“Anime Avatar” is Not an Argument

Bit of a personal one today, but I think it’s worth saying.

Calling someone an “anime avatar” is not an argument. Referring to “the anime avatars in my mentions” does not automatically cause your ill-advised social media post to suddenly become correct. Attempting to make the term “anime avatar” a slur does not make you look progressive, woke or smart.

If you judge someone by anything other than their behaviour and conduct, you are bigoted by the very strictest definition of the word. Let’s ponder this in a bit more detail.

My specific reason for posting about this right now stems from some interactions I witnessed on Twitter yesterday. Popular retro gaming YouTuber Kim Justice was frustrated at one of her friends being “monstered” as a result of some three-year old auto-tweets that showed them “Liking” provocative, seemingly right-wing content on YouTube. The person in question had shown no indication that they actually agreed with the content in question — particularly recently — but these automatic, context- and commentary-free tweets from 2016 were seemingly enough to publicly shame them for “supporting hate speech”.

I don’t want to get too hung up on these specifics because there’s a broader point to talk about here, but there are a couple of things to consider in this particular situation.

Firstly, I have known multiple people to be unaware that YouTube had the option to automatically share anything you clicked “Like” on to your other social media platforms. Google actually removed this feature in January of 2019, but prior to that it was all too easy to accidentally activate it and inadvertently share everything you did on YouTube to Twitter, Facebook and Google+.

Secondly, clicking “Like” on a video does not necessarily mean you condone it. It may just mean you want to come back to it. Clicking “Like” on YouTube automatically and quickly adds the video to a playlist that you can return to at any time. Clicking “Dislike” does not do the same thing. Yes, YouTube also has other features that fulfil the same function, but for many people, a quick “Like” is the fastest way to be able to refer back to something.

With that in mind, judging someone for “supporting hate speech” based on automatic tweets is nonsense. I don’t know the poster in question so I can’t comment further on their political beliefs, but Kim noted that she knew him well, raised her own concerns over those tweets when she originally saw them a few years back, and actually had a discussion with him that revealed how he actually felt. That’s how things should be.

This situation is just one of many examples of “cancel culture”, where certain portions of the Internet collectively decide that someone is a “bad” person for whatever reason, and then systematically proceed to try and ruin that person’s online reputation, interpersonal relationships and life. The ultimate goal? To run them off the Internet at best; to make them kill themselves at worst. And yes, the latter happens; the most recent high-profile example of this happening was the death of Aquaria and Night in the Woods developer Alec Holowka after some very public allegations of sexual harassment that, to date, do not appear to have been proven and probably never will be at this point.

I happened to witness the tail end of this as Kim made a public tweet about her frustration over the situation, and I empathised, posting a reply about how much I disliked “cancel culture”. The first reply I got was from someone not involved with the conversation, who responded “don’t be a bigot, Anime Avatar, and you won’t get ‘cancelled'”.

A few things here. My avatar on Twitter is Midori, the site mascot; not technically “anime”, but I can understand the misconception. My real name and the website address is prominently displayed as my account handle. My bio explains what I do and gives no indication that I am in any way “bigoted”. There is plenty of information you can quickly and easily look at to understand who I am, what I do and how I feel about various things.

While this site is written from the perspective of a Western heterosexual male — I can’t change who I am! — I make a point of exploring a variety of viewpoints and media types to be as inclusive as possible. Over the last few years, I’ve written about games that are particularly suitable for a young female audience, games that feature homosexual female couples, games that feature homosexual male couples, games with openly bisexual characters and plenty of other tickboxes on the “diversity checklist” besides.

But no. I’m “Anime Avatar”.

This needs to stop. It is not an argument.

I mention this specific situation because it’s just the most recent example of this happening, but it’s a constant occurrence on the Internet in general, and social media in particular. Remember the discussion over respecting one another after the Gun Gun Pixies review a few weeks back? The writer of the piece I was responding to immediately complained about “anime avatars in his mentions” rather than attempting to engage with anyone. Remember how I talked about how we need to get better at talking about sex? Critics of it responded to the fact that people who appreciated and shared it had “anime avatars” rather than actually addressing any of the points I made. I could go on. But I won’t. For now.

