Fandom and You. And Me. And Us.
I wanted to write a bit about a topic that has been tumbling in my mind for months, and seemingly becomes relevant again every few weeks. Most recently, the fallout from the ending of the Game of Thrones television show pushed me to give this topic more consideration.
So, let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about Fandom.
I’m going to capitalize that word in this post, not because I think it’s that important, but because it seems to have become that important our society. The lowercase version, fandom, is simply defined as the various media products that you enjoy the most. Your fandom is the book series you love, the movies you line up to see, the tv shows you watch and re-watch again and again. We all have fandoms, even well outside “geek culture”; maybe you love a sport or specific team. Maybe you are really into muscle cars. Maybe, like me, you like to hike around trying to find and take notes about birds. It’s all equally geeky.
But for some reason, we generally reserve discussions of fandom (and Fandom) for things like Star Wars, Star Trek, Marvel, video games, and the like. And it’s within these topics that I feel like I’ve seen the most changes in the past decade or two. Part of that is, certainly, me getting older, hopefully wiser, and seeing the world differently as I did in my younger days.
But it’s hard to deny that fandom has changed to become Fandom. It is an identity, both a badge of honor and an insult, a revenue stream, a force for both union and division. It’s grown beyond simply liking a series into a meta cultural concept. And I’d like to talk about why that is, at least as far as I can tell. Obviously, I’m no expert, but I do have a fair amount of training and scholarly background in sociology, history and economics. And I’ve worked for many years with people on a routine basis, doing my best to understand motivations, personalities, and what drives people.
So, what has created the modern phenomenon of Fandom? First, let’s talk about the commoditization of being a nerd.
I’ll be the first to admit, making money off what people enjoy is nothing new. Certainly, there were enterprising Romans selling their fellow citizens figurines and drawings of their favorite gladiators two thousand years ago. And to pretend today that the shows, movies, books, and games we love are simply art and nothing more is ridiculous. Film and television companies exist for one purpose only, to make money. The only reason CBS creates a new Star Trek series is because they see a way to profit from it.
Heck, I have fond memories from my earliest childhood of hitting up a local department store called Sky City for any of the Kenner Star Wars figurines my brother and I didn’t own. (By the by, rest in peace Sky City, who so valiantly battled Roses for years until crushed under the ubiquitous boot of Wal Mart). Since any of us have been fans, we’ve bought merchandise from our favorite series. The money has always been the point.
Gone and almost totally forgotten
But roughly 10 years ago, it feels like there was a sea change in how companies made money from fans. For years, the idea of toy lines was that they were for two groups: kids, or ultra-hardcore collectors. Products like toys, posters, and the like were there to support the media product itself. A company knew that if you liked their movie, you’d probably want to buy some merchandise.
But now, it’s the exact opposite. Films and movies seem to exist to support the merchandise. The best example is that greatest of contributor to plastic garbage saturation, the Funko Pop figurine. They are an army, thousands upon thousands strong, simultaneously useless and all-conquering. Everyone has one (or fifty).
Just two though.
And now, a terrifying arms race occurs across YouTube, with every self-appointed influencer desperate to show just how big a fan they are by building huge walls of unboxed, valueless figurines. It seems like, on the internet, you just aren’t a real geek unless you’ve got a heap of merchandise sitting directly behind your desk. It isn’t just the Funko Pop, though that remains the best example.
Everything about Fandom has been commoditized by huge multinational media conglomerates like Disney. Algorithms crafted in the techbro mines of Silicon Valley desperately classify you, predict what you’ll want to see and hear, simply because you claim Fandom.
Once upon a time, the thinking went like this: “Hey, you loved Lord of the Rings, right? Well go hit up Burger King, because right now they’ll give you your drink in a light up glass with Frodo on it!” It was bald faced consumerism, yes. But it was easily understood and identified as such.
Today, the same company says “Hey, you bought a bunch of merchandise with our logo on it, right? Well buy tickets to our exclusive convention so you can come watch a trailer to a new movie that will come out in a few years! Will it be good? Who cares! All that matters is that you are a fan! Also, we’re going to use your image and likeness without compensation to make more promotions to get more fans to give us money because they identify with this Fandom!”
Better keep em in the boxes so they hold their value!
