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What do I mean when I say that politics are fandom?
thought digest, 04.23.2023
I recently finished reading a paper titled "A Board of One's Own: Interviewing the Anonymous Female Imageboard Community."
Two quotes, in particular, caught my attention:
Where the Web is trending towards “a replica of our lives in networks, open to capital and closed to experimentation” (Knuttila, 2011), anonymity serves as an anti-establishment tool, countering the radical surveillance and profit-oriented ethos of mainstream platforms. In a nod to privacy studies, this literature sees board- or A-culture as remnant of a Net that has been marginalized by mainstream platform logics (Bodle, 2013; De Zeeuw, 2019).
In these communities, inside jokes, memes, and references, rather than persistent identity, produced a sense of belonging, as has been postulated of anonymous communities (Auerbach, 2012; Nissenbaum and Shifman, 2017; Tuters and Hagen, 2018).
Nothing we don’t already know, but it emphasizes the potentially exploitative nature of Twitter communities.
Twitter anons, unlike true anons, have persistent identities: they’re “pseud-anons.” But to the extent they exist, they are Twitter-native subcultures’ lifeblood. They are the mass that feels a genuine sense of belonging in the ‘flattened’ or ‘communal’ self.
‘I tend to sort of "flatten" the identity of the poster to be the entire site, if that makes sense. I mean, I know they're an individual, but it's like I indulge the mask that person and everyone else is wearing of anonymity. I choose to see them as that post, you could say’ - Angelina
That doesn’t mean they’re not individuals who form unique relationships with each other or that they don’t each bring something unique to the community. But they’re small, they aren’t as powerful in isolation. They collaborate to form a collective whole. And to their value, while each anon can be replaced, there’s a limit to how much turnover there can be. Otherwise, the community changes too much and evolves into something new.
Contrasting the anons are the Big Accounts, who shepherd many of them, even if not all. This would be acceptable—and even expected1—except that being a Big Account, regardless of whether you're using your real name, can translate into real-world currency. It's interesting to read early books on MMOs, such as Synthetic Worlds or the slightly later Exodus to the Virtual World, and see economists like Edward Castronova point out that this is precisely why virtual spaces need to be studied. Once an economy forms, it impacts everything, including real-world policies.
Anyway, because real money is involved, the stakes become much higher. This is where politics come into play: people begin competing to become the next Big Account or to gain proximity to ruling Big Accounts.
But why do people care? For all the reasons one might expect: it’s more interesting than their immediate environment, it's addictive, it’s more accessible, it’s more serendipitous. They, too, eventually may earn money and not have to work a ‘normie’ job.
In my sphere, at least, there’s also this illusion of being in proximity to importance or celebrity. Take the myth of Thielbuxx. There’s a false narrative that Peter Thiel funds certain posters and podcasters. (AFAIK, most of the funding and connections are more transparent than the mythos would have you believe.) Well, Peter Thiel is meaningful in the physical world. He is important. Your mother probably knows who he is. People accused of being backed by him persist in being important even if accusations of receiving funding are meant as a smear. In some cases, it can even boost someone’s in-world celebrity.
But think about it: being in Thiel’s virtual orbit is the closest most people will ever get to something that feels meaningful. The fantasy is that if they get close to celebrity—close to Thielbuxx—they’ll be close to something that matters.
In both cases, though, the allure is so powerful that people are willing to, e.g., trivialize or flat-out end physical world relationships if it means they can virtual capital in exchange for the sacrifice.
Are these cults of personalities fandoms? I think so.
The anons produce fan work, certainly. It doesn’t always look the way we think of fan work, but I think you can reasonably say that some podcasts and personalities function as fan work of certain Big Accounts. The free labor we associate with fandoms is present, too: archiving, knowledge-keeping, and various infrastructure.
My suspicion is that fandoms are just the organizing principle in a consumerist society. We live in a world of macro and micro fandoms.
On Twitter, I see it like this. There’s the macro or umbrella fandom (here, it’s typically political, so ‘right wing’ or ‘left wing,’ very broadly, but there are obviously fractures and a lot of in-fighting), then there are sub- or micro-fandoms within them, usually organized around a Personality.
Some sub-fandoms have alliances with one another and together can join together and create a powerful swarm if necessary.
These umbrella fandoms are only cohesive groups to the untrained eye. In reality, it’s more accurate to think of them as clans that occasionally collaborate—in times of war, to share information, etc. But the similarities aren’t as strong as the necessity to work together in a fragmented environment.
Cultural transmission happens here, too, people move around as is feasible, and capital in one group can be exchangeable for capital in another.
When the mainstream media writes about these communities, they tend to write about the umbrella group, not the smaller groups within it. Or they write about a granular group and confuse it with the umbrella group.
“All” of X group is doing Y thing. It’s why you have NBC reporters who think “every” right winger online is into bodybuilding, for example, and who confuse the characteristics of specific subsets with the wider group.
When I say “politics is fandom,” I mean it in a few ways.
We learn about politics from more traditional fandom communities. Fandoms have an incredible amount of political power, too, because consumption is the only “live” area of contemporary American life—by necessity, marketing segments rule everything. Mainstream politics also are organized by fandom: people are invested in politics in the same way fans are in sports or media properties or whatever thing. Mainstream politics are propped up by other kinds of fandom, too.
All that is obvious.
But I also mean that for the very online, their political orientations are informed by these other kinds of fandoms.
As an aside, I also thought this description of anonymity online was valuable, even if not novel:
Notably, one could be fluid, “transient” [Angelina], not needing to “adhere to one specific identity or self” [Carmen]. In some sense, anonymity provided a more meritocratic space than real life, with ideas and wit valued above all else a woman is usually judged by (see Donath, 1999: 53; Manivannan, 2012; Suler, 2005: 187). Self-experimentation led some to improvements in how users saw themselves and others offline.
I feel like this helps color the idea that the Internet might condition us to exhibit BPD traits. Not needing to adhere to one specific identity or self, of course, characterizes much of modern life. It’s also a characteristic of Borderline.
In the early 90s, Amy Bruckman observed that all MUDs she studied had hierarchal social structures. She suspected this was because they were modeled after fictional worlds that were hierarchal, but maybe the chaotic nature of digital communities just lends itself to hierarchy more generally. I definitely wrote about that somewhere, and I remember friend-of-the-Substack [name redacted] said that it was a “good observation,” but now I can’t find it…