History of Japanese Paper Fans

Brief histor yf Japanese fans

Paper fans symbolize Japan, right up there with giant robots, sushi, geisha, and kimono. While a humble part of fashion and summer, the fan has a history of its own. Japan isn’t unique in having fans. It’s the most convenient way to cool off, after all. A leaf or anything flexible can become a fan, but fans also served as part of ceremonies and as symbols of power. Egyptian Pharaohs owned large ceremonial fans as various stone carvings and wall paintings attest, but the oldest known surviving fans, two woven bamboo hand screens, were found in a Chinese tomb dating to around 2 BC (Yelavich, 2009). That’s the issue with fans–they didn’t survive.

Flyer for a play

Songs, plays, and other works contributed to the craze for all things Japan. Music Division, The New York Public Library. (1896 – 1896). The dear little Jappy-Jap-Jappy Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e3-fc3e-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Victorian ladies developed a language for fans–just as they developed a language for flowers. Despite fans appearing throughout Japan, Japan didn’t develop a fan language. In fact, the Victorian love for fans came from contact with Japan and its exoticism. The Victorian fan language involved gestures such as touching the right cheek to mean “yes” and the left cheek for “no.” A fan snapped closed may signal jealousy, and a fan dropped to the floor is a pledge of fidelity (Yelavich, 2009). Fans retired in the West after World War I outside of dancing and a few other areas.  Ironically, the Japanese disdained the fans they exported to the Victorian West (Hart, 1893):

There is a grate [sic] difference between the excessively cheap, vulgar and trashy Japanese fans that are made to meet the foreign demand for such goods, and the exquisitely artistic fans used by the better class of Japanese society. The Japanese themselves have a most profound contempt for the cheap, gaudy, stenciled products, which are exported by the hundred thousand to meet the European demand, and no self respecting Japanese will either look upon or would use such products.

Japanese fans appeared throughout everyday life, especially for the aristocracy. People used them as memo pads, road maps, fashion, and as a part of etiquette. When offering a gift in the Edo period, you presented it on a half-open fan. When bowing on the floor, you laid your fan ahead of you. This little gesture actually saved a man’s life.

Japanese woman and fan

This photograph offers one example of a Japanese fan. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. (1900 – 1940). Portrait of Japanese woman. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/c261ef12-e4aa-3577-e040-e00a18067776

Araki Murashige was a samurai caught in a conspiracy during the 1500s. The Lord Oda Nobunaga summoned him, but Araki wasn’t a fool. He knew his life was in danger, but he couldn’t ignore the summons. Well, at the time a vassal had to bow to his lord before entering a room in a way that brought his neck right above the groove that kept sliding doors in place. You can imagine how many used this to as a way to off someone they didn’t like. This happened to Araki. As he bowed, the double doors came flying at his throat, only to smash against his iron fan which he had placed inside the groove. Araki acted as if nothing had happened and Nobunga reported reconciled with him and granted favors (Casal, 1960).

The iron fan Araki carried, called a tessen, is a relative to the war fan, or gunsen, that generals used to signal troops on the battlefield. Both were made of steel, wood, and paper and lacquered to help them resist the weather and enemy weapons. They became a part of a sword dance style that appeared during the Meiji period as we shall see. The war fan descended from the Chinese practice of generals carrying a horse-tail whisk as a symbol of their power. In Japan, military leaders first used a tassel of leather or paper strips called a saihai to do the same, but steel war fans eventually replaced these symbols of power.

The Japanese History of the Fan

Fans of Naruto (no pun intended) should be familiar with the uchiwa. Several important characters bear its name and symbol. Uchiha, is quite close to uchiwa with how it’s written in Japanese. The clan symbol is the shape of the uchiwa fan too.

The oldest Japanese reference to a fan appears during the time of Emperor Yuryaku (457-479). The emperor ordered a purple, leaf-shaped fan attached to a pole that was meant to be an ornament for the palace (Casal, 1960). Hand-fans were imported into the Japanese court or were sent as gifts from the Chinese and Korea courts. However, a reference dating from 763 AD showed scholars also used fans. In the reference, the emperor grants permission to Jozo, a wise, old and sickly man to appear before him. The text also allows Jozo to carry his staff and uchiwa, a stiff, rounded fan. It shows how these expensive fans were exclusive to nobility.

