These days, “mcyt” starts trending on Twitter at least once a week. It’s an acronym for “Minecraft YouTuber,” but that’s a bit of a misnomer. Yes, there are YouTube videos — many with absolutely mind-bending view counts — but the mcyt fandom is bigger than any one platform. It includes Minecraft playthroughs like the Dream SMP, but also the livestreams on platforms like Twitch, edits that go to YouTube clips, and bits that become Twitter trending topics, Tumblr memes, Archive Of Our Own tags, and Discord micro-communities.
Currently the center of the mcyt fandom is the most popular Minecraft player in the world, Dream, and his “survival multiplayer” server, or SMP. Dream launched a YouTube channel in 2014 and, as of writing this, his audience on the platform is over 24 million subscribers. He has over two million Instagram followers, five million on Twitch, and over three million on Twitter. At 21 years old, he’s unfathomably young for the cultural footprint he currently wields. And, strangely enough, no one actually knows what he looks like: Though there have been attempts to unmask him, he’s known for a smiley face mask and a green hoodie.
His Dream SMP isn’t just people playing a video game. What makes it unique is that it has a story, and a complicated one at that. Last month, YouTube’s Culture and Trends team made a video attempting to tell that story, but tracking its mythology and massive narrative isn’t easy. It’s a lightly scripted but long-running story told inside a game of Minecraft, with over 30 key player-characters. According to the absolutely massive fan wiki, there have been 20 “eras,” or story arcs, since the SMP started last year.
And it keeps growing in unexpected ways. A recent fan project, called the “Penis SMP,” has turned an offhand Tumblr joke into a fully fleshed out world with its own Minecraft server. It’s a radical glimpse of a future where technology completely erases the line between creators and their fans.
To fully understand the Penis SMP, you have to crack the appeal of Dream SMP, which functions sort of like the Minecraft equivalent of a hype house. Survival servers are basically sandboxes, in which a person can build whatever they want, interact with (or fight) other players, and accumulate resources. The Dream SMP includes popular Minecraft players like GeorgeNotFound and TommyInnit. But the server has also recently pulled in huge guests from outside of the Minecraft world, such as Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, fellow anonymous influencer Corpse Husband, and YouTubers KSI and MrBeast.
The actual story of Dream SMP involves events — “The War for L’Manberg Independence,” “The War of the Burning Eiffel Tower” — playing out like a silly Game Of Thrones with anime pacing. Every player in the Dream SMP plays a character, which is typically a mirror of their own persona. For instance, Dream is the name of a YouTuber who plays a character in the SMP named Dream. It’s not unlike how the wrestler John Cena plays the wrestler John Cena inside the narrative of WWE.
Each player can be a point-of-view character, and events that happen in the SMP can be viewed through up to sometimes 30 different points of view. Imagine if you could watch the entire Battle Of Winterfell through Arya’s eyes, then through Sansa’s, then Jon Snow’s. It’s a profound idea and essentially turns viewers into their own directors, hopping through streams to see which version of the story they want to focus on. It has led to a symbiotic relationship between the creators and their fans: When audience members have reactions to what’s happening in the story, Dream and other collaborators will respond on Twitter, assuring them of where things are going. Fans chronicle the Dream SMP story in their own YouTube documentaries and flesh out character relationships in fanfiction which then go on to influence how the wider story plays out.
This blurring between real life and fiction, online and offline, in-game and out, buoyed by fan works, can make things complicated. Many Dream SMP fans engage in a controversial form of fanfiction commonly referred to as “real people fiction” (RPF), where they write often erotic stories about the real people who play on the Dream SMP. In March, a Dream SMP-related RPF called Heat Waves, about romantic tension between Dream and other Dream SMP collaborator GeorgeNotFound, went so viral on fanfiction website Archive Of Our Own that fans thought it crashed the site. (A spokesperson for Archive Of Our Own later explained via their Tumblr that it was actually unrelated server down time.)
The idea of Dream SMP fans crashing Archive Of Our Own wasn’t farfetched. They are very engaged, and they viciously defend Dream any time he gets blowback for the various minor scandals he finds himself in. Earlier this year, one of them went viral after they claimed to steal grave dirt to cast a spell on other internet users who don’t like Dream. The fans are also extremely comfortable with getting meta — which is how the “Penis SMP’’ fan project came to life.
In May, a Tumblr user named slashkid wrote, “mcyt fans will see an unrelated post and be like, ‘ohmygoodness…this reminds me of how shittyfartbaby69 and penisunavailable were during the Minecraft electric chair execution scene.” The post was meant to make fun of the impenetrable and confusing memes that Dream SMP fans are always sharing. But Dream SMP fans ran with the post, naming it the “Penis SMP” after the penisunavailable character mentioned in the original joke.
Fans mocked up art of what Penis SMP “characters” shittyfartbaby69 and penisunavailable would look like. They wrote out what happened during the imaginary electric chair execution scene. And new characters got added as fans populated the imaginary Minecraft server. They even started shipping shittyfartbaby69 and penisunavailable in a ship called “shittypenis.” Master posts and explainers started circulating. They flooded Tumblr with memes and got it to the No. 3 spot on Twitter’s trending topics. Penis SMP fan art was even featured on the front page of Tumblr. In a matter of days, Tumblr-based Dream fans had created a full parody of their own fandom.
Cates Holderness, Tumblr’s current head of editorial, told Polygon she’s never seen anything quite like the Penis SMP, particularly how it quickly and organically evolved out of an existing fandom and took over the site in such a short time.
