23rd September 2023

A Virtual World of Live Pictures

Technology and Computer

How Alex Wennberg got caught up in a social media nightmare

CONTENT WARNING: Hi, this is a Content Warning in case some of the things you see here might be a bit too much for certain audiences, specifically those who are sensitive to sexual harassment and to cyberbullying. If you’re not? That’s fine. This is an advance warning for those who aren’t.

Hi, welcome to a hockey website where today, we have to discuss a lot of things only tangentially related to NHL hockey.

Let’s start at the top with what’s happening, in a simple paragraph:

Kraken forward Alex Wennberg, and his wife Felicia, are getting systematically harassed by a group of people on social media website Tiktok because Felicia asked a certain group of users on Tiktok to stop oversexualizing and objectifying her husband on her Instagram. This certain group of users have spent the last three days harassing the Tiktok comment section of the Kraken, and Alex and Felicia’s instagram pages in response.

Confused? Annoyed? Well, this is the article to try and untangle all of this for you.

First, a briefing on Tiktok and how it works

Tiktok is a micro-video hosting service owned by the company Bytedance. The general format of posts on Tiktok are videos from 3 seconds to up to 10 minutes. These videos can be edited with filters, sped up and slowed down, and given background music. Since its launch in 2018, Tiktok has become the single most popular website on the planet, surpassing even the homepage of Google and it’s effect on pop culture has already been felt in a major way. Many pop artists today have gotten their start on this platform, and many a song has taken off or been re-discovered and thus re-popularized by users. Much of the content is largely tweens and teenagers dancing to music, but it has also been used in much the same way a similar platform known as Vine used to be; as short-form storytelling.

Errant Signal, a very-not-hockey-but-still-very-good YouTube channel, did a great dive into how this particular platform works, and will probably describe it better than I can.

So how did Wennberg get popular there in the first place?

One of the many niche communities on this website is “Booktok”, videos made by Tiktok users or videos about various kinds of Books and the characters and stories therein. One of the sides to this particular community is the ultra-niche community of hockey romance novel tiktok. There is no pithy portmanteau for that, so unfortunately “Booktok” is going to have to serve our purposes for the rest of this article.

Anyway, “Booktok” occasionally does something called “Faceclaiming”; essentially assigning a real life person to a book character as though they were casting them for a movie. This is often seen in the video game or movie space as “Fancasting”; it’s essentially the same exercise.

Anyway, Alex Wennberg was at one point faceclaimed for a character in a novel…and then it began to be noticed that Alex Wennberg is in fact an extremely attractive man, where anything else sort of fell to the wayside after that.

Kraken social media feeds the flames

If there can be said to be fairness towards the group who is, and this bears repeating, systemically harassing Alex Wennberg and his wife, it’s that if they felt the Kraken were egging them on and gave the impression it was okay do do the kinds of things that they would end up doing, they might’ve had a point. The Kraken noticed their Tiktoks with Wennberg in them got notice and so…they kept making them.

Most of the Booktok posts were benign, high quality pictures and videos of Wennberg at warmups, slo-mo vids…the kind of stuff that is honestly normal, just hyperfocused on Wennberg because…well…he looks like him.

This led to a massive influx of followers for the Team’s account, and a niche community within a niche community within a niche community forming. The Kraken even flew in one of the largest creators in this space; Kierra Lewis, to a late season game and even presented her with a “Booktok” jersey. This led to more Wennberg-based posts, more engagement, more followers… and a slow but sure degradation of the kind of comments and videos made about him from simple admiration to something a little more crass, but more specifically…crass and direct.

Things go too far, and Felicia Wennberg speaks up

The Tiktoks being made about Wennberg over time became far more sexually charged. This is not necessarily new, but where it began to become uncomfortable was that Wennberg began to be tagged directly in these. At some point, they went from tags, to Direct Messages.

Felicia, Alex’s wife whom he is legally married to and has been presumably shown these direct messages, posted a very thoughtful request regarding these kinds of messages. She would like them to stop, or at the bare minimum reflect on their conduct.

The Kraken’s Tiktok account, to their credit, did their part and deleted pretty much all of the Booktok related posts, which is why we could not share examples from their page specifically.

So, with that well-worded ask given, how did Booktok take this particular request?

The Hornet’s Nest is stirred

The answer, of course…is “poorly”.