Over time, folding fans replaced the stiff wooden fans of China. They came in two classes:  ogi, a folding wooden fan, and the sensu, a folding paper fan. We are more familiar with the sensu than the ogi.  Japan inveted the paper folding fan (Casal, 1960), but no one knows for certain who invented it. Of course, we do have a few stories.

One record states a hermit named Toyomaru made an expanding fan which he presented to the Emperor Tenchi (662-671).  But a more reliable record by the scholar Minamoto no Shitagau states many different fans existed at the court of Emperor Daigo (898-930),  including the folding fan. Fujiwara Tadahira (880-949) had a reputation for carrying a fan painted with a cuckoo, and he would always open his fan and imitate the cry of the bird. Over time, Chinese fans faded from the courts in favor of the Japanese invention. These fans were still large, however. Too large to tuck into a sleeve. Rather people tucked them into the sash or the breast of a kimono.

In another fun story about the paper fan’s invention, Emperor Gosanjo (1069-1073 AD) had a favorite fan with slats cracked in several places. He was a thrifty emperor and high-quality fans at the time could cost 15 bushels of rice. So he pasted paper at the back of the fan to keep it together, accidentally improving the functionality of the wooden fan and eventually leading to a fan that could be tucked into a kimono sleeve.

No matter who invented the folding paper fan, it become a part of Japanese culture. Different types of fans become associated with men and women and their social standing. For example, the hi-ogi was a fan for married court women. These wooden fans were painted like their paper cousins and ranged from 8 wooden slats to 40 narrow slats. Married court women would only carry the 25-28 slat varieties (Casal, 1960). Men carried the heavier 8-10 slatted iron or steel tessen. Paper fans during the Tokugawa period used as many as 3-5 sheets of paper to create their fans instead of 2 sheets for the front and back.

Sadly, despite their importance and commonality, wood-block printed fans and other paper fans are scarce. However, the stories that involve fans survive, such as this one about Yoshitsune (Casal 1960):

Once there was a battle between two armies, the Genji on the one hand and the Heike on the other, at Yashimae. The Genji force was drawn up on the shore, while the Heike men in boats on the sea were lined up opposite them. Suddenly a single small boat was dispatched from the Heike fleet. At her bow a long pole was set up, surmounted with an open red fan. In the boat a court lady beckoned to the Genji army, as though challenging them to shoot at the fan with an arrow. The boat was bobbing up and down on the waves, and the fan wheeling round and round in the wind. It was extremely difficult even for the most skillful archer to hit it at once. The commander of the Genji army, Yoshitsune, called out to his men: “Is there anyone who will shoot the fan off?” One of his retainers came forward and said: “There is a very skillful archer among us called Nasu no Yoichi, who can without fail kill two birds out of three flying in the air.”  The commander, pleased with the answer, summoned Nasu no Yoichi to appear before him, and ordered him to  try his skill.

 

Yoichi wished to be excused, but Yoshitsune insisted on his venturing it.

 

Resolved in his heart that in case he should miss the mark he would not live, he rode out into the sea, and looking forward with his bow ready, saw that the boat was rocking so much that he could not fix his aim. He shut his eyes in prayer for some time, and when he opened them he felt that his nerves were more composed, and the boat more tranquil. Setting a shaft to his bow, and taking his aim carefully at the object, he let it fly. The arrow hit the fan at the pivot, breaking it into two or three pieces, which flying up into the air, drifted slowly down upon the waves.

 

The Genji army, Yoshitsune himself among the rest, leaped for joy till the shore rang with rapture, and even their enemy, the Heike, spontaneously applauded by striking their weapons against the sides of their boats.

Fan and Sword Dancing

Sakakibara Kenkichi

Sakakibara Kenkichi helped develop the sword and fan fighting dance style.

As we’ve seen, fans have a long military history as a signal for war, as a defensive weapon, and as a part of military legend. The fan soon became a part of sword dances.

Sword dances date back to the Heian period (794-1185), but developed during the Tokugawa period (1603-1868) and became the form we know of during the Meiji Restoration. The Meiji period saw the samurai class outlawed. The new laws forbade swords and traditional samurai hair styles and dress in public. Families who wanted to keep the samurai arts were forced to turn toward entertainment. Sakakibara Kenkichi formed a company in 1872 that did just that. The company toured and produced martial-arts inspired productions where ex-samurai would flash their swords and perform feats of skill. Martial art dances, kenbu, featured in these productions too (Fan and Sword, 2006).

