A couple weeks ago, New York Magazine ran an online article by Max Read entitled “How Anime Avatars on Twitter Help Explain Politics Online in 2015.” If you’re interested in the piece you can go read it, but perhaps it’s enough to know that there was something of an outcry in response to the article due to its linking of anime avatars on Twitter to various kinds of unsavory or unpopular internet discourse and politics. However, from my point of view, the more interesting thing about Read’s article was how it presumed to speak on a topic integrally related to a specific fandom… from outside the fandom.
Now, I don’t mean to say imply that only fandom writers should be writing about the fandom (or for the fandom)—otherwise, who’s there to translate the language of the fans to the non-fans? As Lauren Orsini wrote back in September in her piece on being a niche writer, “We like niche reporting because more general news can be tone deaf or even ignorant when addressing our favored niche. What we neglect to realize, however, is that not everything that is written about our favorite topic is written with us in mind. Sometimes it’s the opposite.” That being said, Read’s original piece doesn’t strike me as being one all that interested in mediating between the anime avatar-wearing internet world and the world outside. It’s almost completely focused on Twitter, and even Read admits that there isn’t a corresponding real-world parallel to the kind of nebulous personage he describes in the article.
As I see it, this is an issue of context. There’s no denying Read’s claims that sometimes people with anime avatars tweet really nasty things; I’ve seen it crop up in my own Twitter timeline on occasion. However, this particular subset of the anime avatar crowd is just that: a subset, a fringe group—aka not the whole. What about all the other internet denizens across various websites, forums, and social media who use anime avatars as the representatives of their online personas? Across the Crunchyroll forums, anime avatars—whether they derive from screenshots, fanart, or some other source—are almost ubiquitous. On Anime Twitter, they’re equally common (with the important caveat that Anime Twitter is by no means a monolith). And I’ve also seen anime avatars from places as deeply connected to internet culture as Tumblr to those as general purpose as Facebook.
So, what’s the context? Or, if you’d like to ask the question another way: why do the majority of people use anime avatars online (in lieu of pictures of their actual faces or, I dunno, Neil Patrick Harris gifs)? While the individual response might vary, if you drill down to the core you’ll likely find two main reasons: 1) anonymity, and 2) community association identification. The former’s pretty self-explanatory. For varying reasons, not everyone online wants their online persona to be associated with their real name. The latter, while no less complex or important, basically boils down to the fact that people use anime avatars to identify themselves as anime fans; that is, usually (but not always) as part of the anime fandom.
In many ways, the use of an anime avatar online is quite similar to writing and posting fan fiction, drawing fanart, or covering anime openings—it’s a method of representation, identification, and performance. While it’s an assumption to suppose having an anime avatar (on whatever internet community it may be) presupposes at least a passing interest in/commitment to anime, I don’t think it’s a particularly rash one. On the internet, where the image you choose to be represented by becomes the social reference point with which everything you say becomes associated, the image you choose says a lot about how you want to be seen. To use my own avatar (which I’ve made consistent across all the places I talk about anime) as an example, I use a screenshot of a glasses-wearing girl doing science as my ambassador to the rest of the internet world. My main considerations when choosing this avatar (which I’ve used consistently for the last 9 months): the general color scheme, the relative cuteness of the girl, the assumed uniqueness of using an image from an obscure music video rather than from an anime, and (this is the main point) the fact that it was reasonably close to being in “anime style.”
We laugh at babies for not understanding object permanence but if you change your twitter avatar I will forget your personality
— Bobduh (@B0bduh) October 19, 2015
That being said, I’m pretty deep into the anime fandom (I mean, I’m writing this column for a site dedicated to streaming anime)—which isn’t necessarily true of everyone who’s out there boasting an anime avatar. Some people do use anime avatars to identify as hardcore fans, it’s true; but others may just be a fan of a certain show, may have only seen a little Dragonball Z when they were growing up, may be using anime avatars to express certain aspects of their offline identity, may be using them primarily for the anonymity they grant, or may simply like the look of the anime style.
In case the point’s not coming clear yet, my argument here is that anime avatars online—rather than explaining politics online—are usually just signs of an anime fan. Taken all together, you wind up with a large, multi-faceted conglomerate of anime avatar-faced internet users, a “community” in the loosest sense of the word (the way you’d describe a country as a community). And, just like a country in the real world, the body of anime avatar users online is made up of dozens of cities (analagous to assorted sites across the internet) and smaller communities within those cities, each with their own unique culture, interests, politics, and personas. There’s “progressive Anime Twitter,” there’s “conservative Anime News Network forums,” there’s “that thread on the Crunchyroll forums where people only make motivational posters out of anime screenshots.” You’ll see anime avatars in all of those places—and in each the particular association conveyed is completely different underneath the constant point of commonality: liking anime.
And so, this is the full context of anime avatars online. If we really want to consider how anime avatars explain politics online, it’s simply that it’s, well… pretty darn similar to the way real life works. People come together around points of commonality—whether that be religious faith, geographic location, or love for a sport—yet even in those places of similarity, they differ in the reasons they come to that point of shared experience and in everything else that makes up their identity as a human being. In any group, there are going to be those who exist at its fringes—consider, perhaps, that one guy who is way more into the football game on TV than everyone else in the room. Of course, it’s these loud and dramatic extremes that are going to attract the most attention due to those reasons exactly: they’re loud and extreme. And when anime avatars start inserting themselves into non-anime discussions, they’re liable to stand out even more because they’re not the norm out there in the wider world.
So, for what it means coming from a guy whose avatar isn’t even really anime, I think it’s important to note how diverse the group of people using anime avatars online really is. The teens on Tumblr using anime avatars to chat about how hot One Punch Man’s Genos is (and he is hot) and the people on the Crunchyroll forums using anime avatars to talk about Love Live School Idol Festival and the individuals on Twitter using anime avatars to connect with other anime fans for social purposes don’t deserve to be grouped in with the worst of anime avatar users. And, I guess, for the rest of us, that means we ought to do our best to represent anime avatars as well as we can. Keep your bad Naruto ships in the fandom, and be excellent to the people outside of it. Actually, just don’t make bad Naruto ships in general.
So, why do you guys use anime avatars? And, IMPORTANT: Absolutely no personal attacks on the writer of the original article, Max Read, in the comments. Be good.
Isaac eases his compulsive need to write about anime on his blog, Mage in a Barrel. He also contributes to the Fandom Post and sometimes hangs out on Tumblr. You can follow him on Twitter at @iblessall or on Facebook.
Thanks to anime fandom scholar extraordinaire @frog_kun for consultation help on this piece.