Archiving pirate genders

· February 9, 2021

bell hooks (1991) explained how articulating marginalised experiences and worldviews in the form of theory could be used in liberatory ways. As transgender people, we are repeatedly told by society and the medical establishment that we don’t know our own genders and identities. We have conversations amongst ourselves, pushing back against this message and articulating our experiences with gender and embodiment. These conversations are increasingly being used to develop the kind of liberatory theory hooks speaks about in the emerging field of transgender studies. Ever since the development of the internet, many of these conversations have taken place online. I’m interested in exploring the information management and archiving practices participants in these conversations use to organise and preserve digital records of these conversations, as well as how those records are being used by critical thinkers and theorists. I’m going to do this with a case study: examining the information management practices associated with the pirate gender on the platform Tumblr.

Tumblr and pirate genders

Tumblr is a micro-blogging platform. Tumblr users create and share posts, consisting primarily of text and images. Ables (2019) describes how, between 2007 and 2017, the platform was popular with young trans and queer users, who used it to explore their experiences of gender. One of the ways they did this was by coining new gender labels (neolabels) to describe different aspects of gender identity and experience, as well as creating flags and other imagery to represent and express these gender labels.

On 3 December 2017, Tumblr user vonnie from the group blog queer-buccaneers created this gender pirate flag to represent the neolabel gender pirate:

Gender pirate flag.

Gender pirate flag by vonnie, published as CC0 on queer-buccaneers.tumblr.com.

Ce (vonnie uses the personal pronouns ce/cir) describes a gender pirate as:

a flavor of genderqueer which is about being aggressively, loudly, visibly queer. gender pirates take what they like from the existing ideas of gender around them and weave it into something flashy and dangerous. they try to disrupt the average person’s ideas of gender normalcy by appearing charming and menacing, multifaceted and single-minded. gender piracy is as much an action as it is a presentation as it is an identity. it is both hyper performative and incredibly authentic. these people are the the foppish highwaymen, the dapper gangsters, the daring corsairs. you don’t have to incorporate a nautical aesthetic to be a gender pirate, but it helps!

Cloud storage image archive

The queer-buccaneers blog links to a MEGA archive. MEGA is a cloud service for file storage and sharing. The images of the flags that have been posted on queer-buccaneers have here been organised into a folder structure. They have been sorted into images that were the original creations of the queer-buccaneers (‘originals’) and images that were submitted by readers of the blog (‘submissions’). The originals have been organised by format into ‘png (raster)’ and ‘svg (vector)’. There is a readme text file in the ‘originals’ folder, indicating that all images in this folder have been released as CC0 (public domain). Creating, organising, and sharing this image archive suggests that the queer-buccaneers wanted the images to be preserved and reused. The principle of redundancy - storing multiple copies on different storage platforms - ensures they are more likely to achieve these aims by storing and sharing the images in MEGA as well as on Tumblr, as opposed to simply by sharing them on Tumblr alone.

Reblogging

One of the features of Tumblr is reblogging. This is when another Tumblr user shares a Tumblr post on their own blog. A reblog is a repost of the content, not an embed or link to the original content. If the original post or blog is deleted, the reblog copy of it remains. This serves a preservation function along LOCKSS (Lots Of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe) lines, although without the distribution across different platforms and networks. If a post is significant to the community and is reblogged many times, then it’s more likely to be preserved. The gender piracy post was reblogged 134 times, so there are many copies of it all over Tumblr.

Archive Tumblrs

Some of the reblogs of the gender piracy post are by Tumblr blogs that exist specifically to collect and archive LGBTQI+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex, plus other identities) material through reblogging. For example, the lgbtiarchive reblogged the gender piracy post. This archive also includes reblogs of posts about other pirate-related genders, such as pirunhumanus, a non-human pirate gender. However, accessing historical posts in lgbtqiarchive is difficult. The blog makes limited use of the descriptive and organisational features of Tumblr, such as tagging. So while the lgbtqiarchive was clearly created with the intention of forming a collection of LGBTQI+ material from Tumblr, in practice it is challenging for users to discover individual items in the archive.

No screenshotting

Another archive blog that has reblogged the gender piracy post is xeno-aligned. This blog has a link in its sidebar that reads ‘please don’t screenshot or archive for cringe/flop/etc purposes!’. Clicking on this link leads to a post in which xeno-aligned’s moderator, will, answers the question ‘Why no screenshotting?’:

it’s to prevent my posts being spread by antis & ending up on places like mo/ga/i wa/tc/h. i don’t mind if you find a term or pronouns or whatever that you like and screenshot it so you can remember it though.

Screenshotting captures a copy of the content of a blog post in image form, and disconnects the image from the original conversation. Where reblogging records a provenance trail - each reblog is recorded in a series of notes on every copy of the post across the site - screenshotting enables the image to be taken out of context. This is often done maliciously, to mock or ‘cringe’ at the content. Because of this, will states he doesn’t want posts from xeno-aligned to be screenshotted, but makes an exception for cases where the screenshotting is being done for personal use that is not malicious in nature.