After World War II, the Occupation Forces forbade the use of weapons in martial arts practice and entertainment, so kenbu performers substituted fans for their swords, changing the choreography as needed. The new style, called shibu, continued even after the the government lifted the weapons ban in the early 1950s. And many performers did both styles, sometimes separate and sometimes combined.

A few rules of the performance apply.

  • Performers never touch the sword beyond the spine of the blade. This not only avoids slicing off fingers, but also it avoids damaging the blade with sweat corrosion.
  • The sword always remains in the hand. There isn’t any sword tossing in the technique.

The fans used in these performances were modeled after the gunsen and tessen but were made of paper and wood instead of lacquer and steel. The latter would be too heavy to use in the dance.

The humble paper fan has a rich lore and history for being what is a throw-away item. It is possible that fan-culture will make a comeback as summers grow warmer and longer.  Fans would lend a personal touch, particularly if the fans are hand-made, to everyday life.

References

Casal, U.A. (1960). The Lore of the Japanese Fan. Monumenta Nipponica. 16 (1/2) 53-117.

The Fan and the Sword: Exploring Kenbu. (2006). Journal of Theatrical Combatives, 1.

Hart, E. (1893). Japanese Fans. The Decorator and Furnisher. 23 (1). 26.

Yelavich, S. (2009). A breezy history of hand-held fans. ID 56 (2). 88.

Undressing Fan-Service

Examining anime's fan serviceI get it, some of you like fan-service, but fan-service has become a blight on anime as a whole. It’s fine when it appears in genres you fully expect to see it in: ecchi and hentai. Let it remain there. However, the mentality behind fan-service has leeched most categories of anime. Breast jokes have no place, nor are they funny, in an action anime like Bleach. They only hurt the storytelling in a series that already hurts for good pacing and plotting.

Fan-service appears to be simple on the surface, but like anime, it is a confluence of Western and Japanese culture mixed with market and media pressure.  Fan-service has become a part of otaku culture. Throughout this article I will look at the male side of sexual fan-service. Women like fan-service too; however, as a guy I can’t comment as readily on it. Male-oriented fan-service is also more common–warranting a more focused look.

Now, I realize those of you who like fan-service are rolling your eyes. This is yet another article that beats up on what you enjoy. I have no issues with nudity–I studied art in college and specialized in character design and animation before going to library school. I’ve drawn and seen a lot of nudity in my time. However, fan-service differs from mere depictions of nudity. In fact, it suffers from the same problem modern Western nude art suffers from: the proliferation of pornography. Nude art today is often little more than pornographic imagery dressed as art. The photography section of DeviantArt offers proof enough of that. Fan-service, as a Japanese cultural offshoot, has changed as porn’s imagery has spread throughout modern culture. Much of the imagery is a reaction to women’s changed status in society.

Nude art seeks to show the dignity of the human form. It seeks to tell a story and reveal human vulnerability. Pornography, on the other hand, seeks to arouse. It doesn’t tell a story or comment on culture.

What is Fan-service and Where Does It Come From?

Star Trek Next Generation Enterprise

Anime’s fan service has roots in Star Trek’s pans of starships and other technology-based fan-service.

Fan-service (also seen as fanservice and fan service) involves giving fans what they want. Fan-service comes in a few different types. Long pans of cars, mecha, or environments are considered fan-service within science fiction genres. Think about the pans of the starship Enterprise found in Star Trek. Most of the time, fan-service brings to mind sexual, objectifying views of anime girls. This includes breast groping, upskirt views, panty views of all types, swimsuits, accidental nudity, and similar scenes. Female-oriented fan-service exists too. This type objectifies men in similar ways, but for the sake of this article, I’m going to focus on male-oriented fan-service–its is the most common type, after all.

I’ve used to word objectify a few times. Objectification happens when we look upon something and reduce them to objects instead of seeing them as a person. Objectification involves visually possessing a person by violating their boundaries. Looking up an anime character’s skirt to see her panty’s design is a classic example. While the underwear design suggests her true personality, as opposed to her public face, this is a violation of her privacy and reduces her to an erogenous zone. Some of this comes from the Japanese custom of honne and tatemae, the division between how a person really is and how that person behaves in public.

