This article was submitted by Greater Than Code panelist, Jameson Hampton. Jamey is a professional plant-liker (and senior software engineer) for Agrilyst and spends most of their spare time doing LGBTQ advocacy, making zines and thinking about Star Wars.
A few days ago, when I was applying to speak at a conference, I went to take a peek at one of my old talk videos on YouTube, I found that one of my Internet Fears had been realized: 4chan had found one of my conference talks. The first thing I noticed was the dire ratio of 15 thumbs down votes to 0 thumbs up votes. Ouch. There was a comment about how my talk “actually wasn’t a bad idea,” but should have been “a side presentation that is not marketed as important.” (Interestingly, I think this person thought he was standing up for me, because he noted that he “couldn’t believe he had to say this,” but that “for once the SJW is okay,” although he also added, “that being said, I would have liked if the presenter did not look like an autist.”) Also, I knew that it was posted on 4chan specifically because someone else helpfully replied, “Yeah dude we all saw your post on /g/ you don’t need to repost it here.” Ouch for everyone involved, I guess.
Anyway, as you can imagine, finding this post took the wind out of my sails when it came to my conference talk. But, it also got me thinking about why. Am I really the kind of person who can’t handle the little number 15 next to the thumbs down icon? Or a comment that was only like, half mean? Saying that my talk should have been marketed as not important was a little brutal, but it’s not like it was the first time I’ve heard that my talk about chronic illness and diversity wasn’t technical enough to belong at a tech conference. I think the thing that bothered me was the realization that people had been discussing me on 4chan without me knowing. It felt almost like being back in high school, knowing that my classmates who didn’t like me were gossiping about me behind my back. Although I know it’s unrealistic, it made me wish I had more control over where my stuff got posted on the Internet… and then suddenly, I was struck by an old memory.
When I was a kid, I loved the X-Files. I seriously cannot express to you the depth of my love for that show when I was in middle school. I also wrote a lot of fanfiction. One day, I found some of my own fanfiction on a review site called, “The Mary Sue Report,” after searching Google for my own name. The entire purpose of this website was to unearth and make fun of bad fanfic featuring “Mary Sues” – original characters added to existing casts who are too competent, too attractive, too desirable and otherwise too perfect. In fairness, my stories were a particularly egregious example of what they were trying to make fun of. They featured a self-insert character with color changing eyes, who was the youngest agent to ever join the FBI, and everyone loved her, and she had a telepathic dog. It was bad, I get it. This is what somebody there had to say about finding and reading my stories: “You know how when you pick up a big old rock in the woods, and you find all of those gross bugs and grubs squirming around underneath it? That’s what it was like, only not really, because bugs are gross in a cool way.” Double ouch.
At the time, I was mortified. I was 12 years old. It had never really occurred to me before that anyone could read the stories I posted AND that they might not be as big fans as my friends, who were all also around 12 years old. I was so embarrassed that I ended up deleting all my fanfiction off the web not too long after. I remember that even at that age, the thing that bothered me so much about it was that anyone could search Google for my name and these awful reviews would come up. I was convinced that this shame would follow me forever, that somehow these reviews would foil my future book deal and career as a novelist. Of course, I was publishing under a cringey fake goth name at the time so it didn’t follow me at all, but this is distinctly the first time I ever remember worrying about my brand, which is something I think about all the time now.
These colorful floppy discs may be the only remaining copy of the fanfiction in question.
Now I’m able to look back and laugh at this story. I know full well that I wrote some truly unfortunate, self-indulgent fanfiction when I was a kid, and I’m not ashamed of that! Still, even when I’m laughing about how embarrassing it was, I have a gut reaction that nobody else can read it ever. To this day, I never shared any of those stories again, not even when my fiancé begged me to let him read it and share in the joke. I started to wonder if this experience affected how I share my work on the Internet even today. These days, I’m pretty open about sharing what I’m working on, so maybe not. Still, I did have a very similar visceral reaction when I found those negative comments on my Polyconf talk, so I think there’s some part of me that’s not quite over it. Even if I’m still ultimately the same oversharer that I always was, I’m sure that other people have been discouraged from going public with their work because of experiences and stories like these.
