Hello, dear listener. I’m Megan, host of this series. And before we get into the show,
I wanted to take a minute to tell you about our sponsor, FIRE, the Foundation for Individual
Rights and Expression. We live in a moment when free speech, the bedrock of our democracy
and of all free societies, is often viewed as suspect, where many argue that the right
to free speech is too dangerous, and that even listening to ideological opponents is
morally wrong. Many people just don’t see a problem with using the law, corporate power,
and even extraordinary social pressure to censor viewpoints they disagree with.
But many of us feel the costs of all this in our everyday lives. We feel it when we
self-censor, afraid to say what we really think, sometimes even in private conversations
with friends or loved ones. We feel it when we opt out of a growing number of public discussions,
afraid of the potential cost to our jobs and even our relationships.
FIRE shares a mission with this show, to remind us why a culture of free speech and open dialogue
matters. And regardless of how loud the calls for censorship are, FIRE’s defense of that
culture is unshakable and invaluable. And if you want to remember why we choose freedom,
even for people we strenuously disagree with, you can learn more about FIRE’s incredible
work at thefire.org. And now, on to the show.
This episode contains language that might not be suitable for children.
Can you talk to me about some of the threats that you’ve received over the past few years?
There have been a lot. A huge amount, as every woman will know who speaks up on this issue,
a huge amount of, I want her to choke on my fat trans dick. You know, like, very sexualized
abuse. I don’t think all of them mean it literally, but attempts to degrade, to humiliate.
People might say, well, that’s not really a threat. And you know what, up to a point,
you’re probably right, though it’s very unpleasant to be on the receiving end of it, particularly
in the quantities I’ve had it. Then I have had direct threats of violence. And I have
had people coming to my house where my kids live, and I’ve had my address posted online.
I’ve had what the police anyway would regard as credible threats. The pushback is often,
you are wealthy, you can afford security, you haven’t been silenced. All true, right?
All of that’s true. But I think that misses the point. The attempt to intimidate and silence
me is meant to serve as a warning to other women. And I say that because I have seen
it used that way. I have seen other women, and other women have told me, I literally
had someone say this to me the other day, I was told, look, look what happened to J.K.
Rowling. Watch yourself.
Chapter 3. A New Pyre.
I didn’t have internet at all when Philosopher’s Stone came out. So around about 98, I did
have internet, but would use it to look stuff up, like most of us do, and I would use it
for email. But I think some sort of unconscious spirit of self-preservation had stopped me
going and looking at Harry Potter, to the point where the internet fandom cropped up
in interviews, and I thought, well, I need to know about this, because I can’t be ignorant
about this. I need to know. Well, I mean, I went online for the first time, and I just
had no idea. I just fell into this universe.
How deep into the fandom are you?
How many times do you think you’ve read the books?
10 to 15 times through the series.
The magic came from the first book, and there was just no turning back.
I’m Megan Phelps-Roper, and we begin today in Orlando, Florida, at LeakyCon. LeakyCon
is one of dozens of Harry Potter conventions that are held around the world every year.
Okay, so we are at LeakyCon 2022, and it is pretty packed.
I’ve been a fan since, I think, 1998. So I really grew up with Harry Potter.
And like many of these events, it takes place in a convention hall filled with a bunch of
people who are dressed up as characters from the books.
So I’m dressed up as Buckbeak today, and I’m here with my husband, who’s Sirius Black.
And then we have our witch hats and our wands.
I have my own prescription Harry Potter round glasses.
They sell handmade merchandise, they have meetups, and they even get tattoos.
This is just like my first childhood memory.
And how many Harry Potter tattoos do you think you’ve done?
Way too many to count.
And when you ask them, a lot of these fans are quick to say that it wasn’t just Harry
Potter that brought them together. It was the community they found surrounding it.
A lot of the community here at LeakyCon, they were my friends growing up. We were all online.
Specifically on the internet.
I think Harry Potter is so special because it was coming out right when everyone was
Harry Potter, which would go on to become the best-selling book series of all time,
just happened to be published right as many people were getting their first introduction
to the internet.
And so there is a generation of people who grew up alongside both the characters in the
books and the ever-expanding power and influence of this new technology.
Pretty much as soon as I got on the internet, somehow, you know, at age 12, I must have
Googled Harry Potter.
In fact, for many fans, Harry Potter was their gateway to the internet. It was the first
thing they ever looked up on Yahoo or Google. It was their first email address.
We were able to talk to people from around the world and meet people that have the same
interests as us.
It was their first time talking to another person online. The first time they made a
I was going to MuggleNet.com every day to get the updates, talking on message boards,
reading fan fiction on fanfiction.net. And it was just, it was such a special experience
to get to connect with so many people who you didn’t know necessarily, but who felt
the same passion for Harry Potter.
One of the things that I think you have to understand about Harry Potter is it is one
of the biggest fan experiences that modern culture has to offer.
This is Helen Lewis, staff writer at The Atlantic, where she writes and reports about politics
and internet culture.