Japanese culture has a different view of nudity than the West does, and this view confuses Westerners. We think the Japanese are either free wheeling or indifferent to nudity. Some of these impressions come from the idea of mixed bathing as a norm with a dividing wall minimally separating the genders. The small towel used for privacy and the custom of just not looking doesn’t seem to help much from the Western view. Nudity was commonplace in pre-World War II Japan. Some remote villages had adults go naked through much of the year. Women worse small skirts or aprons, depending on their age. People would work nude or partially nude in fields during Japan’s feudal period (Downs, 1990). All of this contributed to Western attitudes toward Japanese nudity.

Fan-service ties with early Japanese photography. In the 1850s, the port city of Yokohama was the export capitol for photography, and women were the most common subject. More than half of Kimbei’s catalogue–one of the most influential photographers of the period–featured women. Only 70 photographs depicted men as the main subject. This fascination with women in imagery goes back further to the woodblock prints of the Edo period. Some of these depictions involved incidental nudity and peeks we would call fan-service today.

Types of Nudity in Anime

Kobayashi Dragon Maid

It seems every anime needs to have a beach scene to show off some skin.

However, not all nudity is equal. In Japan, nudity has symbolic purposes. As any anime watcher knows, nudity associates with humor–especially for bathing scenes. Surprisingly, nudity lacks a major role in Japanese art, unlike Western art. When nudity appears, it’s in action: bathing, dressing, working, and having sex. The nudity itself was incidental to the action the artist wanted to show (Downs, 1990). Anime continues this tradition. Many fan-service scenes show glimpses as an incidental result of an action.

Nudity has three main purposes:

  1. Humor
  2. Sentimentality
  3. Sexual arousal

Fan-service revolves around the first and last types of nudity. It seems odd the say nudity can invoke feeling of sentimentality, but Japanese culture often uses nudity to make you feel sentimental toward family and motherhood (Downs, 1990). Nude humor appears throughout Japanese media and relates to someone being surprised while naked or with men/boys trying to see a nude woman when she think she has privacy. Downs (1990) writes: “Occasional scenes of high school girls peeking at male students do occur, particularly in manga and television comedies.” However, the nudity doesn’t make these scenes funny. Rather, the embarrassment does:

The Peeping Tom episodes common in cartoons, manga, television drama, and comedies suggest strongly that the Japanese do reserve to themselves a degree of personal privacy and that attempts to invade that privacy are often consider humorous, inasmuch as a nude person in the presence of a clothed person is at a social disadvantage.

Bare-chested women were common in prime-time Japanese television in 2001, but they weren’t treated as significant (Morikawa, 2001). Of course, nudity and eroticism link. Surprisingly, American media has more instances of explicit sexuality than Japanese culture despite nudity appearing more often in Japan. Japanese law prohibits explicit sexuality and full-frontal nudity of adults. Although this is hard to pin down because of the availability of pornography online.

Fan-service and Pornography

In a different world with my cell phone animePornography divides into two families: softcore and hardcore. Hardcore is what we typically think as pornography–explicit scenes of sex. Softcore is voyeuristic views of nudity and lacks explicit sex. Fan-service falls into the softcore category of pornography. In academic debates, pornography lacks a distinct definition. Some consider hardcore as porn and softcore as something else. Others consider video as pornography but not images. Recently, some researchers have defined pornography as “written, pictorial, or audio-visual representations depicting nudity or sexual behavior (Campbell, 2017).” This definition includes sexually-oriented romances and fan-fiction and fan-service. But this broad definition also includes paintings from the Renaissance.

I could find few studies on the affects of anime fan-service on viewers, but pornography is well studied. There are limits to how far we can take this. Anime fan-services are animated, fictional characters and this may not affect people as live-action depictions can. However, fan-service and porn share key elements that allow us to draw comparisons.

According to Gail Dines, a professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College in Boston: “Pornography is founded on human debasement, dehumanization, and cruelty.” In fact, male dominance is taken for granted in porn and sex (Lyford, 2017). Fan-service extends from a male dominant view and dehumanization. Now, I know many of you would disagree with this. Just consider how looking up an anime girl’s skirt is a violation of privacy and is taken for granted. Yes, the anime girl is fictional, but the method of thinking remains identical. Stories put anime girls into compromising positions and situations to show their assets off to primarily male gazes–an example of male dominance.

