology, would render my Haymitch somewhat impotent.

[4.2] Other applications also allow users to transform their photos to appear more like a character in the fictional world. Producers behind The Walking Dead games and applications also invented a way that fans could "dead themselves." See the result below (figure 1):

A photograph of a person with long, straight, brown hair behind a mesh fence. Their hands, clawlike, are hooked through the mesh. The person's eyes are red and yellow, and the lower half of their face is bloody and rotted away, resembling a zombie. In the bottom right corner is the Walking Dead: Dead Yourself app logo.

Figure 1. The Walking Dead "Dead Yourself" application. [View larger image.]

[4.3] By embedding myself in the narrative, I transform my body in a way that is characteristic of zombies in the television show. Here we see the posthuman body (as virtual zombie online) acting as a living text meant to advertise and promote a certain story. However, Massumi (2014) explains that to engage in authentic play, one must offer a "ludic gesture" to another, and this gesture remains "impotent unless it captures the other's attention" and envelops them in the scene (35). In the image above, I call attention to myself as icon, allowing others to view me as a specific zombie subject, crystallized in time and space. An approach that moves beyond selfhood demands something more from us; it is always, as Morton (2013) explains in his study of ecology and posthumanism," decisively decentering us from a place of pampered privilege in the scheme of things" (47) rather than featuring our mastery of the world around us. Here, for example, I can insert my own head shot into a zombie template, and I may find the effect or result entertaining, but such an effect does not represent the spirit of true play among multiple partners. To engage fully in play, we must accept that we are no longer in control of the outcome. Again, this is different from role players in Stein's (2006) work, where the Draco Malfoy role player, for example, refers to his LiveJournal as "this dratted thing," something to be supervised and shaped by the writer. No one "dratted thing" encapsulates play in the Tumblr examples to follow; all are consistently evolving texts that move beyond and across any one individual's efforts.

[4.4] As Petersen (2014) has noted, Tumblr's layout is more horizontal than vertical since Tumblr as a platform has "a lack of territorial boundaries" across different posts and conversations (101) unlike other sites such as LiveJournal, which feature accumulation of notes and comments on an individual site. Less attention is paid to a role player's personal page and more attention is paid to the scene of play. Here, for example, a role player explains on the forum roleplayingconfessionsfromrpers (2016) that the elaborate design of a template is a distraction:

[4.5] I have a default theme on my blog on purpose and I'm not about to change it. The default theme is so much easier to navigate and read through than most of your fancy themes. If I can see your blog have [sic] tiny font, and a small box for text, And only fancy graphics and music and intelligible formatting, I start to question whether you're in it for the writing or for praise for your first attempt at web design.

[4.6] Emphasis on personal Web design is distracting for transindividual play rather than helpful. While some muns emphasize design in their presentation of muses, most role-play scenarios feature reblogging alphabetic text from one player to the next without added bells and whistles.

[4.7] Consider, as an example, part of a role-play exchange between Tumblr users—one role created from Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's book Good Omens (1990) and the other from the television show Supernatural. This call-and-response form of writing unfolds as partners build threads that may go on for hours or days at a time. I have placed a part of their script below:

[4.8] User bibliophileangel's (2013) archive features a dialogue with role player razielangelofsecrets. Razielangelofsecrets writes:

[4.9] Linked in arms with Aziraphale, Raz fought to not blush at the contact. What was up with her? Was she falling for this handsome stranger and his beautiful sonorous voice? As he talked about his books, she started to get a silly little grin, enjoying hearing him speak so passionately. "It sounds absolutely wonderful." She commented when he stopped talking. For not much, it was more than she imagined. As he opened the door, she could smell old books on the air and it was only because she was already excited about being around Aziraphale that she didn't get a sudden rush. When he called her darling, she turned an interesting scarlet color and tried to hide it by ducking her head. "Um, just some tea if you don't mind."

[4.10] The response from user bibliophileangel:

[4.11] Aziraphale smiled as he took in her expression. "So…I take it you like books as much as I do. You don't often see that much enthusiasm in a fellow angel." He quirked an eyebrow at her as he disappeared into the back room to put water in his self boiling kettle, a gift from his demon friend Crowley. He also prepared his favorite tea set, also a gift from Crowley. He poked his head around the corner, smiling as he took her in. "Feel free to look around at anything that catches your interest."