You know, at its peak, there were people writing hundreds of thousands of Harry Potter fan
fiction stories. So taking the characters from Harry Potter and writing your own stories
I was equally fascinated and alarmed, if I’m honest.
Rowling says that when she saw the way her books were colliding with the still quite
new internet, much like her reaction to the book’s surprise success, she was taken aback,
but also really intrigued.
What connections did you see people specifically, you know, making with the books?
Well, there was the really sweet sorting of yourself into houses, which I think speaks
deeply to children and also to adolescents.
Are you wearing yellow because you identify as a Hufflepuff?
There was obviously the championing of different romantic combinations, which was very sweet.
Why Hermione and Draco?
Who did not want the bad boy?
We can change him.
That was everybody’s fantasy, right?
Little groups of mutual support were made, you know, real friendships were made.
If you ever want to feel good about the world, go search the internet for friendships forged
by Harry Potter.
There are so many places where fans are just gushing.
Like one user says, my best friends in high school were a group of people I met because
we loved talking about Harry Potter online.
I’m so happy that I’m alive at the same time as the internet.
I watched it happening.
I could see really beautiful interactions happening online.
And you know, in later years, I’ve met people, I met my best friend on MuggleNet, you know,
my husband and I connected over Harry Potter.
We are wearing our matching shirts from when we got engaged.
And we had a complete Harry Potter wedding where we wore house robes instead of tuxes.
That’s happened time and time again.
And it’s a beautiful, it’s just a beautiful thing.
So huge positives came out of that.
The biggest of the early fan websites was called MuggleNet.
It was set up in 1999 by a 12-year-old homeschool kid in Indiana who could have had no idea
how much the site was going to change his life.
And that’s partly because Rowling eventually embraced it.
She was one of the first authors, the first creators of any kind, really, to invest time
and energy communicating directly with her fans online, doing interviews, answering fan
questions, really catering to the community she saw forming there.
But she also told me that on at least one occasion, she went into one of these forums
So I chose a random name that was not a Potter-related name.
I was almost scared, even though they’ve all got Potter-related names, that I would choose
a name that was a little, I don’t know, I was just scared I would somehow self-reveal.
So I go into this chat room, and people are sharing some theories.
And I gave an opinion that was very bland.
And I got rounded on by users who told me in no uncertain terms just to get out.
I’m not familiar in that room.
I’m clearly an idiot who doesn’t know anything.
But I genuinely, and I left.
And I was thinking, do you know what, I promise you this is what I thought.
I’ve written three and a half books, I think it would have been at that time, where bullying
is such a theme from the very first page, where bullying and authoritarian behavior
is held to be one of the worst of human ills.
Look what just happened.
And these people who call themselves such fans of this franchise, what if I’d been a
I didn’t care.
I was a pretty robust person.
But what if I’d been some 12-year-old who’s excited to go into this room, and is immediately
caustically chastised for not belonging?
Just kick someone out because they’re new.
And I thought that was so interesting, that you’re passionate about these books.
And yet, in the course of living, you are behaving in a way that I depict as one of
the worst and most stupid human behaviors.
This being the early days of the internet, it was also the early days of a kind of social
behavior that we now generally know as trolling.
There were definitely individual trolls on the MuggleNet forums, purely there to be objectionable.
And even though they were just this small part of the community.
It was a fringe, but it was definitely there.
Having noticed that they did seem to have outsized power.
At first, I thought it’s kind of amusing that this is how you’re spending your time.
But as time went on, I started to really see it as bullying.
There was an edge of picking off vulnerable people.
And I was very aware by that time, early 2000s, that a lot of kids who felt themselves to
be outsiders, who were vulnerable, were finding themselves in Potter.
Why do you like Harry Potter?
He felt like an outsider, and he felt like he didn’t belong, and I really, that really
resonated with me.
Like, I had not such a great childhood, and I think a kid with not such a great childhood
actually escaped to something else in a book.
Many of the people that like Harry Potter tend to be the ones outside, especially if
you’re a child that isn’t well loved.
I felt protective of those people, so watching trolls operate in those spaces increasingly
did not amuse me.
It began to concern me.
Both of us had challenging, crappy upbringing and childhoods, and when you talk to people
that are like the really crazy fans, I feel like that’s something that comes up more often
And I think Harry Potter was one of the things that was just always there for people.
You grow up feeling like the weird one of the bunch, but then you realize there’s so
many other people out there like you, and then you don’t feel so alone anymore, you
So that’s the best part about Harry Potter.
And indeed, I actually ended up in long-term pen pal relationships with some of those people.
You know, I can remember a situation where a young person had written a letter that resulted
in my then assistant and I calling that child’s school.
We were very, very concerned that this child might be about to kill themselves.
I just was hyper aware, and I remain hyper aware, that the Potter books were a refuge
for some people who were, for very different reasons, very vulnerable.
One of the groups that really gravitated both to the Harry Potter books and to the online
fandom were gay teenagers.
The president of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay rights lobbying organization
in the US, once referred to Rowling as a writer whose work has inspired countless LGBTQ young
people to imagine a world of acceptance and inclusivity.
Were you surprised by the way that gay teenagers in particular really started to connect with
Did that surprise you at all?
