Free! Fandom vs Me: A Story of Fandom Harassment
I’ve recently been suffering from minor insomnia since living on my own. My tossing and turning kept me up until ungodly hours, and so, feeling particularly restless one night, I decided to crack open my laptop on a mission to be productive. I was high on the lack of sleep, and I figured I could reach for the stars since I couldn’t find any rest under them.
Unfortunately, my brain was completely blocked. Nothing was coming to me, so instead I started watching YouTube videos for an hour until finally something clicked. I had been watching a video about two Free! characters, Makoto Tachibana and Haruka Nanase, that outlined their relationship across the show’s two seasons. Free! is a popular anime about competitive swimming and friendship. I could feel minor inspiration creeping in, and I decided to go on my blog and type out some quick and messy free writing to help refocus my head again. It doesn’t always work, but it had worked before so what was the harm?
I wrote about the different relationships characters Rin, Haru, Makoto, and Sousuke had within the context of Free! as I interpreted them after watching the show nearly a year ago. It was hardly coherent and certainly not my best work, but it did help refocus my thoughts. I had written one previous free write about Free!, specifically about my personal dissatisfaction with the dub, and the response I received was surprising, but overall very welcoming. This made me less wary of sharing my thoughts once again with the fandom at large.
So, I finished the free write, which became something resembling Free! meta about the show’s inner narrative. I tagged, posted it, and defeated writer’s block!
I don’t have a lot of followers on my blog. I use it mostly as a singular spot to free write, talk about things I am working on, and to promote my own published work. Sometimes I reblog things relevant to my interests that mostly fall under the sphere of comic books, social justice, politics, and feminism. Therefore, I didn’t think my silly little post would get many notes, if any. The point of writing freely—as I do often in my writer’s tag—is to help me get into a productive mindset. It worked; I finally finished the comic review I’d been working on earlier, shut down my computer, and last I checked, the post in question had about nine notes, meaning nine people liked or reblogged it on their blog.
Hm, I thought, “That’s pretty good,” and I went to bed.
The next morning I had eight messages in my inbox all accusing me of attacking the fictional relationship that was RinHaru, of discrediting said relationship, of downplaying Rin’s part as a character, and uplifting another characters—Makoto’s—importance.
I did what I probably shouldn’t have, and I engaged them.
On Tumblr you have an option to allow people to message you anonymously. I liked having this on, because in the rare chance I would get messages, I didn’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable communicating with me. Unfortunately, this option is a double-edged sword as people will often take advantage of it. Hate mail is a prime example of this.
The messages weren’t that bad, but they were large in number and grew increasingly more rude as time went on. The more I replied, the more the fan ire against me seemed to grow. I couldn’t defend myself, because then I was seen as going on the defensive and attacking. No matter what I felt—even when I felt the need to defend the fact that I’m a journalist after one fan called my integrity into question—it was ultimately a losing battle.
And it grew worse.
A friend of mine sent me a text with a link to a blog with the question, “Is this about you?” The post in question was passive-aggressive, defensive, and attacking me as a person. The blogger went on to make another post that essentially put words in my mouth. But if my friend hadn’t linked me, I wouldn’t have been able to see it. It was on their personal blog, and it didn’t call me out by name, so I didn’t feel I could be rightfully bothered by their posts. I can’t say that I wasn’t, not when they were clearly angry with me and what I had written, but it’s in their right to be able to say whatever they want on their own personal safe space.
This is when things began to feel unsafe for me, however. While scrolling through various Free! tags on Tumblr—to truly see if I had upset the entire fandom, as one person suggested—I spotted more personal attacks against me filled with aggressive language.
This was the second day, and that night, I shut off the option to send me messages anonymously.
The third day of this entire debacle, I woke up to six new messages and was extremely reluctant to open them. The messages from the day before weren’t that bad, and since no one could anonymously send me messages anymore, today’s messages couldn’t be any worse, right?
Surprisingly, I was right. The next batch of messages I received were actually mostly in support, apologizing for the actions of the previous day’s fans, supportive of what I had written, and concerned for my own well being. It was a pretty touching moment that I didn’t allow to be soured by what happened next.
A group of five people, of the RinHaru subset of fandom, got together to put together a rebuttal post to my own. They specifically @ mentioned my username in their “open letter,” so I would see it on my notifications. Their post was well researched, thorough in a way my twenty minute free write was most certainly not, and while I didn’t agree with everything, I could respect the passion that was put in. It wouldn’t have bothered me that much if it didn’t directly link to my own blog, opening me up for more attacks if my anon messaging had been enabled. It seemed so passive aggressive in tone and design and contributed in creating an unsafe space for me within the Free! fandom.