In porn, 88% of scenes include physical aggression toward women (Brosi, 2011). We don’t see physical aggression toward women–usually–in mainstream anime, but we do see standard breast groping scenes and other acts of unwanted physical contact. Both feature a male-dominance fantasy and mix unwanted attention with sexuality. Anime may do it to be funny, as we’ve seen, but again–and I know I flog the point–the humor comes at the expense of a female’s body autonomy.

Fan-service mainly focuses on straight males, just like porn does. Male porn use lowers female self-esteem, relationship quality, and sexual satisfaction (Newstrom, 2016). While this is speculation, I can see heavy fan-service consumption–ecchii, for example–having similar effects on a relationship.

Fan-service and the Perception of Anime and its Fans

Soul Eater Not - cute fan-service

Fan-service can focus on cuteness rather than nudity. This type of fan-service can still disrupt the story despite its innocence. Such scenes can offer a chance for character development.

Anime’s focus on fan-service creates a stigma around the genre. In an interview, a hentai animation director states (Mazurkewich, 2000):

Customers who buy [hentai] are afraid of real women so they tend to be interested in cartoon characters. I sometimes feel scared with the increasing number of people who are unable to communicate with each other.

The director paints with a broad brush. Not all hentai fans or fans with waifus are afraid of women; however, this idea that male anime fans who consume fan-service are afraid of women remains stubborn in many areas. And sometimes it is true.

Anime is a rich, wide genre filled with creative stories. However, fan-service blights mainstream perceptions of the medium. Rightly so in many ways. No matter how it’s examined, fan-service violates female privacy and her body autonomy. It takes a fictional character and places her private areas up for thousands to ogle. Yes, it is a drawing, but the mentality behind the ogling remains the problem. Companies make what sells. Fan-service reveals a troubling desire for many male fans to take their own pleasure at a female’s expense. Consider this against her willingly showing offer her assets to a character she likes (and no camera angles to make the audience into a voyeur). In this scenario, she retains her ability to choose who sees her body and who doesn’t–the interest but not the audience.

Other Issues with Fan-service

Asian booth girl

Anime fan-service spills into reality with booth girls and into cosplay. There’s nothing inherently wrong with revealing costumes, but fan-service behavior can link with costumes in the minds of some anime fans. Sadly, it’s not unusual for women (and cosplaying men) to have problems with unwanted approaches during conventions.  Photo by tenaciousme

Fan-service distracts from the story. It brakes the story at awkward times, and often appears at inappropriate times in the plot, such as high action or dramatic scenes. Fan-service also targets strong female characters; it seeks to make these characters more palatable by still subjecting them to the male-dominate gaze. She may be making a crucial point for the story when a wind comes in and kicks up her skirt. Some of the timing comes from the embarrassment factor of fan-service. It happens when least expected because the character’s embarrassment makes the situation funny, but for those of us in the West, the timing disrupts the story. We also don’t have the same type of embarrassment-humor.

Anime has a habit of contriving the story to service fan-service, such as the obligatory beach scene. I’ve seen anime that bends the story just so it can show off its girls in bikinis. While bikini-clad girls are fine in this setting (it’s one of the few settings where fan-service isn’t obtrusive), how they get to the beach–such as the random school trip–hurts the story. It’s rare for fan-service to not disrupt the storytelling and jar the audience out of the spell. You see, fan-service by its nature pulls the audience out of the story. It’s designed to arouse the viewer, which makes the viewer aware of their body once again. It breaks immersion–the goal of good storytelling. The best stories make us forget ourselves until the end credits. Breaking story immersion is, perhaps, the greatest sin of fan-service. Anime fan-service defeats the entire point of weaving a story, particularly with its frequency.

Fan-service and the Otaku Community

Yes, I know some of you like fan-service. Fan-service is a big part of the otaku community. There are blogs dedicated to waifus and fan-service artwork. We should consider what this means for the community. On one hand, the artwork is similar to Western classical art, yet it also often shows the influence of pornography in the poses and situations. Modern nude art of all stripes show the hand of porn in the same way. When porn websites have grown from 900 in 1997 to over 2.5 million in 2012, we should expect porn to effect art (Newstrom, 2016).

