Fifty Shades of Yellow

Tinhatters keep the early paranoid dreams of internet forum-based fandom alive

Deep in the bowels of a server room tucked in an unassuming warehouse in Salt Lake City, data is being uploaded to Twitter. A green LED flickers as tweets issue forth from @spngossip_txt, an account dedicated to broadcasting, without commentary or context, posts from the spn_gossip Livejournal community. spn_gossip is an anonymous forum primarily concerned with the conspiracy to cover up a secret relationship between Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki, colloquially referred to as J2, the leads of the long-running horror series Supernatural. “Really wish auto correct would just accept bearding as a word,” reads one tweet. “There’s no good explanation for Jensen moving to Austin,” starts another, “other than he and Jared are fucking.”

The spn_gossip community is a living artifact. It’s a holdover from the old days of internet fandom when fans used to jockey for status online through obsessively tight reading practices of celebrities’ lives. The kinds of information sharing in these communities developed out of a need to establish social hierarchy in the nascent space of online fandom, but the accessibility of platforms like Twitter has for the first time exposed the hierarchies to outsiders.

“It is becoming very clear to me that Icarus is being used,” says one spn_gossip commenter, regarding a recently tweeted photo of Jensen Ackles’s dog. Another chimes in about a “deard,” a portmanteau of beard and dog “which is used to help push the living or relationship arrangements of a closeted celebrity.” Inventive conversations like these are the norm among the members of spn_gossip, devotees the larger Supernatural fan community derisively refers to as “tinhats.”

As devotional fandom has become increasingly visible and mainstream on social media, a dependable source of “co-creation” for media brands looking to enhance the value and versatility of their products, tinhatters push this sort of production beyond the horizon of usefulness. This makes them avatars of a kind of fandom as craft production, resisting integration into the culture industry’s established circuits of value.

The term “tinhat” originated in the stereotype of conspiracy theorists blocking out foreign, telepathic transmissions to their brains by wearing tinfoil on their heads, a concept originally introduced in a 1927 short story by Julian Huxley. Within fandom, the term was adopted in 2003 to refer to a vocal group of Lord of the Rings fans who firmly believed Elijah Wood and Dominic Monaghan were conducting a secret sexual relationship.

Speculation about “Domlijah” began on the tail of a series of media articles claiming that Elijah Wood was spotted chasing down someone who had snapped photos of him and a friend outside a gay bar in West Hollywood. The theory gained popularity when a series of users on the DataLounge, an LGBT forum, claimed to have inside information that proved this mysterious friend was actually Wood’s Lord of the Rings castmate Dominic Monaghan.

The claims were dubious at best. Most of the evidence was based on users’ own insistence that they were connected to the film’s production crew or the actors themselves. Nevertheless the speculation grew into a creed. Soon the zealousness of Domlijah believers was such that forum regulars who were not attacked for questioning the truth of their relationship were driven out completely. Domlijah threads dominated the front pages of DataLounge and gobbled up the sites’ bandwidth. “There are over 20,000 visitors to this board every day yet the 7 active posters on this thread are responsible for more than 10% of the daily page views,” wrote one moderator. “This has gotten out of control.”

In a last ditch attempt to rein in the chaos, Lord of the Rings threads were relegated to a subforum called The Prancing Pony before being banned completely. By mid 2003, any mention of Elijah Wood was grounds for a thread to be culled. “The Tinhats are the cockroaches of the Datalounge,” was the topic of one such rapidly deleted thread, which would have been lost to history if not for the vigilance of other forum members dedicated to archiving the tinhats’ activities.

Tinhatters who weren’t driven away were sorted into a few distinct ideological camps. If what you had to say couldn’t be reconciled with the existing narrative, you were classified as one of several kinds of “nonbelievers”; if it could, you were welcomed as an insider. These users, mostly anonymous, claimed to know the intimate details of Wood and Monaghan’s relationship, offering facts about the different ways they were being controlled, including details from the many supposed PR contracts they were trapped in and firsthand accounts of the two showing affection in public. The veracity of the insiders’ often cryptic statements were cross-referenced and seemingly proven by “shout-outs” from Wood and Monaghan in interviews and press appearances, where rings, certain colors, or hairstyles became vehicles for the truth of the tinhat narrative.

Everything came to a head after speculation that with all this inside information being circulated on DataLounge, Monaghan and Wood had to have been reading and participating in the forum discussions themselves. Users suggested different ways that the two could signal to tinhats that they were getting close to the truth, like wearing different wardrobe color combinations to photographed events. By a miraculous coincidence, Monaghan and Wood were spotted wearing some of the colors mentioned in the thread, and what followed was perhaps one of the most savage forum brawls in DataLounge history, centered entirely around whether the shade of yellow Dominic Monaghan was wearing to a Rock the Sims Online launch party could be classified as “chartreuse.”