Honestly, it didn’t because the amazing thing about the Wizarding World is you walk through
that wall in Diagon Alley, and while human nature remains the same, and that’s something
that I was setting out to depict, human nature remains the same.
If you can do magic, the ludicrous things that we discriminate about in the Muggle world
really are utterly immaterial.
What do you think were the messages in your book that misfits people who felt like outsiders,
what messages were they connecting with?
I think that some of the most sympathetic characters, like Lupin, for example, who is
stigmatized through something that he can’t help, can’t control, some of the most sympathetic
characters are people who are grappling with things that may be stigmatized, and they’re
Harry has anger issues, Ron can be, I think I call him a git quite a lot in the books,
but together they are more than the sum of their parts, together they grow, they find
family in each other, and there’s real human beauty in that.
I suppose the Dursleys are my epitome of a very authoritarian and conformist world that
demands absolute obedience, and that’s not the world you enter when you go to Hogwarts.
Our grade in school was the same year each book came out, so my exact class almost grew
up with Harry.
We were 11 when Harry was 11.
As each book came out, these characters figured out a lot of normal life things right along
Many fans credit the morals of the books with helping shape their morals growing up.
Friendship and loyalty and bravery and doing the right thing when the right thing is hard
The way people pull together, they’re different, they don’t all exactly agree with one another,
but they can say, okay, this is the common good, and this is what we’re going to work
We need a whole lot more of that.
And as they got older and went from middle schoolers lined up at the midnight release
parties to young adults heading off to college, some of those morals also became more mature.
Things like media literacy, understanding when maybe the media is lying to you, and
having to really think critically.
To many of these fans, Rowling became something of a moral authority in their lives, giving
them this series to grow up with and being this figure that they could look up to.
I idolized her for a really long time.
She was a great feminist icon.
Online we called her Jo because we felt like we were on a first name basis.
I think a lot of us actually kind of feel like she was our mom in some ways.
She was just the mom of the Harry Potter fandom.
I became aware that I was to an extent becoming an idealized figure, and probably an idealized
And that is a complex position to find yourself in.
And for me particularly, it’s complex because I am a maternal person.
It’s not that they’re seeing something in me that isn’t there.
And I have had quite maternal relationships with some individual fans who’ve been going
through bad times.
But to be idealized is not something I want.
I am a human being.
I couldn’t have written these books if I weren’t a human being, and aware of human frailty
and human imperfection.
And I’m very aware that idealization comes at a price.
Last summer, in a grand celebration of literature, Harvard Square and Harvard Yard was transformed
into Hogwarts Square.
This summer festival celebrated the midnight release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
I want to talk about your 2008 commencement address at Harvard.
At this point, you are about 10 years since the days you were struggling in that small
You had become one of the most beloved authors of all time, and you’re speaking at the most
prestigious school in America, arguably the world.
Her books have set sales records and have won many awards, probably because the Harry
Potter stories provide a familiar backdrop for readers who can empathize with the young
protagonist adrift in a sometimes cruel and challenging world.
And so at this point, for better or for worse, you do seem to be seen as a moral leader.
And the person who introduces you says this, actually.
In addition to her vast contributions to literature, she is also noted for the social,
moral, and political inspiration she has given her fans, a notable philanthropist.
And it’s a remarkable thing to go back and watch.
And now I give you Ms. J.K. Rowling.
You’re up there, dressed in robes, standing in front of this generation that grew up alongside
Harry Potter, and you’re talking to them as they are launching into the world.
The first thing I would like to say is thank you.
Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honor, but the weeks of fear and nausea I
have endured at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight.
On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success,
I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure.
And as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called real life, I want to extol
the crucial importance of imagination.
And your speech is very personal and vulnerable.
Now I’m not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun.
That period of my life was a dark one.
So why do I talk about the benefits of failure?
Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential.
I was set free because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and
I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea.
And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
But you also challenged them.
Now you might think that I chose my second theme, the importance of imagination, because
of the part it played in rebuilding my life, but that is not wholly so.
I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense.
In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us
to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.
You tell them that they need to be empathetic to people who are not like them.
Unlike any other creature on this planet, human beings can learn and understand without
What is more, those who choose not to empathize enable real monsters, for without ever committing
an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it through our own apathy.
We do not need magic to transform our world.
We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already.
We have the power to imagine better.
And the crowd just goes wild.
And they love it, and they love you.
But at this point, it’s really hard to imagine that you would be welcome at Harvard at all,
or that you’d get that kind of reception from that crowd.
From that crowd.
And what I want to understand from your point of view is what changed, and maybe when did
you start to notice it changing?
I would say about a decade ago, I started to become very interested in what was going
on online, and concerned about what was going on online.
I noticed a real shift.
We’ll be right back.
This podcast is supported by Athletic Greens.
I am a person who can be pretty obsessive about my health.
My routine typically includes things like 10,000 steps a day, and smoothies, and strength
And yes, I am even one of those people who forces myself to take cold showers even in
But a lot of that flew out the window when I had a baby six months ago, and I especially
struggled to make sure that I was getting good nutrition.
