Cyberspace has, from its inception, been a haven for counter-cultural content. A lot of it is simply too strange for the mainstream, but a significant portion is actively hostile to popular sensibilities. Somewhere between the anonymity, the lack of regulations, and the lack of geographical barriers, online communities could grow and flourish in ways subcultures never could before. Print magazines appealing to niché interests, from queer erotica to white supremacy, had to advertise through classified sections of larger papers, and stickers on bus stops and phone booths, looking for readers who were prepared to pay for, and share their addresses with the creators of this content. Now any curious person could anonymously find such content for free, often times accidentally.
It may have seemed somewhat revolutionary to many in 2010 when Dan Savage founded the “It Gets Better” project, which aimed to give positive messages to LGBTQ youth via the internet, bypassing the traditional media and homophobia of their communities and family. Despite how sound this is as an idea, what is missed by many is that such content had already existed for a long time. Susan’s Place, a forum and resource website for transgender people, had existed since 2005, Tumblr since 2007, and TrevorSpace since 2008, and these weren’t even close to the first online spaces for queer people.
Although there have been many new genres of media, such as vlogs and message boards, which don’t really have direct equivalences in traditional media, it’s the “let’s play” genre that confuses observers the most. Why one would play a video game is a simple enough concept, but why one would watch someone else play one is a different story. A whole plethora of online celebrities now exist, who have enormous audiences within the genre, sometimes with tens of millions of subscribers, yet other than their fans and other people who are “very-online”, they’re unheard of.
This is why when the story of anti-semitism in PewDiePie’s (Real name Felix Kjellberg) videos broke, most mainstream newspapers had to start with an explanation as to what exactly it was that Kjellberg was famous for. The controversy started when Kjellberg had two men hold up signs saying “Death to All Jews” as a joke. Whether or not such a thing should be seen as a “joke” is a question for another time, what matters here is that, at least as far as Kjellberg claimed, and many of his fans believed, it was just “a joke”. This sense of humour is clearly in direct contradiction to the comedic sensibility of the mainstream. Programmes on television known for pushing boundaries and making offensive jokes such as South Park and Family Guy put far more effort into showing the context about which jokes of a racial nature are made and yet still often face criticism for being insensitive. Kjellberg didn’t seem to understand why he was being criticised. After all, he wasn’t actually encouraging genocide, it was ‘irony.’
The media environment which Kjellberg was used to operating in was that of the internet, and more specifically that of gamers and gamer culture. At least hypothetically in this world the ‘irony defence’ works. The basic assumption is nihilistic. Any person who tries to call out the racism and sexism are seen as a fool who doesn’t get the joke, and worthy of maximum derision. At least some of the participants in and consumers of this media were joking, presumably. It’s highly improbable that every single one of the hundreds of thousands of visitors to 4Chan are in fact dyed-in-the-wool white supremacists.
The irony-screen did, however, create a smokescreen behind which people whose goals were antithetical to social progressives. The Gamergate episode is the perfect encapsulation of this, but it’s not the only one, and this is where the members of online subcultures struggle to understand the mainstream. When large online communities share hateful ideas and content, and some members of said communities go on to act upon those ideas while the rest simply giggle, it’s easy to see why the mainstream might consider them at least somewhat complicit on the actions of the vicious few.