The crux of the tinhat narrative has the celebrities in question being closeted against their will, often at the behest of a villainous PR department so hellbent on preserving the monetary interest of (straight) female fans that they have sunk their nasty, conspiratorial claws in every part of a celebrity’s social life. The idea that a management team would go to these exorbitant lengths doesn’t hold up. But the motivation to believe even the most questionable insider information is not fueled by misconceptions about closeting in the entertainment industry. Instead, tinhatting draws from the desire to be more informed than other “mainstream” fans, positioning oneself as a key expert.

Domlijah tinhatting began in an era of fandom where fans were, for the first time, extremely connected to each other. Suddenly, fans who had once gathered intermittently only as small social groups outside of conventions were interacting constantly and all at once, and scrambling to find some semblance of social order in a new media space. What brought them together for the first time also put them in a new relation to information about their objects of obsession. The communities that emerged clustered around users with the most innovative, esoteric, or compelling reading practices that made a kind of sense of the new, information-rich universe of fandom.

Piggybacking off of analog methods of disseminating knowledge, popular social platforms at the time like Yahoo! Groups and Livejournal were fairly insular and operated on a subscription basis, so navigating the labyrinth of different newsletters and community thread archives to find what you wanted to know about your celebrity was a hazing ritual in its own right. Tinhatting became a way of separating the elite from more casual fans; if you were a true fan, you knew not only where to go, but what was real. The shift to new modes of information sharing on social media would eventually force the dissolution of these hierarchies and the establishment of new ones.

Censuses conducted on these fan spaces have shown that they are overwhelmingly female. The sense of superiority that accrued to tinhat inductees may have appealed to the tinhats’ desire to distance themselves from the misogynist stereotype of the “shrieking fangirl.” In his analysis of offline cult movie fandoms, Mark Jancovich notes that “the value of membership within these subcultures is based on a sense of exclusivity.” In the tinhatters’ case, Domlijah believers directly challenge the popular interpretation of celebrity personas as a kind of text over which authorial intent (i.e. the reality of Wood’s and Monaghan’s personal lives) has negligible relevance or control. These community identities respond to the need to convince themselves and others that they were part of an enlightened few raised above the masses by their ability to properly discern shades of yellow.

The comparisons to fervent religious beliefs invited themselves. In accounts of the Domlijah phenomenon, a large number of the initial rumors are attributed to a handful of notable users, described as obsessive ringleaders with an almost cult-like allegiance to the narrative. These users as a result of their dedication had gained notoriety as Big Name Fans, or BNFs, a term used to describe a kind of celebrity within fandom itself.

BNFs at the time were familiar in fandom. Offline, the term typically referred to those that produced popular fanworks like crafts, artwork, or fiction, usually in independently circulated fanzines, or those who were involved in fan events, like conventions, and had insider knowledge of the industry. Before the internet, social clout within fandom was determined largely by what you brought to the convention table; the prohibitive cost of creating and disseminating fanworks or organizing events before the age of Facebook invites meant that becoming a BNF also, on some level, meant you had relative legitimacy. After all, some Star Trek fanzines included letters from the cast and crew, and the revival of Doctor Who was spearheaded primarily by fanzine contributors, so it was not a stretch to assume that BNFs were indeed a reliable source of insider knowledge.

In this new space, the ease of self-publishing fanworks all but eliminated the need for those who were primarily involved in printing and distributing them; well-liked authors and artists could still leverage their talent to become BNFs, but otherwise gaining social relevance online was difficult without the skills or resources necessary to produce popular content. Accordingly, a new kind of social capital came to fill the gaps. Gossip, magazine scans, and new media art that required little formal training, like “blends,” banners made by digitally editing images together, not unlike a collage, and eventually GIFs became a kind of social currency that nearly any fan had access to.

In his book Digital Fandom, Paul Booth describes this developing exchange of social currency in fan spaces as a“Digi-Gratis” economy, one he claims is unique in comparison to traditional modes of exchange because of the content’s “infinite reproducibility”: Posting a GIF to one fan site does not prevent a user from later emailing it to a friend. This reproducibility was soon incorporated into the platforms themselves in the form of the reblog, the first mechanism for “sharing” others’ content on social media.