That’s why I was so excited to add AG-1 from Athletic Greens to my routine.
I love that I can get 75 vitamins, minerals, and nutrients from whole food sources just
by adding a scoop of AG-1 to my smoothie in the morning, or mixing it with a glass of
It’s a really simple habit to get into, and it’s so much easier than swallowing
a bunch of pills, which is what I did for years and came to completely dread.
AG-1 is different, and it makes me feel grateful that even during the most chaotic times in
my life, I can do this small, powerful thing to help me cover my nutritional bases every
If you’re looking for an easier way to take supplements, Athletic Greens is giving you
a free one-year supply of vitamin D and five free travel packs with your first purchase.
Go to athleticgreens.com slash witchtrials.
That’s athleticgreens.com slash witchtrials.
Check it out.
This podcast is supported by fastgrowingtrees.com.
I had to make a confession to my husband before I married him.
I do not have a good history with plants, specifically with keeping them alive.
And now that our daughter is four years old, I wanted to make sure that my arboreal deficiencies
aren’t passed along for another generation.
And here’s where fastgrowingtrees.com comes in.
Fastgrowingtrees.com showed us our growing zone based on our location, and then we used
the plant finder to help us choose the perfect trees for little hands to help tend.
And for people like me, who sadly miss the genes for a green thumb, fastgrowingtrees.com
has plant experts who curate thousands of easy-to-grow plant, shrub, and tree varieties
for each unique climate, from apple trees to evergreens and everything in between.
Plus, their plant experts are always available to help keep our plants growing healthy throughout
the season and beyond.
And I can’t wait to harvest our Meyer lemons and key limes with my little girl when the
You can join over 1.5 million happy Fast Growing Trees customers by going to fastgrowingtrees.com
slash witchtrials now to get 15% off your entire order.
Get 15% off at fastgrowingtrees.com slash witchtrials.
So in the early days of the internet, by definition, the people who were on there were going to
be people who are really passionate about the future of computers.
This is writer and internet historian Angela Nagel.
People with a lot of imagination and maybe tendency towards utopian thinking.
The internet is for me the hope for humanity.
The internet provides everybody a voice and the chance to be heard, which is the whole
point about democracy.
They had an idea that the internet would bring democracy and freedom to the world and that
it would be impossible for dictatorships and tyranny to coexist with the internet.
In 2007, when Rowling released the final installment in the Harry Potter series, and in 2008 when
she gave that address at Harvard, this was a time when internet usage around the world
was exploding, both in terms of how many people were gaining access to the internet and in
terms of how much we used it, especially because it coincided with the invention of the smart
And Nagel says that it was also a time when it seemed like some of those optimistic dreams
of what the internet could usher in were coming true.
I guess the first manifestation that maybe proved to those utopians that they could be
right is that you saw things like the Arab Spring, where protesters used social media
to gather in public squares and protest dictatorships.
And you also had the election of Barack Obama, which was very much seen as the internet generation’s
I never thought in my lifetime that it would happen, but it happened tonight.
It’s a reality and we did it.
America is now more united, we did it.
People were becoming more progressive and more multicultural.
Also there was this very powerful idea of the global village, all humanity as one, sort
of in this one collective consciousness on the internet.
But then, then of course, inevitably things started to go a little bit weird.
Nearly half of Americans say they feel more and more like a stranger in their own country.
This has, over the last few decades, increasingly empowered the extremes of political parties.
These can often be traced back to the rise of online extremism.
Elected officials have been shot at community meetings.
This increasing habit of demonizing political opponents creates a dangerous climate.
Is the internet killing democracy?
So, what happened?
Many people blame this disruptive technology that we call social media, which over the
last two decades went from something that barely existed at all to the single most powerful
tool for communication in history, shaping our politics, our societies, and our sense
Now it is undeniable that social media has done tangible good, helping people like me
expand our moral circle and find our partners and friends.
Just a brief homage to social media from me, it was conversations on Twitter that helped
me leave what many describe as a religious cult, and it also introduced me to my husband,
the father of my two children.
However, over the past few years, many, including some of the very optimists who helped design
the internet as we know it today, have been outspoken in saying that social media has
corrupted the dream of what the internet could do for the world.
Like computer scientist Jaron Lanier, who argues that social media poses a real threat
to a pluralistic society.
Society has been gradually darkened by this scheme in which everyone is under surveillance
all the time, and everyone is under this mild version of behavior modification all
It’s made people jittery and cranky, it’s made teens especially depressed, which can
be quite severe, but it’s made our politics kind of unreal.
And he, along with former Google engineer Tristan Harris, have focused a lot of their
concern around social media, on the algorithms and the profit motives of big tech.
There’s a tendency to think here that this is just human nature, you know, that’s just
people are polarized and this is just playing out, it’s a mirror, it’s holding up a mirror
But what it’s really doing is it’s an amplifier for the worst parts of us.
But far less attention has been paid to the question of where certain polarizing beliefs
and norms began to gain a foothold online.
And the answer turns out to be, in part, these small, strange, and fascinating corners
of the internet.