That welcome feeling I had scrolling happily through the tags of a show I liked was gone. The welcoming feeling I got from a fandom that was open and constructive of my personal critique of the dub was muted. But I had also received support, so I didn’t feel completely shut out by the fandom. I didn’t want to make myself into a victim or exacerbate the situation more, so I simply attempted to move on.
When I didn’t respond to the post, another post by another group of seven people was created and published in order to refute my original posting. Both these posts were in places where I could openly see and the fandom could openly see. It felt like I had a target on my back for something so seemingly small. I couldn’t get away unless I completely removed myself from even mindlessly scrolling through the Tumblr tags on my phone.
When I still didn’t respond, I received messages asking me to respond or if I had seen the error of my ways. I tried politely responding that yes I had seen the post, and no I was not going to further respond or comment on the subject.
Finally, on the third day, I woke to another batch of messages, the majority supportive. Some demanded that I either take down the original post or put a disclaimer at the top stating that I was wrong.
I deleted these messages without responding.
On the fourth day I was breathing a sigh of relief at the lack of more messages and thinking deeply about what had occurred. I found after talking with a friend that I was baffled by the experience more than anything. The continued harassment I endured—which I hesitate to call harassment compared to what others have faced—was only for a mere three days, and it wasn’t overly inflammatory or offensive. What I experienced seems like a small drop of water in a much larger ocean of the online harassment and bullying others have experienced in various fandoms.
I asked if being on the receiving end of such behavior was common within the Free! fandom and the response I received was essentially, yes, but everyone does it. Which is true, isn’t it? Fandoms I’ve been in, and observed—such as Free!—all have or have had their bad apples.
There’s plenty of “wank” history to be found on the Internet. Infamous stories of people upset by one fan’s actions, or the epic meltdowns of groups of fans over something happening with a creator, or an actor, and oh, we can’t forget the ship wars.
In recent years, there’s been more discussion about in-house fandom harassment. In 2014, #YesAllGeeks held a panel at New York Comic Con specifically about fandom harassment and bullying. And there’s been lots of discussion about physical harassment in fandom spaces, namely conventions. There’s been discussion, both personal and outside of the direct sphere, about online harassment. And it’s been thoroughly discussed here on this very site.
Yet fandom seems outside of the sphere of discussion. Multimedia fandoms used to be a very closed off and near secretive place, hidden in the early days of small conventions and zines, but eventually finding their way onto the Internet behind webrings, Angelfire groups, fan sites, and Yahoo groups. Multimedia fandoms have grown not only in size, but also in notable outside prominence. Anyone with or without a Tumblr blog can search the Free! tags and see what I said or what others said about me. Anyone can make a Twitter account and harass an actor or celebrity they dislike, because the show they’re on doesn’t cater to their wants and desires. Anyone can go on a fan or celebrity’s personal Instagram page and post rude and offensive comments. General Facebook pages about a show or movie turn into huge war grounds where fans openly attack each other.
Fans fighting other fans isn’t anything new, and it isn’t anything that is ever going to go away. But it isn’t simple fighting about which ship is better that’s the problem. It’s the telling people to kill themselves, the calling of derogatory names, the racially motivated harassment, and the continued messages down putting other users that’s the problem. It’s not just what’s being said; it’s the sheer amount of it that seemingly exists everywhere you turn.
Online harassment is a very real thing, and fandom spaces contribute to the continued experience of it. What should be a safe space turns into a nightmare for some fans. Fandom spaces can be fantastic experiences. Getting to talk about your favorite show, share differing opinions, write fanfic about your favorite couples, and experience the show with other like-minded fans can be a fantastic experience.
I’ve made great friends through fandoms I’ve been in, but I’ve had great experiences, and I’ve had terrible ones. My story isn’t that different from many others, and if anything, it’s probably pretty tame. Many others have experienced much worse, and I hope with time, and discussion, they can feel comfortable enough to tell their stories in more open spaces.
I’m taking a bit of a risk telling this story, and I know a friend of mine who I told about the incident was concerned I’d get more harassment from the same subset of the Free! fandom who harassed me before. But I wanted to talk about how I felt and what I went through. I don’t feel like a victim, and I’m not trying to play the part of one, though I do fear after this piece is published—after I put this out in public circles to be seen and read—I will be called one, that I will be called self-righteous, overly pious, or attempting to white knight the fandom of Free!
Even with these concerns, I still wanted to share my experience. It may be a selfish desire on my part, but I’ve learned through other experiences dealing with verbal and emotional abuse at the hands of a family member that it’s better to talk about these things. Not only because it can give you strength, but because it can give strength to others. I’ve gotten a lot of strength from reading experiences from fellow writers on abuse and harassment. I don’t feel this overall experience is anything inspirational, but I wanted to share it anyway. Because it’s worth telling, it’s worth sharing, and I hope others know their own stories are also worth sharing and telling as well.