Tumblr and fandom

Lori Morimoto

Virginia, United States

Louisa Ellen Stein

Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vermont, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Editorial for special issue, "Tumblr and Fandom," Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 27 (June 15, 2018).

[0.2] Keywords—Affordances; Bricolage; Eschatology; Fan terminology; GIFs; Online fandom

Morimoto, Lori, and Louisa Ellen Stein. 2018. "Tumblr and Fandom" [editorial]. In "Tumblr and Fandom," edited by Lori Morimoto and Louisa Ellen Stein, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 27. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2018.1580.

1. Introduction

[1.1] This special issue on "Tumblr and Fandom" for Transformative Works and Cultures grew out of the forthcoming A Tumblr Book, for which the call for papers brought in a disproportionate number of submissions on fandom for a book that wasn't going to be only about fandom. But really this excess was only appropriate, given how fandom seems to find its way into all corners of Tumblr, and to fill all the spaces in between.

Supernatural GIF with words 'I bet Supernatural doesn't have a gif for—' atop, with Crowley responding, 'You're wrong.'

Figure 1. GIFs for everything. Source: Fearless-Beautiful-Insanity, Tumblr.com.

[1.2] Ultimately, we, along with Tumblr Book coeditor Allison McCracken, came up with the idea to spin off some of this energy into a special issue of TWC. For too long there had seemed to be a dearth of scholarship on Tumblr fandom relative to the creativity, richness, and breadth of the fan cultures on the platform as we experienced it. We knew many folks were thinking about Tumblr through scholar-fan lenses, and we wanted to hasten that scholarship. Between that time and the publication of this issue, writing on Tumblr has flourished, to the extent that this issue is now part of a growing body of scholarship.

[1.3] We are excited to present to readers new and insightful perspectives on Tumblr and fandom, including historical analysis, close studies of particular fan communities, aesthetic practices, and fan/industry interactions centered on the site. Tumblr has changed, and continues to change, the face of online fandom; simultaneously, it reflects fannish practices that predate online fandoms. We hope that the combined picture created by the essays featured in this issue will bring us closer to understanding the implications of Tumblr for fandoms past, present, and future.

2. Tumblr and fandom: An overview

Game of Thrones GIF with words 'If the ship goes down, I go with it' at the bottom. Image loops a servant dressing Tyrion Lannister, whose face is covered with the Tumblr logo, for battle.

Figure 2. "If the ship goes down, I go with it: Tumblr." Source: Tumblr.com.

[2.1] Although Tumblr was founded in 2007, online media fandoms (defined here as predominantly English-language, fan work–centered communities largely populated by women) did not begin to migrate en masse to the site until about 2012 (Bury 2016; De Kosnik 2016; Kohnen 2018; Stein 2018). This was precipitated by a number of mostly unrelated factors, not least of which was the 2008 Russian corporate acquisition and reconfiguration of the blogging platform LiveJournal, which up to that point had arguably been the main locus of online fandom activity, particularly within fan fiction circles. In addition to instituting changes in the look and functionality of LiveJournal, new terms of service were implemented, which resulted in the administrative mass deletion of a number of fan blogs on the basis of unfounded and untrue claims that they were engaged in child pornography. Combined, as Melanie Kohnen (2018) argues, with the deeply unpopular attempted corporatization of fan fiction distribution by a company called FanLib, these perceived attacks on fan fiction writers' autonomy and freedom of speech led to the creation of Archive of Our Own (AO3; https://archiveofourown.org/), under the auspices of the newly formed Organization for Transformative Works, as a fan-funded and -managed fan fiction repository. The result, Kohnen writes, was that "AO3 supplanted one of LiveJournal's central functions for fandom" (356), that is, fan fiction culture, leaving a void that Tumblr—with its greater emphasis on visual rather than written fan works—managed to fill. Together with the rise of new fandoms and a younger generation of fans who engaged comfortably with social media, Tumblr eventually supplanted LiveJournal as a, if not the, key hub of multimedia online fandom activity.

