Pillowfort – a potted history of fandom and the internet, looking to the future.

In recent years, fandom has grown a more and more stressful place – in part, due to the current ‘home’ of fandom: Tumblr. But can newcomer Pillowfort offer an alternative?


While fans of pop culture do use other sites, including YouTube, Reddit, Twitter and some enterprising souls who are still sticking out on DeviantArt, most fan culture takes place on Tumblr.

However, Tumblr wasn’t chosen because it was the best site out there for fans, rather many people were forced there after the decline of social network and blog hosting site LiveJournal.

From the beginning of the millennium onward, LiveJournal offered a home for those in fandom and for those who wanted to share their interests with others in minorities and subcultures. However, that changed when LiveJournal was sold to company SixApart in 2005.

But despite founder Brad FitzPatrick claiming that the site’s core principles would remain unchanged, he was proven wrong two years later in what was dubbed by users as the ‘Strikethrough of 2007’.

On May 29 2007, hundreds of users found their accounts suspended – represented on the site by a strike through their name. This blanket suspension, prompted by ‘activists’ was supposed to target blogs focused on child pornography and incest. However, due to the nature of the site, many of the accounts were in fact “…rape survivor groups, and fannish groups,” which included the blacklisted key words on their blog. The Harry Potter fandom was particularly hard hit, due to the suspension of Pornish Pixies, which was an age-restricted community for adult HP fanfiction. (Fanlore.com).

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According to one fandom veteran who goes by Bomberqueen17, this was when many fans lost trust in LiveJournal, and that trust very quickly vanished as the site then passed into Russian ownership in 2007.

“We had to leave LJ pretty much en masse because of various pressures– I was present for Strikethrough and have a viral Tumblr post about it. It got increasingly worrisome as Putin got more power, as well. I was present when LJ was first sold to SixApart, and we were worried then, but it only got worse.” bomberqueen17 explained.

So, not only was Tumblr not chosen for its superiority, many of the reasons users lost trust in Live Journal are rearing their head again in 2018. Alongside a censorship debate centring of fan fiction site An Archive of Our Own. Not only that, but a whole parade of other issues on top of that have made Tumblr an increasingly toxic and just plain unenjoyable place to be, as bomberqueen17 elaborated:

“Tumblr has zero privacy features, no concise way to have conversations, no way to contextualize discussions, no support for communities, an abysmal to the point of unusable tag tracking system, plus all the bullshit of trying like hell to monetize content and being beholden to capital above all.”

Enter Pillowfort. While the site itself has been around since 2015 in beta form, they launched their Kickstarter on July 25 this year. Founded by Julia Baritz, she wanted a site that in her own words she “wished already existed.”

I used Tumblr for years, watching people grow increasingly [unhappier] with the site and its staff while no other site rose up to replace it

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Inspired by LiveJournal, Baritz wants to create a space that recreates the communities that formed in LiveJournal’s heyday.

“[I’ve] been blogging and using social media (and forums back when those were a bigger form of communication in the early 00’s) since I was in my early teens.” She said. “LiveJournal especially was a very special experience for me, in large part because of the communities that allowed like-minded people to gather in one place and really have constructive and creative conversations.”

Not only that, but Baritz has also been witness to the steady increase of unhappy Tumblr users, and in a way, inspired by it to create Pillowfort.

“I’m just trying to make the blogging website that I myself have been dreaming of ever since the ‘LiveJournal exodus’.” Baritz said.

“If there was already another site out there that provided all the features that my ideal social media site would have then I would have just signed up for it and that would be that. But instead I used Tumblr for years, watching people grow increasingly [unhappier] with the site and its staff while no other site rose up to replace it … and I thought I may as well give it a try.” She explained.

So, what exactly is Pillowfort, you might ask – and what makes it so different than the current options available?

On the surface, the basic interface available on Pillowfort is fairly similar to Tumblr and other blog sites: A dashboard of the people you follow, but also communities you’re a part of – one of the main features that sets it apart from Tumblr.