When you started writing and doing PhD research into these smaller, peculiar online subcultures,
did people think you’d lost your mind?
I had many, many arguments with people where they said, oh, what does this matter, it’s
just some obscure, some people on the internet, it’s not real life.
And I kept telling people, no, you’re getting this wrong, this is going to change the world,
this is hugely important, and it’s going to be massively impacting your life in a few
years from now.
In 2017, Angela Nagle published a book called Kill All Normies, which helped explain the
rise of the alt-right.
But it also revealed, in a powerful way, this handful of online forums and websites, places
on the internet that most people had never even heard of or spent any real time on, and
how they’ve come to have a profound impact on almost every aspect of our politics and
So, in my book, I focused on two main forums because I felt that they were possibly the
most influential, and they also represented very politically different groups.
The first of these two forums was Tumblr.
I was fascinated by Tumblr culture, and for those who don’t know, Tumblr is a micro-blogging
website and is very popular with young women.
Which was also one of the key places where Rowling says she started to notice these changes
I started to be intrigued by the use of the word identify.
This was something I was seeing rising in culture, particularly from the younger generation.
And I don’t see that as necessarily a malign thing, because I think we all have an identity,
and identity is important to all of us for a stable sense of self.
But I was noticing something that I thought was interesting, and then that began to disturb
Tumblr went live in 2007, and it gained some popularity in the early 2010s.
The whole idea of the site was built off of the popularity of blogging, or online journaling.
But unlike other blogging sites, Tumblr tapped into what would eventually make social media
Tumblr is like Twitter but longer, so you can reblog people’s content.
Again, Helen Lewis, staff writer at The Atlantic.
So it has a kind of viral element to it, but it was also very image-based.
Tumblr was kind of a cross between Instagram and Twitter.
And for early Tumblr users, it was just as addictive as those apps would eventually become.
And these people on Tumblr largely fit into a few different groups.
One of them was fans.
Fans of Twilight and Doctor Who and, of course, a ton of Harry Potter fans.
But here, they no longer had to log into chat rooms or poke around message boards to connect
with other fans, because on Tumblr, it was all in one big scrollable feed.
And it became a big place for teenagers to hang out, to draw their own comics, to write
their own fan fiction, to engage in all kinds of fandom, essentially, around these big properties.
It’s also important to know that a lot of the people on Tumblr were anonymous.
And over time, the site became inundated with porn.
The other big group that was on Tumblr were masturbators.
It’s a very sexual environment, because the moderation was, like, super loose.
So that obviously is going to attract the attention of many different groups.
This is Catherine D., aka Default Friend, writer, internet historian, and admitted former
A lot of, like, fetishists and pornographers and sex workers, and you also have a lot of
You know, it was a very odd place to be sometimes, Tumblr, because you would have this just endless
porn interspersed with very cute kawaii comics and anime and very kind of infantilized cultures.
And you have a lot of, like, horny teenagers who are exploring their sexuality and they’re
drawing erotic fan art, or they’re even posting photos of themselves.
Years later, Tumblr would be singled out by law enforcement for being a major source of
child pornography online.
And that ultimately forced them to moderate their content.
But back in the early 2010s, it was pretty much a free-for-all.
And then finally, you have the activists, who are giving you new language to describe
your experience, potentially giving you a sense of meaning.
Like other social media sites eventually would, Tumblr attracted a lot of activists.
And in Tumblr’s case, it was activism particularly around sex positivity and gender identity.
These groups had a huge influence on a lot of different subcultures that ended up forming
And all of that together really creates a Tinder box.
And so this place full of teenagers and activists and fans and fetishists and porn, it wasn’t
just a place where you could invent a new character in your Harry Potter fan fiction.
It ultimately became a place where users could create and experiment with new identities
The thing I remember thinking about it most is, it was almost like a huge live action
Tumblr was a place that was allowing people to explore these new forms of identification.
I would say that Tumblr is probably most notorious for generating hundreds of gender identities.
This is Natalie Nguyen, a popular online commentator better known as ContraPoints.
I am a YouTuber.
That is, I guess, a profession.
And my videos are about social issues or politics or media.
A lot of it has been focused on gender because I’m a transgender woman.
I transitioned in 2017 and have been doing videos pretty consistently ever since.
People still talk about, quote, Tumblr genders.
Oh, there’s 76 genders.
That was a meme for years.
You could be lumigender, that is having a gender that was, you know, illuminating like
a light or ambigender, pangender, xenogender.
They really embraced this idea of genderqueer, which is, you know, a word that was used before
There was also a lot of talk about otherkin.
So otherkin were people who said that although they looked like they were human, they were
actually wolves or dragons.
And they were quite insistent about this, that this was a, this was an identity that
you could adopt.
This is where you get people who say things like, my gender is a cloud.
How much of it was just playfulness and how much appeared to be like sincere self-discovery?
Well, I think that playfulness is part of self-discovery.
Natalie Nguyen appreciated this aspect of Tumblr, and she says that it’s exactly why
some people like her were drawn to the site.
