Discoverability isn't just bad for elves
If one online community is not safe, none are.
I will not say more about my Harry Potter vlogs other than that yes, there was a theme song.—Kate
PS, from Nick: We have changed our "cadence" to three times a week, sending posts about new creators and trends on Mondays, subscriber-exclusive Q&As on Wednesdays, and My Internet on Fridays. (Kate and I just decided this yesterday, so pretend today is Monday.)
I will start this newsletter in traditional Embedded fashion: with an anecdote about my teenage self on the internet. My introduction to almost every internet platform was through Harry Potter. I joined forums to theorize about the Deathly Hallows, Tumblr to make online friends with other fanatics, and YouTube (ugh, I’m just gonna say it) to vlog updates about the Harry Potter community.
Don’t go looking for the videos. You won’t find them. The day I deleted them in a flurry of tears is what this newsletter is about.
The enduring net good of the internet is its utility as a resource for those looking for a community they can’t or don’t feel comfortable finding IRL. It’s a place where, growing up, I could try on identities from a carousel of options until I figured myself out. I’d come home from school, do my homework, read the Harry Potter books, and then read them again—sometimes in backwards order. I was a little wizard freak and the only place I could find people who matched that energy was online. The vlogs I ended up making were for them only. But even in the late 2000s, the internet was already mobilizing to become a system of algorithmic discovery.
My friend called me on a weekend afternoon to tell me one of my vlogs had shown up for her as a recommended video on YouTube. From there, she had browsed the entirety of my months-long secret vlogging endeavors. My friend was kind, and not calling to make fun of me in any way, but this had been my biggest fear ever since I had started: that my separate online community would be discovered by the wrong people. In this case, the “wrong” people were the people I knew in real life.
While the IRL and online have blended almost indistinguishably in the 15 years since, everyone’s respective “wrong people” are still very much out there. Over the past few weeks, the shoe has been on the other foot: I, along with a few million other viewers, were the “wrong people” for a series of videos on TikTok.
The videos are a collection of duets by users cosplaying various characters at a fantasy tavern. A barkeep, vampire, two pirates, a faun, an elf, and more joined in on the chain, which is soundtracked by the Oh, Hellos’ “Soldier, Poet, King.” It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when and where the chain left the safety of the cosplaying community in which it originated and ended up in front of people who found the whole thing bizarre and worthy of mockery, but soon the duets shifted away from the original conceit. Elves became people staring derisively at their screens, making jokes about “walking into a bar in Portland.” The jokes continued to escalate, with verified accounts like drag queen Monét X Change's joining in, and soon many of the original creators had to turn off their comments.
The original creators came to TikTok for the freedom to explore their passions with like-minded people. But the internet has turbocharged discoverability, and algorithms don’t recommend videos like humans. While common interests drove the videos’ original spread, one negative comment snowballs into another until that’s what the algorithm is picking up on instead, dragging the videos even further away from their original communities. If someone wants to find comfort in an online space, they now have to accept that there’s not much they can do to protect themselves from algorithmic invasion.
I’ll admit that when I first saw the videos, I also experienced some second-hand embarrassment—but then I remembered I brought a wand to college (I brought it back home after one semester because, surprisingly, it didn't get much use). I remember how I was raised on an internet that, bar one aforementioned exception, I could safely disappear into. I explored countless versions of myself without fear of the wrong people watching. I want the same for others now, too, even if that version is an elf.