“Whether it’s fanfiction, whether it’s fan art, whether it’s just collaboratively building something together with their community on Tumblr — we see it with other things, but nothing really in this unique way that the Penis SMP emerged as a trend,” she told Polygon.
Holderness said the Dream SMP, as a whole, is consistently in the top trending tags on the platform. She said that there are even times when Minecraft YouTuber content outperforms K-Pop content on the site, which should give you an idea of how big this has gotten. So it’s not surprising that the fandom is big enough to spawn its own massive micro-community.
But Tumblr was just the beginning for Penis SMP. After the meme started trending, fans shifted attention to Discord. Minecraft fans have always had a big presence on the chat app, but the fact that they began setting up Discord servers to talk about a fandom based on creators that don’t actually exist took the Dream SMP fandom’s love of metafiction to another level.
One of the larger Penis SMP Discords is called “penismp” and the users there refer to the whole project as PSMP. There are close to 500 people in the Discord, and they’ve essentially built a fandom inside of a fandom. There is cosplay, fan art, fanfiction, music channels, and so much lore.
Three “penismp” moderators spoke to Polygon on a group Discord call. They said that most of the server’s members found each other on Tumblr. Two of the “penismp” mods, Cade and lavendes, are 16, and the third mod, who requested to be referred to as “milf,” is in her early 20s. They said most of their community are part of Gen Z.
The mods told Polygon that there was also an undeniable pandemic angle to all of this, both with the wider Minecraft fandom and the Discord-based collaboration happening on the PSMP server.
“I think one of the reasons why Minecraft surged in popularity and dominated during the pandemic is that Minecraft is its own world and it’s not like just another video game world,” cade said. “But there’s also the nostalgia for a simpler age, like in 2013, especially when 2020 had so much racial strife and international happenings. [Minecraft] basically served as a form of escapism for many people.”
These particular Minecraft fans have figured out how to use all the collaborative tools at their disposal to build something together. It’s the machinery of online fandom being used to create something wholly new — a fandom without real-life creators, a completely collaborative work of fanfiction — which wouldn’t be possible without the accessibility of a game like Minecraft.
“[Fandom] has gone in a more decentralized direction,” cade said. “At the beginning, it was just like this piece of media that existed and you talked about it with other people who liked it. And then from that came edits, came fan fiction, there was fan art. I feel like the Penis SMP is its natural end point.”
But the moderators of the PSMP agree that it wouldn’t have become as popular as it is if it wasn’t all based on a big inside joke.
“This is one of those things that can only exist because of the circumstances aligning in a weird way,” milf said. “Like, it’s something so stupid, but also when you really kind of look at it in an abstract sense, it’s pretty ridiculous.”
“Super ridiculous that we can make serious angst and lore out of characters named shittyfartbaby69,” lavendes chimed in.
The latest stage of the Penis SMP is taking these imaginary characters inspired by real people playing Minecraft back into the game. Inside the “penismp” Discord, members are taking the narrative and relationships between the characters gleaned from random Tumblr posts and casting users to act out rough scripts on a Minecraft server. They plan to stream it all directly back into their Discord server. While fandom usually clusters around characters and events from a source material, Dream SMP fans are doing things backward, turning their fanfiction into “real” source material.
What Dream SMP fans are doing with the Penis SMP isn’t totally without precedent. In 2012, Tumblr users began creating fan works depicting the characters of the shows Doctor Who, Supernatural, and Sherlock all interacting with each other in the same world in a project dubbed SuperWhoLock. And, in 2014, when Twitch users tried to play a chaotic game of Pokémon in real time together, it spawned an entire universe of fan art and lore. Interestingly enough, Twitch Plays Pokémon fans actually made ROM hacks based on the “story” of their playthroughs.
But the Penis SMP takes all of this to the next level. It would be as if in 2012, the fans of SuperWhoLock started collectively making episodes of the TV show they wished existed. (In 2013, fans actually got pretty close.) Amanda Brennan, a trends expert for content agency XX Artists, told Polygon the Penis SMP also reminds her of another internet fandom juggernaut: Homestuck.
“When you think about it, Homestuck fandom led to the creation of Undertale,” Brennan said. “[Undertale creator] Toby Fox was making fan works for Homestuck that led to his own creation, which ended up being another beast of a fan work.”
Brennan said the Penis SMP also reminds her a bit of how the fandom around the Norweigian teen drama Skam evolved online. The show’s episodes were around 15 minutes long, and its characters had active in-world social media profiles that fans could follow outside of the show. So too do Dream SMP fans follow the narrative inside the Minecraft streams while also scouring the social accounts of the streamers for metatextual story beats.
“[Skam] was something that was fully immersive and once you were in the fandom, there were a lot of things that you had to digest,” Brennan said. “And looking at the SMP fandoms — specifically, Dream SMP — there is also a layer of Minecraft being a super accessible game that anyone can iterate on and recreate the things they are watching in their own game with their own friends. They can build their own servers.”
It’s a glimpse at what’s possible when fans are given access to the same tools as the creators they love. In this case, it’s fans of Minecraft YouTubers getting their own Minecraft server and acting out their own stories. Sure, it’s weird and confusing — its “characters,” like Milfboss, realsonic, turbo, and Ad. Anus, had no real backstory until Tumblr users willed them into existence — but as the gulf between creator and fan gets smaller, things like the Penis SMP will only become more prominent. Internet users brought together by the love of a piece of media can organize around an idea and create their own media that can get almost as popular as the initial community it all came from. Simply put: If enough fans want something, they can make it themselves.
“It was just like this random Tumblr post — kind of dumb, you know. But I think it just, I guess, goes to show that fandom is pretty powerful in terms of what we can do,” lavendes said.