Or, On The Internet, Everyone Knows You're a Dog

The first time I got invited to a members-only mailing list I was seventeen. The person inviting me had read a fanfic I wrote (an aching pool of queer angst, like everything I wrote at seventeen) and reached out to me by email, and after dancing around mutual weirdness over the course of a few days I was invited to join a mailing list of a dozen or so people who shared our weirdness.

From there, it was not long until I was discovering the many, many interesting corners of weirdness the web had to offer twenty-plus years ago. I hung out in vampire chat rooms, joined mailing lists for multiple systems, posted in forums for otherkin, and got a LiveJournal account. While there was always a level of concern around making sure you didn't overshare your "real life" details, much of what we did was not only findable, it was designed to be found. There were dozens of resource pages and smaller websites full of essays on individual experiences. Groups of people pooled their past life memories in the hopes of recreating something they felt they had lost.

Did it get weird sometimes? Was there drama? Were there secret mailing lists, and locked LJ communities? Oh of course. Otherkin are still people even if we're not human.

But the amazing thing was that all of these sites were out there, waiting to be found. Cringe had not yet been invented and doxxing was still a relatively rare occurance. Alterhumans, plurals, and other subcultures didn't spend most of our time and energy gatekeeping trolls out, because there were comparatively few of them compared to, say, what the average public Discord server I'm in seems to get these days, and when they did show up they were usually just crude and easily banned.

I think there's a lot to be said for private spaces; you can have conversations in private that are too personal for public consumption, for people who don't understand the full context of what you're talking about. They can be invaluable for discussing specific topics, or even just for talking about one's personal life in a way that can be too personal.

But I think there's also a lot to be said for public spaces, easily-find-able spaces, in the same way that the Hot Topic in the suburban mall performs a public service. It lets people find these ideas and this terminology and it lets them investigate without a lot of emotional investment right off the bat. Even if I hadn't gotten that email from a random fanfic reader, I would probably have found the Elfenkind digest while it was active and joined the chats linked from Sanguinarius's ridiculously massive site. They weren't hard to find, and that was the point.

I think a key element in there was the separation between "real life" and online identity. They say that on the internet, no one knows you're a dog, but that's not true. On the internet, everyone may know you're a dog because you run iamadog.com, which mostly consists of your essays about what you miss most about being a shiba inu, but nobody expected you to sign up for lycanspace with your real name or your Facebook account.

The way discussion happens has changed. The increasing popularity of "real name" policies and the problematic assumptions that come with them, alongside the growing popularity of raids and doxxing and good old-fashioned link rot, caused a lot of older resources to be taken down as people decided that casual discussion and sharing was no longer feasible. New communities grew up in new spaces like Tumblr, where pseudonymity could continue, but the forcefully public and searchable nature of Tumblr opened all users up to trolling, and the rise of cringe culture only increased infighting as people sought to ensure that casual viewers knew what were "real" plurals, otherkin or other identities. (And in turn, trolls capitalized on that infighting to troll further.) Private Discord servers have taken up some of the slack of IRC and mailing lists, but, again, they're hard to find and harder to join if you don't know they're there. There are still people making 101 guides and resource sites, talking publicly, but doing so requires more energy for discourse and a thicker skin for trolls than a lot of people have. Many of the resources that are out there are unsigned, making it that much harder to form connections.

Eristic.net has two collections of links discussing how the otherkin community online has changed over time: community history and changes in the community.

Other resources for the interested