As I’ve pointed out pornography has negative effects–it increases infidelity and lowers commitment; it fosters false beliefs about rape and increases rape acceptance (Brosi, 2011; Newstrom, 2016). Fan-service may share some of these negative effects too. Although waifuism does counter some of these issues.

Okay, I know I’ve droned on for a while. The long and short of it: fan-service hurts anime when it appears outside of ecchi and related genres. It fosters a male-dominate view that comes at the expense of women’s body autonomy, and it hurts storytelling. Of course, my Western perspective colors my view. Japanese culture’s view of nudity, particularly in terms of social embarrassment as the focus of humor, doesn’t resonate with me. Leaving this cultural flavor in small (small, being operative) doses will help keep anime’s flavor. But this can be done in ways that do not hurt the immersion of the viewer. Fan-service works fine when it exists within a story and doesn’t pull the viewer of out the story, but when the story has to conform to fan-service, the anime suffers.

References

Brosi, M. W.. Foubert, J.D.. Bannon, R.S. & Yandell, G (2011) Effects of Sorority Members’ Pornography Use on Bystander Intervention in a Sexual Assualt Situation and Rape Myth Acceptance. The Research Journal of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advistors, 6(2). 26-35.

Campbell, L. & Taylor Kohut (2017) The use and effects of pornography in romantic relationships. Current Opinion in Psychology 13. 6-10.

Lyford, C. (2016). Clinician’s Digest. Psychotherapy Networker Magazine, 40(4), 11-12.

Mazurkewich, Karen (2000). The Dark Side of Animation. Far Eastern Economic Review. 163 (32). 56-57.

Morikawa, K. (2001). Television in Japan: no longer reflects cultural heritage but still remains quintessentially Japanese. Television Quarterly, (1), 24.

Newstrom, N. & Steven Harris (2016). Pornograpy and Couples: What Does the Research Tell Us? Contemp Fam Ther. 38. 412-423.

Wakita, Mio (2009). Selling Japan: Kusakabe Kimbei’s Image of Japanese Women. History of Photography. 33 (2) 209-223.

The Dangers of the Anime Community Moving to Corporate-Ran Platforms

Is it a good idea for the anime community to live on corporate platforms?In the old days of the anime community (okay, not to old, old VHS days. Rather, the days before social media), private blogs and forums dominated. This wild-world of shanty-websites huddled across the various oases of fandoms had their own sheriffs and rules. People often traveled between these towns as word (pingbacks) spread of interesting articles.

Today, these towns still exist with WordPress.com living on as a sprawling province of forgotten aniblogs with a few thriving districts. A few forums remain, turning inward as their users disappear for the glossy metropolises of Tumblr, Facebook, and the mega-city of YouTube. Privately-owned websites are still around, such as JP, but they struggle to pull attention from the likes of YouTube.

After all, YouTube anime videos can gather thousands, millions, of views while blogs like JP are lucky to gather a few thousand views. It only makes sense that centralized websites will attract more people. If you see a crowd huddled around something, natural curiosity will drive you to join them. People also go where the money is, and you can make bank if you work hard at being a YouTuber and have a sound content strategy (a regular schedule, a theme, a persona, good production value, and the like).

Centralization and books

Centralization extends beyond the Internet too. Publishing, for example, has seen more consolidation since self-publishing became big. There are fewer smaller publishers, and it’s making books more homogeneous.

However, unlike the wild-days of aniblogging and website owning, you have to play by the ever-changing corporate rules. Your work is a means for Alphabet, the owner of YouTube and Google’s parent company, to make money. You may get a slice of it, but they determine how big of a slice. What’s more, these corporations determine what content and discussions you can have. You’ll find these clauses in the ever arcane privacy policy, terms of use, and conduct policies.

You own the copyright of your work, but the corporation that controls the platform has control of who finds your content and how it is distributed. Of course, the same problem existed when private blogs dominated. Search engines, and later Google, determined how people found your writing-house. But at the same time you still had greater control of how you appeared and what you could produce than in today’s corporate cities. Now you have to dance as they want. For example, YouTube wants you to produce longer videos more frequently. In the past, short frequent videos were the thing.