While early tinhats’ work was sensational to those who were already immersed in the narrative, most of the speculation was predicated on the assumption that the audience already had a basic level of familiarity with the text being interpreted, which allowed for tinhats to flex their status by demonstrating close, obsessive reading and interpretation of the signs and wonders to all those that came before them. Since the reblog’s invention, the need for tinhats and others in extreme fan communities to establish a hierarchy based on esoteric knowledge has all but disappeared.

The feeling of exclusivity that had resulted from being a part of the elite knowledgeable few was eradicated, replaced by the desire to be the first to find and broadcast gossip to as many people as possible. Social hierarchy could no longer be determined by who was “in on the secret” as much as who was the first to share the secret with everyone else. Information that had once been circulated only in confined, exclusive communities was now to be propagated by design.

This newly quantifiable form of social currency meant that for fans to maintain their status as BNFs, they had to adapt their discussions for a newly public web space. Increased access to celebrities through Twitter and Instagram, as they have become an intrinsic part of a celebrity’s branding, has given fandom sleuths material to match their motivation to uncover dirt. Instead of waiting for information mediated by gossip outlets and PR negotiations, fans now break celebrity cheating scandals on social media themselves first.

Still, the migration of fans from early social media platforms like Livejournal outpaced the general understanding of the social ramifications of easily shareable, rapidly spread information, so some tinhat communities have survived long after the restructuring of social currency online had stripped it of its original purpose—with only the nastier motivations remaining. The ugly side of tinhatting has always been the misogyny and homophobia needed to make scandal out of alleged same-sex relationships. Tinhat theories tend to center around “bearding,” or a sham hetero relationship, and the idea that LGBT people can be identified by a set of visual and behavioral signs and signals. Scrolling through @spn_gossip, it is disturbing how many of the comments echo the same sentiments about how “mannish” and “ugly” the J2’s wives are, and speculation about which of them fall into stereotypical “top” and “bottom” roles during sex is the norm.

The saving grace in the early days was that even the most notorious tinhatters recognized that their fanaticism cost their objects in the form of harassment, and would stop themselves after a point. Now, with the wealth of information available, tinhats are forced to reconcile more and more details with the narrative they’ve created. It was easy for tinhats to fill in the gaps about Domlijah because there wasn’t enough information freely available to explicitly contradict their theories. J2 theories too remained almost blessedly unscathed because of Jensen Ackles’ staunch refusal to create a Twitter account until 2014.

But for the newest subjects of tinhat-style fascination, One Direction’s Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson (“Larry Stylinson” collectively), the traditional tinhat narrative can’t stand up to the scrutiny facilitated by platforms like Twitter. Fans have to go as far as justifying explicit denials by the boys, concocting elaborate behind-the-scenes scenarios reminiscent of Illuminati plots. The mental gymnastics and obsession with collecting evidence spawns popular running theories among Larry Stylinson tinhats, such as the idea that Tomlinson has never run his own Twitter, and that his long-time (now-)ex-girlfriend Eleanor Calder wasn’t just a beard—she was “played” by three different people. When a controversial video of Tomlinson and ex-band member Zayn Malik smoking weed in the back of a van in Peru emerged in early 2014, tinhats were quick to dismiss the video as part of a months-long management ploy to pave the way for his coming out.

The most alarming effect this had was to stifle fandom discussion of Tomlinson’s drug use and audible use of a racial slur. Tinhats’ solution for reconciling unpalatable information about celebrities’ personal lives seemed to be to deny its existence completely, leading them to position anyone in a celebrity’s life that offers conflicting evidence as a cog in the management machine, a villainous PR shill dedicated to covering up true love for a vague and arbitrarily defined gain.

One thing that hasn’t changed since Domlijah tinhats first took up residence on DataLounge in 2002 is the swift ferocity with which dissenting opinions are shrugged off as part of the conspiracy. Even photographic evidence is routinely denied. When Louis Tomlinson was spotted kissing a girl in a hotel pool mid-March of this year, tinhats were outraged that he was forced to pose for staged photos. Members of @spn_gossip routinely discuss ways in which J2’s wives could have faked their multiple pregnancies. There is no doubt that they would find a way to make even this article a product of a PR scheme, combing through my social media accounts to find evidence of any connection to the industry. No event is too big or too small that the narrative can’t account for it, with the inevitable result that everything, and therefore nothing at all, is exclusive to the tinhatter’s worldview. The loss of their centrality to fan culture is only proof that they wield powerful, dangerous truths the management is trying to suppress.

“OF COURSE THE FANS SHOULD SEE THIS,” @spn_gossip shouts into the vast expanse of Twitter. “This is PRECISELY what’s meant to happen.”