For a lot of young queer people, engaging in this imaginative play about all the possibilities
of gender was like a way for them to experiment with different imaginative possibilities or
what’s possible with gender.
There was a culture that was encouraged on Tumblr, which was to be able to describe your
unique non-normative self.
Again, Angela Nagel.
And that’s to some extent a feature of modern society anyway, but it was taken to such an
extreme that people began to describe this as the snowflake, the person who constructs
a totally kind of boutique and unique identity for themselves, and then guards that identity
in a very, very sensitive way and reacts in an enraged way when anyone does not respect
the uniqueness of their identity.
And Nagel says that these norms around identity, and this increased sensitivity to identities
of all kinds, it spread across huge swaths of Tumblr.
So that was very much the culture of Tumblr.
And at the same time, you had on the other side of the political spectrum, you could
say, the most insensitive culture imaginable, which was the culture of 4chan.
And the culture of 4chan was really based around transgression and offensiveness and
the kind of fun of being offensive.
About like 30 to 45 minutes ago, I beat the fuck out of my dick so goddamn hard that I
can’t even feel my left leg.
My left leg has went…
You know, the entire culture became a sort of a one-upmanship of who can post the most
outrageous or offensive thing imaginable.
And so they’re going to make Holocaust jokes and they’re going to make Anne Frank jokes.
Making an ethnostate is hard work.
I mean, you really got to ask yourself, what eugenics programs are you going to use?
What type of plumbing do you use in your internment camps?
So 4chan, if you’ve never heard of it, it was actually somewhat similar to Tumblr in
that it was largely anonymous and text and image based.
There were a lot of fans there, especially anime, and it had lots of porn and lots of
But where Tumblr attracted a lot of girls and women, 4chan skewed way more male.
Back in 2014, 4chan made headlines after users there pulled this stunt that generated some
panic about how hackers were able to access people’s private photos in the cloud.
Several A-list stars are the target of what appears to be one of the biggest celebrity
Users of private nude photographs were apparently accessed from phones and leaked online.
Jennifer Lawrence and several other celebrities had their personal nude photos stolen out
of the cloud and leaked on 4chan.
Do we even know who is this 4chan person or website?
He may, and I’m sure we’re going to be able to get some more information.
Where users shared and sold the nudes, made gifs and memes out of them, and celebrated
how much attention this got.
So in a lot of ways, the norms and mores of Tumblr and 4chan end up being these kind
of mirror images of one another.
You have this kind of reinforcing culture of ultra-sensitivity on one side, and this
reinforcing culture of anti-sensitivity on the other side.
And both of these cultures are growing at the same time.
If you’ve ever heard a kind of right-wing activist railing against woke culture, then
you’ll be hearing them condemning phrases that were popularized on Tumblr.
Microaggression, trigger warnings, Latinx, non-binary, two-spirit, transgender.
You know, even the idea of being cis as opposed to being trans, you know, the idea that everybody
was one of those two things.
If you dig through the Wayback Machine or Google Analytics, you can see that many of
these words and phrases that have become pretty mainstream on the political left, and have
become the focus of a lot of backlash from the political right, many of them can be traced
back to their increased use on Tumblr.
People start Googling them between 2011 and 2014.
That’s when you see the first spike.
And this is also the same period when the use of social media in general was exploding.
So more and more people were spending more and more of their time on these platforms.
And you can go back and kind of watch how these ideas start to migrate outward from
So a good example of this is the word Latinx, right?
If you look at early articles about the word Latinx, so these are articles that are coming
out between 2013 and 2015, a lot of them reference Tumblr.
Gabby Rivera of Autostraddle wrote, the word Latinx has been appearing on my Tumblr dashboard
for the last year.
The website Latino Rebels also ran an article about the term, and they were like, this word
comes from Tumblr and we don’t like it.
It’s from the American blogosphere and nobody in Latin America uses it.
Even though some of these ideas were openly mocked by many people, others became quite
mainstream quite quickly.
So like when Facebook announced it was suddenly offering like 40 different gender identities
and a lot of people were confused, do you think it’s right to say that essentially they
were just catching up to what Tumblr had been doing for years at that point?
Oh, of course.
Facebook was definitely playing catch up.
The idea of privilege was very big.
You know, the idea that you have white privilege, male privilege, cis privilege, that really
came from Tumblr and has had a sort of odd effect on discourse ever since.
And things that we wouldn’t have recognized as being offensive suddenly were considered
There’s a real culture of like calling not only people, but media properties and the
creators of those media properties problematic on Tumblr.
And so that’s really where you get cancel culture in a sense, which takes sensitivity
and the strengthening of taboos to such a point that anyone who transgresses them should
be just totally removed from the conversation.
People online did discover that there is a kind of clout to be gained from discovering
what is problematic about a popular figure.
There used to be a Tumblr blog called Your Fave is Problematic.
Your Fave is Problematic was a Tumblr account created in 2013 by an anonymous American high
Initially, it was just a place where she would call out celebrities and artists, as well
as their hardcore fans on Tumblr.
It was just like a list of celebrities or popular figures and all of their sort of social
There’d be a call out of Jennifer Lawrence, who wore fake dreads for a photo shoot, or
Tina Fey for a rape joke on 30 Rock.
