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Preserving online communities with Dr. Brianna Dym

The Lecturer of Computer Science Dr. Brianna Dym joined the University of Maine on Monday, Oct. 17 to discuss challenges relating to censorship and preserving online communities.

As an educator of computer science, Dym brainstorms different ways to broaden participation in computing by helping underrepresented groups feel more comfortable in the classroom. Her work includes research on LGBTQ communities and navigating social media platforms. Recently, she has been investigating issues related to ethics and equity in digital platform design.

In Dunn Hall, Dym invited the audience to participate or ask questions as she talked, especially since she would be delving into niche sub-cultures.

She began by presenting a timeline regarding the website, Tumblr. In 2007, the micro-blogging platform was launched. It was used by a variety of different fandoms to share art, gifs and videos, thus creating a major archive for fanworks (a type of creative work borrowed from original media properties and reinvented into something new).

In 2013, Yahoo acquired Tumblr for $1.1 billion, rapidly depreciating its value due to a struggle to monetize the platform. Yahoo and Tumblr were then acquired by Verizon Media and moved to the subsidiary company of both in 2017. One year later, Tumblr announced they were no longer allowing adult content on their site, with a few exceptions. Nudity in relation to topics like breastfeeding and gender-confirming surgeries were allowed, in addition to erotica and nudity related to politics, news or artistic renditions.

There was automated enforcement of regulations on adult content, which often erred immensely and flagged non-explicit content. In order to resolve this issue, users had to contest the post themselves. Furthermore, certain communities were entirely locked down as a result. A majority of participants found it to be entirely unusable.

In 2019, Verizon sold Tumblr to Automattic for $3 million. A subscription-funded model was introduced a few years later, encouraging users to spend five dollars a month to remove advertisements. It was an attempt to generate revenue and make the forum profitable.

Throughout this time, posts that should not be forgotten were lost, as certain search terms were blacklisted and accounts flagged without any opportunity for recovery. Apple restricts which apps can appear for download in the store, restricting material that is considered unsafe for work or sexually explicit. This content ban was detrimental to queer women and transgender people who used Tumblr to explore their gender/sexuality.

Prior to the 2018 policy change, Tumblr was a safe space to connect people in marginalized communities. However, it was non-monetizable since it was not a traditional media platform. Tumblr focused on sharing community content and connecting with others, making the user data non-profitable.

“Tumblr will die, but the communities that were on Tumblr will live on,” Dym said.

However, now these communities lack a popular site to connect with like-minded individuals. Archive of Our Own, a fan-made, non-profit, non-commercial platform was created to preserve various transformational works of fan fiction, fan art and fan videos. It currently has five million users. Hundreds of millions of creative pieces are posted every day, and the platform runs on user-based donations that pay server/legal fees. However, it lacked the ability for users to socialize with each other.

Another site that tried to become the next Tumblr was Pillowfort. This site was a user-funded blogging platform built for creators that unfortunately, did not have the capacity to handle all of the new users, causing the servers to crash. The general population does not understand how resource-intensive social platforms are in this day and age in terms of the need for technical expertise and monetary/social capital, so sites like Pillowfort face an uphill battle.

Fandom is becoming a much more cultural and diverse space. It’s a place where people can react to the harms experienced through traditional media. There are vast misalignments and nuanced perspectives within the portrayal of marginalized identities. They fail to accurately introduce concepts that have been devalued and decentered.

There was recently the issue of Nintendo repeatedly issuing copyright claims against creators of fan art based on their trademarked characters and concepts. They began the distribution of cease and desists to artists by means of copyright infringement.

“Technical and legal infrastructures favor the corporate entity, rather than the people,” Dym said.

The Organization for Transformative Work has been pursuing legal ethics to protect fanwork creators and assist them in the search for legal representation. Dym wrote a paper titled, “Coming out Okay,” where users shared their experiences in terms of finding friendship and connection through these fandoms. Online communities are important for people who are finding resilience and should not be alienated from fans or critics of popular media.

Dym, along with her advisor, charted the migration of people to different platforms over time. She recommended that those who are interested in the history of fan communities continue research in this field. Books that talk about similar topics include “Enterprising Women” by Camille Bacon-Smith and “Rogue Archives” by Abigail De Kosnik.

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