a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Audrey T. Carroll
Rooster Teeth is a joke—the title itself is a euphemism for “cock bite.” The company is built on comedy, on friends screwing around with video games and making art out of it. Rooster Teeth is two things: 1) It is an online production company that creates web series and attracts all kinds of nerdom, especially but not solely gamers, and 2) It is a community site that lets people connect through forums, journal posts, photos, and events. When people make friends in the Rooster Teeth community, it often starts as enjoying the same shows that the company puts out and then joking around with each other, or maybe admiring that someone else makes really awesome cosplay costumes, or finding out that someone likes the same music as you. It’s not all that different from meeting people in your college dorm and deciding to spend time together, except that generally you already have Rooster Teeth as a common interest to draw you together. Add to this fact that there are probably less than 1.79 million people in your dorm. The sheer number brings with it more of a chance you’ll find someone or several someones you connect with beyond taking and hating an 8 a.m. Latin American History class together.
Friendships, online or off, hardly ever remain at the superficial level for the entirety of their existence. When my fiancé was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, I messaged some of my closest friends on the site to talk through the sleepless nights when I tossed and turned worrying about what that meant for my fiancé and I. My friends and I didn’t just talk about Haha, oh man, did you see the newest RT Life? Friggin’ ridiculous, amiright? Bonds had formed through both—through the laughing over Red vs. Blue and bullshitting about what kinds of wedding dresses we liked but also helping each other when, say, one of us was diagnosed with cancer or another might be dealing with depression and insomnia. We didn’t suddenly throw our hands up and declare, “Oh, I did not sign up for this!”
Very many of us meet in person at conventions or local community gatherings or some kind of similar event. Does this make us more valid as friends or as a community? For some of us, our Rooster Teeth friends know more about us than the people we work with or go to school with, regardless of whether or not we’ve had the opportunity to hug or shake hands with one another. Some of the darkest things we’ve had to deal with we’ve dealt with together.
Trying to explain an online community to people who don’t use online communities is like:
Does physically seeing someone make your relationship with them automatically more valid? Do you have to physically meet at some point in your relationship for it to “count” in the view of others?
No one at work likes the same things as me.
Being Autistic makes it hard to make friends.
Everyone at school thinks I’m weird. Which, okay, I kinda am, but still.
When I joined the Rooster Teeth site in 2013, I was living with my fiancé’s parents in Pennsylvania, fresh out of undergrad with no job or school prospects on the line. I was separated from my college friends, didn’t really hang out with people outside of work. I joined the site for a bunch of reasons: because my fiancé had been listening more and more frequently to the podcasts Rooster Teeth put out, because I’d said that, for part of his birthday gift, we should go to RTX (Rooster Teeth’s convention in Austin, Texas) that summer. I didn’t really think a whole ton about the people who were also on that site. Everyone has their story of what drew them to the community. Generally it’s some combination of watching Rooster Teeth’s videos and the desire to connect with other people.
You know what’s even more difficult than explaining an online community to someone? Explaining how you can possibly feel grief when you find out someone you’ve met twice (once while he created his own dance party with a fan in the middle of a convention and the second time while he was taking a quick picture with you) has died.
Yes, part of it is that he was only thirty-three and perfectly healthy as far as I knew and should have had many years of animating web series ahead of him. Yes, part of it is that he died from an allergic reaction to the medicine that knocked him out for a routine procedure; not a month earlier I’d been pacing like a tiger in her cage when my fiancé was passed out on something in the next room and I knew that something must have gone wrong because it was taking too long and so I studied the diagram of the digestive system on the wall so I could throw proper medical terms at the doctor when he finally came out to talk to me. Yes, part of it is that common understanding of “Oh, X celebrity died? That’s sad. I liked the things they did.”
But none of these were my first thoughts when news was made public that Monty Oum, a thirty-three-year-old animator with Rooster Teeth, was in the hospital in critical condition. I’d just returned from warm baked potato soup and several cups of coffee with my fiancé when he read the news aloud to me from his laptop. We didn’t have more details than that, not what had caused it (which only later came out as medical complications during a routine procedure) or what “critical” meant in this context, other than we knew he was still alive. We were all asked, and understandably so, to respect the privacy of his wife and family.
My immediate gut reaction was to post something on the Rooster Teeth website about it. I snapped to “What’s going on in the community right now?” with a side of “So many of his fans are so young—teenagers. How are they going to deal with this?”
About a week before my two year anniversary on Rooster Teeth in 2015, the first news about Monty was released. Within hours, journals and Tweets were posted by community members—promising someone to listen for those having trouble grappling with the news, about the online fund to help Monty’s wife with his medical bills (a fund that went on to raise just under $250,000 from just under 10,000 people in a matter of about a week), about live gaming streams scheduled for that night to help raise those funds as well as provide a support system for community members having a tough time of it. The community didn’t even hesitate, volunteered their time and energy even when they themselves were having difficulty concentrating at work in wake of the news.
It hit us hard. Why?
If an ambulance pulls up your block, sirens blaring, and the EMTs rush into your next door neighbor’s house, your stomach flip-flops, even if you never really talked to that neighbor except for that one time you shoveled her snow for ten bucks that you told your parents you didn’t really take. A cynic could say that this kind of thing reminds us of our own mortality or the mortality of those who we most cherish. Another perspective is that when a piece of our world falls away—no matter the prevalence or lack thereof in the forefront of our lives—it shakes us, deeply and viscerally. Monty was a part of our community, and a part of our community we all knew because he worked for the company.