You know, Justin Bieber did cultural appropriation in this, and Miley Cyrus did that.
And so if you like them, you’re a terrible person.
But quickly, and to this high school Tumblr user’s surprise, the account grew massively
popular on Tumblr, and it started to create these real backlashes, leading to big stars
And these fandoms that were such a big presence on Tumblr, they were increasingly turning
on the very creators of the books and films and television shows that they were such big
fans of, whether it was Stephanie Meyer, who wrote the Twilight series and was accused
of being racist, or Anne Rice, who was accused of sexism.
So this is happening over and over and over again, and people on other parts of the internet
are making fun of Tumblr constantly about it.
And JK Rowling was not immune.
First rolling backlash was in 2016, when she wrote about Native American wizards.
And she wrote about skinwalkers, this idea of malevolent wizards who disguise themselves
And the outcry then was about cultural appropriation, which is a very Tumblr concern, cultural appropriation,
the idea that, you know, you’re borrowing bits and pieces from other cultures, you know,
you’re going to a music festival and you’re wearing a Native American headdress or whatever
it might be.
And so in 2016, JK Rowling was accused of Native American appropriation, of appropriating
And that was the first time I thought, ah, she is no longer left wing enough for her
Do you remember how it felt when you first started to see those things?
I definitely saw it in the context of this is happening everywhere.
So I didn’t take it super personally.
But I was seeing this happen across the board to artists.
And there was a kind of puritanism that was rising that to me seemed very illiberal.
So very contrary, I suppose, to my values, to my core values.
So yeah, it happened to me.
I was watching it happening to other artists.
I was watching it happening to other sort of properties, creative properties.
And it was inevitable I was going to be hit with it too.
Was it enjoyable?
Did I take it really personally?
That’s the honest answer.
Cancel culture is probably as old as humanity in a way.
But in the style of the internet, I think Tumblr was very, very central to that.
Your fave is problematic, even at the peak of its popularity, only had around 50,000
The fans who turned on these different creators, they didn’t represent anything close to the
majority view of the artist in the hot seat, or even the average fan’s views.
But then, when the battles on Tumblr became enmeshed on another platform, its effects
became much more far reaching.
It’s only when it gets to Twitter that it’s this monster that is a complete runaway train.
Twitter is like, I don’t know, it’s like being on the National Mall.
It’s like being in Times Square.
That’s where you’re having these fights, right?
Like the biggest public forum.
You know, every journalist in the world is on Twitter, practically.
And politicians are on it, public figures are on it.
So that really changes the dynamic.
When it’s not fandom wars, it’s like, Twitter is politics, full stop.
Twitter had two things that Tumblr lacked.
One was a much larger user base.
And the other was the presence of a huge number of journalists from around the world.
Those journalists began to pick up these stories, publishing them in mainstream media
And so this small group of people, shaped by the norms of Tumblr, appeared to have a
much bigger presence in society than it actually did.
That gave them more of an ability to influence politics.
And it also fueled an aggressive backlash from places like 4chan.
Social justice warrior.
4chan users delighted in developing new ways to inflict reputational damage on people,
who they saw as embodying these values from Tumblr.
A very common thing, for example, was raiding a person’s Wikipedia page and filling it
up with negative material, or putting out a post about a person’s sexual assault.
Putting out, like, fake revenge pornography, spreading outrageous lies about people.
They made fake accounts and photoshopped pictures and videos.
They targeted people in the media, who they saw as perpetuating the culture of sensitivity
Tumblr, giving more and more power to that side of the debate.
Users on 4chan started doxing them, swatting their houses, and sending them death threats.
That was sort of very common from the, let’s say, anti-political correctness side.
But then on the other side, you also had things like getting people fired for a joke that
was a bit off-color.
You know, publicly shaming people for something that they said many years previous that has
since become politically incorrect.
Is this like the phenomenon of digging up old tweets?
Yes, digging up old tweets.
One example would be something like, you find a picture of somebody, and they’re white,
and they’re wearing a traditional Chinese dress at an event.
And somebody says, this is cultural appropriation.
Those kind of deliberate attempts to use public shaming and moral pressure to destroy people’s
livelihoods and careers.
And Nagel says that over time, the tactics and norms that emerged from these subcultures
that felt embattled, they began to really shape the language and norms of internet culture
And so we had to deal with a new sort of mean, cruel quality to the internet.
What’s fascinating about this is that the sensitive, politically correct culture of
Tumblr is driven to greater and greater extremes because they see the enemy culture that comes
from places like 4chan.
And likewise, the culture of 4chan is sort of inspired to become more and more extreme
because they see the culture of Tumblr.
And so both are not only reinforcing the culture within their communities, but by observing
the other side, they feel more like their political project is necessary.
And therefore, they have to become more and more extreme in order to fight this evil in
You’ve talked about what you’ve described as a witch hunt impulse when it comes to the
dynamics of online cancel culture.
What is that impulse?
And what parallels do you draw maybe to the witch hunts of old?
