Fanfic trouble at Live Journal
Yesterday, someone pointed me to this Boing Boing post about LiveJournal purging some fanfiction and related accounts, causing quite a stir. The matter was brought to Boing Boing’s attention by Madeline Ashby, a writer, cyborg theorist, blogger, soon-to-be-grad student, and (recent) LJer. Knowing she reads this blog, I asked her to explain what’s been happening. The result is long, but very interesting.
[Update: A lot of LJ fandom folks have been coming by to read this and I'd love to hear your perspectives in comments (yeah, I know you've been writing about this all over LJ and maybe you're tired of explaining it to outsiders, but in case you aren't, I'm all ears. Or eyes.)]
Q: Can you give us a snapshot of Strikethrough 07, also known as the LJ Purge? What’s the situation?
A: If I had to sum up this entire event within a single metaphor, I would say that what has happened is that certain individuals have treated LiveJournal like Baghdad. In trying to find a few very harmful, dangerous people, those individuals have done a broad sweep of the population, identified a few widely-shared characteristics, and suspended privileges — some might even say rights — with the goal of stopping crime. And like Baghdad, the situation has turned explosive. Residents are unhappy. Some of them were guilty, but most weren’t. Now what remains is the opportunity to find a new, smarter strategy.
To understand the LJ Purge, you have to go back to Friday, May 25. That day, I was preparing for my role as a panelist at Anime North. I didn’t see what LJ user Liz Marcs called “the perfect storm” on the horizon. She describes it excellently at this post. In her post, she attributes the perfect storm to three factors:
1) The controversial statuette of Mary Jane Watson, which ignited outrage on the part of female comics and media fans and earned fandom lots of attention in the process
2) The swirling vortex around FanLib, a for-profit website that a) purports to have invented fanfiction (a piece of misinformation that the women at the Feminist SF blog take great issue with), and b) to syndicate fanfiction from other sites without the author’s permission. For more information, check out Henry Jenkins’ interview with the CEO, and some response to it.
3) A rumour that LJ was being pressured by an outsider group to purge certain journals based on content. Said content might include fanfiction of an illicit nature. Although members of the Abuse team at LJ scoffed at such threats, the rumor persisted. Here’s a link.
As it turns out, the rumor was true. An online group called Warriors For Innocence had contacted advertisers who work with LiveJournal, alerting LJ to content they found offensive, specifically that relating to incest, pedophilia, or child rape. WFI claimed that according to LJ’s Terms of Service, LJ had the mandate to eliminate those journals and communities who listed “incest” and such terms in their interest field. LJ promptly suspended journals and communities without warning, with a total of approximately 500 sites affected — the count is ongoing. However, LJ’s understanding of context proved lacking. Along with actual child pornography sites, several fanfiction communities, legitimate LiveJournals (including those belonging to survivors of incest and child rape), and literary discussion groups were suspended or deleted.
Needless to say, news of the purge spread through LiveJournal like wildfire. Fannish users were warned to change their list of interests, lock down their fanfiction, and close ranks. The “it’s a raid!” meme spread, with a huge amount of backlash. LiveJournal communities were established to fight what many saw as an infringement of civil liberties at worst, or an unforeseen reading of the Terms of Service at best. Reaction was mixed: Many fans felt betrayed by what they saw as LJ’s cave-in to corporate interest, and a subsequent denial of the American First Amendment right to free speech. These fans felt targeted by a bizarre anti-fanfiction Kristallnacht, as though WFI had chosen to throw bricks through the gleaming windows of “Wincest,” (Supernatural) “twin-cest,” (Harry Potter) “Elricest” (Fullmetal Alchemist), “Paire” (Heroes) and other fandoms.
Still others thought that it was unfortunate, but predictable. LiveJournal is owned by the corporation Six Apart. Corporations have no obligations to customers, only to their shareholders. If users have a problem with the way LJ does business, these users argued, there are other services. Moreover, they argued, this is not a First Amendment issue. Rather, it’s part of the complicated relationship between corporations, customers, and special-interest groups. It’s unfortunate that some users suffered, but it’s nothing worth going to war over.
