In the Land of Internet Subcultures, Try Not to Look Like a Tourist

Readers from Twitter, where the YouTube Right maintains a visible secondary presence, were more receptive to the story’s premises. To politically engaged Twitter users, the YouTube Right represents a powerful but remote, somewhat mysterious force. The story’s subjects were more familiar to a typical Reddit user than to, for example, the average Facebook user. They’re well-known objects of mockery on Tumblr, and something like mainstream figures on a site like 4chan.

One user’s home platform is another’s foreign land. A point made by a subculture at home on Facebook might look funny to another on Twitter, which can read as evidence of a conspiracy to yet another on YouTube, which might be seen as offensive on Tumblr, which could be a joke on Reddit. One’s sense of these things — whether a meme is funny, whether an argument is persuasive, whether a statement amounts to a threat — is informed not just by what the subculture stands for, but by which platform you use to make sense of the vast internet around you.

And attention from a reporter — perceived as resident of none of the above — is suspect by default. Indeed, in my years covering online communities and platforms, I’ve noticed a consistent, almost instinctive complaint about journalists is that they don’t engage on the subject’s home turf: If you really understood us, you’d have joined us; if you really wanted to connect, you’d have made a video. Communities such as the YouTube Right are adept at supercharging this complaint into a potent resentment politics: The “mainstream” or “elite” media, they argue, isn’t just out of touch ideologically or culturally, it is technologically and sociologically incompatible with the participatory, identity-centric — begrudgingly, social — media of the future. “They treated us as a curiosity for years. Now it’s their turn,” or something like that.

This is strategic, yes. But not entirely mistaken. Media companies have been largely superseded by social media platforms as internet users’ home bases, as the mechanisms for sorting information. If a majority of a publication’s audience is arriving from outside platforms, the old tendency to cover what happens on those platforms as inherently marginal is not just obsolete; it’s hazardous.

When I report on the internet, it can be tempting to think of the communities I visit as fundamentally distinct from those that a…

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