Gay Porn, Literacy Skills, and Julian Assange: the Affinity Spaces of Rule 34 on /y/

Yes, I know: no matter how you spin it, Rule 34 on Julian Assange just sounds wrong.

At any rate, I was sorting my files yesterday and came across a series of screencaps from a December thread on Yaoi – /y/ titled “Julian Assange,” in which OP rather shamefacedly requested Rule 34 on Assange.  Part of the Anon-authored Rules of the Internet, Rule 34 expresses the notion that if something exists, pornography of it also exists, no exceptions.  OP’s request caused other Anon to admit to similar desires, whether long-term or prompted by OP’s request.  What resulted was a three-part thread of epic proportions, in which writefags and drawfags mass-mobilized to create pornographic material and discuss WikiLeaks, Bradley Manning’s imprisonment, Jacob Appelbaum, and the actions of the federal government.  After maxing out 3 threads, Anon formed its own kink meme with most of the written content from the original three threads.  This in and of itself is not a new phenomenon; the Axis Powers Hetalia fandom has long had a kink meme that overlaps with /y/ threads, and participatory culture across 4chan occurs most around requests for and sharing and creation of pornography.  But the types and magnitude of communal authorship and mentoring taking place in these threads caught me off guard.  And so, despite having my childhood raped several times by Rule 34, I began giving it some serious thought.

Rule 34 requests, if not absurdly limiting (this request on /y/ for Bela Bartok comes to mind), are sites of unbounded, free-for-all participation and creative production.  In the event that no pornographic material exists of the subjects in question, participants have the authority to envision the requested pairing(s), as well as to decide which pairings make the most narrative sense.  Such decisions require familiarity with the franchise and its characters, aesthetic sensibility (certainly pairings sometimes occur solely because they “look good”), and an understanding of what constitutes the erotic.

In addition, the latter requires familiarity with and understanding of the discussion board’s population: /y/, for instance, the 4chan sub-board dedicated to pornographic anime-style art of gay men, is infamous for housing mostly women, most of whom (by self-admission in “State Your Orientation” threads, anyway) identify as queer.  The minority is comprised of gay men, who often identify themselves when critiquing incorrect depictions of anatomy and/or sex acts in art or writing.  /y/, then, in a somewhat reductive sense, can be thought of as an audience that mostly demands 1) aesthetic appeal (i.e., pretty boys and traps trump manly men) and 2) a certain “correctness” of form that results in erotic quality.

I realize #2 is especially vague, and has to be, given the subjective nature of the erotic.  But it is because of this vagueness that participatory culture on /y/ and other pornography-centered sub-boards is characterized by not only authorship but also workshopping original content.  The boundary between text and reader is deconstructed; the texts produced by readers are, in turn, deconstructed and critiqued by their peers.

Participatory culture has been described by media scholar Henry Jenkins (blog here) as the phenomenon of private consumers also acting as producers (i.e., as “prosumers”), creating media in addition to consuming it.  Participatory/prosumer culture is, by logical extension, essential to fan culture, in which fans of a given franchise further develop the fictional world through published media such as fanfiction and fanart.  “World-making” processes like these elevate participants from consumer to prosumer, as they creatively respond, rewrite, and reflect on cultural commodities in often unexpected and refreshing ways, playing with unintended meanings and developing subtleties or near-invisible subtexts in a given storyline.  As such, participatory culture overturns the notion of the passive consumer, encouraging active engagement in discussion of plotlines, development or reinvention of characters, and development or reinvention of one’s own identity.

Jenkins observes that the reimagining of and insertion of oneself into fictional worlds leads to intellectual mastery, particularly concerning literacy skills.  These informal learning cultures, or “affinity spaces,” allow participants “to learn more, participate more actively, [and] engage more deeply with popular culture than they do with the contents of their textbooks” (186).  Affinity spaces are especially powerful in that they bridge gaps between individuals of different age, class, gender, race, and skill level.  Users are constantly motivated to improve their skills, and the peer-to-peer teaching and feedback that transpires in such environments serves as low-pressure incentive to improve.

Enter 4chan.  Popularly—and to some extent rightly—seen as vitriolic and unduly harsh, 4chan does harbor threads where constructive criticism is standard rather than deviation, as on slightly more “elitist” boards and pornography-centered sub-boards.  Participatory culture on the latter naturally occurs around the distribution of porn, usually in image form but, occasionally, in written form as well.  Reactions to images and writing are sent almost immediately, with Anon critiquing flaws in OC (original content) images or stories, simply demanding “MOAR,” or pointing to a specific image or paragraph and announcing, “I CAME.”  Rule 34 threads appear primarily on pornography-centered sub-boards, and /b/ because, well, it’s /b/.  On /y/, most of the fictional worlds under discussion feature heavily implied homoeroticism or sexual tension between male characters but ultimately discourage these elements in order to be, um, not gay.

From here, Rule 34 threads aren’t much of a stretch.  I should perhaps clarify though that my hyperlink examples above are actually not examples of Rule 34.  The rule is used on 4chan only if 1) Anon has searched for the pairing in question and come up empty-handed, or if 2) pornography of the pairing is rare enough and desired by enough Anon that the community decides there is a genuine need for it.  For instance, enough yaoi exists of all things Rockman that requesting it on /y/ designates you as a newfag or underage b& rather than constituting a Rule 34.  Requesting pairings such as Freakazoid‘s Candlejack, Vladimir Putin, or a Hetalia-style Haiti is Rule 34 through and through.

