Is Fandom is Broken?

No. The answer to a question in a headline is always no.

I was made aware of the “Fandom is Broken” article from a Twitter push notification, which immediately reminded me that I should really delete the app. Then I read the article. Which starts off with, of all things, a “lesson” from the Mass Effect 3 ending debacle.

“This isn’t really a new thing – way back in 2012 I named Annie Wilkes the Patron Saint of Fandom after the childish, ridiculous uproar over the ending of Mass Effect 3. What I couldn’t have known in 2012 was that the Mass Effect uprising was just a preview of the main event; that tantrum happened under the auspices of being a ‘consumer revolt,’ which would be the same kind of language behind which terrorist hate group GamerGate still hides. And in the years since Mass Effect 3 it seems as if the crazy has been ramping up, and as the wall dividing creators and fans gets ever thinner with each new social media platform the number of voices being raised has grown.

The article gets worse from there, with a meandering diatribe vaguely conflating consumer entitlement with the rise (?) of Twitter death threats to game/movie/etc creators. But by far, the most puzzling element of the article is this part:

The corporatized nature of the stories we consume has led fans – already having a hard time understanding the idea of an artist’s vision – to assume almost total ownership of the stuff they love. And I use that word ownership in a very specific sense – these people see themselves as consumers as much as they see themselves as fans. This is what the “Retake Mass Effect” movement was foreshadowing. They see these stories as products.

Wut.

Of course these games/movies/books have been products. They have always been products. If there has ever been an inflection point at which “artistic vision” meant anything, it died the moment the creator cared about the people who consumed the art at all. Focus groups? PR departments? Franchise opportunities? All of that calls into question “artistic vision,” decades (if not centuries) before Twitter ever became a thing.

And, really, let me take a moment to say how much of a bullshit weasel-word “artistic vision” is to begin with. It conjures into being a sacrosanct defense that apparently renders the artist immune to criticism or critique. One should not point out the many plotholes of the original Mass Effect 3 ending, because apparently the half-assed nature of it was intended. And how do we know it was intended? Because the artist released it like that. So, ispo facto, that’s the vision. If you think it’s bad or could have been better, you’re entitled!

When Bioware released the expanded endings, however, that apparently isn’t “artistic vision,” so tainted was it by the unruly demands of the unwashed masses. Or maybe Bioware was just embarrassed enough from being called out on their bullshit and decided to finish what they started. Or maybe Bioware was just concerned about future Mass Effect: Andromeda sales.

That there is the rub, of course. Fans are more connected to creators these days not because of the means and mediums, but because the creators make themselves more available. And why do they do that? Because they want that feedback, they want to foster that investment, because they want to stoke the engines of the hype train to ever greater levels. Sometimes that works. Sometimes that doesn’t, as the creators of No Man’s Sky are seeing, as the hype train is late pulling into the station.

In any case, it is regrettable that death threats are being thrown about. Nobody really deserves those, and anyone who sends them should be punished accordingly. But… they are also largely unavoidable these days. If 99.99% of a given, million-strong fandom are perfectly rational people, that still means there are 100 people spewing bile directly into your Inbox. Which is a lot of people! And as long as Twitter continues being a platform basically dedicated to consequence-free instant abuse, I don’t know what the solution is.

I can tell you what isn’t the problem is though. It’s not the fandom.

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Posted on June 1, 2016, in Commentary and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.

  1. “…it died the moment the creator cared about the people who consumed the art at all. Focus groups? PR departments? Franchise opportunities?”
    Haven’t we been riffing on those things as the the destructive interference of the know-nothing money men on the creative genius since forever?
    The balance between artist and patron has been going on since rich people decided it was fashionable to commission non-productive arts and artists discovered they were more likely to get fed if their works gave glory to their masters. Only an independently wealthy creative can completely ignore commercial desires of their audience (since they produce to fulfill their own desires).
    The key question is the ideal degree of control. Does the customer/commissioner dictate the exact specification, provide overall direction while let the artist work out the details, or simply voice their opinion of an artist output?

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    • Ciaphas Cain

      “The key question is the ideal degree of control. Does the customer/commissioner dictate the exact specification, provide overall direction while let the artist work out the details, or simply voice their opinion of an artist output?”