Chairman and CEO of Six Apart, Barak Berkowitz, has since apologized for the snafu, saying “we really screwed this one up.” His apology says that “attempt to clean up a few journals” has “turned into a total mess.” When speaking about WFI, he says: “Even idiots can be right about some things.” His answers have proved remarkably unhelpful for some fans because they do not clearly elucidate what Six Apart or LJ define as “appropriate” and do not outline a plan to protect fans and other users who are not breaking the law:
Further inquiry has occurred at BoingBoing. As a regular BB reader, I suggested the story upon first hearing of it because I thought it might interest co-editor Cory Doctorow, who recently wrote a defense of fanfiction in an editorial for Locus Magazine. Co-editor and NPR contributor Xeni Jardin picked up the lead and ran with it. At the moment, the tech-savvy readers at BB are conducting a homegrown investigation into who exactly is behind Warriors For Innocence. WFI’s spyware-infested site is run on a proxy server through Domainsbyproxy.com, which leads some readers to believe that they have something to hide. Other LJ users allege that WFI is run by Christians of the homophobic variety.
Q: Who are the players?
A: LiveJournal boasts 13 million users. That’s a big group. Now, not all of them are affected directly. In fact, the number of users who have found themselves suddenly without a journal is very small. But for that huge, diverse, multi-faceted community known as “fandom,” the impact could be huge. This is a big deal for the middle school reader just discovering the subtleties of The Left Hand of Darkness and Children of Dune, and it’s a big deal for the adult woman who suspects that Sam and Dean Winchester share more than just brotherly love. It’s potentially a big deal for people studying gender and sexuality in pop culture: What about the college freshman writing a paper on Revolutionary Girl Utena who feels she can’t discuss Anthy and Akio Himemiya’s relationship? What if she wants fellow bloggers to read over her paper or explore the themes of the show with her?
Also among LiveJournal’s ranks are survivors of incest, rape, and pedophilia. If these users listed the afore-mentioned topics in their interest field, even if it was alongside words like “activism” or “therapy,” it’s possible that their journals were suspended. I know of one user who suffered this fate — she also claims to like fanfiction about Fred and George Weasley — but any user who complains to LiveJournal about having an account wrongly suspended will have to demonstrate to LJ that their journal contained inoffensive material. For rape survivors that could mean opening up locked entries and letting the LJ staff read the accounts of their rape or abuse. In short, it forces survivors to re-live their rape, or at the very least to justify their rape as “legitimate” and “real.”
LiveJournal is a separate player unto itself. It’s owned by Six Apart, and ultimately it has to bow to Six Apart’s wishes, and those of shareholders. It can be apologetic to handle the situation. It can beg for forgiveness. But at the moment concerned users feel that LJ was 1) not on the ball, 2) not intelligent about screening users for offensive content, 3) not trustworthy, 4) not reading their own Terms of Service properly, and 5) incapable of reading English, because CEO Berkowitz claims that being “interested” in a topic means that one “likes” that topic. (A whole branch of historians are “interested” in the Holocaust, these users might argue, without “liking” the prospect of systematic human annihilation.) For these users, LJ caved faster than Democrats on an Iraq spending bill. It could take some time before LJ can convince these users that it does in fact have a spine. That said, I have read many comments urging users not to blame LJ for enforcing their own Terms of Service. I fully expect LJ to survive this with loyal customers.
And Warriors For Innocence? No one really knows too much about them. They have walled themselves behind a proxy server, but apparently feel no compunction about searching out LJ users who try to keep their interests private. Between being accused of being Nazis, “crazy Christians,” and homophobes, it’s no wonder that WFI wants to hide. Then again, if WFI believes that people with nothing to hide have nothing to worry about — they do, after all purport to “know the difference between pedophile sites and survivor sites,” despite evidence to the contrary — it shouldn’t have to hide behind a proxy server. WFI also has yet to explain why it is unaffiliated with the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the Amber Alert system, PROTECT.org, or other similar services. Despite claiming to share goals with police officers, to my knowledge they have received no endorsement from law enforcement.
Q: What is at stake?
A: Citizen protest is a tool to help corporations change their policies. Anyone who has protested sweatshop labor or environmental damage knows this. On the other hand, many LJ users see this as a free speech issue. The issues at stake could be the freedom to discuss issues of gender, sexuality, family, and pornography on the internet, as well as the freedom to speculate about unfolding pop culture texts. Fandom and fanfiction has been a target in this instance, and that means that fandom’s very nature — its desire to explore subtext, its status as a traditionally female space — is under question. For fans, this can feel very much like patriarchy trying to censor the female or feminine voice. That goes double for rape survivors, I would imagine. Not being a survivor of either rape or incest, I cannot pretend to know exactly how they feel. But if I were to hazard a guess about the reaction of any gender to this event, I would suspect this smacks of silencing, re-victimization, and the eradication of communities important to healing.