Many of them were quite hurt by a brand using their trends and tropes to advertise to them and then pulling it at the first sign of trouble. I am being explicitly flippant about this because…well…this happens constantly on the internet as it has before its creation.

The funniest responses, if they can be said to exist, are the ones suggesting that a few hundred people on Tiktok are the crux of an NHL hockey team’s attendance. Somehow a major metropolitan area that has not had professional level hockey played in their city or region of the country for nearly a century hinges on them alone. Or the idea that a player who has made over $30 million dollars playing this game for ten years could be in any financial peril for this decision.

Damn. Didn’t know most of the guys down at the Beer Garden were watching Tiktok that whole time.

Unfortunately, I am using that particular comment as the sugar to get the rest of them down because the rest are…bad. Most expressed quite a bit of outrage that she spoke up at all about a man she is currently married to, and some simply used it as a launching point for continued harassment based on a semi-bawdy joke Lewis made in previous Booktok related videos:

Others accused Felicia or Alex of cheating, which is gross, to put it extremely mildly:

Felicia made a follow-up post clarifying her position almost immediately.

I really wanted my post to be one statement and be taken for what it was; a request for accountability, respect, boundaries, and for people to educate themselves on sexual harassment, consent, and the double standard I see online.

…I understand that people are confused by the timing of my statement but while the creator is hung up on it being 4 months since she posted the video she and her following do not seem to grasp that the video has continued to show up in our lives on a daily basis. We get sent this video and other videos of Alex on a weekly if not daily basis. Every game I’ve been to and talked to fans I get in my head if these are genuine hockey fans or the people who comment that they masturbate with his jersey on. Everyone we meet talks to us about it so it makes it really hard to continue to hope this would calm down on it’s own. While I really want to believe a lot of it is innocent comments, I think the behavior I’ve seen since my post has proven my original point…

– Felicia Wennberg’s Instagram Story

The video in question is of Lewis requesting that Wennberg and his teammates “Score on all three of her holes”.

It did not improve Booktok’s response whatsoever. In fact, it got bad enough to the point that Alex, who has been quiet through all of this, finally had something to say on his Instagram Story, calling for a specific end to all of this that, insofar, has gone unheeded.

Over the last couple of days, me and especially my wife, have been getting lots of criticism for speaking up about sexual harassment on Tiktok.
As someone who’s been media trained my whole life, I’ve been taught to bite my tongue and leave it instead of making a statement. But it has gone too far for me to stay quiet when people are posting vile comments on my wife’s Instagram and on photos of our child. The reason my wife said something and not me is because she simply does it better and more bravely than me.
I’m all for the Booktok community to write books and fiction about hockey but the aggressive language about real life players is too much. It has turned into daily and weekly comments on our personal social media. This is not something we support or want our child to grow up with. All we ask for is a little respect and common sense moving forward.
We can all take a joke and funny comments but when it turns personal and into something bigger that effects our family, we need to tell you that we’ve had enough. Enough of sexual harassment, and harassment of our character and our relationship.
Thank you for your understanding.

– Alex Wennberg’s Instagram Story

For a moment, I need to point out just how rare it is that any player breaks their own media training to say something like this. Players are often trained from day one to understand what to say in front of a microphone and as such it can be really hard to get a good, authentic piece of opinion straight from them. For him to do this, in short, means that this actually bothers him quite a bit.

As far as we know, the harassment has continued unabated, though recently there has been an outpouring of support from fans trying to counteract the toxicity.

The Lines We Draw

Consent is a difficult topic these days. It really shouldn’t be, because I presume most of us are grown-ass adults who understand the concept well enough, but we wouldn’t be here if it was.

Part of the issue with consent is that we often think about it in extremely clinical, emotionless terms. Like a contract negotiation or a business deal that needs to be signed and sealed and whatnot. The reality is that it’s as easy as asking “Is this alright?” and then reacting appropriately to “Sure” or “What? No.” like a normal person. But even that is often blurred when we come to fictional work, as well as public figures who are given an enormous platform.

Personally, I do not care what someone creates on the internet, as long as it does not personally harm a real life living breathing person with thoughts, feelings, aspirations and tummy aches. If they want to religiously follow fanfiction writers for their content, pay through the nose for an artist to depict an ultra-specific fetish, then fine. Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.

