BB #53: Fan Bubbles

BrainFireIn its early days, circa 1990, social media provided a ready platform for fan communities of TV shows and movies. I spent a lot of time in a group devoted to Star Trek. We fans believed the creators were aware of our groups, that they even silently monitored them, but it was very rare that they ever engaged us.

Today the power and allure of social media has broken down the wall. Artists of all stripes use these public platforms to reach, and be reached by, fans. The visible connection between artist and fan has never been stronger.

And as always, there’s a Yang to the Yin…

To start, an article[1] that caught my eye (and which I read) mentions a study[2] done by Columbia University and the French National Institute. They discovered that 59% of shared links were never clicked… by the sharer!

In other words, six in ten people share “interesting” links based on the headline alone and never read the story. Talk about TL;DR! (This sharing, of course, affects the engines that determine what stories are trending.)

Study co-author, Arnaud Legout said, “People are more willing to share an article than read it. This is typical of modern information consumption. People form an opinion based on a summary, or a summary of summaries, without making the effort to go deeper.”

Especially if the summary aligns with what they already think.

As a counterpoint, I couldn’t help but think of the excellent satirical site, The Onion. As with its newspaper version, which I read for years, the best part is the headline. Usually the story doesn’t further the gag that much for me.

In fact, I thought some of their best “stories” were the little front page blurbs with a headline and the first line or so of a story followed with “Continued on page 78.” (Of course, there was no page 78.) The one that pops to mind is, “That Chinese restaurant on the corner closes.”

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But back to fans and artists. The ugly underbelly of social media shows in the matter of Leslie Jones and the remake of the movie, Ghostbusters. (For the record, I was never a fan of the movie and don’t have any dogs in this hunt.)

Before the Twitter fracas and the personal website hack, there was a general hate campaign directed at the movie, in large part because the main roles were cast with, gasp, women.[3]

Back in June I read an article[4] about how bad it’s gotten for artists who offend some segment of their easily offended public. Death threats have become common, and — as Ms Jones found — sometimes it elevates to more than words.

The author reminds us that “fan” is short for fanatic and concludes:

What fandom needs is a Chinese wall between consumers and creators, one that keeps fans and artists entirely separate. In practice — and I realize, as someone who practically lives on Twitter, that this is deeply unfair to them — what this means is that artists may need to step back from social media a bit. The sort of person who would send a death threat to an artist for altering the backstory of a figment of the collective imagination seems unlikely to hew to a mutual disengagement.

There is the well-known phenomenon of “fan ownership” where dedicated fans feel a show belongs to them. They have always gotten testy when their sacred oxen get gored, and social media amplifies that accordingly.

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A later article in the WaPo[5] makes the same point and drills deeper into the aspect of fan ownership:

The idea that fans should be able to get their art made to order has always felt odd to me, because on a fundamental level, art is about trust. When we open a book, put on an album, start a new television show, or settle in as the lights go down in a movie theater, we’re preparing ourselves for what is fundamentally an act of submission.

This is why art is genuinely transporting, rather than simply satisfying. If we had total control over what we were getting from art, we wouldn’t experience true surprise at a plot twist, the thrill of pieces of a story falling into a place we could not have anticipated, or the joy of sounds we couldn’t have juxtaposed ourselves, but that together are perfection.

I couldn’t agree more! Brava!

I’m reminded how Hollywood has discovered that people prefer trailers that essentially give away most of the plot.

Even more, I’m struck by the serious case of sequels everyone seems to have. I didn’t save the reference, but I read a line somewhere that said most of the big movies this year are either sequels or remakes.

People take a great deal of comfort in the known, especially when times are as chaotic and uncertain as they seem these days!

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Speaking of addiction to sequels, an article in The Verge[6] keys off the new Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Apparently it’s the novelization of the play, which takes place when Harry and company are all growed up. From the descriptions I’ve read, it sounds utterly dreadful. As the author points out, the seven books in the series tell a complete tale. The story is over.

But people can’t let go of their favored security blankie or stuffed bear, so they clamor and clamor for more. And because, hey, there’s a market out there, it’s a flies to honey situation. (Or flies to something, anyway.)

And that’s half the point of Cursed Child, and so many of these new franchise entries. The problem isn’t simply that we’re getting more of something we love. The problem is that there’s no conclusion, no definitive ending, because these new objects aren’t designed to be complete. So Albus Potter, Scorpius Malfoy, and Rose Granger-Weasley will always have space for more adventures down the line. The Avengers and the Justice League must fight the even bigger threat lurking in a shadowy post-credit sequence. And we get movies like The Force Awakens, which ended in a literal hand-off to the upcoming Episode VIII.

Between this and the video games adults consume the infantilization of society proceeds apace. It’s so… boring to me!

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And apparently to at least some others. This article in Wired[7] touches on the same topic, this time with regard to TV shows going on and on (and on). The author was inspired by the HBO show The Night Of.

I haven’t watched the show, but apparently the one season tells a complete story, answers specific questions, and comes to a definite conclusion. It should be allowed to stand alone as a work of excellence.

The author continues:

But fans won’t do that. TV viewership now requires that people all want too much of a good thing — and that networks, looking for advertisers or subscribers, will want to provide it. In fact, viewers feel entitled to it, as if television episodes were ketchup packets at McDonald’s — available in abundance, ready to drown out all flavor.

The familiar isn’t challenging, and comparing much of what’s available on television with a McDonald’s meal is exactly on point. Bland, mass-produced by long-established formulas, no surprises, no challenges.

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The thing that really bothers me is that I see a direct line from this sort of approach to life and the current state of political and social affairs. It’s all of a piece; all one system.

We’re seeing, in real-time, an experiment in The Tragedy of the Commons as well as, if not more so, The Tyranny of the Majority. The question is what role you will play in this social experiment.

Keep in mind: Shit wins if we don’t actively resist it!

That’s just basic thermodynamics.


[1] 6 in 10 people will share this without reading it: A depressing study on Internet culture, Caitlin Dewey, The Washington Post, June 16, 2016.

[2] Social Clicks: What and Who Gets Read on Twitter?

[3] Thanks to George Lucas and pop SF, science fiction is now well-populated with the same sorts of assholes I originally turned to science fiction to escape. I am really pissed off by the whole Hugo Awards alt-right thing!

[4] Artists need to step away from their most obsessed fans, Sonny Bunch, The Washington Post, June 2, 2016.

[5] Art is about surrender. Stop asking for it to be custom-tailored, Alyssa Rosenberg, The Washington Post, August 15, 2016.

[6] When did pop culture forget how to let things end?, Chaim Gartenberg, The Verge, August 8, 2016.

[7] It’s Time for Shows to Start Saying No to Season Two, Angela Watercutter, Wired, August 29, 2016.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

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