2018 marked the year I burned out on fan forums on the Internet. I always knew those places bred negativity, but I also like to communicate with nerds about nerdy things. Unfortunately, the deadly seriousness with which some people treat their hobbies eventually made me something of an Internet recluse.
It didn’t help that I familiarized myself with the controversy surrounding The Last Jedi, that Pathfinder announced a new edition, that the Hulk got punked by Thanos in Infinity War, or that Doctor Who introduced a female Doctor. Change hit all my areas of interest, and that always brings a wave of negativity with it.
But the big question is: Why? Why do people take entertainment so seriously? Why does it seem so much easier to focus on the negative rather than celebrate the positive? And what can fans do to create better discourse in the future?
Who Owns the Characters?
The current adult generation grew up more influenced by brands than any other generation before it. During our childhoods, TV expanded from a few local channels to hundreds of different options. Films like Star Wars set the standard for multimedia franchises. And, of course, the Internet came into its own.
Amidst this proliferation of media, certain franchises grew to dominate childhood in multiple areas. If you enjoyed He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, you didn’t just watch the cartoon. You also had action figures, play sets, pajamas, Halloween costumes, breakfast cereal, and even toothpaste related to that brand. Branded affected every aspect of your life.
A good brand sells a lifestyle. It makes the consumer feel personally invested in the future of the brand. A typical kid in the 1980s might have spent hours playing with Masters of the Universe toys and then hours more pretending to be those characters. The brand became a part of their personality.
Many people grew out of those hobbies, but some people didn’t. For those folks, the brands still hold a special place. Moreover, because we’ve spent so long thinking about them, we feel a sense of ownership over them. Our fandom made them popular, and they owed it to us to live up to our expectations.
Of course, we don’t actually own those brands. The companies that own them do, and those companies need to change things so they can appeal to new audiences. We get new editions of games we love, new protagonists in our favorite film franchises, and more diversity in our media.
The things we associate with our personal identities change, and sometimes they change in ways that don’t fit the image in our minds. We know Luke Skywalker wouldn’t become a jaded recluse, darn it – we’ve bought hundreds of Expanded Universe stories and written fanfic of our own that shows what he would do.
Very devoted fans are essentially people for whom branding has worked perfectly. And when a franchise changes in a way we don’t like, it takes something we associate with our own identity and warps it. That stings not only because of the change but because it reveals a painful truth: we don’t own these characters.
The Squeaky Wheel
I think a lot of angry fandom comes from a lack of control over a beloved franchise. If that’s true, then then Internet serves as an equalizer of sorts. Fans have used online campaigns to bring back beloved TV shows, communicate directly with their favorite creators, and even land jobs in the industry.
Unfortunately, some of the most memorable interactions have come from a vocal group of people complaining very loudly. Angry fans got the narrative designer of Guild Wars 2 fired, helped to tank sales of a new Baldur’s Gate game, and created a truly bizarre instance of harassment targeted toward Marvel editors.
In many of these cases, these loud complaints met with success, sometimes even leading to the firing of creators. Fans who feel a sense of ownership about their favorite franchise but who previously had little power to affect change now use the Internet to get what they want…by throwing the equivalent of a tantrum.
Nevermind the fact that this type of behavior often dives headfirst into the arenas of racism and sexism, or that it perpetuates the image of nerds as maladjusted individuals who do little more than complain about children’s media. Folks have learned that online rage gets results.
Putting Fan Rage in Perspective
I’m not trying to say that negativity is automatically bad. If you don’t like something, you’re allowed to complain about it. But there’s a line between voicing a complaint and trying to blackmail creators into publishing the story you want to see.
If you’re a big fan of something, the amount of time and energy you devote to your hobby can take away your sense of perspective. Whether you are obsessed with a sport, a game, or a cartoon, it is ultimately just a form of entertainment – not something worth hurting others over.
It’s also worth noting that every fan serves as an ambassador of sorts for the franchise. If somebody who loves Star Trek: Discovery gets chased off a fan forum because people are angry that it has a couple female leads, they become likely to associate the franchise with aggressive sexism.
The ubiquity of social media means that more and more people speak in one-liners and memes instead of coherent thoughts. That’s unfortunate for discourse. It also means that people spend more time griping about a thing they love than sharing the joy it gives them with others.
My Hopes for the Future
Being snarky on the Internet is fun and not something I wish to give up in the future. However, I hope I can cut down on the amount of senseless negativity I put out there online.
What do I count as senseless negativity? Basically any comment where I can’t answer “Yes” to at least one of the following questions:
- Does my comment offer a solution?
- Is there a productive conversation to be had here?
- Am I clearly speaking for myself instead of making an argumentum ad populum by saying “Many people” or “Most people” agree with me?
- Can I accept other points of view without getting overly defensive about my own opinion?
I love communicating with people online. I’ve made several friends through the various fan forums I visit. But the noise and negativity out there gets exhausting, and it only seems to be increasing as more people get a voice. A little effort at civility can make the Internet as a whole a better place.
A decade from now, there will be Doctor Who fans who started with Jodie Whitaker as their first Doctor and She-Ra fans who started with the Netflix series. I’d rather share a mutual passion with those folks than chase them off because I don’t like getting old.