[4.12] In such role-play scenes, it is common for one player to, as seen above, "open the door" to a conversation that reveals common interests. As the scene progresses, the players reply specifically to developments conjured by the previous entry, so above we note that Aziraphale "smiled as he took in her expression" and then, in a later comment, encourages the other player to "look around at anything that catches [the player's] interest." Such invitational lines suggest a metacommunicative stance: not only is Aziraphale, the fictional character, inviting Raziel into the world of the narrative, but the two writers are inviting each other into a new platform of correspondence, where they may adapt to the other's needs. What is most significant (as the rest of this project will demonstrate) is how, by the end of the thread, the two writers have become something that is more than just a partnership. Instead they act transindividually, as some form of Aziraphale-Raziel. The two muns are not only bleeding, to use Montola (2010)'s term, into their muses, but they are also simultaneously bleeding into each other. They are being swept up, as Massumi (2014) suggests, into a tandem of existence.

[4.13] Massumi (2014) also speaks to this level of engagement by explaining that what he proposes is ultimately "a pluralist activist philosophy" that is the product of an "ecological playing out" (90). In other words, the field of play allows for multiple solutions and multiple meanings that may continually be combined or singled out. At first, accepting a role-play invitation means accepting a specific version of an established (or sometimes original) fictional character, represented by the player's handle. This is important since role players often choose the same character to portray. For example, after the airing of NBC's Hannibal (2013–15) many Hannibal Lecter role-play blogs sprung up on Tumblr as a homage to Mads Mikkelsen's portrayal of the character. The handle afteryourdeathormine has a different online reputation than the handle lectercollapsingchurches, which bases its text on the backstory of the character's obsession with the destruction of faith and on the organizing symbol of structural debris. The user explains: "I see this idea of the church collapsing as feeding into the image of a fallen angel. This blog features a journey of transformation rather than a stagnant portrayal of Lecter" (lectercollapsingchurches 2013). This is different from afteryourdeathormine, whose introductory material about the same character features medical disclaimers and attention to the character's position as a psychiatrist. She says, "I am not a medical professional. I am not certified to offer medical, psychiatric, or personal advice in any way. This is a roleplay blog—based off a manipulative, abusive, charming character, whom I do not own or in any way represent" (afteryourdeathormine 2013). Her page even offers links to various crisis hotlines for those with mental illness.

[4.14] This malleability and diversity in character development counters what some scholars say is essential to the role-play experience: fidelity to the original narrative and the characters inside it. As McClellan (2013) argues, "To build a convincing world, characters must speak like their source characters, they must interact with other characters from the show in textually appropriate ways, and they must respond to new situations in ways that are consistent with their televisual counterparts" (143). If we take McClellan's point and apply it to the world of Tumblr, then we must imagine that multiple versions of a canonical character would potentially be frowned upon or dismissed rather than embraced. If fidelity to the original narrative suggests that a singularity is at work and that all players must conform to the verisimilitude of the fictional world at hand, then characters from Gaiman and Pratchett's novel and the television show Supernatural have no reason to engage in dialogue. Massumi (2014) further counters this idea of verisimilitude when he describes a situation in which he might be referring to lectercollapsingchurches and afteryourdeathormine. He says, "One never simply imitates a form, in the sense of conforming oneself to the given form of another being. One can certainly make as if one were effectively imitating. But something else is really going on, unacknowledged and inexpressibly" (82). He goes on to describe the act of a child imitating an animal, specifically a tiger, and notes that the result is surprising: "The child plays the tiger in situations in which the child has never seen a tiger. More than that, it plays the tiger in situations no tiger has ever seen, in which no earthly tiger has ever set paw. The child immediately launches itself into a movement of surpassing the given" (83). In other words, lectercollapsingchurches is never just Hannibal Lecter but some other creature formed by transindividual work with other characters. The role player becomes the fictional role to start, but the activation of the ludic gesture changes the original design of the muse chosen.

5. Muns, muses, and anons at play

[5.1] Most role players embrace powerlessness when they enact scenes with the muse in charge. While the character he or she adopts may be, at first glance, only an alternate identity, it quickly escalates to become something more, and often that something more means looking beyond traditional notions of self. The handle Muse-room acts as an archive of complaints by muses who wish to defy their muns. In one post, the writer simply says, "Muse Problems #11: Having to do things I don't want to do in [role-play] threads" (Muse-room 2013). In this example, a role player, acting as a muse, states that the muse's will operates independently of the author who created her. The muse here expresses frustration because it is trapped inside a system where it must "do things [it] [doesn't] want to do." This idea is not new, of course, since many authors have expressed the sentiment that their characters often write themselves after the narrative engine of a fictional world ignites. However, muses and their authors are not always carried away on a tide of narrative energy; rather, the muse and the mun often act at odds when engaged in transindividual play in the same way Latour's (2005) puppets and their marionettes tolerate each other's whims.

