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A young person wearing cute eye makeup and a pink beanie, looking to the left and holding up a hand, in a room with lots of Garfield plushies and some movie posters in the background. Image: YouTube/Izzzyzzz

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The YouTubers and TikTokers embracing cringe to explain everything

‘Fandom has always been the place for people who didn’t fit in elsewhere’

In the last couple of years, a type of fandom-exploring YouTube video essay has become popular. Take, for example, Izzzyzzz’s overview of the history of Neopets controversies. Maybe you remember the virtual pet site, or spent hours on it as a kid. You still might not have known of some of the stranger goings-on at the site, which Izzy digs into, like the black market for rare Neopet designs, its multiple giant data breaches, or its connections to the church of Scientology.

Izzy is one of numerous YouTube, TikTok, and Tumblr creators who have been combining nostalgia with education to explore 2010s web and fandom history. Through these videos, creators have reembraced the concept of cringe and encouraged viewers to be unashamed of their fandom, past or present.

“I collect fandom and internet stories,” said Izzy. In a series of viral YouTube videos, they’ve recounted moments like the Rise of the Brave Tangled Dragons crossover fandom or the history of internet chain letters and copypastas.

With 420,000 subscribers and many videos breaking a million views, Izzy shares these stories with a large, curious audience. These might be topics viewers have never heard of before, giving them something new to learn about internet history. Or videos might touch on situations that creators were once involved in, letting them share how their experiences fit into a bigger picture. A number of these creators grew up online, spending time on sites like Tumblr in the early-to-mid-2010s. And they tap into that extensive knowledge base to make their videos.

“[That] was such a unique and specific era,” said Sarah Z, a YouTube creator who applies their background in sociology to exploring fandoms as subcultures. (Both Izzy and Sarah prefer to use just their first names online for privacy reasons.) Sarah, with the help of their co-writer Emily Bray, also makes videos about fandom history and media criticism that regularly exceed 1 million views. Their most popular video, a history of the Onceler phenomenon, describes how an obscure character from the childrens’ movie The Lorax became wildly popular on Tumblr. They also use it as a springboard to explore which characters get attention in fandom more widely, and why that might be.

While Tumblr still has a thriving, if smaller, user base these days, for teens in the 2010s it was an absolute haven of community and fandom. And many of them are coming back around to appreciate the spaces they inhabited earlier on in their online lives through watching these videos. Sarah describes the comments sections on their more nostalgic videos as similar to a high school reunion.

“No matter where somebody is in life, we all came together for this weird period of internet history, and we can all look back on it now and talk about the good and the bad of it all,” they said.

It makes sense that accounts like these are also taking off on Tumblr itself. Heritage Posts resurfaces old content that went viral on the site back when it was posted. (Similar accounts have popped up for specific fandoms.) The original Heritage Posts has just two rules for content it will share. Firstly, posts must predate 2018; and secondly, posts “must be sufficiently cursed/evoke some kind of negative emotion.”

In other words, it should make you cringe. Being embarrassed by one’s teenage self is widespread and perhaps natural, but the creators I spoke to are more interested in reclaiming and taking seriously the fandoms that others might find cringeworthy. And their videos are helping other people do the same.

“After any era where people are incredibly passionate about any interest, there’s going to be a cooldown period where people are incredibly embarrassed,” said Sarah. “But over time all of that starts to fade away, and at a certain point when there’s been enough distance from it I think you can largely just appreciate that you were having fun and you cared about something. I think that we’re starting to approach that point for a lot of the really dedicated ex-Tumblr kids.”

TikToker Berklie Novak-Stolz actively encourages this in many of her videos — and it seems to be working. “There are so many people that just tell me constantly that they feel less ashamed now,” she said. Novak-Stolz found her audience after TikTok was flooded with Omegaverse content after Muslim fans, beginning with a user called omarsbigsister, started exploring what would happen during Ramadan in that universe.