Instead, let’s contemplate why this might happen and why it’s a problem.

A 2015 study by Katrina Fong and Raymond Mar found that people do indeed judge one another based on something as simple as their online avatar… but that this isn’t something we should be particularly pleased about.

Fong and Mar asked about 100 people to choose avatars for themselves using the now-defunct site WeeWorld. Half of them were asked to create an avatar using their own creativity, and the other half were specifically asked to try and reflect their personality as accurately as possible. Despite this, there were no obvious differences in how people approached the task, suggesting that people in general try to represent themselves as accurately as they can when creating an avatar.

The 100 participants then filled out a questionnaire that measured their “Big Five” personality traits: openness, extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and neuroticism, and this information was then cross-referenced with the avatar they created.

At this point, Fong and Mar brought in a larger group of about 2,000 participants who were asked to rate their perception of the personality characteristics based purely on the avatars, along with if they actually wanted to interact with the person in question.

The larger group made clear assumptions, particularly when it came to gender; men were assumed to be less conscientious and open to new experiences, for example. The study proved these assumptions to be inaccurate in most cases based on the personality data, however; the only traits that the larger group successfully assessed to a limited degree were extraversion and agreeableness, while others showed no real correlation.

The study noted that while context-free avatars had a noticeable effect on whether or not people decided they wanted to actually interact with a person, the assumptions made were not particularly well-correlated with that individual’s actual personality, suggesting that people tend to overestimate their ability to accurately judge based on a tiny JPG someone uploaded to represent themselves. Who’d have thought it?

Where did the assumption that all anime avatars are bad come from, though? Knowyourmeme suggests that it dates back to some forum posts from around 2012 or so, but a particularly noteworthy piece of the puzzle comes from a New York Magazine article from 2015, attempting to explain “how anime avatars on Twitter help explain politics online in 2015”.

This is kind of bizarre, though, since the article in question is filled with purely anecdotal evidence — mostly context-free tweets — rather than any actual evidence. And it certainly doesn’t explain anything, despite the headline.

“Because they don’t show actual identifiable human faces, anime avatars carry a strong whiff of ‘anonymous troll’,” writes the piece’s author Max Read. “They are also — and I say this as someone who can sing from memory the theme to Neon Genesis Evangelion — nerdy. If egg avatars are signs to 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.”

Read doesn’t make any convincing arguments in his piece, but it seems a lot of people have taken similar attitudes to heart. And it’s honestly difficult to understand where this has come from.

Anime and anime-inspired works make up some of the most creative, interesting media out there, appealing to a broad spectrum of people of all ages, genders and sexualities. While Japan as a country is often criticised for less-than-progressive attitudes towards such things, its popular media demonstrates that those with more artistic temperaments are keen to break the bonds of social conventions and allow people to be who they want to be, expressing themselves as they see fit.

Anime is a medium in which we have an incredibly diverse array of stories to enjoy. One moment you can be enjoying a wholesome tale of teenage girls working out at the gym for no other reason rather than to better themselves; the next you can find yourself getting emotionally invested in the complicated interpersonal relationships of a group of nerds; after that you can enjoy tales of new lives in other worlds, people struggling to understand themselves, people coming to terms with grief, dynamic space operas and pretty much anything else you might be able to think of.

And anime-adjacent media is the same, too. Here on MoeGamer we’ve explored tales of shinobi students learning their place in the world and preparing for an inevitable battle; a young man following his rather mundane dream, supported by the people important to him; a group of people who have each been through their own considerable trauma coming together to support one another; the personification of the popular video game console manufacturers struggling to deal with the generational changeover; learning to live with a life-changing injury; even learning another language in order to pursue a relationship.