In answering the question about screenshotting, will refers to MOGAI-watch. This is the name of another Tumblr archive blog. MOGAI is an acronym that stands for Marginalised Orientations, Gender Alignments, and Intersex and is often considered to be synonymous with LGBTQI+. The difference between the MOGAI-watch blog archive and the other Tumblr blog archives considered so far is both the stance towards the material and the method of collection. MOGAI-watch describes what it collects and archives as “absurd, nonsensical, and/or offensive”. Unlike the previous blog archives, MOGAI-watch does not reblog material, but posts screenshots with mocking commentary.

Cataloguing with wikis

The admin of the MOGAI-watch blog has also created MOGAIpedia. This is a wiki on which the MOGAI-watch admin has extensively catalogued and categorised the gender labels and flags she has found on Tumblr. She has selection criteria to determine whether a neolabel or flag can be included on the wiki. These selection criteria include authenticity and provenance requirements: the material proposed must be genuine and in good faith, not a “troll” suggestion, and it must be able to be traced back to an original “coining” post. Because of these selection criteria and the cataloguing and taxonomic work, MOGAIpedia is a more useful and accessible resource than some of the Tumblr archive blogs that take a more friendly approach to the subject matter. The MOGAI-watch admin is aware that MOGAIpedia is a resource that can be used in ways that she disagrees with, but states that she is “not interested in restricting access to information”.

Web archives

MOGAI-watch is said to have been created as a response to an earlier blog called MOGAI-archive. This blog was deleted by one of the moderators. However, many members of the Tumblr community seem to believe that this disposal decision was unauthorised, as the events surrounding the deletion are documented in various places, including on MOGAIpedia and on The MOGAI community Wiki. What all of these accounts have in common is that they link to web archives to provide evidence to authenticate their stories. Webpages have been saved into web archiving tool archive.today and the Wayback Machine. The MOGAI community Wiki editing rules state:

Do your best to add references when you can and only used archived posts. If the post that you want to reference isn’t archived or you can’t find it, you can archive posts using this website: https://archive.vn/

Capturing Tumblr blogs into web archives is clearly part of a deliberate practice, designed to preserve the content as evidential records.

Use in video essays

YouTuber Lily Alexandre recently published a 38 minute video essay critically examining the social and cultural phenomenon of Tumblr’s MOGAI genders: Millions of Dead Genders: A MOGAI Retrospective. The video opens with an introduction in which Lily discusses how history is shaped by the records that are made and kept. In the context of Tumblr and other digital records, she considers both the problem of ephemerality and the problem of discoverability; even if Tumblr blogs are captured by the Wayback Machine, Lily points out, it is not easy to search for and find them within the internet archive unless you already know they’re there. She argues that “MOGAI serves to teach us a lot about how queer people find each other, how young people interact differently with culture, how online communities form and thrive and then parasitise one another.” The rest of the video is an exploration of some of these ideas.

Use in transgender studies

Academic theorists are also using the conversations and behaviours of the transgender community on Tumblr to develop their understanding of the transgender worldview. Avery Dame (2016) examined social tagging and folksonomies on Tumblr to shed light on the ways in which the technological environments of the web shape how transgender identities are articulated and expressed. In doing so, Dame identifies how the constraints of the platform force transgender users into situations in which they police one another, enforcing the wider society’s social rules about how trans genders are to be experienced and communicated. Identifying these patterns is the first step towards liberating ourselves from them.

Final thoughts

The participants in these Tumblr conversations about gender piracy, and MOGAI more broadly, engaged in a variety of complex information management and archiving practices. Many of them have taken deliberate steps to preserve, organise, and describe the content they are creating and using. These activities also facilitate sharing and making this information more accessible to others. Critical thinkers and academics are using this information to develop theory. This theory will hopefully play a part in laying the foundation for transgender liberation.

However, we do not yet have all of the liberatory theory we may yet develop from Tumblr pirate genders, and Lily’s concerns about the ephemerality of Tumblr blogs may yet prove well-founded. Much of Tumblr still goes un-archived. Where I could find archived copies of Tumblr blogs in writing this post, for example, I have linked to them, but there were several blogs that had not been captured. All of the preservation and archiving activities I have discussed have been performed by the Tumblr community using tools within Tumblr itself or on ad-hoc platforms surrounding Tumblr. Are these sustainable enough for the trans community to develop the kind of liberatory theory we deserve before this material is lost in the digital mists? Is there a role for community archives to play in taking on a more formal archiving role? If so, how, and how to do this ethically, with the involvement of Tumblr users? I don’t have the answers, but I think these questions are worth thinking about…

References

Ables, K. (2019, Jun 25). Tumblr helped a generation of LGBTQ+ artists come of age. Artsy. http://web.archive.org./web/20210111173437/https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-tumblr-helped-generation-lgbtq-artists-age

Dame, A. (2016). Making a name for yourself: tagging as transgender ontological practice on Tumblr. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 33(1), 23-37. https://doi.org/10.1080/15295036.2015.1130846

hooks, b. (1991). Theory as liberatory practice. Yale Journal of Law & Feminism, 4(1). https://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/yjlf/vol4/iss1/2