[2.2] For fans coming from LiveJournal, Yahoo! Groups, and other community-centric sites, Tumblr was notoriously difficult to navigate or even understand. This was largely because of its structural differences, which ultimately led to changes in how online fandoms communicated, as well as who was doing the communicating. The communities (or comms) to which online media fans flocked from earlier fandom message boards appealed in part to users' ability to control who interacted with them, and indeed to shape the nature of those interactions. Individual users on LiveJournal (as well as InsaneJournal and Dreamwidth, sites sourced from the same code) could restrict access to their entire journal or to individual posts, and the communities to which these users belonged were equally able to moderate participation. In contrast, Tumblr (like Twitter) can seem almost defiantly nonhierarchical, decentralized, and uncontrollable. On the comms individual users are effectively in control of their own domains. On Tumblr, however, individual accounts typically act as nodes for the creation and further dissemination of posts. As with Twitter, Tumblr is structurally rhizomatic; in contrast, however, from the point that a public Tumblr post is reblogged by someone else, it cannot be recalled and deleted by the original poster, as is possible on Twitter.

Color map showing two big circles, one blue and one orange, with a line connecting them and other lines branching off, with smaller blue dots indicating further branching points. The bigger the dot, the more posts branch off it.

Figure 3. Tumblr-generated map of reblogs of a popular post, June 7, 2018. Source: Tumblr.com.

[2.3] These dimensions of rhizomatic spread and limited authorial control lend Tumblr some of its aura of anarchy, intensified by a restrictive, even counterintuitive commenting system that effectively encourages rebloggers to add commentary to the original post itself. From the point a Tumblr post begins to be reblogged, it takes on a life of its own. It is no longer in the control of the original poster.

[2.4] This uncontrollability is at once both bane and boon to online fandoms, and it has had a material effect on expressions of and participation in those fandoms. A range of practices evolved in response to posts that have gone viral through hostile discourse appended to them. Fans on Tumblr will exhort antifans and nonfans (or the "wrong" fans) to "stay out of the tags," and they may even refrain from searching for new fandom posts via tags lest they encounter either original posts that are intended to be antagonistic to that fandom or reblogs that have been co-opted to equally negative ends. Fandom wank on Tumblr is thus aided and abetted by weaponizing the platform's own functionality, lending it a kind of Wild West lawlessness that has driven many fans from the site.

GIF of Sherlock saying, as the subtitle tells us, 'I'm helping Cas to find the Doctor.'

Figure 4. "I'm helping Cas to find the Doctor." Source: JampackedOffensiveAustraliansilkyterrier, Gfycat.com.

[2.5] Yet it is precisely users' inability to establish effective boundaries on Tumblr that has led to the ongoing and still hotly contested diversification of fandom participation and expression. Tumblr-enabled fandom cross-fertilization—what Matt Hills (2015) calls transfandom—has contributed to the growth of portmanteau fandoms such as SuperWhoLock and the proliferation of semiotically linked visual fan works (Morimoto 2018). The inability to control both the circulation of and commentary on posts has contributed to the greater visibility of peripheral fans and fan communities as they bring their own perspectives to what may originally have been intended as in-group utterances.

[2.6] Further, as others have noted, Tumblr as a platform is intensely visual (Bennett 2014; Petersen 2014; McCracken 2017; Willard 2017; Stein 2018), precipitating the evolution of new fannish practices (particularly in the area of GIFs). This visuality has also lowered linguistic/textual barriers to entry within heretofore predominantly English-language online fandoms, resulting in a higher degree of cross-border fan communication and concomitant potential for cross-cultural clashes (Morimoto and Chin 2017).

GIF of Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit being hugged by Thorin, with moving sparkles around Bilbo's face emphasizing the bracketed caption, 'Thorin-Senpai has noticed me.'

Figure 5. "Thorin-Senpai has noticed me." Source: Giphy.com.

3. Where Tumblr and fandom meet

[3.1] The essays featured in this special issue approach the intersection of Tumblr and fandom in ways that cumulatively attest to its complexity, including cultural history, interface, industry, transcultural work, personal experience, community engagement, fan aesthetics, and fan discourse. Further, and perhaps in keeping with Tumblr's porousness, many of the essays' authors also self-reflexively consider what it means to research fandom on Tumblr, what Tumblr has meant for scholar fandom, and what scholar fandom (or academia more broadly) has meant for Tumblr.