There are as many reasons for getting involved with anime and anime-adjacent media as there are people interested in such things. For me, as I’ve spoken about previously, it’s about feeling like I “belong”, like there are works that really “speak to me”, like there are creators who understand what sort of person I am. For others, it’s about pure escapism — leaving the mundane and the frustrating behind in favour of the colourful, the fantastic, the impossible. For yet others, it’s about the technical proficiency or artistic achievements of those at the top of their craft; and for others still, yes, it might even be about sexual gratification — which is perfectly valid.

The one thing these people would come together on is wanting to express their love and passion in some way. And an avatar is the perfect means of doing that. It’s a simple, non-verbal signal that allows you to show the things that are important to you; it’s the online equivalent of wearing a favourite band or show’s T-shirt. It’s a simple way of recognising people who might be into the same things of you. And it’s a signifier of what can often be a wonderful, welcoming, supportive, articulate and intelligent community — particularly if you step outside the cesspool of Twitter and onto more verbose platforms such as here on WordPress.

When I worked as a teacher, the number one rule of classroom behaviour management was that you should focus on a student’s moment-to-moment behaviour rather than making assumptions about them as a person.

This is sound advice for life. You can’t judge someone based on their appearance, or assume that they are always going to act in the exact same way, because there are so many complicated factors at play that change from day to day.

The kid who was climbing your bookshelves yesterday because he was frustrated at the declining relationship between his parents might demonstrate himself to be an artistic genius today as he figures out the things he wants to express and how. The kid who appears to be arrogantly lording it over the rest of the class might actually be struggling with crippling social anxiety, with their silent terror at unstructured interactions just coming across as aloofness.

But no. The anime avatar is a universal symbol of bigotry and hatred, if certain quarters of the Internet are to be believed.

It doesn’t make any sense.

And it needs to stop.


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18 thoughts on ““Anime Avatar” is Not an Argument”

  1. I’ve been randomly blocked from following some people on twitter with a couple of them bothering to send me a message first saying that they were blocking me because of my ‘anime avatar’. I’m going to be honest, as an anime reviewer with an avatar designed to represent a kind of me, I’m not planning on changing it – or if I do it will be to something that has a similar anime connection. If people aren’t interested in engaging with me and their only reason for that is my avatar, I’m probably not losing out on much.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I can’t imagine anyone blocking you, you’re such a kind and supportive part of this community! That’s crazy, but it really highlights the problem, doesn’t it?

      Yeah, that’s the attitude I tend to take most of the time. It’s just frustrating when people try and smear your reputation based on something so arbitrary.

      By all means judge behaviour. But making assumptions based on something as silly as a small JPG is ridiculous.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I kind of feel we just have to pick and choose our battles online and the people we interact with. Fortunately the wordpress aniblogging community has been a pretty great one and the gamers and book reviewers I follow have also been lovely.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yep. Agreed. That may lead to accusations of “echo chambers” from some, but to be honest, at this point having encountered so many people completely unwilling to entertain viewpoints other than their own, echo chambers don’t sound so bad! 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  2. This has been an issue for a while, and the recent political situation has made the problem worse. For some reason, there’s this idea out there that having an anime avatar means you’re part of the alt-right. I think it partly stems from the 4chan connection. The fact that the hardcore pro-Trump/alt-right guys on that site frequent one set of boards and anime/manga/game fans frequent an entirely different set doesn’t seem to matter — “4chan” is now synonymous with both anime and fascism, so the two apparently go together now, even though they clearly have nothing to do with each other. It’s as stupid as claiming that anime avatars are related to Maoism (which Read claims used to be the case, but I have absolutely no memories of that.)

    I agree with you that people need to stop judging people based on each other’s avatars, but I don’t know how that’s going to happen. The lesson I take from all this crap is that society is full of lazy hypocrites and that we all need to be the best people we can be despite that.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah, I’d never heard of the Maoism thing either. I suspect that was just another example of anecdotal evidence that just happened to occur with no real organisation behind it.

      The dumb thing about the 4chan assumptions is that they kicked a lot of the worst right-wing offenders out in the GamerGate heyday, which is why 8chan exists. That said, I haven’t checked in on 4chan for a while (not that I ever spent much time on there anyway; I literally don’t understand how to read that site) so I don’t know what it’s like right now.