Well, I think that people, there’s a lot of sources of aggression.
I think that aggression is a basic human instinct.
I think there’s a lot of kind of free-form aggression in search of a target.
Natalie Wynn has a video with the title, Cancel Culture, where she goes into detail about
what she sees as some of the underlying and very human impulses inspiring people on Tumblr
Freud discusses this, like morality can be sadistic, the sadistic superego, he calls it.
And the idea is that you kind of use that kind of punishing, shaming, moral condemnation.
That becomes an outlet for aggression in itself.
And so I think for people, it can become a way to attack someone while also kind of feeling
good about themselves, which is a very, I think, tempting place to be, right?
You’re trashing someone, but you feel like you’re crusading.
I was starting to think about this a lot, subcultures that have their own rigid rules,
acceptable beliefs, non-acceptable beliefs, everything becoming very reductive.
I was also deeply concerned by it because to me, it was a rise of the kind of authoritarianism
and lack of empathy that is in all of my books.
It’s in literally every book I write.
If there’s one thing that I stand against more than any other, it is authoritarianism.
And that cuts across political persuasions, cuts through atheists all the way through
to various different religions.
So I was definitely seeing that.
And I was becoming really concerned.
I think the first time I became really interested in what was going on, sort of culturally.
I’ve taken some time out of my busy schedule, being fabulous and doing my hair, to prepare
a speech for you.
Well, a few remarks, really.
It was Milo Yiannopoulos.
Feminism is cancer.
Thank you very much.
The outright provocateur, I suppose you would call him.
In 2016, this battle online really started to move offline.
And for many people, the person who signaled this shift was an editor from Breitbart, who
essentially was the culture of 4chan in human form, Milo Yiannopoulos.
I think Milo Yiannopoulos was very much an embodiment of the moment where the culture
of places like 4chan sort of bursts into the mainstream.
As Milo was booked to speak on college campuses, he was increasingly met with protesters demanding
that he be stopped, leading to real political violence.
And I’m watching from across the pond as he tries to speak on various campuses.
And there are protests, riots.
It’s locked down as more than 1,000 people rallied against the appearance of a controversial
editor from Breitbart, Milo Yiannopoulos.
We want him deplatformed.
We don’t want him to speak at all.
They’re using free speech as a justification to have these fascists come to Berkeley.
And I thought it was a terrible strategic error.
Overnight mayhem on campus.
The University of California, Berkeley erupting in flames as over 1,000 came out to protest.
My feeling was, you are giving this man way more power than he deserves by behaving in
It made Milo look sexier and edgier than he deserved to look.
Is there anybody in here who hates me?
Yes, there we go, thank you.
I thought it was a strategically appalling turn.
Get on that platform and eviscerate his ideas.
Get on that platform and expose him for the charlatan that he is.
You push back hard, but you’ve given him so much power by refusing to talk.
Milo went from relative obscurity to being a regular on primetime television and political
talk shows in just a few months.
You know, I have marched in my life.
I’ve certainly been part of mass movements.
I’ve signed petitions and I’ve demonstrated in certain ways.
But when it comes to a speaker like that, I just thought they were undermining their
I thought they were serving his purposes because he was able to walk away from that
saying, look, they won’t even, they don’t dare debate me.
This is how dangerous and edgy I am.
And I don’t think we want to cast the alt-right in that light, but inadvertently, that’s
exactly what they’re doing.
I think so, yeah.
Rowling says that she was alarmed watching people who she saw as being on her side of
the political aisle, behaving in a way that she felt broke with her deeply held principles.
Even when the target was someone who she agreed was offensive and immoral and a political
And she started to think that maybe this was something she needed to speak up about.
I was becoming unnerved by some of what I was seeing.
I thought the way this activist movement is behaving is troubling me.
But then, she started to see that it wasn’t just her political opponents who were being
treated this way.
I was starting to see activists behaving in a very aggressive way outside feminist meetings.
These are trans activists protesting outside a feminist meeting.
They’re shouting TERF.
It stands for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists.
Like, what were they doing?
There was a feminist meeting in which they were banging and kicking on windows.
They were masked.
Which frankly is never a good look.
If you’re a good guy, you’re probably not going to be standing there in a black balaclava.
I watched that happening and I was deeply disturbed because now this movement that
I started being interested in, now this is really happening.
It’s playing out very fast.
You’ve been listening to The Witch Trials of J.K.
Rowling, produced by Andy Mills, Matthew Boll, and me, Megan Phelps-Roper, and brought to
you by The Free Press.
Our sincere thanks to you for listening, and we would love to listen to you too.
If you have any thoughts or questions for us, you can send us an email at witchtrialsatthefp.com.
This podcast is brought to you by The Free Press.
The Free Press is a new kind of media company trying to help restore trust in journalism
at a time when that trust is at a historic all-time low.
And we’re doing that by printing stories, hosting debates, and publishing a wide range
of opinion pieces, all in an effort to break out of echo chambers and fight against confirmation
bias, and see the world as the complicated and sometimes wonderful mess that it really
If that sounds like something you value, become a subscriber today at thefp.com.