[5.2] Another meme that circulates on Tumblr and has been reblogged by user alexs-rp-shit (2015) includes a Muppet character in front of a flaming background. In this meme the mun, offstage, cries out "Muse, no!" only to have the Muppet grin evilly and say "Muse, YES!" while the flames rise higher. This would be another example of how the role player perceives the muse acting against the mun's wishes and wreaking havoc. The humor here reinforces the idea that powerlessness and humility are part of the role-play experience rather than something to be policed or avoided. Additionally, the muse's refusal to acquiesce to the mun's demands is a construct that foreshadows the way the scenes among partners will play out.

[5.3] Indeed, players encourage spontaneity rather than shy away from it by inviting others to assist in rupturing the normal life of their muse. User beverlykatzonthecase (2013) reblogged a post in which she asked the following: "In the middle of a conversation, my muse begins to cough up blood. How would your muse respond?" The prompt asks for a specific reaction in which her role-play character and another person's character will engage in an inciting moment that could lead to a short or long scene. By accepting the challenge, the mun becomes powerless, first, because she cannot alter the inciting incident but must accept it in good faith from another, and second, she must consider how the character would act in such a scenario, and the character often surprises and humbles the player. One post on user gxnevra-archieve's (2014) site, which generated over 12,000 likes and reblogs, aptly summarizes the dilemma by saying "what the fuck is my muse doing" and signing the line "every rp'er ever." Role player susie1x1 (2016) reblogged a similar statement—"I'm sorry I have no control over them, I just write the thing." This post was also signed "every rper ever." In a sense, this phenomenon speaks to what Massumi (2014) discusses in terms of play. The muse is not simply part of the writer but something that exceeds her or his control.

[5.4] The ludic act, therefore, moves beyond the individual consciousness and becomes, between two players, a "transindividual" enterprise that "involves -esquing gestures that produce greater degrees of copossibility" (Massumi 2014, 42). Again, with the term transindividual we recognize that selfhood dissolves in the act of play to reveal a different entity altogether. This idea explains how partners may accomplish what individual role players may not experience in isolation. Reference to the term esquing is made to suggest that when one gestures "as a tiger" or "like a tiger," the human act of role-play exceeds the original creature in its design. The same is true when writers take on personalities of their favorite characters and engage in dialogue with others who are esquing or playing in the same fictional world. The role player on Tumblr, unlike the zombie image on Facebook, has the ability to see transindividual work happening among the mun and muse as well as within different threads of role-play with other players.

[5.5] When working with other players, a few guidelines do apply, despite their love for unpredictable moments at play. Most users abhor godmodding, the act of one player trying to control another in a given scenario. Such a practice leads role players to complain publicly on certain crowdsourced blogs about role-play as a hobby. An anonymous post on the handle roleplayingconfessionsfromrpers (2016) expresses frustration about one of her partners: "I don't like role playing with this particular mun. They god-modded an entire thread with me, made one of the characters really OOC [out of character] and I feel no connection roleplaying with them as both mun and muse." A set of crowdsourced role-play guidelines from user destinationrpg (2016) provides this advice: "Your character will never know everything and be able to overhear everything. There are no omnipotent characters." Here the role-play does have a set of guidelines established by moderators, which does occur often in more regimented communities of Tumblr role players, where users may solicit applications and cast a group of users. However, even in the most established groups, this tendency to avoid one player's control over the other reminds us again that one muse does not get to call the shots or act as master over another. Most role players, both the independent ones and the members of groups, shy away from planning and constructing scenes in advance. User thermxdynamicsarchived (2015) has a reblogged post (with a total of 12,668 reblogs and likes) that states:

[5.6] Plotting RPs like—

Partner: let's do this!

Me: i'm ready!

Partner: how we startin

Me: i wish i knew

[5.7] In addition, Tumblr role players invite the participation of a third actor in their solar system of chosen identities: the anonymous writer, or the anon. The ask function on the Tumblr account includes an anonymous option so that even those with identifiable usernames may hide them by checking the option to post information without leaving a name behind. For example, bloggers who wish to receive feedback on their writing will issue calls to anon readers. The user deadatmyfeet (2013) posted the following message as an invitation: "Go on ANON and tell me what you think of me. I do not want to know who it is, at all. Don't tell me who it is, don't give me hints, don't say your screen name. Tell me exactly what you think of me. Don't sugarcoat things. Don't lie. If you hate me, tell me why. Tell me what I'm doing wrong. If you like me, tell me why." These anons provide valuable writing advice and creative challenges to help the role players engage in scenes. They also expose the player to potential risk, since the absence of a subject's name or face means that vindictive or hateful messages are sent in addition to productive ones.