Another nice touch is the sidebar, which allows you to not only see the number of followers and blogs you follow, but also the number of mutual followers you have at a glance.

However, one of the options that has got an awful lot of attention is the way that the comments and replies to posts work, as Baritz explains.

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“We also want to give users better tools like threaded comments and community spaces to easily find like-minded people they can have constructive conversations with. Twitter’s reply system and Tumblr’s post caption system are both very insufficient for having conversations efficiently and comprehensibly, much as users try to make do with the systems as-is.”

So rather than screaming into the void, or awkward cascades of comments, users can happily reply to each other in a concise manner.

But the added level of security that Pillowfort offers over Tumblr also has many users intrigued – especially as at the moment, Tumblr only has the two privacy options: entirely public or completely private. So far, Baritz says, the response has been incredibly positive.

“Just the other day we added a new feature to the site, an extra option to post privacy so that you could limit a post’s visibility only to your ‘mutual’ followers, and the effusive response we got on Tumblr when we made a promotional post about it really shows how much people are looking for a return to better control over privacy and visibility.” She said.

Communities, more sophisticated privacy options and threaded comments are all huge positives going forward, but they still don’t address one of the biggest criticisms that Tumblr faces.

Hate speech and harassment are both huge issues on Tumblr, especially with the use of the site by the far-right and other hate groups, something that the Tumblr staff seem to ignore. But it is an issue that Pillowfort and Baritz are aware of and have already made moves to combat?

“We make a note in our Terms of Service under the Conduct section that we will ban people for promoting hate groups (e.g. neo-Nazism, etc.) and we will also ban people for general hate speech against minorities/protected identities, etc.” she said.

“We consider harassment and hate speech to be a major problem in social media and we won’t allow people to use the tools we’ve spent years building to promote ideologies that seek to dehumanise others and promote racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.”

And what of the censorship that indirectly led to LiveJournal’s downfall? It’s especially relevant in the surge of an online purity culture that, as bomberqueen17 put it, “[gets] so angry about [the existence of fanfiction containing potentially triggering mature elements] that they go on crusades against not only their creators, but against any site that allows them to be hosted, and anyone who defends their right to exist.”

Baritz herself is still unsure as to the exact path Pillowfort will take.

“This is a tricky issue, since we do want to protect our users’ creative freedoms, and there is a vast difference between depicting something in fiction and supporting it in reality; yet we also want to protect our users from particularly upsetting and triggering material.” She said.

“Such issues have already been raised by users on Pillowfort and I’ve talked to a few users about this issue, as well as read the discussions among our users on such subjects, and we have promised them to revise our [Terms of Service] to provide more specific guidelines on these issues before we open the site to the public.”

That said, and beta glitches aside, it certainly seems like Pillowfort could be the ideal alternative to Tumblr, but can they sustain in the long term? Kickstarter isn’t perhaps the most conventional business plan out there – most sites tend to rely either on donations or capital investment.

It was also something that bomberqueen17 was sceptical about:

“On the one hand, without venture capital it’s going to be really hard for them to hit a self-sustaining point– I remember pledge drives on LJ before SixApart– but on the other hand, venture capital is basically what turns your users into your product, and leads to all kinds of abuses cascading out from that.”

If you yourself are curious about the alternative of a new space for fandoms and internet culture, there is a demo account that the curious can use to explore the site. The only limitations are that you can’t post or follow anyone from the demo account. It’s surprisingly easy to use once you’ve figured it out, so it is worth a look for the intrigued.

Alternatively, you could donate to their Kickstarter. As of 16 August, they still have 7 days left to get the funds, and they’ve already reached their initial goal. They’re now looking to fund stretch goals Pledging $5 (Around £3) will allow you access to the closed beta once the Kickstarter campaign ends.

And who knows, maybe Pillowfort could be the way forward for a happier home for fandom. Though probably not totally drama free. As Bomberqueen17 pointed out: “You’d have to make it human-free for that to happen”.

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