Journal Club: Asexual counterpublics on Tumblr

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This month, the ace journal club discussed

“’Where I can be myself … where I can speak my mind’: Networked counterpublics in a polymedia environment”, by Bryce J. Renninger (2014). (Requires journal access)

The journal club meets once a month on Discord, using text or voice as club members prefer. We discuss a variety of academic works in ace studies, ranging from gender studies to psychology. Don’t worry about journal access, we can provide access. If you’re interested, please e-mail me at for an invite.

Our discussion notes are below the fold.

A public is a place where people gather to talk about stuff, but minority groups may have their own counterpublics. In asexual counterpublics, aces may develop ideas about their identity, community, and relationships, while also developing tactics for dealing with society. This paper examines Tumblr as a platform for asexual discussion, and seeks to explain why it’s so conducive (or perceived to be conducive) to creating a counterpublic.

Media ideologies
– “Media ideologies” are perspectives on the appropriate way to use each platform (from Ilana Gershon).
– For example, while you could in principle associate your Tumblr with your real identity, this is generally against expectations.
– In a polymedia environment (i.e. one where you have multiple platforms available to you), people use their media ideologies to decide where to say which things.

Social Networking Sites (SNSs)
– The paper describes various properties of SNSs (according to the literature), including persistence of content, replicability of content, scalability of visibility, and searchability. The examples provided were Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, MySpace, and Friendster.
– To us, these properties seem overly rigid. For instance, Facebook isn’t very searchable. And perhaps it was more searchable at the time this paper was published, but the quiet disappearance of the search function suggests that it was never an essential function to begin with.
– Tumblr is described as distinct from other SNSs in this framework. For instance, unlike Facebook, people’s identities are not tied to real names.
– We discussed other properties that may set Tumblr apart, such as it’s one way “follower” connections instead of mutual friending. This property is also seen in blogs, Dreamwidth, and Google+.
– There’s also the equivalent emphasis of posts from new and more advanced users, although arguably that’s even more true of forums.

Comparing AVEN and Tumblr
– Content on AVEN tends to be predominantly about asexuality, while content on Tumblr takes place in a broader environment. On AVEN, asexual content is unmarked, while unrelated content is marked.
– AVEN can leverage its name and status as an organization to gain credentials when speaking to the media. Tumblr doesn’t have the same thing going on. We observed that the higher authority granted to AVEN is not necessarily deserved, given that the discussions on each platform are on a similar level.
– The paper discusses hashtagging on Tumblr as a way to find all of one topic in one place. We observed that this is also possible on AVEN using subforums. But there are differences, with subforums being a small standardized hierarchy of topics, and hashtags being an infinite number of possible topics.

Trolling on Tumblr
– The paper makes the incredible claim that trolling is disincentivized on Tumblr. This rang false to us, and it’s hard to excuse even considering when the paper was written.
– For instance, the paper refers to the Privilege Denying Asexuals tumblr, which was a notorious troll in 2011. The paper describes this as an exception, but in reality it was just one piece in a series of huge furors.
– The argument is that trolling is disincentivized, because if a troll responds to a post, it’s hard for anyone to see it unless they follow the troll. On the contrary, this leads to even more trolling, since it brings attention to a whole new hostile audience. While readers of the original post may not see responses, the author sees them, and may get harassed through their ask box. And if the author ever chooses to respond, their readers end up seeing it.
– The paper refers to “fan mail”, a now defunct Tumblr feature that let you send longer messages to someone after following them for at least 48 hours. Undiscussed is the potential incentivization of hate-follows.
– The paper mentions disruption of the #asexual hashtag as another line of attack, but understates the problem. It’s not merely posts saying “asexuality isn’t real”, but people spamming the tags with irrelevant or hostile content. We thought this might be the origin of positivity posting on Tumblr, which would be used to flood out bad content in the hashtags.
– The paper discusses the potential for outside communities, such as the TumblrInAction subreddit, to disrupt the asexual Tumblr bubble. The discussion seems to miss that this was not merely hypothetical, even at the time.

– AVEN is incorrectly described as the birthplace of asexual identity as it is understood today. The HHA and LJ communities might fit that better.
– The paper describes Tumblr’s “ask” button as encouraging inquisitive responses. While this may have been Tumblr’s intention, people’s media ideologies don’t follow, and asks aren’t only used for that purpose.
– The paper is curiously lacking in examples of what people actually post on Tumblr. For example, the whole trend of advice blogs is not mentioned.

About Siggy

Siggy is an ace activist based in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and has a Ph.D. in physics. He has another blog where he also talks about math, philosophy, godlessness, and social criticism. His other hobbies include board games and origami.
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1 Response to Journal Club: Asexual counterpublics on Tumblr

  1. Pingback: Gray-Asexuality in Asexuality Studies | The Ace Theist

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