[3.2] We can situate Tumblr's specific fannish histories within larger histories of fandom and practices of vernacular cultural authorship. Evan Gledhill connects/locates Tumblr microblogging within the history of the commonplace book and scrapbooks; it is bricolage as resistant reading as well as writing by marginalized people, including young, queer, and female-identifying people. Engaging with more recent history, Lily Winterwood uses linguistic analysis to suggest that there has been a shift from old fandom (LiveJournal/Dreamwidth) to newer fandom (Tumblr) terminology: from "squick" to "trigger," from "wank" to "discourse." Winterwood argues that these linguistic changes reflect a broader shift in the perception of fandom as having serious cultural weight, in turn emphasizing fandom's potential contribution to understandings of representational politics, in contrast with past perceptions of interfandom debates as "self-aggrandizing …emotional release" (¶ 17).

[3.3] Tumblr's interface specificities—its affordances and limitations—have shaped fandom uses of the site and arguably have thus shaped fandoms themselves. At the same time, fans work with Tumblr's affordances and limits in unexpected, creative, and generative ways. All the essays in this issue consider, to a greater or lesser extent, how the affordances and limitations of Tumblr have shaped the particular focus of their study, be it the emergence and cultural work of GIF sets as a fan art practice, the evolution of scholar-fan identity within Tumblr, or the growth and sustenance of specific fan communities.

[3.4] Indira Neill Hoch conducts close analysis of how hashtags both define and negotiate communities, given the specific affordances of Tumblr that do not support community function and formation in quite the same way as those of Facebook and other social media networks. Hoch's essay also highlights how, despite its lack of familiar formal community organizing tools, Tumblr nevertheless serves as community space for fandoms initially connected on other platforms (in this case, YouTube).

[3.5] In her examination of antifandom hate blogs directed at the BBC's Sherlock (2010–17), Judith Fathallah suggests that Tumblr affords critique via self-reflexive polyphonic pastiche rather than authoritative dominance. Fathallah argues that fan communities on Tumblr have developed traditions of self-conscious and playful critique, which are dispersed across the performative surfaces of Tumblr fandom and which are distinctive in their multitonal, fragmented logics.

[3.6] Daisy Pignetti's Symposium essay on Tumblr fans' responses to Tom Hiddleston's unexpected relationship with Taylor Swift considers how Tumblr provides a forum for fans to work through their surprise over Hiddleswift sightings and analysis in the media, which seemed to contradict the star persona Hiddleston had previously cultivated. Pignetti argues that the Tumblr interface provides both form and forum for Hiddleston fans to self-reflexively (re)consider their investment not only in Hiddleston but also in stars and star personae more generally.

[3.7] Bo Allesøe Christensen and Thessa Jensen's contribution explores how Tumblr's emphasis on interactivity and gratification facilitated the formation and perpetuation of The JohnLock Conspiracy (TJLC) communities and discourse. Christensen and Jensen bring theological analysis to bear on these communities, theorizing their convictions as a form of secular eschatology, in which belief in a true reading of Sherlock's ending connected and sustained a distinctive fan community within Tumblr.

[3.8] In a study that nicely dovetails with Christensen and Jensen's study of TJLC communities, Tosha Taylor examines the Team Delusional subset of the Walking Dead (2010–) fandom, which was built around fan theories that beloved Walking Dead character Beth Greene survived her apparent death in the series' fifth season. Taylor describes how Team Delusional persists as a fan community within Tumblr years after Beth's death, using Tumblr's participatory and interpretive affordances such as multimodality and tagging to maintain community identity.

[3.9] Other essays examine how Tumblr's formal affordances and constraints shape emerging fannish aesthetic traditions, most especially GIFs and GIF sets. Rebecca Williams explores how fans use GIFs to work through moments of affective disruption and mourning regarding series' endings or characters' canonical deaths. Through a case study of GIF usage specifically within Supernatural (CW, 2005–) fandom, Jessica Hautsch considers how GIFs enable fan rhetorical play with intertextuality, looking at how GIFs can mean different things to different communities and how fans can tailor the source text to particular interpretive ends.