      All we can really do is be the best people we can be, be the change you want to see and all that. That way if someone does kick off, you can be secure in the knowledge that you did the right thing, and the twat harassing you is the one in the wrong. These things have a way of balancing themselves out eventually.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. My first exposure to the anti-Anime Avatar stuff was actually around the time GamerGate was happening. I was listening to a gaming related podcast that, up until that point, had been pretty decent, and they were discussing current events. It was during this discussion I noticed that many of the hosts were not being entirely reasonable with their arguments, and it was made abundantly clear when one host expressed their disdain over being talked to by a bunch of “people with anime avatars”. I turned off the podcast and never listened again, because this had made it extremely clear how they felt about all of this, and their willingness to brush off, discount, ridicule, and ignore people’s arguments over something so simple as an avatar choice.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, it’s ridiculous. GamerGate was definitely a flashpoint for this sort of thing. I’ve taken great care over the years to just not comment on GamerGate at all as much as possible, but I still had people (former friends!) assuming I was a “gator” purely because I didn’t want to take sides… and because of my interest in the sorts of games I cover here.

      It really bums me out that rational discourse has degraded to such a degree over the course of the last 5-10 years or so. There are a bunch of people I used to love talking to who haven’t spoken to me for years now, all because of stupid misunderstandings over this nonsense.

      Like

  4. I honestly have no problem with it. I find it no different from people who have pictures of their favorite sports team or whatever. It’s just a jpeg. Belittling the opinion of someone who doesn’t like having their face on a public profile is downright stupid.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Let’s be honest, anime fandom has it’s bad apples, all fandoms do. We’ve got our people we’d rather not discuss, who bully and harass, but they aren’t everyone, or even a decent amount.

    Anime fandom is one of the most welcome, and inclusive ones out there. It has it’s problems, like all things do, and we need to discuss them, but always do it in good faith, with empathy, compassion and understanding. Don’t dismiss, don’t roll your eyes, don’t ignore. The echo chamber is bad for everyone.

    Challenge your beliefs, don’t drown in them.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I personally don’t have an anime avatar on twitter right now (though if I did pick an avatar other than the old twitter egg default because it has grown on me, it probably would be an anime avatar, and I do use such avatars outside of twitter), but there are 2 reasons why I don’t use my personal picture.

    I’m not comfortable associating my real face or name with my forum or social media accounts.
    I’d rather be defined by my hobbies and interests as opposed to my race/gender/other identity identifiers on the internet, even if I personally don’t have any issue revealing what they are.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This article reminds me of the time where elon musk had a profile and everyone was quiet. But in all seriousness, i hate it when people come after things you like. And its just a picture!

      Like

  7. This is a good article and the arguments are worth making. Sadly the people it could most benefit from it are unlikely to, for the same reason they’re dismissive of anime avatars in the first place. You never know, though.

    Unfortunately I think we all do it to an extent. The internet is just so vast, and the churn of information flowing through it so unrelenting, that we need to apply some pretty aggressive filters not to feel like we’re getting overwhelmed. Nobody has time to read everything, and so we’re happy to make snap judgements on first impressions if the reward is a sense of getting more of what we want from our interactions with it. I’m sure there’s plenty of identity politics and tribalism mixed up in there too.

    The problem is that our filters might be efficient for some things but they’re often very poor for others. An example: to filter all the visual information our brains receive, they instant, sub-rational decisions about what to focus on and what to discard. Of the latter they’ll decide on what’s ‘probably’ there to save us the trouble of checking for ourselves. This is especially true of things in our peripheral vision.

    This is something everyone can test with an experiment: next time you’re in the supermarket, try to guess what the person who’s slightly further up the aisle from you looks like, before you’ve taken a proper look at them. Most of the time I’m completely wrong in my estimation, and it’s not small details. I can be wrong about height, gender, skin colour, everything – but my brain was convinced it could tell what that person was like from the limited information it had received.

    Like

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