The best non-geek example I can think of is the Harley Davidson company. They began life making high-quality motorcycles (and as far as I know, continue to do so). But something happened after their first 50 or 60 years of existence—their marketing and sales arm no longer cared about the product itself. They didn’t want to sell you a motorcycle. They wanted to sell you on the idea and lifestyle of owning a Harley Davidson. So suddenly, there were t-shirts and belt buckets and pinball machines and novelty lamps and beef jerky and home décor and who knows what else.
This isn’t a new trend in marketing, clearly. Every company tries to sell their product as an essential component of a way of life that you desperately need to improve yourself. What’s different, though, about the geek culture world is how everyone seems to have gone along with this marketing technique. We’ve all bought into the idea that loving (and especially buying) nerdy things is a lifestyle that we have chosen.
Companies like Disney, CBS, HBO, and many more have made Fandom into a product by itself. They strive to sell people on the lifestyle of being a fan. The actual media product, regardless of quality, is no longer the focus or selling point.
I have a great fear, as I write this, of being labelled as a “gatekeeper”. Understand that I’m not trying to say that “fans today just aren’t real fans” or anything ridiculous like that. I want anyone to enjoy any Fandom in whatever way they choose. We don’t have to agree that any particular movie or show is good or bad. But I do want more people to be more aware of exactly how large companies find ways to exploit people into consuming their products.
It’s okay to not like something that’s part of your Fandom. It’s okay to like something that others don’t like. It’s okay to approach films and shows with a critical mind. It’s okay to want to like something.
It’s just that I tire of the vitriol that gets slung around online, over and over, every time something new gets released. Recently, the finale of Game of Thrones met with…we’ll call it mixed reviews. Some fans loved it, others did not. But I’ve seen both parties accuse the other of not being a true fan, of being toxic, of being objectively wrong about their opinion (which is by definition subjective). I truly feel that this crass commoditization of Fandom is a large part of the problem.
And this phenomenon of being a fan of a product transforming into a product itself feeds directly into the other issue I want to talk about.
It all begins with our dear friend and benefactor, the internet. The creation and integration of the internet into our lives and culture is a topic that expands well beyond what I’m talking about here, and beyond my limited knowledge and expertise. But as far as I see it, growing up always online has warped and changed how we interact with media in some negative ways, and enabled the creation of Fandom as a concept.
The heart of the issue is the dehumanizing effect that the internet has on people. I’m old enough to remember the adoption of the net as an everyday occurrence in life; In the mid 90’s, the internet was an amazing new frontier, and to many of us it seemed like it would lead to greater understanding and connections between people. And perhaps, early on, it did. Usenet and other discussion groups allowed fans of all kinds of media to connect across the world and celebrate what they loved together.
I vividly remember chatting on a discussion forum with a victim of an earthquake in California who was roughly my age, and how doing so helped me understand the wider world and how other people who I will never meet are still people with real lives, concerns, and worries. I was able to reach across the country and help another person grieve and cope with a problem I didn't initially understand. And that was powerful moment for a kid.
But there is one dangerous part of the internet that has proven to corrupt everything it touches: anonymity.
For most online interactions, you never see the other person’s face. You never learn their real name. You don’t know who they are, where the live, or what they are really like. And as more and more people grew up under this blanket of shadow, they began to understand it meant they could act any way the wanted, without repercussion. And so, the internet troll was born. Bad faith actors are a poison pill, creating distrust and confusion.
This distrust, coupled with the pool of people online growing ever larger, makes it harder and harder to make any real connection to others online. When you interact with a person in real life, you each explore the other’s personality. You grow to understand them, and in doing so, you each form an identity around yourself. You joke a lot with your classmates? You’re a funny person. You know all the answers on the test? You’re a smart person. These real, honest interactions are key to identity.
But what happens to that identity when everyone is anonymous, and you can’t tell who the bad faith actors are? Suddenly, we have to find new ways to create an identity. Fandom is an easy way to do that. Two people thousands of miles apart may not be able to bond over their daily experiences, but they can bond over the movies they like.
And somehow, Fandom has now become a primary identity for so many of us. That, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Different fandoms have always helped shape who we are, long before the internet existed. But the distrust and toxicity that the internet breeds have built up Fandom into a defense mechanism.