[3.10] Tumblr's porous interface has generated particular interest among scholar-fans in its capacity for bridging seeming divides between academic and fan discourse while at the same time exposing potential frictions between the two. Mélanie Bourdaa explores this through her consideration of the possibilities offered by Tumblr as research space, as well as the methodological and ethical issues such research raises. Specifically, Bourdaa examines her own Tumblr, created purposefully for scholar-fan engagement, in which she represents herself as what she terms an ethnofan, "a researcher who analyzes fan practices by integrating into the community and fandom under study" (¶ 3.3).

[3.11] Similarly, in their coauthored Symposium essay, Elizabeth M. Downey, Sherly Lyn Bundy, Connie K. Shih and Emily Hamilton-Honey share a collective interdisciplinary perspective on their experiences discovering Glee (2009–15) fandom, acafandom, and meeting one another through Tumblr. They look at the affordances Tumblr offers for scholar-fan and acafans for both research and social and professional networking, considering what insights these Tumblr experiences then offer for academia more broadly. They suggest that Tumblr facilitates interdisciplinary networks built on actual conversation and community that augment the "professional pressures of academia," allowing scholar fans to connect "as fans more than academics" with "joyful, excited, in-the-moment exchanges" (¶ 2.1), and fostering iterative collaborative scholarship in the form of reblogged and expanded meta posts.

[3.12] In his Symposium essay, Paul Booth describes the productive challenges he has faced teaching with Tumblr, arguing that using Tumblr in fan studies courses is in some ways a necessity if students are to gain a full understanding of contemporary fandom. Yet Tumblr's opacity to outsiders and complex processes of fan pleasure make it a difficult fit for assigned work within a graded college class. Nonetheless, Booth argues, this very challenge—or necessary failure—remains instructive, and perhaps even necessary, for the project of teaching fandom.

[3.13] As fandom and intrafandom communities have evolved on Tumblr, fandom itself has become more publicly visible, with the result that many fans have used their fandom to mobilize industry and political activism. Natalie Chew looks at Tumblr as a counterpublic for fan mobilization through a case study of the campaigns to save the canceled animated TV shows Young Justice (2010–) and Green Lantern: The Animated Series (2011–13). Chew situates Tumblr within a larger social media context, arguing that Tumblr serves as a counterpublic support to platforms like Twitter that served as the public face of the Young Justice and Green Lantern renewal campaigns. This broader perspective on Tumblr within a social media context offers particular insight into how fandoms (on Tumblr and more generally) function in relation to industry within larger contemporary transmedia contexts.

Sherlock GIF with words 'My hostage!' at the bottom. Loop shows Sherlock pointing a gun at a terrified Watson's head as Sherlock says, 'My hostage!' Sherlock's face is concealed by the BBC logo; and Watson's head is concealed by the Tumblr logo.

Figure 6. "My hostage!" Source: Anotherwellkeptsecret, Tumblr.com.

[3.14] In a roundtable moderated by Lori Morimoto, Amanda Brennan, Elizabeth Minkel, Keidra Chaney, and Aja Romano discuss and debate the effect of Tumblr on evolving online fandoms; intersections of fandom, politics, and activism facilitated by their shared Tumblr locus; and changing perceptions of (Tumblr-based) fandoms within an increasingly borderless journalistic environment that has engendered fan-reporters, who, like scholar-fans, have a fannish foot in social media-based fandoms and a professional one engaged in their analysis.

[3.15] The issue's four book reviews map out a dynamic picture of the broader cultural landscape and evolving fan practices within which Tumblr fandom functions, including communities of fan handicrafting (Close), fan fiction authorship and readership (Jamison), and transnational and transcultural production and reception (Lee and Hemmann).

[3.16] We hope this special issue leaves readers with a clearer sense of the myriad ways that Tumblr at once reflects, inhabits, influences, and facilitates fandoms past, present, and future.