This event has the potential to set precedent for future controversies online. It’s likely that all but the most ethically-offended LJ users will continue to use the service. For SixApart, that means that they can continue doing business any way they please. And for other online businesses and social networking sites, it means carte blanche to structure and interpret the Terms of Service any way they like. Businesses always have that right, unless they can be proved to be doing something unlawful by it. But we may see more aggressive enforcement of that right in future.
If enough people are offended or frightened by the way a social networking service like LJ handles itself, we may see a return to personally-owned websites. Instead of relying on “Friends Lists,” the RSS feed might take over completely. Could this mean a revival of the mailing list or UseNet group? Is the Internet actually taking a step backward? Maybe. Only time will tell.
Q: What is your opinion on it?
A: William Congreve may have said it best: Heav’n has no rage like love to hatred turn’d / Nor Hell a fury, like a woman scorn’d. Many of the offended LJ users are women, and their love has turned to hate, or at least suspicion. And that reaction can explain the enormous backlash, controversy, and wrath on the part of fans and users. This isn’t to say that men aren’t involved. They are. The policies that LJ has tried to enforce here do not see gender, and thus cannot discriminate based on it. It’s easy to talk about the suppression of the feminine voice in this situation, but men can be — and are — victims, too. Apparently just talking about fictional underage boys having fictional sex can get a person’s journal suspended, which says something disturbing about how organizations like WFI view sexuality — especially depictions of adolescent male sexuality. What do they think about real boys?
My first reaction upon hearing this story was to tell BoingBoing. I did so because I know that BB cares about Internet issues, including those related to fandom. In addition, I suspected that rape and incest survivors might suffer because of the sweeping suspensions. I saw that as a possible re-victimization of victims, and a step backward in the understanding of sexuality and sexual experience. In other words, I saw it as wrong. Call me old-fashioned, but I trusted my mother’s wisdom on this one. If you see something, say something. If you suspect that someone is being victimized, or if you yourself are experiencing it, scream as loud as you can for as long as you can until someone comes to help. Fight back, and do so intelligently. On the Internet, that means 1) telling the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or 2) telling BoingBoing.
For me, that also means pointing out organizations that are working to end child rape and child pornography while still defending victims’ rights, and doing so in an informed and intelligent manner. Over the past two days, I’ve been directing people to PROTECT, the “pro-child, anti-crime” political action committee whose goal it is to change legislation related to sex crimes involving children. Did you know that in most US states, incest is still a probationary offense that allows rapists to go home with victims? Did you know that fighting child pornography has less to do with perpetrator craftiness than funding for law enforcement? Do you have a plan to stop it? Well, they do, and it completely bypasses inefficient tactics like suspending someone’s LiveJournal:
My largest problem with WFI — and with this entire event — has not been the assault on fandom, or even the challenge to free speech rights. It’s true that I think fans have been unfairly targeted, and that WFI has made yet another out-of-context “if you read/write/think about it, you must be doing it” assumption, the likes of which arise after school shootings and similar tragedies — an assumption that sees writing and media production as masturbatory, rather than a matter of craftsmanship.
My real problem is that I see no clear relationship between WFI’s tactics and a decrease in the number of children being raped every day. While trying to rout the gathering places of child predators, WFI has done nothing less than shining the light on a group of cockroaches hidden in an otherwise clean, innocuous kitchen, alerting them to the threat and giving them time to skitter away. At best, what WFI has done is to squash those roaches, thus sending their eggs spurting everywhere so that more roaches can infest the Internet. In short, I see them as a hindrance to law enforcement. That’s an insult to rape survivors, because it allows rapists to get away with their crimes. The fact that some of survivors may have been silenced to feed the agenda of an organization who claims no affiliation with the services that regularly try to stop rape is salt in the wound.
If we want to stop child rape, law enforcement is where we should focus. If you want cops to catch the bad guys, stop voting for tax cuts. Start creating real relationships between citizens and police. And for goodness’ sake, don’t give child predators the warning they need to erase their digital trail. And don’t tread on fans — especially educated and technically-savvy ones — while doing so, because it only creates an atmosphere of distrust. We have police officers trained to do the job that amateurs like WFI wish they could do. We need to start empowering those officers.