Another compounding factor is the death and rebirth of the Monoculture. For decades in the United States, the national media was both limited and widespread at the same time. Widespread in that it reached almost everyone but limited in that it gave only a few options (For example, when I was a kid, there were, in essence, only three television channels). This gave rise to a monoculture in which everyone shared almost every piece of media. Everyone saw Star Wars—some loved it much more than others, but everyone could share in Star Wars fandom in at least some small way.
I'd kill to see it in 70mm instead of on my TV
The internet helped to kill this monoculture—by the early 2000’s, people had so many more options to find new hobbies, new media, new opinions. Media was now fractured into thousands of shards, but each shard held a depth of enjoyment beyond anything that had come before. A good example is the TV show Firefly: it never reached nearly as large an audience as Star Wars, but those fans that love it really really love it.
But with the commoditization of Fandom and the rise of the influencer in internet culture, a new monoculture has appeared. Now, if you’re a “geek”, it means you have to love and keep track of everything. Do you like Star Wars? Oh, well, now go watch Star Trek and Avengers and oh did you hear about this new scifi series on Netflix and also you’d probably love Lord of the Rings and hey Game of Thrones is huge so watch that too!
Everything has led to the creation of Fandom as an identity, and somehow a way to measure self-worth. Thanks to toxicity, bad-faith actors, commoditization, and so many other effects, We feel like we have to like something. And if someone else doesn’t like the movie I like, it’s their fault! It’s because they are dumb or lazy or just being contrarian! And if they criticize my favorite movie, they are now attacking me personally because identifying as a Fan of This Series is how I define myself in modern culture and so if you don’t like the new movie you don’t like me!
And this is the internet, where the only way to get noticed is to overreact to anything and everything to a degree that would make silent movie stars envious, so:
You hated the new episode of Game of Thrones? How dare you! Let me go make a 45-minute-long video about how you are a toxic mouth-breather!
Wait, wait, wait…you liked the new episode of Game of Thrones? How dare you! Let me go make a 46-minute-long video about how you are an ignorant sheep who has no taste!
Is this what it has come to? Is this what we want being a fan to mean? Once upon a time, fandom was a way to connect to others. We wrote long posts about our favorite movie because we wanted to talk about it and share our ideas. We went to a tv show convention to meet others who loved it as much as we did. We gathered together to watch the series finale because we were fans.
We wanted to celebrate fandom.
Only a true Jedi Master could max out their credit card
And now, Disney has turned the word "celebration" into a commodity to be sold.
You aren’t a true fan unless you book a visit to their new theme park.
And you want to be a true fan, right?
All I can do as I write all of this is sigh.
I’m brutally aware of the irony of me writing a stupidly long screed about how fans post too many stupidly long screeds. I know everything I’ve written can be seen by some as toxic gatekeeping. This is all the curse of living in our post-modern society. You can’t be cool and like anything, but you also aren’t cool unless you like things. But only ironically. Or maybe unironically? Who knows anymore?
I also want to be clear that I’m not a hardcore centrist. I’m not arguing that all viewpoints are equally valid. Bigotry, racism, sexism, and all the rest have no place in Fandom. But also remember that your rejection of those awful things can be crassly marketed to by the folks that just want your money. Megacorps can't be "woke", folks.
So, all that being said, where do we go from here? There is, as I see it, only one way forward.
It’s a way forward that Cyrus and I have talked about many times in articles, streams, and podcasts. It’s a principle that we placed at the very core of everything we wanted to do with this website and all the projects that stem from it.
The best way I can describe it is with words like: Honesty. Positivity. Respect.
Reject irony. Reject edginess. Reject hate.
Love the things you love. Strive to understand them. Be reflective about them. Criticize them and accept them. When you are positive, accepting, and constructively critical, you build up the things you love into something better. Share what you love with others. Help them understand why you love it and respect their feelings about it, so long as they are coming from a positive and honest place. Find ways to grow and build your Fandom into something you can be proud of.
Because, in the end, we are the things we love. And if you spend your time building up your Fandom into something better, you’re building yourself into someone better too.
And as far as I’m concerned, that’s the whole point of being here in the first place.