Discourse is the new wank: A reflection on linguistic change in fandom

Lily Winterwood

Wellesley, Massachusetts, United States

[0.1] AbstractA survey disseminated April 13–16, 2017, revealed statistically significant differences in the definitions of various slang terms found in old (LiveJournal-based) and new (Tumblr-based) fandom. This cultural and lexical shift is indicative of a generational gap between old and new fandom, influenced by imbroglios such as RaceFail '09 and the increasing acceptance of fandom into mainstream culture. As fandom demographics continue to change, so will its lexicon and culture.

[0.2] KeywordsCallout culture; Dreamwidth; Fan art; Fan community; Fan fiction; Language; LiveJournal; Politics; Tumblr

Winterwood, Lily. "Discourse Is the New Wank: A Reflection on Linguistic Change in Fandom." In "Tumblr and Fandom," edited by Lori Morimoto and Louisa Ellen Stein, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 27.

[1] There is a Tumblr post that circulates around to my dash every couple of months, talking about how fandom wank has become fandom discourse. Every week, one of my followers reblogs another post from someone on this microblogging platform that has served as one of the epicenters of post-Strikethrough fandom, reminiscing about the good old days. Within this loose confederation of fans who lived through the 2007 LiveJournal purges known as Strikethrough and Boldthrough, there is considerable nostalgia for the days when discourse was wank and trigger was squick.

[2] Old fandom—in the context of this article, fandom from before the rise of microblogging platforms like Tumblr and Twitter—was a very different place by virtue of being hosted on journaling platforms like LiveJournal or individual domains like GeoCities. The structure of those sites was more friendly toward written posts and long, individual discussions in comment threads, as well as communities keeping to their own and not having to see content from other parts of the site unless the user crossposted or linked to them. The average age skewed a lot older, with users on LiveJournal talking about families and jobs alongside their fan works, and younger users often either lied about their age or said nothing at all.

[3] Strikethrough '07 was the first major upheaval in LiveJournal fandom that began the splintering and mass exodus of fans throughout the internet and the change in the landscape of fandoms with the establishment of the Organization for Transformative Works and the Archive of Our Own (Silver, 2015). 2017 marks its tenth anniversary, and in those ten years fandom—especially on platforms like Tumblr and Twitter—has expanded considerably, with each new show, book, or film bringing new blood into the body of fandom as a whole. But with the arrival of younger and younger users, and sometimes the departure of older users, the knowledge of interacting with fandom in the past begins to fade, preserved only in the posts of the odd Tumblr blog of someone who made the migration from LiveJournal or on archives like Fanlore.

[4] However, just because new blood has arrived in the fandom doesn't mean the old behavior patterns have vanished. In this, the structure of a microblogging platform plays a role. Tumblr and Twitter aggregate all content made by all users with global tags that are accessible by every user. These porous boundaries between blogs and users, coupled with the ease with which one can retweet or reblog a post to disseminate its contents, mean that fandom and nonfandom parts of a site can easily find each other to exchange ideas, information, and—as may be the case for the introduction of the terms discourse and trigger in lieu of wank and squick—lexical items.

[5] I ran a LiveJournal account briefly around the time of Strikethrough '07, so I remember seeing the aftershocks of the purges, alongside the Boldthrough follow-up. I remember seeing the early versions of Archive of Our Own, but I had been too young (in actual years) to understand the context for its existence. However, I have had a Tumblr account for six years, and during those six years, I have witnessed interesting linguistic changes to the lexicon of its fannish denizens. I had a suspicion that there had been a lexical shift as fandom became more and more accommodating to younger fans, alongside a greater cultural shift in how people engaged with fan works as a whole. The fact that at some point people started noticing that Tumblr users used discourse to mean wank and trigger to mean squick interested me, and I wanted to know if there was a significant difference in lexical preference between old fandom and new fandom.

[6] In April 2017, I disseminated a survey trying to measure fandom social media platform usage and their perceptions and usages of these four words. I measured the demographics of the users, garnering respondents from Tumblr, Twitter, Dreamwidth, Facebook, and various other platforms used by people in fandom. I broadly measured their age categories, as well as the length of time and frequency with which they had been using their primary social media platform, as well as the platform on which they engaged in fan behavior.

