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Gorilla memes, YouTube trolls, and McMansion copyright fights: this week in internet culture

Anita Sarkeesian faces a Gamergate troll at VidCon, while a beloved webcomic gets a publishing deal.

The Women's Media Center 2016 Women's Media Awards - Inside Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for The Women's Media Center
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

You could be forgiven if you paid scant attention to the internet this week, because it was a relatively quiet one — unless you happened to be at VidCon.

The usual glut of turbulent political controversies mostly gave way to debates about copyright infringement and online harassment spilling over into real life: A popular parody blog came under attack, several media Twitter feeds were briefly suspended, and YouTube’s alt-right extremism continued to be a disturbing and growing trend. But there were also a number of happy gorilla memes, and a few victories for Fair Use law to boot.

Gorilla memes made a brief resurgence thanks to one happy bather and one great photo.

No, the late and legendary Harambe didn’t come back from the dead, but it was a good week for gorillas online. It all started with the above viral video of a gorilla, Zola from the Dallas Zoo, having a great time playing in a pool on a hot day. The clip trended on YouTube and then spread far and wide when after Bob Hagh set the scene to music from Flashdance and tweeted the result:

Next up, we have this viral tweet, which started an instant, delightful gorilla meme based on creatively interpreting gorilla pics:


Others quickly got in on the act — though the most viral joke, the one about Spider-Man below, is actually an old one, the brainchild of Reddit user I_Say_I_Say, from last year:

The Reddit post seems to be the true origin of the “this gorilla looks like” meme, which has had previous fits and starts, though it only blossomed fully this week. But if the internet has taught us anything, it’s to never write off a good gorilla meme as prematurely dead.

YouTube’s growing alt-right underbelly intensifies over a VidCon standoff with prominent feminist Anita Sarkeesian

Last weekend at VidCon, the annual conference devoted to online video, the pop culture critic and longstanding Gamergate and alt-right target Anita Sarkeesian appeared on a panel to discuss women in gaming only to discover that one of her most prominent and vocal YouTube critics and a group of his friends were taking up the first two rows. Carl Benjamin is better known online as Sargon of Akkad, an anti-progressive YouTube ranter with about 650,000 subscribers. A member of Benjamin’s group, Dave Cullen, told Polygon his intentions were to, in effect, enact a real-life version of a derailing internet comment: “to shit-post, in this trolling kind of way.”

It worked. In the controversial exchange that took place, Sarkeesian called out Benjamin’s presence in the audience and went on to call him a “garbage human.” Widely shared video footage of the incident showed the group of men laughing and reacting to Sarkeesian as she spoke, while most of the audience cheered.

"If you Google my name on YouTube you get shitheads like this dude who are making these dumb-assed videos that just say the same shit over and over again,” Sarkeesian said. “And like I hate to give you attention because you're a garbage human ... whatever, dude. The fact that these dudes are making endless videos that just go after every feminist over and over again I think is a part of the issue of why we have to have these conversations — we don’t just get to be online."

In a blog post about the incident, Sarkeesian rejected Benjamin’s claim that he showed up to the panel in good fun:

When you have a history of harassing someone for years, and you show up in the front row at their panel with a camera and an entourage, that is not an act of good faith, to put it mildly. That is itself an act of harassment and intimidation.

The incident sparked outrage from many VidCon attendees, with comparisons made to the recent turn to the alt-right of prominent YouTube feminist Laci Green. Meanwhile, alt-right members bombarded VidCon organizer Hank Green with requests to ban Sarkeesian from the event for “harassing” Benjamin.

Green instead issued a blanket apology, noting that “[Sarkeesian’s] comment had violated [VidCon’s] policy, but that he understood that there was a broader context (which to be clear, we were blissfully ignorant of until this weekend, and remain inexpert in.)” The statement drew skepticism given Green’s familiarity with YouTube culture, where Sarkeesian has long been a prominent target of Gamergate-related vlogs.

Green also said he “apologized to [Sarkeesian] for not having been more aware of and active in understanding the situation before the event, which resulted in her being subjected to a hostile environment that she had not signed up for.” The VidCon statement did not address how VidCon plans to avoid such incidents in the future, but did note that “if people attend VidCon to collect footage to later use in videos that criticize not just ideas, but focus the outrage of their followers on individuals, they will not be welcome back.”

Apart from the nebulous possibility of Benjamin being banned from VidCon next year, the incident has resulted in the crowdfunding site Patreon looking into the incident but ultimately choosing not to take action against Benjamin, whose videos currently earn him over $6,000 monthly. What seems clear is that the attention appears to have emboldened Benjamin and other alt-right and anti-progressive YouTubers — who want you to know that their presence and influence within the YouTube community is growing.

