The Faux-Culture of Internet Fandoms

Today reviews came out for the latest Marvel movie The Eternals, and fans are going nuts over a film they have not seen. One particular fan - and they’re not the only one - was furious at a reviewer for calling The Eternals “a convoluted mess,” saying that he disagreed and, importantly, had yet to see the movie. As if summoned through the dark content gods, I was immediately treated to a tweet around the remake of Dune (coming out Friday) and reflected on one specific worry:

Sidebar: I will say (before we get in too deep) that I very much believe people should enjoy the things they enjoy. It’s a miserable world and whatever happiness you can garner without hurting others is fine.

Anyway, what’s bothering me recently is how the internet has vastly changed how we consume stuff. It is not simply enough to have watched something and liked it/hated it. What one likes and dislikes becomes a kind of political allegiance and makes up a significant part of your identity depending on the type of person you are. To be clear, while it isn’t new that the things we consume become our culture and identity - sports being the most obvious example - it has now taken on a new form where the things that you like are not simply for enjoyment anymore, but make up who you are to your core - and you must fight for them, or against forces that you perceive as harming them.

It’s a step beyond parasocial relationships, in that it’s no longer protecting a person and more focused on preserving a thing, even if the thing you are protecting is inanimate (a movie) and you’re not protecting it from anyone. Star Wars fans harassed actress Kelly Marie Tran for months until she left social media with racist and sexist comments based on a vague sense of dislike for her character in the movie, then created a wrongheaded petition demanding that they removed the movie “from canon” as it “destroyed the legacy of Luke Skywalker.”

It’s not about being a fan of something, but about claiming deeper ownership and understanding of it through your love than the creator of the thing in question. The fans that didn’t like The Last Jedi aren’t mad simply because they didn’t like it, but that it symbolized something different from what they considered to be “their” Star Wars.” They chose to attack both Tran and actress Daisy Ridley did so in an attempt to “protect the franchise” from forces they considered bad - as if said entertainment was a service that was being provided to the customer to their specifications.

The demands and scrutiny of creators, I believe, are partly linked to how deeply people have begun to associate the entertainment they consume as part of their identity and how defensive and emotional they become when they see that threatened. A Twitter user crying out for “their generation’s epic” may seem harmless, but to me feels symptomatic of a great problem - that we don’t simply watch or enjoy things, but that we must associate with and join factions of people who like or dislike things in specific ways.

While being a fan of something used to mean you liked it, a modern “fan” is now an identity, something that you build to show others. You must bring it up in conversation, you must know Jeopardy levels of trivia to prove that you’re “enough” of a fan, and in many cases, you must defend the material in question from attackers. It’s high school writ large, with the association one has with a particular form of entertainment becoming such a fundamental part of who you are that defending what is frequently a multi-million or billion-dollar enterprise because you believe it symbolizes something greater than “thing I like to watch or listen to.”

The irony is that so little of it is even about the creation itself but in submerging oneself in the idea that what you consume is who you are. When someone doesn’t like something you like, it’s a personal offense that must be corrected (despite the fact that this is entertainment), turning the liking of something into some sort of morality.

It’s a post-9/11 cultural miasma, where we can connect with people almost anywhere in the world while accessing a seemingly endless spigot of stuff. As multiple generations cope with growing up in a profoundly unfair world, they naturally turn to entertainment to find something to believe in and align themselves with. And it’s that bit easier to become obsessed with something - endless wikis and Reddits and communities that will fuel and unite you under the banner of whatever fantasy world or character you’re obsessed with and give you a thing to stand for - even if that thing is “I must defend a fictional universe from a perceived threat.”

What I am not against is enthusiasm or enthusiasts, and I believe that everybody interesting has something they’re sort of obsessed with. The difference is when that obsession becomes the person they are, and turns them into willing members of an army fighting to prove that their thing is superior, with no specific goal other than to make the lives of those who disagree worse. I have referenced Felix Biederman’s quote about this before:

Felix Biederman put it well - that “…we [are] not just fans of things anymore, we declare our media consumption habits to declare the types of people we are…now. if someone doesn’t like something we like, they hate us, our way of life, and our identities.” By attaching so much meaning to what we watch, and how we enjoy it, and to whom we share our enjoyment (or distaste) to, we’ve entered a painful loop of being served media that makes us do the work for the creator.

There are many different versions of this - people attacking others who don’t like a politician, or do like a politician, or like a sports team, or hate a sports team - but defending an entirely fictional product from those who dislike it is utterly bizarre and indicative of a larger cultural situation. There are many people who have left behind defining entertainment as something to entertain you - it’s now there to make us who we are, to build our identities, and to give us something to stand for and believe in.

Companies building vast franchises and universes allows us to turn on the screw harder, giving the illusion of depth to an entertainment product that might fool us into believing that what we’re aligning ourselves with is a thing of substance, rather than a movie or a TV show or a company. They leave things vague (see: Lost) so that fandom websites can endlessly discuss “fan theories,” continually fueling the non-culture of those that attempt to guess what the movie is going to do next, creating the illusion of activity and life in a story that has been told or will be told only once.

That’s the ultimate problem - that there really isn’t a culture in being a fan of something, because being a fan has transcended the appreciation of something and become about aligning yourself with the idea of liking it.

You can easily be a fan of something without being this type of person, but the commonality of the forceful adoration of something seems to totally transcend the thing itself. It’s not about enjoyment, or fun, or happiness, but about having something to stand for in a world that seems to have a lack of heroes and an abundance of villains.