4. Acknowledgments

[4.1] The editors would like to gratefully acknowledge the generosity and cooperation of Alex Cho, Allison McCracken, and Indira Neill Hoch in diverting some of the embarrassment of riches of A Tumblr Book proposals to this special issue of TWC. We are also indebted to Allison McCracken for her invaluable behind-the-scenes contributions to the production of this issue.

[4.2] We would also like to thank our contributors for the breadth and depth of the work this issue brings together, and we extend our heartfelt thanks to our reviewers and the TWC editors and staff, without whose tireless efforts this issue would never have reached fruition.

[4.3] The following people worked on TWC No. 27 in an editorial capacity: Lori Morimoto and Louisa Ellen Stein (guest editors); Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson (editors); Cameron Salisbury and Francesca Coppa (Symposium); and Louisa Ellen Stein and Katie Morrissey (Review).

[4.4] The following people worked on TWC No. 27 in a production capacity: Rrain Prior (production editor); Beth Friedman, Mara Greengrass, and Christine Mains (copyeditors); Claire Baker, Sarah New, Rebecca Sentance, and Gabriel Simm (layout); and Rachel P. Kreiter, Amanda Retartha, and Latina Vidolova (proofreaders).

[4.5] TWC thanks the board of the Organization for Transformative Works. OTW provides financial support and server space to TWC but is not involved in any way in the content of the journal, which is editorially independent.

[4.6] TWC thanks all its board members, whose names appear on TWC's masthead, as well as the additional peer reviewers who provided service for TWC No. 27: Lauren Collister, Alexandra Edwards, Amy Finn, Katie Gillespie, Bridget Kies, Miranda Larsen, Linda Levitt, Meredith Snyder, Greg Steirer, J. Caroline Toy, and Emily Wills.

6. References

Bennett, Lucy. 2014. "Tracing Textual Poachers: Reflections on the Development of Fan Studies and Digital Fandom." Journal of Fandom Studies 2 (1): 5–20. https://doi.org/10.1386/jfs.2.1.5_1.

Bury, Rhiannon. 2016. "Technology, Fandom and Community in the Second Media Age." Convergence 23:627–42. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1354856516648084.

Cho, Alexander, Allison McCracken, Indira Neill Hoch, and Louisa Ellen Stein, eds. Forthcoming. A Tumblr Book. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Hills, Matt. 2015. "Fandom as an Object and the Objects of Fandom." Interview with Matt Hills conducted by Clarice Greco. MATRIZes 9 (1): 147–62. https://doi.org/10.11606/issn.1982-8160.v9i1p147-163.

Kohnen, Melanie E. S. 2018. "Tumblr Pedagogies." In A Companion to Media Fandom and Fan Studies, edited by Paul Booth, 349–67. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

McCracken, Allison. 2017. "Tumblr Youth Subcultures and Media Engagement." Cinema Journal 57 (1): 151–61. https://doi.org/10.1353/cj.2017.0061.

Morimoto, Lori. 2018. "The 'Totoro Meme' and the Politics of Transfandom Pleasure." East Asian Journal of Popular Culture 4 (1): 77–92. https://doi.org/10.1386/eapc.4.1.77_1.

Morimoto, Lori Hitchcock, and Bertha Chin. 2017. "Reimagining the Imagined Community." In Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World, 2nd ed., edited by Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington, 174–88. New York: New York University Press.

Petersen, Line Nybro. 2014. "Sherlock Fans Talk: Mediatized Talk on Tumblr." Northern Lights: Film and Media Studies Yearbook 12 (1): 87–104. https://doi.org/10.1386/nl.12.1.87_1.

Stein, Louisa Ellen. 2018. "Tumblr Fan Aesthetics." In The Routledge Companion to Media Fandom, edited by Melissa A. Click and Suzanne Scott, 86–97. London: Routledge.

Willard, Lesley Autumn. 2017. "From Co-optation to Commission: A Diachronic Perspective on the Development of Fannish Literacy through Teen Wolf's Promotional Campaigns." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 25. https://doi.org/10.3983/twc.2017.0894.