[7] Using a five– and six-point Likert scale, I then asked them to record which definitions of the four words (wank paired with discourse, trigger paired with squick) were closest to their usages:

[8] For the wank and discourse pairing:

  1. Don't know/not applicable.
  2. The act of masturbation.
  3. Written or spoken communication or debate.
  4. Elaborate theorizing.
  5. Objectionable fan behavior.
  6. A loud online discussion without purpose or substance.

[9] And for the squick and trigger pairing:

  1. Don't know/not applicable.
  2. Something I dislike.
  3. Something I am uncomfortable consuming or creating.
  4. Something that is a deep-seated, visceral turnoff.
  5. Something that causes a strong, heavy emotional response, especially after trauma.

[10] To eliminate confusion, especially for people who know multiple definitions of each word, I asked survey respondents to give me both a primary and a secondary definition. After that, I asked them to measure the preference and usage of each word in each pair. I hypothesized that users who had been in fandom for a very long time (more than ten years according to my usage bin) would have a different perception of the words wank and squick and even make a distinction between the use of these words and the use of discourse and trigger. After all, wank and squick are fandom terms that have been in use since LiveJournal, whereas discourse and trigger seemed to have been co-opted from academia and are more used by fans who are relatively new to online fandom.

[11] Indeed, when I narrowed down the focus to Tumblr and Dreamwidth fandom, I found out that the Dreamwidth user base on average associated wank with "objectionable fan behavior," whereas the Tumblr user base preferred "written or spoken communication or debate," which was also their average definition for the word discourse. Similarly, for the word squick the average definition from a user on Tumblr was "something I dislike." Its treatment of the word trigger as either "a deep-seated visceral turnoff" or "something I am uncomfortable creating or consuming" is similar to the Dreamwidth definitions of the word squick. Finally, the preference questions on the survey showed statistically significant differences in the lexical choices for each platform, as Tumblr on average preferred discourse and trigger over wank and squick, and Dreamwidth preferred it vice versa.

[12] This significant lexical difference between Tumblr and Dreamwidth users seems to support the theory of a cultural shift between old and new fandom. Dreamwidth users are on average older in both offline and fandom ages, having gotten into fandom around the rise of LiveJournal, or even before that (I remember several Dreamwidth users wanking about my survey's age bins being too small and cutting off at 35 or older, because they had been in fandom since the days of Usenet). In contrast, Tumblr users are on average between the ages of 18 and 25 and relatively new to fandom (though, as I mentioned before, there are older users on the site who reminisce about LiveJournal days). If Dreamwidth users roughly correlate to old (LiveJournal-based) fandom, then Tumblr users roughly correlate to new (social media-based) fandom, though of course given the nature of the internet there is bound to be some overlap.

[13] The internet is a porous, amorphous medium in which people can hypothetically be anyone, although with the rise of social media it has become safer and more encouraged to be oneself on the internet. Now, more than ever, online culture has become more personalized, with the algorithms of Google and various social media sites tracking preferences and dislikes. Online identities are no longer as separate from offline ones, especially with public figures, celebrities, and organizations who run social media accounts to engage with constituents and clients. Nevertheless, there is still a semblance of anonymity, which enables average Tumblr and Twitter users to engage with each other without regards to their offline identity—until those identities are brought into the discussion.

[14] With the engagement of offline identities in online discussions, it is no surprise that the internet has also become a place to engage with real-world issues in an abstract manner. And fandom is no exception to that: the importance of diverse media in fandom has existed since 2009 with RaceFail on LiveJournal. At that time, RaceFail was an imbroglio of discussions and derailments from writers about the portrayal of characters of color in their published books, which then expanded into a discussion about the representation of people of color in other media such as TV shows and films (Somerville). Through RaceFail, fandom adopted the social justice-linked concepts about the importance of media diversity and representation, as well as the necessity of calling out content creators who do in fact perpetuate racist microaggressions and stereotypes in their writing (De Kosnik 2016).

