On September 11, 2007, Leigh Alexander wrote an article for the Escapist titled “Midgar is Burning”. In it, Alexander describes the rise and fall of the Final Fantasy VII role-playing community on AOL. She speculates regarding the future of fan involvement in media creation, that moviegoers will shape the future of films and franchises. She also posits that this process has already begun in some nascent fashion.
What Leigh Alexander didn’t know at the time of writing this was that she was describing the blueprint for a cycle of modern fan culture. Since this was in the burgeoning days of the internet, these events unfolded much more slowly than in our social media and mobile-friendly present.
The Fire Stoked
I am very vocal with my criticisms of modern fan culture (I prefer the term over fandom, as it refers to a specific set of ideas, and you can substitute this for geek culture if you desire) and how it behaves in our modern media landscape. This is not a condemnation of every individual fan nor a wholesale rejection of the idea of good things coming from fan culture.
I know it can be good, it’s served as a common language for me and many others. It’s helped form lasting bonds with people, sometimes for life. But I and many others must limit our interactions with fan culture to avoid its worst excesses.
I see critical discussions of fan culture’s seedy underbelly make the rounds every so often, usually after pram–shaking tantrums by fans online. The most recent display was in response to the Last Jedi. I wrote a review on Splice Today that approached it from the point of view that the film had problems with narrative focus, but I wasn’t prepared for the absolute shitstorm that was to come, which I commented on later.
I kept seeing how Rian Johnson somehow single-handedly ruined the entire franchise in the span of a couple of hours. I saw petitions passed around, of course, taken down later but the damage was already done. Fans whined in comments about how the movie was “failing”, which made me wonder by what standard. Certainly wasn’t financially or critically, and the user score is a very flimsy representation. I know the holes in using a voluntary response sample like that. All of this was laughable to me, I certainly wouldn’t say that film was as good as Force Awakens, but it wasn’t something that ruined the franchise.
Did people forget the prequels? Did they forget that there was an abysmal Clone Wars movie? Did people actually look at the Expanded Universe with something other than rose-colored glasses? I was engaging with a degree of collective amnesia and fan fragility that was mind-boggling.
In response to someone raising concerns about fan culture, it will be squashed underneath endless waves of apologia from people more sympathetic to fans. Flimsy justifications and mental gymnastics are employed to excuse awful behavior like harassment of creators. The end result is that the culture and the behaviors it enables are free to be replicated elsewhere and destroy another property.
I’ve seen franchise after franchise cultivate a toxic fanbase and through those toxic fans make the property inaccessible to anyone who doesn’t want their media attached to death threats and online hate. I’ve grown weary of “yeah, the death threats are bad, but at least there’s great fanart!”-style deflection, where I am asked to somehow treat good fanart and other fan works as somehow canceling out making someone else’s life a living hell.
And of course, you can’t talk about this without talking about how it has problems with women. There’s a lot of documentation on Fat, Ugly, or Slutty about the gendered harassment that female gamers receive. Fan culture’s misogyny problem is evident, but taboo to talk about. I am not qualified to talk about the racism present in fan culture, though I definitely do see it.
Beyond the Vocal Minority
I want to address some arguments I’ve heard, though perhaps they’re more appropriately titled “deflections”:
This is done by a vocal minority. Most fans don’t behave this way: I cannot speak to the exact numbers, but the aim of this argument is to avoid the implications that this behavior exists in a fanbase. It may very well be true that this is the case, but it’s ultimately irrelevant. Right now, we live in a world that is connected and anyone with a grudge can easily reach their target.
Because fan culture doesn’t offer much in the way of protection for these targets, nor a negative social consequence to abusive behavior, these people go on to commit more abuses. Most of fan culture is complicit in enabling this behavior and people instead try to work around the perpetrator instead of attempting to directly confront them.
To me, it’s pretty clear that there are enough of these people around to create a toxic atmosphere. It additionally varies from property to property. That being said…
Just find an IP without toxic assholes: There likely exists a piece of media untainted by a poor community. You can probably find something and latch onto it. It may be fine for now.
