The week of February 22, 2015

Welcome to the weirder Web

By Cooper Fleishman

Jessie, 22, has told her boyfriend and her family that she identifies as a wolf. Offline, she’s relatively open about this part of herself. Though she isn’t yet out to her coworkers, she wears a tail to the mall sometimes. But in subsections of Tumblr, deviantART, and forums outside of the normal scope of the social Web, she’s found a community of like-minded beings who, like her, don’t identify as fully human. For the “otherkin,” as they’re known, the Internet is home.

Andrew Blake spent a decade of his adult life convinced he was channeling the souls of more than 150 people. At one point, he claimed to be the cloned spirit of Elijah Wood. After allegedly conning friends out of thousands of dollars, he underwent therapy before re-emerging in online fandom communities. He has been largely unwelcome there. To make matters more complicated, he can’t shake allegations that he was somehow complicit in his best friend’s 2011 murder.

The Internet is full of outsiders. For the past two decades, women, men, and many who don’t identify as either (or even human at all) have found a home in niche online spaces and turned them into into truly bizarre, full-fledged communities.

These groups need the Internet to coalesce and survive. A group of moms who trade used cloth diapers for exorbitant prices—as detailed in “The messy world of online diaper-swapping”—might have trouble posting photos of stained bumGenius limited editions in the local library.


For other groups, the anonymity of the Internet isn’t just a safe haven. It’s a turn-on. The female moderator of the subreddit TributeMe presides over hundreds, possibly thousands of women who submit nude photos for male group members to “tribute”—that is, adorn with their own semen. She has submitted photos herself; she calls her own tributes “weird and strangely erotic.” The biggest problem in this “supportive” and “respectful” community isn’t harassment or outside judgment—it’s the laborious process of deep-cleaning one’s iPad and keyboard. (Jolie Kerr, a.k.a. “Ask a Clean Person,” has helpfully shared her expert advice.)

But sometimes that anonymity gets ugly.

The social Web has become richer, more complex, more diverse. The varied experiences of marginalized groups are now more visible. As Ryan Broderick puts it, “white men aren’t steering the ship anymore.” As a result, panicking communities of white men have shown their true colors, squabbling like milk-drunk infants, responding with violence and sustained harassment campaigns to drive others out. Broderick takes a critical look at Gamergate and other reactionary movements sloughed off of the conservative “manosphere,” a group whose influence is steadily shrinking. “Their sandbox is closing,” he writes, “and they’re terrorizing everyone outside of it.”

Many netizens like Jessie, users of the non-mainstream social Web, would laugh at the idea that they’re out to indoctrinate teenage gamers into a cult of “social justice warriors,” a myth some forums on 4chan and Reddit are convinced is true. Like fans of Weird SoundCloud and Facebook meta-parodies, showerbeer aficionados, tributers, and diaper-swappers, the otherkin just want to be left alone and do their thing, and these online spaces are where they can simply be themselves without fear of reprisal. Understanding them better might help them do just that.

These are their stories.

Photo via striatic/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)