The 2017 YouTube adpocalyse, as people call it, resulted from corporate and advertiser decisions that hurt many creators. It showed how content creators were at the mercy of the platform. Many advertisers pulled ads from content they didn’t want associated with their products. Many anime videos, because the West still views anime’s fan service and the like as questionable, suffered from this. It’s likely to happen again. Likewise, the algorithm that determines what people see is subject to YouTube’s internal policies. While it is possible YouTube can hurt itself by running off creators, the company has enough inertia that it isn’t likely. Too many people want to be the next PewDiePie.

Corporations also see YouTube as another means to reach people with slick content as more of those people unplug cable television.

An example of advertisers and corporate platforms

Advertisers and corporate platforms.

Facebook sees a similar issue for anibloggers. As FB tweaks their systems, pages struggle to show up on people’s feeds, even after that page is liked. Mainly that is because Facebook wants you to pay for visibility.

Tumblr shares the same policy issues as YouTube. Corporate platforms generally control how your content appears and what you can discuss. For most people, the controls are light, but you could be flagged if you discuss more sensitive topics in anime, even if the discussion is legitimate. Pinterest, for example, has shut down accounts that posted yaoi stories and images. I’m not sure how widespread it is, but I’ve known several people had their accounts blocked because of this. The action was under the guise of copyright, but Pinterest itself is a giant copyright violation when you get down to it.

Private blogs and forums give you more control over your content, but the fragmentation makes it harder for your content to be found. You also can’t make as much money if that is your goal. While corporate gardens force you to give up some autonomy, they do give you a chance for better exposure and better funding. I’ll admit that I have a sort of nostalgia about the old days of a fragmented Internet. Forums and blogs and websites were more lively. Communities could develop on and around something you built. Of course, you see this a bit on Youtube and on Facebook, but the volume of exposure also keeps these interactions from growing close.

However, on the positive side, advertisement has lessened in some circles of the Internet. As advertising outside the corporate landscapes becomes less profitable, we see less of it on blogs (except with the usual desperate, ad-laden pages that have been around since advertising took to the Internet). So in the end, I can’t say the corporate-controlled content cities we have are negative, but at the same time, they can control the content we access. Google and YouTube and others control the accessibility of content, rewarding some and punishing others. This isn’t always malicious. The algorithm can’t determine quality of content, so a blogger or some other website owner can be buried just because they don’t understand Search Engine Optimization. I’ve stumbled across old, ugly websites that shine with quality information, but they aren’t likely to appear within the top 20 pages on a Google search. And let’s be honest, how many of us look beyond the first or second page?

It used to be you had to visit several different search engines to make sure you aren’t missing something. Google has become so dominate that most search engines follow their lead with only a few small variations in methodology. So a buried website tends to remain buried no matter what search engine you use. It’s all the more reason to use established platforms instead of strike out on your own. It takes a long time to get any sort of attention with SEO. If you don’t know how to optimize, your website won’t be found. Likewise, you are competing against YouTube and other social media. So instead of competing, you may have better luck playing in the garden. But, again, that leaves your work at the mercy of the policy makers.

What’s more, we don’t know what exists beyond what’s served to us. Some of the best information is hidden from search engines.

I believe the Internet was healthier when it was fragmented and the large tech companies had less control. Search engines had to fight and innovate. Blogs, forums, and chat software were social media, but generally had a focus. However, most systems centralize over time because of efficiency and because only a few systems work best. After a point, they reach a critical mass where if you want to succeed you have to join them.

It may seem I’m miffed about YouTube and the like. I actually don’t care for watching videos all that often. I’d rather read an article–mainly because I read faster than the average run time of a YouTube video. But I’m not miffed. I’m concerned about the state of the Internet as it becomes dominated by larger corporations. Don’t get me wrong. The early Web wasn’t all great, and it had its own corporate giants–Yahoo and AOL and Microsoft and Netscape. However, the consolidation of content to a few platforms leaves communities at the mercy of those platforms. Eventually–even inevitably–those platforms will change or disappear. What then? Can you imagine the anime community without YouTube or MAL?

Centralization won’t reverse until those hubs collapse. By then the damage will be done. On the positive side, centralization has helped anime become mainstream. It is no longer a niche as it once was. Fans find each other more easily, and there’s more content out there. In the end, Alphabet and the like will do what makes money for their shareholders. That, and not the freedom of content, drives their decisions.