Trolls Gotta Troll: Is Fandom Broken?

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A lot of people in the desperate situation of being famous and well-paid have been touting a new blog post entitled “Fandom Is Broken.” In this piece, one Devin Faraci complains that fandom has become “entitled,” thanks to the “ubiquity of social media”:

…While the details change the general attitude is the same: this is what I want out of these stories, and if you don’t give it to me you’re anti-Semitic/ripping off the consumer/a dead man.

Faraci adorns his post with lots of quotes from death threats that content creators have received, and puts those death threats on a continuum that also includes any form of negative @ tweets on Twitter, and any post to an online fan forum. In other words, if you write an author to tell them you hated the final book in their eight-book series, you are no better than a crazed ex-Marine making death threats. Basically, you’re in the wrong because you have tried to impose your will on the story — and since you didn’t create the story in the first place, you have no right to an opinion about it.

I hate vague, pseudo-historical arguments about “the way we live now,” not least because of their undeserved popularity, and that’s exactly the kind of argument Faraci is trying to make here. Fans have always been nuisances, he admits, but it’s different now, dear readers, because now fans have social media, and social media gives them too much access to content creators. This access either disturbs the fragile evolution of a story, warping it before it is ever fully born, or — if the work is finished — unfairly condemns the finished product without trying to understand its logic. Ultimately, Faraci is just giving us a long-winded version of that old, sophistic chestnut: “If you think you can do better, why don’t you write a movie?”

Let’s replace Faraci’s phony historicizing, and hand-wringing, with some real attention to the world of contemporary art. There are three modern trends at work here, and they’re all having adverse effects.

First of all, modern art is interactive. Mass Effect 3 was a game where player-characters made open-ended choices. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, these choices didn’t matter very much to the outcome of the game, and that is why gamers got pissed off. The game had implicitly promised them something that it couldn’t deliver: significant choice. Video games are not novels; we may compare them to novels in the hopes of making them seem more artistically legitimate, but they work in different ways. Any game that presents players with false choices is going to get hammered by critics. That’s the way it is, and given the structure of role-playing games, that’s the way it ought to be.

Movie studios, television networks, and producers have also done too much to suggest to audience members that their immediate reactions determine how a movie will end or whether a show will live or die. This creates a terrible hall of mirrors in which fans are constantly being asked to evaluate what they see, and have the power to cancel (or even resurrect) works of art. Faraci admits as much:

There’s always been a push and a pull between creator and fan, and while it can sometimes be negative it was, historically, generally positive. Fans used to raise their voices to save canceled TV shows or to support niche comic books, but now that we live in a world where every canceled show comes to Netflix or gets a comic book tie-in or lives on as a series of novels the fans have stopped defending the stuff they love and gotten more and more involved in trying to shape it.

This overreaching isn’t the viewer’s fault; audiences feel entitled because they are entitled. There just isn’t enough willingness, on the part of producers, to commit to the artistic integrity of the stories they produce. The clearest sign of this problem is the continuation of television shows and franchises that should have been canceled when they reached their natural endpoint. Scrubs, Chuck, Community, Homeland, and Arrested Development all overstayed their welcome, and this is particularly sad since rabid fandom was required, initially, just to keep these shows alive. No wonder they overshot the mark. I shudder to think of the extra, pointless seasons of Firefly that are no doubt being pitched, successfully, to somebody right now.

Finally, and most importantly, the seeming problem with “entitled fans” is really a problem with entitled authors. Actors, writers, and other creatively occupied people are their own cottage industries, and this is by choice. An author can extend her fan base by gathering followers on Twitter. A show can publicize its season finale by inviting fans to live chats with the cast and crew. So, now, a certain demographic of creative professionals has started whining about the supposedly disastrous effects of negative fandom. But this confuses the artist with the art, and the truth is that the magic is in the art, not in its creator.

For example, comic book writer Nick Spencer had to stop using his public Twitter feed. This is ghastly enough, but when you consider that Kumail Nanjiani had to suspend not one, but two whole podcasts, you start to see the true horror of modern existence. Were it not for fans, Nick Spencer would still be tweeting. Nanjiani would still be podcasting. Instead, they have taken their marbles, and they have gone home. Meanwhile, Captain America comics still exist, despite these catastrophes of fandom, and so does Silicon Valley, a show that is much funnier than Nanjiani by himself.

At one point, Faraci writes “trolls gotta troll,” which is derived from the hip-hop expression “haters gonna hate.” I re-watched 8 Mile today, and I was struck by the way that hip-hop incorporates “negative fandom” into its very bloodstream. B. Rabbit has to rap his way past countless opponents, all of whom make fun of his “stories” and threaten him relentlessly. In the world of hip-hop, which cuts across all social strata and socioeconomic backgrounds, it is inherently disgraceful that some people “make it” and others (perhaps equally deserving) do not. The community honors these unsung, unsigned artists by making the most successful rappers run a gauntlet, not once, but over and over again. Nobody sees this as unfair; how entitled does a comic book writer or podcast celebrity have to be, really, to find popularity oppressive? Hip-hop thrives because of controversy and conflict; I’m glad that other genres are now getting baptized by fire. It’s the secret to vital art. “Screams from the haters” has a nice ring to it; I’d guess that every superhero, even Captain America, needs his theme music.

Until next time, this is Kugelmass saying…

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