I’m a member of several fandoms; by which I mean that I’m a fan of particular TV shows, games, novels, and comic books, and that, in addition to watching / playing / reading them, I participate in discussion about them with other fans. My participation is minimal in most cases – I don’t cosplay, I don’t tend to art, and I only occasionally venture into fanfic territory. While I hold strong opinions about certain storylines, and my personal head canon for some of these things, I prefer to find common ground with other fans, rather than argue about minor distinctions. For instance, I’m never going to be persuaded that Peter Jackson in any way improved on Tolkien’s work in his films, but I’m sure that there are many other things that we can discuss about Middle-earth that won’t cause disagreement, even if you do hold that opinion.
In line with this helpful definition, most of us would agree that ‘fan’ has positive connotations – when someone states that they’re a fan of something, we assume that they like, admire, probably love, the thing of which they’re a fan. What becomes apparent, when you spend any time at all engaging with fandoms online, is that a surprising number of fans spend a surprising amount of time attacking fellow fans for not sharing their exact opinions.
Let me give you an example of the kind of interaction I’m describing. A few years ago I responded to a thread entitled “Which character did you think was most overrated, and why?” on a Mass Effect forum. I left a short reply explaining that I thought the game developers had overestimated Liara’s appeal in such a way that it became problematic for role-playing, and cited specific interactions that started from the premise that you were friends with her. The immediate response was that I was a bad person who clearly didn’t know anything about being friends with people, since I thought it was wrong to comfort a grieving person. Exactly how saying that some people might want to role-play that they’re not friends with one of the many characters in the game makes me a bad friend, I do not know.
This kind of behaviour is often couched as the ‘true’ fans protecting the show / game / actor(s) from ‘fake’ (often new) fans. From the outside it tends to look like people defending their interpretation, or preferred ship1, from other opinions, with the kind of zeal usually reserved for religious persecution. Factions form, people get hurt, and outsiders get to peer in and wonder why everyone is so angry about something fictional. But when we consider where the term ‘fan’ originates, is the zeal really so surprising?
It can be difficult to debate with religious fanatics, because they are sure that there is only one interpretation, theirs, and that it is the right one. When people believe that they’re in possession of true revelation, any criticism of their position puts you outside the circle of true believers. All of which holds true for interactions with fandom fanatics.
It’s a position that I find difficult to understand; I would rather enter into a debate about the merits of the things that I love, even if my opponent and I end up agreeing to disagree about it’s value. I think that it’s ok to offer criticism of the shows, books, music, films and games we love, because dialogue with the creators can be beneficial – feedback lets them know that people are engaging with their creations, and gives them a notion of how their creative decisions have been received and perceived by people with different cultural backgrounds and life experiences. Sharing criticism as part of discussion with other fans also allows us to understand the experiences of others, and gain a new perspective on the thing we all love. Unfortunately this kind of perspective is frequently being shut down as online anonymity gives fan(atics) the freedom to react with hatred, inciting vicious personal attacks against those who disagree with them, which can often spill over into real world bullying and threats.
The online spaces where this happens are being painfully slow at responding to requests to police this kind of bullying, so what do we moderates do in the meantime? One answer is to stop engaging, but that seems defeatist; no one should feel that they can’t express their enjoyment in a show or character, or disappointment at the direction a story has taken, just because the forum is public and ‘true fans’ might be listening in.2 FemHype have some useful suggestions in this post, including the importance of reporting harassment, while The Geekiary reported on how Supernatural fans have banded together to form the SPN Anti-Bullying Twitter account, an idea which other fandoms might want to consider. We also might want to find our own name for what we are – if ‘fan’ is just another word for ‘fanatic’, and ‘critic’ brings with it accusations of negativity, then we need to find a word that lets us tell the world that the things we love can stand up to debate and criticism, and so can we.
I just haven’t found the right word yet.
Criticizing something doesn't mean you want it to fail. A passionately engaged audience is better than an indifferent one #fandom101—
Orlando Jones (@TheOrlandoJones) February 02, 2015
Definitions taken from www.oxforddictionaries.com.
1. For those unfamiliar with the term, ‘shipping’ refers to romantic pairings, usually those that can be inferred from the story but which aren’t explicitly included by the writer(s).” ↩
2. To anyone that doesn’t use Twitter this statement will seem a little paranoid, but trust me, I have seen people jump on comments made by users they aren’t even following in a way that leaves no doubt that they’ve been watching for them to say something they disagree with.↩