Can you be sure it’ll stay that way? What’s going to happen three months from then? Six months? A year? Five years?
With the rapid communication that we now have access to, a fandom can swerve very quickly. Rick and Morty’s toxic fanbase cropped up virtually overnight, with longtime viewers such as myself and my friends being completely unaware of what was happening.
It’s also clear that one person can wreck a fandom if they’re toxic enough. Several fandom death narratives do involve a single person wresting inordinate control over entire communities that eventually destroyed them.
Just get off the internet: The toxicity within fan culture has been around for a long time. It’s not something that arrived with the internet. Go to a convention and you’ll run into them. You’ll also run into a lot of cool people, but you’ll notice that one asshole will have the ability to ruin your day just by opening their mouth.
Of course, conventions are kind of a stressful environment in and of themselves. Lots of lines, sweating in costume, big crowds, and a dealer’s room full of stuff you want but probably can’t afford. They’re certainly fun, but I’m not going to pretend it doesn’t take a lot of energy.
Because fan culture has been considered a target for mainstream bullying and shaming, any and all critiques of the problems with it summon those memories. Since there’s no distinction between innocuous fan behavior and harmful fan behavior, fan culture handles bad behavior poorly.
This is echoed in how these behaviors are excused, “They’re passionate fans”, “They just love their franchise”. There’s no consideration for what impact these people are having on others.
And it is having an impact on others. We can no longer afford to pretend that these people exist in some sort of bubble and are keeping their troubling behavior to themselves. Someone is on the receiving end of their death threats, someone is getting driven off of Twitter because of the influx of fan rage, someone is staying out of the conversation because they don’t want to engage in such a hostile environment, someone has to deal with inappropriate touching or sexual harassment at a convention.
A lot of this has the explicit goal of getting other people out of the space, removing the other from the fandom that the harassers feel like they own. This is why “don’t feed the trolls” or “get off the internet” is insufficient in dealing with this.
Putting Out the Fire
What people fail to pick up is that a bad community can ruin a franchise. I have Bloodborne, and while I wasn’t particularly fond of its gameplay style, I can recognize its value. But I want nothing to do with the community at all. That game has been ruined for me.
There’s a reason that, despite me loving games and writing about games, I don’t want to pursue game journalism. It’s because doing so is going to expose me to awful behavior that no human being should ever have to put up with.
I’ve always found the compartmentalization we have done in regards to the internet baffling. I’ve read on things like the online disinhibition effect, but that explains why people do it, not why we have acquiesced all responsibility for dealing with it.
For a while, I didn’t want to address it out of fear, but now I’ve gotten to the point where I think we need to start talking about the previously invisible group of people who opt out of fan culture and all of its nasty excesses.
These people do want to participate. They want to engage with a community of people who share their interest because people have the intrinsic drive to find community. They just don’t want this community.
How do I know this? Because I would love to play online games more often and contribute to fan communities more. I’ve just started contributing to Fate Core’s community and it’s been nothing short of wonderful. I hear this sentiment expressed privately, the sense of “I would go there but the people are awful” pervades them.
I must walk with care. I have to mentally prepare myself when I watch a YouTuber for them to use ableist slurs because it’s so damn common. I have to keep at arm’s length from other players in MMOs or other online games because I don’t want the constant pressure nor to be exposed to their asshole-ish behavior. I also don’t believe I’m alone, and I think of a lot of potentially valuable voices are drowned out.
I explicitly seek out games like Armello, where interaction with other players is tightly controlled. If I need in-depth communication, I’ll do it with players that I know in a private Discord server. I don’t want my gaming experience to be sullied by someone constantly harassing me over anything and everything.
We can’t solve the issues with fan culture on an individualistic level. Removing the bad apples is only part of it. Instead, we have to start critically evaluating fan behaviors that exist beyond the individuals. There are reasons for all of these awful behaviors, ones that are illuminating if we stop making excuses for the behavior enacted on a daily basis.
Until then, Midgar burns all the brighter and no one really wants to put out the fire.