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[META] “What’s with the fucking chicken?”: Anonymous culture in fandom

A few days ago in my personal journal, I asked for thoughts about the rise of anonymous spaces in fandom (specifically, here and for the rest of this post, my corner of LiveJournal/Dreamwidth etc.-based media fandom). I received dozens of comments, both anonymous and posted under long-standing fannish pseudonyms. Persistent pseudonyms (such as my own, cryptoxin) dominate the parts of fandom that I’m involved in; posting or commenting anonymously is relatively uncommon. Anon memes — spaces where anonymous commenting is the norm — have popped up regularly for years on LiveJournal, but most were short-lived, dying out or being shut down fairly quickly. More recently, long-running permanent anon memes (many, but not all, specific to a particular fandom) have become increasingly prominent in fandom. The comments to my post provide a lot of different perspectives on their growing popularity, function, and dynamics.

What follows are the beginnings of my thoughts about the place of anon memes in fandom. I’m going to break my discussion up into multiple posts over the next couple of weeks, organized around five themes:

Distraction economy
Counter-public sphere
Communal confessions
Burden of identity
Wrong on the internet

Below is the first installment, discussing anon memes as a distraction economy.

    Distraction economy

Many celebrate media fandom as a gift economy, where “goods” such as fan fiction and other fanworks are freely shared, exchanged and circulated. But fan communities also function as reputation economies, where the quantity and quality of friends, comments, etc. determines the distribution and circulation of social capital (popularity, influence, respect, etc.). The pseudonymous nature of fandom participation doesn’t diminish this dynamic; persistent pseudonyms accrue their own reputations over time, and fandom has a long memory.

Going anonymous in theory allows you to opt out of the reputation economy, at least temporarily. Within the meme, where everyone’s anonymous, reputation can’t stick to any participant: you’re only as wanky or stupid (or clever, or amusing) as your last anonymously-posted comment. Each new comment thread wipes the slate clean; this will not go down on your permanent reputational record.

Yet anon memes aren’t completely outside of fandom’s reputation economy — memes, and their anonymous participants, have their own reputation within fandom, and known or suspected participation on an anon meme can affect one’s reputation within pseudonymous fannish spaces. Moreover, anon memes often debate, reassess, or attack the reputational standing of pseudonymous fans — especially well-known BNFs — in negotiations that can spill over into broader fandom. So it’s perhaps more accurate to think of anon memes in a kind of underground or black market relationship to fandom’s “formal” reputation economies.

Reputation economies in fandom shape the fannish attention economy: with an abundance of posts, communities, fanworks, episode reactions, and discussions vying for attention, nobody can follow it all. So reputation becomes one filter shaping the flows of attention, influencing which stories get read, whose posts receive comments, what discussions get prioritized. To a certain degree, participation in broader fan communities requires paying attention, and distributing your attention appropriately. The culture of a fandom (fanon, in-jokes, jargon, influential fanworks, etc.) emerges from shared experiences, histories, attitudes, and frames of reference — in other words, the map and archive of fannish attention.

Anon memes have a symbiotic relationship to fandom’s “official” attention economy. Through links and discussion, they harness, amplify or redirect fannish attention — even as many in pseudonymous fandom would cast anon memes themselves as unworthy of attention and disavow allocating any of their own attention to them. Memes also provide an alternate filtering system driven less by reputation than relevance and interest: attention goes to anything capable of generating comments on the meme. But permanent anon memes that achieve heavy traffic and a constant stream of comments also present a different kind of fannish space, a culture devoted to distraction. Step inside an active anon meme, and you can easily lose hours; rather than budgeting your attention, you simply give yourself over to the anonymous flow. The distractions of being on the meme can be a vacation from fandom’s attention economy.

Up next: Anon memes as counter-public spheres