And for what reason? What are people’s problems anyway? While I wasn’t crazy about the thought of people talking about me on 4chan behind my back, I also never would have realized it was even happening if someone hadn’t chosen to repost his comments on YouTube, where the speaker would conceivably see it. When I think back to the reviews of my fanfic on The Mary Sue Report, I can’t help but wonder: did the presumably grown-ass people commenting there realize that they were tearing apart stories that were written by an 11-year-old? And why did they care so much if my fanfiction was a literary masterpiece or not? Yes, there’s a lot of terrible fanfiction out there, and a lot of it is written by young girls, trying to express themselves doing awesome stuff and being taken seriously by their role models. Seeing older people spewing such negativity about a hobby dominated by young girls really bristles me, particularly since the way young girls express themselves is already so policed in our society. Growing up and finding one’s place in the world is already hard. Who is this bad fanfiction hurting? Who cares if 11-year-old Jamey wanted Fox Mulder to love them, if it made them happy to write about it?
Not only that, but at least in my age demographic, who among us hasn’t posted stuff on the Internet that they’re later embarrassed by? Kids my age grew up having access to the Internet early. I was born in 1990 and have been online since I was 8 years old. And since the technology was new, we didn’t really have anyone to teach us how to use it. Of course I didn’t have a good sense about what I should share, how public it really was, and how long it might continue to persist on the web. None of us did! We’ve pretty much grown up in a world where we all kind of acted like idiots online when we were younger and it’s just something you had to accept. Rebecca Sugar, for example, is 3 years older than me and now known for her work on Steven Universe and Adventure Time. She wrote Invader Zim fanfiction when she was 15 under the pseudonym Muffins Magee, and it was recently unearthed by some of her fans using web archive. And honestly? I loved every second of it and so did most of her fanbase. I think it was a collective sigh of relief as we all realized she was like us when she was younger and it didn’t matter and now she’s doing amazing things.
This is one of my favorite images on the entire Internet.
The fact that fans were even able to find her old work is pretty incredible. It made me start to wonder what traces of my younger self were still searchable online. They say that once you post something on the web, it never really goes away, but I found that wasn’t quite true. Like I said before, I nuked my fanfiction in a fit of insecurity and it’s nowhere to be found now. (I did the same thing with my LiveJournal entries when I was in high school, so that minutiae of my daily life as a preteen also seems to be gone forever.) The only fanfiction I was able to find was a few Matrix stories that were written by an old internet friend. And that only came up because she used some of my characters and credited me using my old pseudonym! Even though it doesn’t exist anymore, I found my old website about Silica Gel via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. I found my old DeviantArt account, where a younger version of myself amusingly lied about being Canadian. I was able to find the bad reviews I mentioned before, but only because I remembered the name of the forum and poked around in their old posts, as it didn’t come up on Google. I also found my name on fanlistings and on other people’s guestbooks. (Remember guestbooks, by the way?) It was all tempered by a sense of nostalgia and the deeply strange realization that 11-year-old me never expected that 27-year-old me would someday be reading my offhand comments about my favorite anime.
Since I shared Rebecca Sugar’s Invader Zim fanart, it’s only fair that I share my own Cowboy Bebop fanart too.
Once you post something on the Internet, you pretty much immediately lose control over where it’s posted and who it’s seen by. That’s a very legitimate thing to worry about and take into consideration before you click that share button! But, it’s also an important thing to consider before being too critical of something you see online. It can be very easy to forget that there’s a real person on the other side of the screen and that can very easily lead us to being harsher than we may have been otherwise. It’s so sneaky that we might not even realize we’re doing it; I used to think it was hilarious to make fun of furries online until one day I woke up and realized that they were all just enjoying themselves without hurting me and oh my God, I was the asshole! I don’t necessarily think the people who made fun of my terrible X Files fanfiction are inherently mean people. I just don’t think they ever considered that the 12-year-old author was reading the things they were saying. And it’s not just my terrible X-Files fanfiction that the world is missing out on. Real art and worthwhile, thoughtful opinions are also being held back for fear of being misappropriated, shared recklessly or made fun of. Sharing our work on the Internet, while often rewarding, is also something that makes us profoundly vulnerable. If we all spent a little more time appreciating that, perhaps we’d be less likely to respond with negativity and we could all feel a little bit more comfortable sending these small pieces of ourselves out into cyberspace.
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