      Whoever pays the piper, sets the tune, as simple as that.
      There never were artistic vision or integrity on video games, games are by definiton meant to entertain, if they do not then, no sales, no sales then creator gets to eat air, and when someone has to eat air, concepts such as “artistifc integrity” get a lot less important when compared to concepts like “comfortable life”.
      Check how most patreon creators work for an example (although patreon is a scam in my opinion).

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    • It’s up to the creator of the work to determine what degree he/she cares about his/her fandom and/or the potential negatives of putting out a disagreeable product. As consumers (or really, anyone), we have every right to voice our opinions on the matter, and the creators are free to do nothing about it. If they care about how their audience appreciates their work, that’s on them. There is no moral obligation on our part to quietly allow creators to do whatever they want without comment.

      (Sans death threats, of course.)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree that some of the examples (like the ones you cited) are a bit dodgy, but don’t you think the author has at least somewhat of a point? Not that audiences shouldn’t be allowed to give feedback and influence their favourite artists, but that this loop has gotten somewhat out of hand in terms of how hard and how fast it flows? I mean, look at that No Man’s Sky example you cited; that level of agitation over a video game delay of mere weeks is pretty insane.

    I also recall an interview or something with George R.R. Martin where he explained that part of why he had such trouble continuing ASOIAF is that he has such a rabid fanbase by now that they sometimes know the universe better than he does and he’s paranoid about getting someone’s eye colour wrong and being torn apart over it. When authors become so afraid of immediate reactions to their work that it starts to stifle their creativity that’s not a good thing.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I think the more salient problem is that the creators themselves have tapped the fanbase too closely, for whatever reason. Look at the Blizzard devs post-Ghostcrawler. Or pre-Ghostcrawler for that matter. Beyond a few jokers like Ian, who makes the decisions about WoW’s direction? How much influence does it appear random Tweets make on Beta progress? Those designers are more or less insulated from the fandom, pretty much by design. There’s no reason why everyone else can’t behave likewise, if they really wanted to be more impartial from the mob.

      There is no particular reason why GRR Martin has to care about being torn up about continuity errors. Will there be news cycles detailing every inconsistency? Sure. That’s part and parcel with having a culturally resonating product that you optioned into a record-setting HBO show. It sucks that he’s feeling stressed out about it… but attention comes with fame.

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  3. Fandoms nowdays are CANCEROUS. Some years ago ago being a fan of X simply meant you had some common conversation points within a group of people. Now, it’s an “us vs them” mentality, because people get consumed by it.

    What is that, you had some minor criticisms about Undetale and gave it an 8/10? Prepare your anus, because that video review is getting slammed like there is no tomorrow. Small change in the new Sailor Moon series? Well, you can be sure the producers will be getting death threats. It has come to the point that if people yell loudly enough, artists will change their vision to comply to the fandom (i.e. Game of Thrones).

    Fandoms are beyond broken at this point. Your example with Bioware is only the tip of the iceberg and it shows you haven’t had any exposure to the real stuff. Bioware and Mass Effect fanboys are tame children compared to the truly passionate Fandoms.

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    • The problem is producers want it both ways, and it doesn’t work that way. They LOVE the hype from fandoms and all the free promotion it gives them, but if you want that, accept the random twitter death threats and hyper-investment/knowledge and related demands. Don’t want it? Delete your twitter/forums/etc, don’t aim/encourage the mass market, tune it all out, and enjoy selling 100 copies of whatever you produce in peace.

      If GRRM didn’t want the millions and millions he is making from HBO, both direct and indirect, maybe he shouldn’t have sold his book series to be turned into a TV product for the masses? He made that decision, he’s profiting off it, and yes, he now also has to deal with the consequence of having a massive audience interested in what you do. Boo hoo, poor GRRM…

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      • Accepting death threats, from a pragmatic, businessman point of view? Sure, they are a cost of your success, just like a famous actor not being able to go eat at a common restaurant without “fans” getting in the way.

        Can’t blame anyone from finding death threats deplorable, though.

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  4. To say fandom is “broken” is possibly a little too black and white, but you’d have to be pretty blind not to see there is a serious problem. The toxicity in fandom — toward creators and other fans alike — is rampant, and honestly at this point it’s getting increasingly hard to argue that the good in fandom is outweighing the bad.

    I don’t know what the solution is, but we definitely can’t just turn a blind eye or shrug our shoulders and say it comes with the territory.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The first step is for the fandom itself to do away with Five Geek Social Fallacies and start cleaning house.

