Aspects of Culture: Online Culture

“Aspects of Culture” is a new semi-regular feature that examines what culture is and what it means to people from different walks of life. This week, dedicated vlogger Megan Birch examines the concept of internet culture.

If you’re looking for an unbiased take on the internet, I’m afraid you won’t find it here. I am very much pro-internet, and pro-YouTube in particular. But first a question: hipster, fangirl, social justice warrior or troll – which are you?

A hipster posts pictures of their artfully arranged salad on Instagram with equally arty filters applied, and only likes something if it’s not mainstream. A fangirl (or more rarely fanboy) is obsessively enthusiastic about their fandoms, writes almost exclusively in capslock, and cannot contain their “feels”. An SJW will call you out on your sexist/racist/homophobic/transphobic idiocy, and they will do it with such passion as to inspire awe in the casual liberal. Finally, a troll will criticise everything that any of the above do, and the more personal the comment the better.

Personally, I’m a social justice fangirl. My blog is full of GIFs of Doctor Who and Harry Potter, but these are interspersed with long and rambling blogs on feminism and LGBTQ issues. I don’t associate with many hipsters but I’ve definitely been a victim of trolls, who have pestered me with very personal questions about my sexuality, embedded my G-rated videos on websites with names like “kinkyforums.com”, and called me “the most disturbing thing I have ever seen on the internet.” To be honest, that’s either a masterful troll or someone who hasn’t spent very much time online.

Yes, the internet can be a very scary place. But on the other hand, it can be the most supportive environment you’ll ever find.

One of the most underrated aspects of the internet is the sense of community it can foster in those who don’t necessarily have much support IRL (that’s “in real life” for the less web-savvy). One frequently cited example is Nerdfighteria, the community that has built up around the YouTube videos made by the vlogbrothers, John and Hank Green. John is an award-winning Young Adult novelist and Hank runs the environmental blog EcoGeek, but they are perhaps most beloved for their other job as professional video bloggers (or vloggers) watched by one million subscribers worldwide, many of whom identify as “nerdfighters” and seek to “reduce worldsuck”. To this end, the community has lent over $2 million to entrepreneurs in developing countries via kiva.org and raised over $500,000 for charity last December via the Project For Awesome, all whilst writing songs about Doctor Who on the ukulele, debating the viability of the penny, and doing their happy dances.

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Nerdfighter culture is a mixture of the whimsical, the geeky, and the genuinely charitable, and it is arguably fairly emblematic of a much larger online community. Only online are nerds so free to geek out about their favourite media, social justice warriors so able to engage in passionate and constructive discussions about prejudice and hardship, and everyone so encouraged to get involved via blogs, tweets, videos and comments.

This is where YouTube and online culture in general have a one-up on traditional media. “If TV is a monologue, YouTube is a conversation,” says Benjamin Cook in his online documentary Becoming YouTube, a point proven rather dramatically a few weeks later when his episode “Girls on YouTube” sparked a fierce discussion spanning hundreds of videos and thousands of comments. Online, everyone has a voice.

There is also a strong emphasis on education on YouTube which can get lost in mainstream media amongst videos exhibiting cats on skateboards or surprisingly successful musicians. Channels such as TheBrainScoop, a cheerful series on zoology and taxidermy, or ViHart’s creative videos on maths encourage viewers to seek out educational material, and the enthusiasm surrounding such projects is sometimes hard to believe; TheBrainScoop is funded almost entirely by donations.

I have a pet theory about the internet: it slightly exaggerates everything. On the internet, you are free to make hateful comments behind a comforting veil of anonymity, but you’re also free to reach out to whomever you please, to share your love of creative content and its creators, to find a community, a teacher, or even an audience, and to fight for your own rights and those of others. Online culture gives everyone a chance to create, to connect with whomever they want, and to decide who they want to be, regardless of where and how they have grown up. It’s not necessarily an equal chance, and perhaps the egalitarianism of the internet is overstated given its ever-growing internal celebrity culture, but it does give everyone a chance to speak.

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I’ve suffered at the keyboards of trolls. But I will tweet to the death for their right to criticise me.

Megan Birch can be found on Twitter @MegBirch, on Tumblr at nutmegbirch.tumblr.com, and on YouTube at youtube.com/thesinginggirl.