ANAHEIM, Calif. — The last time Lindsay Ellis addressed her fans on YouTube was eight months ago. Not long after that, she quit the platform, and Twitter, for good.
At the time, the science fiction author felt like it was the right choice, and perhaps the only choice, after she felt “canceled” by the internet community she had worked so hard to build. A string of tweets she wrote had stirred backlash, and ignited doxxing and death threats, all of which took a toll on her mental health.
But one year after leaving the online world behind, Ellis decided to attend the very conference that is dedicated to celebrating it: VidCon. She was among the hundreds of panelists at the Anaheim Convention Center-based event, which wrapped up on Saturday. There, she spoke on two panels, “Community Networking: Books That Hook” and “The Ghosts of Pop Culture, Past, Present, and Future.” (NBC News was a sponsor of the event).
“I had a bunch of people be like, ‘Why are you here?’” Ellis said about the reaction to her presence at the conference, which she last attended in 2019. “I was grandfathered in, man.”
Ellis is not the first, nor will she be the last, to feel the wrath of so-called cancel culture. However, she is among the few who publicly has returned in-person to face the community that rushed to cancel them.
This year’s VidCon, she said in an interview on Friday, made her realize just how much trauma she has been carrying around. At times, she said, she felt triggered while wandering the convention center, running into people from her past life and remembering why she left it.
‘I wish I had just apologized’
In March 2021, Ellis came under fire after tweeting, “I think we need to come up with a name for this genre that is basically Avatar: The Last Airbender reduxes. It’s like half of all YA fantasy published in the last few years anyway.”
Some suggested the comparison of “Avatar” and “Raya and the Last Dragon,” both of which portray Asian characters, was racist.
The social media rage only intensified when Ellis sent a poorly-worded follow up tweet to the backlash.
“I can see where if you squint, I was implying all Asian-inspired properties are the same, especially if you were already privy to those conversations where I had not seen them. But the basic framework of TLA is becoming popular in fantasy fiction outside of Asian inspired stuff,” Ellis wrote.
The use of the word “squint,” which has historically been used as a pejorative directed at Asian people, resulted in Ellis’ name trending on Twitter, with thousands admonishing her.
One month after the tweets, Ellis published a video entitled “Mask Off” to her 1.2 million YouTube subscribers. In the nearly two-hour video, Ellis explained, contextualized, and apologized for nearly every perceived infraction she had committed during the decade she had spent as a public figure online. In the video, she also shared her experience with sexual assault.
For some of her detractors, the laundry list of apologies still wasn’t enough. At first, fueled by anger, she tried to push back against the attacks and criticism, some led by a barrage of trolls.
Now, reflecting on the incident, Ellis said she regrets posting the “Mask Off” video in the first place.
“If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t have done it,” Ellis said. “I would have become the robot that ignores everything and apologizes for things … I wish I had just apologized.”
The emotional lows of VidCon
For Ellis, the hardest part of leaving the online space was realizing how people she thought were her friends abandoned her when the tweet made her seem radioactive. It’s something she still struggles with today.
“So much of our lives are built around social media … whenever I posted that post, people talked about me like I was dead,” she said. “It was revelatory in the worst way,”
While at VidCon, certain encounters with some attendees deeply upset her. For example, she said, she ran into a person who she thought she’d made peace with, only to discover that wasn’t the case. Ellis cried for hours afterward.
… whenever I posted that post, people talked about me like I was dead.
-Creator Lindsay Ellis
She’s realized, she said, that these triggers are part of the cumulative trauma she acquired existing online for years.
Therapy hasn’t really helped.
“I’ve yet to meet a therapist who was equipped to deal or empathize with this kind of thing,” Ellis said. “I can’t even begin to suggest what the solution is. Do they need to be certified in online b—?”
Before she left the Internet, she was full of rage.
“At the time I wasn’t ready to admit just how mentally wrecked I was. I was done — even in the best of circumstances, I realized it’s never going to stop,” Ellis said. “I didn’t really anticipate how unable to recover I would be.”
Prior to her decision to quit YouTube, some fans and detractors told her that if she just made good content on YouTube again, she could win fans back.
By that point it was too late. She was “bled dry” of ideas, and the only thing that she had left to give was her video about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s critical flop sequel to “Phantom,” “Love Never Dies,” which is beloved by not only Ellis but also her fan base.
Will Ellis return to the Internet?
Ellis’ VidCon bio referred to her as an author and “video essayist who creates humorous educational YouTube content about media, narrative and film theory.”
But her YouTube account, with 1.2 million subscribers, is now more a mausoleum, housing old videos, like her post about the (debatably) so-bad-it’s-good “Phantom of the Opera” film.
She’s not on Twitter. Her last post on Instagram, which she used primarily to promote her books, was in October 2021. In the post she wrote 2021 was in many ways one of her worst years, “and it’s only now really hitting me just how bad it was,” she wrote. “ I keep seeing people call me “resilient” because I don’t broadcast my hurt on social, or a repeated insistence (both from supporters and detractors) that no matter what people have done, I’ll be “okay.” I’m not resilient, and I’m not okay. I kept deluding myself that some return to normalcy would happen eventually, but I realize now that it’s never coming back.”
In January, she left her most recent gig: hosting the podcast “Musicalsplanin,” which she co-created with her friend Kaveh Taherian.
These days, while Ellis may remain mostly offline, she said she still has hot takes on films, which she sometimes wishes she could publicly share. For example, she said she thinks “The Prince of Egypt,” the 1998 animated film from DreamWorks Animation about the story of Exodus in the Bible, “sucks.”
In a different life, she would’ve made a YouTube video discussing the ins-and-outs of production, showing viewers how the film industry can be complex and ego-driven, resulting in artistic sacrifices and cash grabs.
But she said she thinks that posting those kinds of opinions now could incite a fresh wave of willful misinterpretation and harassment.
“The discourse around certain movies will prevent you from being honest about certain things and that’s really unfortunate,” Ellis said.
As far as what’s next, Ellis said she knows a return to social media is likely. She specifically mentioned Twitter, noting that she will have to learn to engage with her audience while promoting her books without saying anything that could be controversial.
For now, she has other priorities.
Six weeks prior to attending VidCon, Ellis gave birth to her first child. Having her daughter helped her to gain perspective on her life post-internet, and what priorities matter to her most.
Her daughter’s birth reaffirmed her decision to go offline, although she recognizes in the future, she may have to help her daughter navigate whatever that iteration of social media comes when she’s of age.
“I can only hope that I stay hip to the jive enough to advise wisely and that I’m respected enough by my offspring that I’m actually listened to,” she said. “But I don’t know if anyone can actually plan for that.”