How Anime Avatars on Twitter Help Explain Politics Online in 2015

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The internet is an extremely efficient communication machine, but it’s still a new space (really, a whole host of new spaces). Unlike the analog world, where each of us develops from birth a set of social and cultural cues that allow us to navigate through human interaction, the corresponding cues for digital communication are still being negotiated. How can you determine tone online? How can you understand what degree of irony or sincerity is being expressed in a given statement? How can you tell what to expect or how to interact with a given person or group of people online? This is why I am interested in people whose avatars on Twitter are stills from Japanese cartoons.

Twitter is a large and public and very flat social network, by which I mean it’s easy to communicate with anyone and difficult to determine quickly whether that person is a good-faith interlocutor or a time-wasting troll. So frequent users (and frequently trolled or harassed users) generally need to come up with quick, one-look tests. One time-tested method for settling the question is to look at the person’s avatar: If it’s the default white egg, ignore, or block.

The idea, I think, is that someone with an egg avatar is either too stupid to figure out how to change it, in which case block, or so new to Twitter that he or she is unfamiliar with the customs or niceties of interactions, in which case block. (“A person with under 10 followers and an egg avatar is the absolute quickest to hop in your mentions on some bs,” as podcast host and comedian @desusnice puts it.) (One day when Twitter avatars suddenly failed, everyone briefly became an egg, a bacchanalia lovingly celebrated by the Tumblr “everyone is an egg.”)

So “egg avatar” is shorthand sometimes for “dumb” and sometimes for “new” and always for “not worth bothering with.” But it is not the only avatar category that has certain stereotypes attached to it. There’s the eagle avatar (sometimes crying), which, well, I imagine you can guess what that person is interested in. And the South Parkcharacter avatar, which I associate with people who want to argue about libertarianism.

And then there’s the anime avatar. Here’s Boing Boing’s Rob Beschizza last year, in the thick of Gamergate:

Car avatars, I wouldn’t know. Anime avatars, though, are fast approaching the egg avatar as the litmus test for “worth engaging,” especially around Gamergate and adjacent issues like “feminism.” Mother Jones’ Clara Jeffrey on Tuesday:

(Showing the gift for subtlety and irony that has endeared the Gamergate movement to journalists and the wider public, Gamergaters immediately began to mock Jeffrey for herself having an anime avatar.)

So the anime avatar and the egg avatar both end up meaning “block at will.” But not in the same way. Because they — like eagle or car avatars — don’t show actual identifiable human faces, anime avatars carry a strong whiff of “anonymous troll.” (One funny thing about egg avatars is that even the most toxic of them will often use real names!) They are also — and I say this as someone who can sing from memory the theme to Neon Genesis: Evangelion nerdy.

What particularly interests me about the anime avatar is that it was initially (as I first encountered it, at any rate) a metonym for a weird-internet-politics group about as distant from Gamergate as you can find: a loosely affiliated community of hard-left self-proclaimed Maoists.

Third-worldist-feminist-communist-anime-avatar Twitter! What a world! What a time to be alive!

Of course anime avatars are now more strongly identified with Gamergate and its various surrounding reactionary communities, a group no less weird (by the standards of mainstream meatspace American politics), but much larger and, frankly, scarier.

(The association between anime avatars and Gamergate is helped in part because Gamergate’s logo-slash-mascot is a green-and-purple cartoon woman named Vivian James who tends to be drawn in an anime style. Yes: a fictional cartoon woman is the symbol of a movement accused of unrealistic views of women.)

But why anime avatars? What do Gamergaters have in common with Twitter Stalinists? As noted above, in some ways anime avatars are the equivalent of a fedora or a leather duster or transition lenses, a quick public signal of someone’s (proud) nerdom. If egg avatars are signs of Twitter, and likely internet, novices, anime avatars would seem to be the opposite: the signs of people who have spent, or are spending, too much time online. 

This kind of too-much-time-online nerdiness seems to be correlated in turn — and I’m just speculating here; I have no data — with an outgrowth of new, weird, fascinating kinds of outside-the-mainstream or extreme politics, like effusive 21st-century Titoism. Or like Gamergate. (Many of these political communities seem deeply focused on ideological purity and membership requirements, which, well, draw your own conclusions.) And because the anime avatars are tweeting and chatting and posting on message boards and Tumblr and Reddit more than anyone else, they are, unlike egg avatars, actually driving political conversations. Not fully into the mainstream, yet. But in a way that legacy publications have already been forced to confront, and that actual policymakers will be forced to manage. 

So for practical purposes, if you are besieged by trolls and are also okay with blocking people who might be extremely intelligent and engaging and also fervent otaku, all you need to know is that the “anime avatar” is a mostly though not entirely reliable indicator of trolldom, and block anyone you see with one. But I would suggest you not. Blocking egg avatars makes sense to me: They generally represent a type and a politics you are familiar with. They’re essentially talk-radio listeners and racist uncles, only online. There are no familiar IRL equivalents to anime avatars. Yet.

The Dreaded ‘Anime Avatar,’ Explained