[15] This growing awareness of the need for diversity in fandom spaces also came at a time when mainstream media was beginning to grasp the power of social media as a unifying tool. The protests of the Arab Spring (2010), the Egyptian Revolution (2011), and Occupy Wall Street (2011) were all coordinated through a "network of networks" on social media sites that interacted with each other (Castells 2012). These social media sites, especially microblogging platforms like Tumblr and Twitter, facilitated the dissemination of social justice concepts championed by these movements at an unprecedented rate. As mentioned before, the global tags on these sites also enabled greater crossover of ideas from political and activist groups into fandom circles, especially in the wake of RaceFail and a growing call for representation and diversity even within fan-created media. Fandom grew even more transformative, as reinterpretations of favorite characters became more inclusive. For example, Hermione Granger being reinterpreted as black is a popular headcanon in Harry Potter fandom on Tumblr, and series author J. K. Rowling has voiced her support for it in a Tweet dated December 21, 2015; in another Tweet dated June 20, 2016, Rowling even supported the casting of a black actress in the readings for The Cursed Child.

[16] So within an increasingly interconnected internet culture where personalization and self-identity are more important than anonymity, the personal becomes increasingly political even within fandom circles. Fandom disagreements, too, have shifted into a more political and academic tone. This is in part because of the global access to Tumblr and Twitter's tags and searches: someone browsing these tags could stumble across content they do not agree with and start arguments with the creators of said content. While it is similar to how arguments start on blogging platforms like LiveJournal and Dreamwidth, these arguments on Tumblr and Twitter are different in that they can quickly become viral, with numerous people contributing their responses and not everyone seeing all of those responses, or with many people only seeing a certain version of a post and reacting to that instead. The same attitudes that led to the prevalence and popularity of wank communities on LiveJournal are thus replicated on Tumblr but now at a more rapid pace with less control over the thread of conversation. It is therefore very easy for a discussion or an idea to become radicalized on Tumblr, and this in turn raises the stakes in fan debates on the internet.

[17] This is where my argument about the fandom culture shift comes back. There is a difference between old fandom and new fandom in the understanding of the intent of internet arguments and reactions to objectionable material, as evidenced by the differing definitions of wank vis à vis discourse and trigger vis à vis squick. Fan debates that spiral out of control used to be called wank, ostensibly because it was seen as self-aggrandizing with no particular goal except for an anonymous emotional release on the internet, and it was labelled and described as such in communities such as fandom_wank and fail_fandomanon on LiveJournal and Dreamwidth. Nowadays, these similar arguments on Tumblr and Twitter are called discourse, a term co-opted from academia which lends gravitas and credence to the arguments being expounded in the post. Similarly, squick in old fandom simply implied a visceral dislike of a given topic, but the new fandom term trigger makes someone's aversive feelings towards that topic more intensely personal and potentially traumatic. As fandom became more and more political and critical of its consumption of media, its preferred terms to describe its engagement with the media have also shifted towards a more academic, professional lexicon.

[18] In the end, perhaps that is what the old fandom denizens currently on Tumblr are bemoaning when they note the shift from wank to discourse or squick to trigger. This cultural shift to becoming more serious about one's hobby has thrown people who have been in fandom before Strikethrough slightly off-kilter. Ship wars and other fandom wank are now being treated with the same lexicon and seriousness as academic discourse; squicks are given the same amount of weight as psychological triggers in therapy. But perhaps this shift is also indicative of a growing acceptance of fandom as an aspect of cultural and media studies by the mainstream. Fandom itself is becoming more and more acknowledged by mainstream media; the rise of social media has also contributed to a lowering of the boundary between content creators and their fans. With the emergence of fandom out of the fringes of culture, it comes as no surprise that new entrants to fandom will change the existing lexicon. In its current iteration on Tumblr, fandom's shift from wank to discourse and squick to trigger indicates its growing acceptance of critical analysis of media, especially in regards to increasing representation for marginalized populations. I can only speculate on what fandom on a new platform years into the future will change in terms of its lexicon. Perhaps it will follow the advice of the survivors of LiveJournal fandom, and "bring back the squick."


Castells, Manuel. Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age. Malden, MA: Polity, 2012.

De Kosnik, Abigail. Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016.

Silver, Farasha. "How Archive of Our Own Revolutionized Fandom." Fanfic Magazine, November 1, 2015.

Somerville, Ann. "A Themed Summary of Racefail '09 in Large Friendly Letters for Those Who Think Race Discussions Are Hard." Fiction by Ann Sommerville (blog), n.d.