Twitter suspended accounts owned by various music media outlets over allegations of copyright infringement; users’ reactions were predictable

Twitter has (briefly) suspended a number of music media outlets within the past two weeks for copyright infringement, including accounts for popular magazines T\the Fader, Pigeons and Planes, 2DopeBoyz, and Hip Hop N More. As the Verge reported earlier this week, after multiple media outlets posted images on social media of last weekend’s BET Awards, they were hit with copyright notices from BET owner Viacom, which could have been the reason for the Twitter suspension. As of this writing, all of the accounts except Hip Hop N More’s have been reinstated; that site’s editor told the Verge he believed the outlet was suspended, not for posting photos of the BET Awards, but for tweeting an album track list two weeks earlier.

The suspensions, just as we’ve seen with other recent Twitter suspensions, provoked backlash, prompting the circulation of the #FreeFader hashtag. The tone of the hashtag was generally one criticizing Twitter for not doing enough to ban Twitter harassment and white supremacists while targeting popular media for copyright infringement:

But this wasn’t the week’s only polarizing copyright takedown.

Zillow almost intimidated a popular parody blog out of existence

An example of a typical McMansion Hell image remix

The popular architecture Tumblr McMansion Hell has long been the perfect mix of comedy remixing, internet vernacular, and actually informative educational posts about architecture. But that almost changed this week after real estate site Zillow sent its owner, grad student Kate Wagner, a cease-and-desist order alleging copyright infringement.

Despite the fact that Wagner’s work clearly fell into several categories of commentary which make it a protected work under Fair Use law, the clause of US copyright law which allows for parodic and educational remixes of material, Wagner was intimidated into briefly shutting down her website — exactly the kind of move such cease-and-desist notices are designed to provoke. The negative press and popular backlash against Zillow for the move, however, meant that Wagner also had lots of offers coming her way to help — including one from the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, which crafted a masterful response in defense of fair use and remix culture:

Fair Use architecture in a nutshell.

The pressure ultimately caused Zillow to back down from its claim — a smart move, since the takedown attempt was rapidly turning into an example of the Streisand Effect — the internet rule of thumb that an attempt to censor something usually makes that thing even more popular and likely to spread even more rapidly. It all adds up to a victory for Fair Use advocates, remix culture, and lovers of shitty architecture and interior design. Well done, internet.

The internet’s snazziest fanfiction archive now hosts 25,000 fandoms

The Archive of Our Own, popularly known as AO3, is a pretty cool place that was once named one of Time’s 50 best sites on the internet. The site, a fanfiction archive, is run by a fandom nonprofit called the Organization for Transformative Works, or OTW. (Disclosure: I am a longtime OTW member and once served on the organization’s fundraising committee.)

The OTW’s general goal is to provide a safe home for fanworks online and to advocate for their legality as Fair Use under copyright law. It might surprise you, given the recent cultural ascendency of fanfiction, to know that it still occupies a dubious legal status, with courts upholding some prominent examples as Fair Use, while deeming other prominent examples as infringement.

One of the best ways to advocate for fanfiction as a non-illegal pursuit is just to write it and read it. So if you’re a fan of fanworks, as many people are, it might make you happy to learn that AO3 recently announced that the total number of fandoms on the site has ballooned to 25,000 since the site was founded 10 years ago. To be clear, that’s not 25,000 works of fanfic, but rather 25,000 different topics about which fanfiction is being written; the number of total fanfics at AO3 passed the 3 million mark earlier this year. (By contrast, of the other two most well-known fanfiction archives on the internet, had around 6,000 fandoms and 3 million works of fanfic as of a 2011 survey. Wattpad, the self-publishing juggernaut which also encourages fanfiction, doesn’t categorize works by fandom.)

The AO3’s fanfiction categories include everything from run-of-the-mill fanfic about books and movies and TV to fanfic about real people (RPF), to fanfic about commercials, hashtags, and fun Tumblr posts. At this point in the life of the internet, Rule 34 — the dictum that if something exists, someone has made a porn of it — can be expanded and extrapolated to a daily walkthrough AO3: If it exists, there’s fanfiction about it.

Your fave hockey webcomic lands a publishing deal


Check, Please! is a beloved Tumblr webcomic about queer collegiate hockey players that had taken fandom by storm and become a major success for its young author, Ngozi Ukazu. And now Entertainment Weekly has announced that the series will be published in a two-volume series by First Second Books, a fandom-friendly graphic novel publisher that’s most well-known for discovering MacArthur Fellow and graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang. On Tumblr, in the midst of all the excitement, Ukazu thanked her followers for their ongoing support, while fans began to make plans for their holy grail: a Netflix adaptation.

If Tumblr fans have proven anything, it’s that they can make such dreams a reality, so keep on dreaming bigger, Check, Please! fandom.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed the quote by Dave Cullen to Carl Benjamin.

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