[5.8] Some anon activity circulates in the form of challenges to all members of a certain role-play community. These writing prompts are often referred to as "Magic Anons." In a Magic Anon challenge (often abbreviated as M!A), the player will accept the challenge depending on what the anon asks her or him to do in a future scene. For example, the Supernatural community, in one challenge, lists the various affectations that a muse must confront if they allow the anon to control her or him. The below example is only a partial list of what the entire post offers as prompts.

[5.9] M!A from SPN Episodes (2013):

Born Under a Bad Sign: muse gets possessed by a demon. It can be a random one or anon can specify who it is (anon tells length).

The Rapture: muse gets possessed by an angel. If they're already an angel, someone else knocks them out of their vessel and takes their place (anon specifies length).

Mystery Spot—Gabriel put muse into a time loop, anon can specify the place/situation, lasts until a Gabriel muse lets them out.

Torn and Frayed—Muse is under Naomi's control and will act like a perfect little soldier, including killing any rebels/enemies of Heaven. Lasts until someone breaks them out of it.

Croatoan—muse is trapped in a town with people infected with the virus. Will they survive?

Frontierland—muse is sent back in time to the Wild West (anon specifies length)

[5.10] This list complements the theory that play is ideally, as Massumi (2014) suggests with his animal examples, adaptable to new situations. When the role player posts a request that anons choose a writing prompt from lists like the one above, prompts referred to in the community as M!A posts, or Magic Anons, the regular pattern of role-play is disrupted to allow for challenges that the player may not have anticipated. For example, if an anon chooses one of the prompts, she sends the word Croatoan to a role player's inbox, and the player must then imagine that his or her "muse is trapped in a town with people infected with the virus." These posts typically set up obstacles for the role player to confront, which are usually described in terms of physical harm or disability to the human form. Examples may also include the practice of making the character blind for 24 hours, causing it to suffer an allergy, or having it follow directions of another person because of mind control or hypnosis. In these exercises, the writer must maintain the identifying characteristics of their role while also meeting the request of the M!A task. Sent by an anonymous writer, the commands are taken seriously even when the one sending the request refuses to identify herself, which is a sign in other communities of cowardice or refusal to accept consequences. The faceless user acts as controller over the role player's fictional persona, thereby creating revelatory moments where the outcome surpasses what could be imagined alone.

6. Conclusion

[6.1] Transindividualism suggests that role players on Tumblr are doing more than just empathizing with others when they join their particular fan communities. They are negotiating and disrupting boundaries of self in unique ways, and such acts require great humility and decentering of the individual. Most research on role-play focuses on how community participation and interaction ultimately serves the self, sometimes even as a form of therapy. In the past, role-play represented a way for an individual to work through personal problems and fears in a low-stakes environment, and scholarship about play has mostly followed suit in stressing the benefits of the individual who plays pretend.

[6.2] While role-play does offer therapeutic benefits, the recent actions of Tumblr users show fans of certain narratives moving beyond the need to improve one's own relation to the world. Rather than the world serving the individual, the individual in these cases serves the world by allowing her– or himself to be swept up in play. A major part of this transindividual work is the acknowledgment that world building and narrative is an unpredictable activity: role players do not control their muses or seek to do so. In celebrating this loss of control, the player also opens him– or herself up to other players' needs and strengths while navigating a scene.

[6.3] The emphasis on authorial loss of agency and power serves as a model for what kinds of collaboration and community may eventually be formed without the aid of one dungeon master or storyteller. Even though role-play activity, either in online settings or in tabletop gaming, may seem to be a democratic enterprise, experience tells us that someone is often in charge of what unfolds in a ludic moment. The egocentricity associated with such leadership positions limits transindividual work because the structure of power intervenes with the creative efforts of players.

[6.4] Considering transindividualism in fan communities helps us recognize that once the act of play begins, the potential of players expands and surpasses the given constraints of any one ego. Rather than champion the traits of an individual's mind, the energy spent praising the human consciousness may be used to forge meaningful connections across and among ideas and beings. By taking such surprising fields as animal studies into account when approaching fan communities, participants of role-play and researchers of their work have opportunities to decenter human understanding to make room for a world where all living things teach us how play may transform us. It is then possible to imagine a reality in which humility and willingness to cede control become indispensable to play and, consequentially, indispensable to other parts of life as well.

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