The reality is that Consent, at any time, can be revoked or given. It is a pass you can lose or get from one party to another based on lines the other party draws.

My personal line of “that’s enough” stops at Real Life Human Beings. It’s fine, maybe a little weird to the outside observer, but fine, if you write a fiction using real people as characters. We’ve done that particular thing for centuries. When it bleeds over into treating that very real person as if they were fictional characters? As though they were lesser? That I think enters very scary territory that I think most people would agree crosses the boundary of acceptable behavior. That’s not just weird, that’s creepy and gross in a way that would be far too familiar to readers if the subject of this harassment were…say…Marie-Phillip Poulin or Hilary Knight.

Can you still write it however? I sure as hell can’t stop you. I do actively draw the line however between putting it online for people to see and actively treating the subject as if they were the fictionalized versions in real life. That’s a bridge too far. Felicia and Alex are normal people who have cheat days, long flights, wait in line, and swear at appliances when they break. They do not deserve to be treated like this because of a perfectly normal request that, by all accounts, was perfectly respectful.

Hell, the reason I keep highlighting that Felicia is married to Alex legally in this article is that I am actively having trouble wrapping my head around a certain thought process that makes it at all acceptable to tell the wife of a person that their husband is, in order:

  • Out of line
  • Jealous
  • Has ulterior motives for asking for this beyond the active sexual harassment ongoing in their direct messages
  • Is secretly cheating

…without a shred of dissonance suddenly creeping in. Like it hasn’t been seen before in different contexts. That above all else bugs me.

Do I also think there’s something to be said about the Kraken social media team feeding into this particular phenomenon? Sure!

I definitely think it was a little strange of them to uncritically feed into this trend without exploring it further, especially given their decision to actively enable it given Booktok’s proclivity towards 18+ material. I definitely think that it is very irresponsible of the team’s social media team to give the impression that they were as willing as they were to go along with it until they very much weren’t. But as absurd and deeply upsetting as this particular scenario is, I do believe there is a germ of good marketing in here; Booktok is predominantly comprised of women, queer people, and people of color, who have otherwise not been grabbed by the NHL’s marketing (because the NHL’s marketing sucks and you can quote me on that) that could be grabbed by this kind of material or material adjacent to it. Even better, there is precedent for this; many women previously came to the sport through fanfiction and a previously thriving Tumblr community in the late 2000’s and 2010’s; they got involved, many of them actually sat down and watched the sport, and became hockey fans as a result.

This can be done right without crossing these kinds of lines, and getting to this point where players and their wives have to ask prospective fans to be normal.

Is the backpedal quite sudden? Absolutely. That’s probably something Felicia had to go through multiple hoops to even have happen in the first place. Is it mercenary and cavalier and kinda soulless? You bet, but you can also bet that the publishing industry does, is doing, and has done the exact same thing, and will almost certainly do it to Booktok the instant they find a better way to advertise their work without making it feel like advertising. That is how these things work. I suspect that the Kraken will likely try to make things right internally between the two, and release a statement in the coming days.

There’s a big difference between becoming fans of a certain player and by extension a team because of a work on Ao3, and…well…this.

Is there a lesson in the middle of all of this? Can there actually be a lesson?

The easy answer that will make us all nod in agreement and move forward without thinking about it is probably “Social media is bad and we should return to grunts, gestures, smoke signals and semaphore to communicate.”

The more nuanced answer is that while social media can allow for millions to see something and be part of a larger conversation, our general inclinations towards feeling part of the in-group have only created further atomization of the 21st century person. Algorithmic based content platforms like Tiktok combined with a low-media literacy environment which has been fostered over the past 20 years by uh…just about everything…can exacerbate that to the point that can see hyper-focused niche communities create echo chambers so filled with information and noise that whatever falls out of it can actively negatively affect a person’s worldview of pretty much anything if they engage with it too frequently. People become things. Complex, messy events become flattened and over-simple. The boundaries we set for ourselves and others can be ignored.

The boundaries we set in daily life should be honored, even as the lines we keep between meatspace and the internet become blurred.

Of course, this whole thing can best be summed up through this tweet from a fanfiction writer:

We at DJLR support Alex and Felicia during this time, and sincerely hope that you support them too.

They have been through enough as it is.