Yes, those are all actual examples, and I have actually seen them, and honestly, I’m not sure Putin counts as Rule 34 anymore.

At any rate, it would seem safe to presume that Rule 34 requests are saturated in fear and shame, stemming from OP’s confession of his/her attraction to non-canonical or nonsensical gay pairings on a discussion board famed for its sociopathy.  So I’m repeatedly struck by the affinity spaces that arise around Rule 34 on /y/.  Provided enough users are present, erotica is drawn and written as requests are being made; if no other relevant pornography is available, users contribute irrelevant pornographic images as their “ticket to play” so to speak—the admissions fare for being unable to writefag or drawfag a pairing themselves.  The Julian Assange thread took this much further by devolving (evolving?) into a mostly-fanfiction thread that touched on moral philosophy, the ethics of WikiLeaks, the rape allegations against Assange, Assange’s associates, and general sociopolitical awareness—all while striving to make Anon come.

Markedly without shame or fear, OP politely asked “the marvelous people” of /y/ if they had Rule 34 on Assange.  This generated a flood of responses in which Anon confessed to previously fantasizing about Assange (“I NEEEED”) or to now fantasizing about Assange despite not having previously thought about him in that light, and to “regretful lack of dick” in images of Assange.  “I want to wikileak on his face,” said one Anon, while another responded to one of the thread’s earliest OC (original content) images of Assange masturbating, “I came all over the keyboard!”  One image of Assange, naked and bound with a bow as an early Xmas present to Anon, was workshopped as having too small and anatomically inaccurate genitalia, which the artist redrew and reposted to much praise.

This kind of feedback and participation, however, is standard on boards like /y/, /d/, /h/, etc.  What struck me about this thread was the rapidity in which it became not just an affinity space, but one focusing primarily on writing.  4chan is an image board and traffics mostly in imagery; posting words without an accompanying image usually results in being flamed.  However, in this particular thread, large quantities of erotic fanfiction were posted as more and more writefags came out of the woodwork.  Stories spanned multiple posts, and several different narrative threads were being simultaneously posted, so that any two consecutive posts were likely to belong to two different stories.  The writefags were at different skill levels and knew it, and readers and writers alike provided feedback in between stories as image posting quickly fell by the wayside.  Stories depicted Assange as both bottom and top.  They cast Assange as being arrested and raped by faceless FBI agents in an act of “revenge” or, in a more chilling indictment of U.S. detainment policies, for no reason at all.  They imagined Assange and WikiLeaks representative Jacob Appelbaum in a consensual, post-work affair.  Sometimes a single story was written by multiple authors, each picking up wherever the previous Anon left off; sometimes this turn-based system resulted in alternate endings/universes within a single story.  In short, the kinds of authorship and participatory culture transpiring here were mind-blowing.

Significantly, Anon had to possess considerable background knowledge in order to make these stories believable as well as erotic.  They had to have an understanding of Assange’s personality as assumed through interviews, of his work and theoretical workplaces when setting the story in such an environment, and of his associates, such as Appelbaum.  Anon had to know, or look up, what each man looked like to effectively describe them.  And perhaps most tellingly, Anon had to imagine the psychology of the characters.  Regardless of the multiple sex acts being performed in each story, each largely portrayed an Assange reflecting on personal crimes, false accusations, and WikiLeaks.  He wonders if he regrets it somewhere, if it was worth being arrested/gang-raped/etc.  Whatever the narrative, the stories ultimately show an Assange who remains convinced in his own vision.

I think it’s especially telling that Anon had difficulty writing (and readers believing) in an Assange broken down to the point of Stockholm Syndrome.  It’s no secret that Anon stands against censorship and is largely pro-WikiLeaks.  Even in porn, the man retains something of his status as a symbol.  Rape the shit out of him, literally or figuratively; the mission statement of WikiLeaks is still sound.

A few trolls did emerge to denigrate the Assange fetish (“ew. seriously? you have a clitboner for this greasy faggot?”) and discourage the creation of OC material (“Get it through your fat fucking skull, there is NO porn of it”).  But the majority of Anon came together to create, workshop and distribute erotic fanfiction, unintentionally(?) facilitating discussion of WikiLeaks activism, the incarceration of Bradley Manning, and the persecution of Assange himself, as well as the rape allegations against him.  Different theories were tried out, different viewpoints argued, while writefags writefagged away and the stories and images grew to fill three whole threads before moving on to its own kink meme.  Intellectual mastery of literacy skills were, if not mastered, noticeably furthered.  And all this while, presumably, masturbating.

There’s no good way to end a post like this, so let me just say that I find the phenomenon of affinity spaces around Rule 34 pornography extremely fascinating.  Rule 34 pornography is itself both the site where literacy skills are improved and the incentive to improve them.  When the need must be filled, and OC must be created to fill it, there’s no hesitation regarding conducting the necessary spot research, sketching, formulating pairings that make sense, and discussing the larger context of the characters in question—whether that context is pure storyline or sociopolitical in nature.

I have no idea how, if at all, this could be incorporated into an educational setting, but the potential for self-motivated learning seems enormous.  These users were passionate about their writing even in rough draft form (after all, let’s not forget that this kind of writing takes place on-the-fly, in minutes, in response to a larger demand), simply because it is about material they are literally passionate about.  In this particular thread, writing, activism, moral philosophy, social awareness, and workshopping all came together in a series of posts intended as orgasmic.  And I think that’s fantastic.

Creative Commons License
This work by V. Manivannan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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