“I’d made a video making a joke about explaining the Omegaverse to my mom,” recalled Novak-Stolz. “And then somebody was like, ‘Well, can you explain it?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, no problem.’” She had a joke in her bio: “Ask me about the time I faked my death on fanfiction.net.” Someone did, and the story blew up, getting her account into the algorithms of the fandom nostalgic and the fandom curious.

These deep dives on 2010s internet culture are helping adults who once felt they’d aged out of fandom reembrace fanfiction, community discussion, and generally being excited about their favorite characters. “Just [rediscovering] simple joys, and realizing they don’t have to feel guilty,” said Novak-Stolz. The shift may have been buoyed by the pandemic, as lots of people spent more time online, perhaps returning to nostalgic memories for comfort. Fanfiction sites like Archive of Our Own saw big spikes in traffic in 2020, for example.

@icaruspendragon

why do i stand like that ‍♂️#ao3 #fandom #fanfic

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At the same time, a lot of people are getting into fandom for the first time. This is partially because fandom is more widely spoken about outside of devoted online platforms. Over the past approximately 15 years, it’s shifted from something kept under wraps to something that’s talked about in the media and by celebrities. For example, award-winning director Chloe Zhao publicly saying that she reads and writes fanfiction is something that would have been unthinkable a decade or so ago.

But that expansion means that there are new potential fandom members looking for advice and lessons in how exactly it all works. “There are certain expectations [in fandom],” said Novak-Stolz. We have our own way of speaking to each other, a sociolect.” She often explains the fanfiction tags found on Archive of Our Own, which can be obscure inside jokes that are important to know. “Dead Dove: Do Not Eat,” for instance, is a warning that a fic might include something a reader finds distasteful, and that they shouldn’t click through just to sate their curiosity. But since it’s based on an Arrested Development joke, its meaning might not be immediately obvious to someone who’s new to fandom.

With her content, Novak-Stolz wants to make it easier to adjust to that subculture, keeping it open to everybody. “It’s honestly a huge honor and a privilege to me knowing that I get to do that for so many people,” she said.

Izzy’s and Sarah’s YouTube videos strike a balance between explanations for the curious viewer who’s never heard of, say, MordeTwi or Mormor, and wider platform and fandom context for people who recognize the events in question.

“That’s a little bit challenging sometimes,” said Sarah. “I want to give enough background and context in my videos for people who might not be super familiar with them, while at the same time I don’t want people who were already there to feel like they’re sitting through 30 minutes of unnecessary contextualizing.”

The public nature of their work has brought these creators into engagement with one another, while their different perspectives, platforms, and pressures mean they’re not always in agreement. But more than anything, they all take fandom seriously, rather than using it as a way to make a spectacle of fans. They use fandom dives to discuss broader topics, like digging into the Sherlock fandom as a way of talking about queerbaiting, and unpacking “how fan theories can become popular, [and] how certain figures can become the defining voices of canon,” said Sarah.

Sarah focuses on events they had a personal connection to, leading to a better understanding of exactly why fans got so excited. This is how they approached a video about DashCon, the famously disastrous Tumblr convention of 2014. Sarah’s experience as a “bullied teenage girl who came to [Tumblr] because they felt that they were with likeminded people” gave them insight into why the teens involved were so excited about having a real-world space to express themselves.

Izzy also foregrounds their understanding of what it’s like to be a teen online. “I try to approach it from a place of, this is cringe, but I was as much if not more cringe when I was a kid,” they said. “And I would also laugh at the cringe stuff I would make as a kid. So I hope there’s an understanding that it comes from a place of love.”

2010s internet history, especially Tumblr and fandom in general, is a space where nostalgia and modern sociological interest collide. Newer fans are learning how to navigate fandom, while older ones are understanding their place in wider systems of online platforms and media production. And for those 20-somethings who once shuddered to think of their fandom teen selves, embracing that cringe, and inviting others to do the same, can be healing.

“Fandom has always been the place for people who didn’t fit in elsewhere for whatever reason to come and fit in with a group of likeminded people and to bond about their shared enjoyment of whatever piece of media,” said Novak-Stolz. “When I’m talking about things I want to make sure that we can laugh about it, but I don’t ever want anybody to feel any shame.”

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