My friend Raf was one of the first to volunteer to stream to help raise money for Monty. He played a video game on Twitch as we all watched. I can’t remember what the game was; in all honesty, there were probably multiple. That night was a bit of a blur for me as I tried to put community members in touch with each other so no one had to deal with it alone, and also answer messages from community members myself, assure them that we’d get through this together no matter the outcome. Many were teenagers, no older than fifteen or sixteen, had looked up to Monty as a role model and wanted to meet him at RTX once they were old enough to travel on their own. As Raf played his game and talked to us via his video feed, we used the chat room to type back to him and to each other. When he asked for our favorite memory of Monty, everyone had one:
Seeing him dance with a random fan at RTX.
The video where he slept through an entire plane ride, including the landing.
Monty stopping to take a photo because we were cosplaying as two of his characters.
Raf had brought out the catharsis of good memories when things were dark, made us try to remember good things when we could have and very well might have wallowed. But we also saw our commonalities, built ourselves a collective experience.
No one got very much sleep over that weekend. So many of us kept hitting refresh on the Rooster Teeth site that we crashed it, and more than once, trying to see if Monty had gotten any better since we’d last heard anything. By the time Monday rolled around, the tech team at Rooster Teeth then had to move us to a different server just to handle the demand. The weekend consisted of days of streams like Raf’s and of messages to each other assuring that Everything will be alright. No matter what, we’ve always got each other. <3 To say that we were physically and mentally and emotionally and spiritually exhausted by the time Monday came around would be a gross understatement.
On Monday, February 2nd, I’d returned home from teaching college writing in the morning, opened my laptop and, very uncharacteristically for my usually reserved self, gasped as a hand flew to my mouth. I read aloud to my fiancé the post on the front page of Rooster Teeth: Monty Oum had passed away. And even through all the fatigue courtesy of the previous weekend, community members did not turn off their computers and walk away. Was it more difficult to stick around? Could it have made things easier on us to shut down our laptops and phones and just go about our days like it hadn’t happened? Maybe. But, for much of the community, it wasn’t an idea that we even entertained.
We made art and videos in tribute.
We told his wife to Let us know if there’s anything we can do at all, please. and Know that you’re in our prayers.
Come Tuesday, February 3rd, many of us wore Rooster Teeth gear. I decked myself out in my Rooster Teeth logo tank top, the army jacket I’d covered with Rooster Teeth pins, and a red ribbon in my hair. Whatever we had that would mark us as a part of the community, we grabbed. Monty’s web series was RWBY, so some wore red, white, black, and yellow as inspired by the signature colors of the series.
And Tuesday morning, when Rooster Teeth staff came into the office, red rose petals decorated the front pathway, an image strongly evocative of RWBY, left there in homage by an unknown member of the community.
One phrase followed everywhere, a reminder of why we were tolerating the pain instead of allowing ourselves the indulgence of denial that keeping away from online interaction would have supplied: #RTFamily.
For those who knew Monty personally (in a way I did not), the loss was extremely individual and acute. They mourned the hardworking, dedicated young man they knew, as a friend or otherwise. I didn’t have that same vantage point. I admired how hard he pushed himself, how passionate and driven he was. But I would never claim to know him, not like the staff at Rooster Teeth or even some of the community members who hung out with him on a more regular basis. And I still walked around in a fog for days before I could stir myself to concentration on any task.
My God, his poor wife.
What if that had been TJ? One millimeter of difference and that could have been TJ.
How does someone that young who busts his ass that hard get such an unfair shake?
Maybe I should have taken more time to talk to him when I saw him last.
Did these things run through my head as I laid awake at night and scrolled through tweets and messages and journals and videos and all other ways that people communicated their heartache? Hell yes. Was any of that my conscious priority? No. As much as I was able to muster conscious stream of thought, I was using it to go around and message people and reply to tweets, letting people know who in the community was available to talk and that I was available to talk if they needed someone right now and How are you holding up? or Is there anything I can do? or What was the thing that finally made the tears come?
And through that haze of reassurances, of making sure everyone else was alright to keep myself from just finally unhinging into a puddle of exhaustion and woe-is-me, messages came to me not asking for support or guidance or comfort:
How are you holding up with this?
You’re probably in overdrive. If anyone comes looking for help, send them my way.
Do you need help with anything?
When done right, this is what an online community ultimately is: (n) (1) a collection of people who are gathered with a similar purpose or end, (2) a group of people who communicate primarily in a digital capacity, (3) a grouping with similar tastes or interests, individuals of which are concerned with the dynamic of the whole and interact in an accordingly meaningful and significant way.
With the advent of online communities, maybe less people need to feel alone.
I don’t know. What I can speak to is the RT Community, to what I’ve seen, what I’ve experienced. None of us had to handle Monty’s death alone. We do not have to deal with our romantic break-ups or our fiancé’s ulcerative colitis or the maybecancer cyst on our ovary alone. What Rooster Teeth gives us is someone to listen who is only a few strokes at the keyboard away. You can message a girl in Germany just as easily as comment on the journal of someone who goes to school with you.
But it’s not the limitless, intimidating abyss of the General Internet. We know that, somewhere along the line, we laughed at the same joke about a character’s laser face or admired the same animated fight sequence or shook our heads at the same guy chugging a bottle of BBQ sauce on a bet. And even that slight, perhaps intangible, bond is enough to set the foundation for something else, for connections that are deeper and more meaningful than simply a similar sense of humor.
Audrey T. Carroll, a Queens, NYC native, is an MFA candidate with the Arkansas Writer’s Program and graduated with a BA in Creative Writing from Susquehanna University. Her obsessions include kittens, coffee, Supernatural, Buffy, and the Rooster Teeth community. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Fiction International, Hermeneutic Chaos, So to Speak, Feminine Inquiry, the A3 Review, and others. She can be found at audreytcarrollwrites.weebly.com and @AudreyTCarroll on Twitter.