      If someone in your community is engaged in toxic behaviour that clearly crosses the line (e.g. sending death/rape threats), cast them out. Sever ties, ostracize them, make it abundantly clear that such behaviour makes them no longer welcome. It can be heart-wrenchingly hard, but it’s vital.

      By choosing to turn a blind eye, or worse yet, making excuses for such behaviour (“oh, such things are statistically inevitable”, “his methods are kinda extreme, but he has some great points”, “that’s just how he rolls”, “if they didn’t want to get threats, they should have written a better ending”), you send a signal that said behaviour is considered acceptable by your community as a whole. Which, in turn, means that said fandom is “broken”.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I know Gamergate made me disconnect from gaming. To put time into a hobby that makes you rub shoulders with such an infantile element just seemed ludicrous.

    I still put in time (1-2 hours a day) playing a few single-player games, but in the rest of the time I’ve turned to other hobbies. This is mostly reading non-fiction on a few subjects I’m interested in, mostly philosophy, religion, and new discoveries in biology. Though there are disagreements in these fields, there is no online doxxing, bomb scares, or threats of sexual assault against those participating.

    People definitely sort themselves out according to hobbies. This is why, for example, rich people join exclusive country clubs, or pay for expensive opera tickets. They want to hang around with other rich people in their spare time. In terms of current gaming fandom, why would I want to spend my spare time with what appears to be the most reactionary element of online culture short of white supremacist websites?

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    • “I know Gamergate made me disconnect from gaming. To put time into a hobby that makes you rub shoulders with such an infantile element just seemed ludicrous.”

      wut.

      Who and what is forcing you to “rub shoulders” with this “infantile element”? This kind of tainted-by-association stuff is exactly why the Gamergate thing got started in the first place.

      “I still put in time (1-2 hours a day) playing a few single-player games, but in the rest of the time I’ve turned to other hobbies. This is mostly reading non-fiction on a few subjects I’m interested in, mostly philosophy, religion, and new discoveries in biology.”

      You’re actually comparing philosophy, religion and biology to video games? What is that comparison supposed to tell us, exactly?

      “Though there are disagreements in these fields, there is no online doxxing, bomb scares, or threats of sexual assault against those participating.”

      So long as you recognize that kind of shit was going on on both sides, it’s certainly reasonable to want to disassociate yourself from it.

      “In terms of current gaming fandom, why would I want to spend my spare time with what appears to be the most reactionary element of online culture short of white supremacist websites?”

      Because if you bothered to do more than a cursory assessment you’d realize that gaming culture is not fundamentally worse than any other common fandom, such as movies, TV or comic books. The fact that the most unsavory elements are being repeatedly surfaced by self-important hacks like Devin Faraci says less about the culture in general and more about those who “cover” it. The fact that Faraci feels the need to invoke the specter of Gamergate to make a point about “fandom” should give any reasonable person pause the same way we were skeptical of politicians in the early aughts who invoked 9/11 as some sort of rhetorical panacea to cover their own deficiencies. That kind of wild-eyed fearmongering is the locker room floor where people like Jack Thompson spawn. It’s utter nonsense and you, a self-admitted gamer, should honestly know better.

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    • Yeah, that’s pretty much why I don’t try to make friends in-game anymore. Even if I’m in a multiplayer game, I keep to myself. It’s clear that while there are certainly decent people who game, gamers as a culture are not people I want anything to do with.

      Frankly I should probably be more disconnected than I am. I have a perverse mix of optimism that the awfulness won’t always dominate and a morbid fascination with the awfulness as it continues to dominate.

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    • In terms of current gaming fandom, why would I want to spend my spare time with what appears to be the most reactionary element of online culture short of white supremacist websites?

      Perhaps because you don’t want a small segment of a larger population to color and poison your perception of the group as a whole? Sort of like what the white supremacists do. Gaming isn’t Gamergate any more than Westboro Baptist Church is religion.

      But whatever, man, you do you. I prefer to be excited about my hobbies, and engage with other bloggers and commenters about the minutia of the topic of the week. Just avoid stuff like Twitch chat (etc) and you’ll be fine.

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  6. The author is not saying that art should not be criticized. He goes into more detail here: http://birthmoviesdeath.com/2016/05/31/yes-disney-should-have-a-queer-princess.

    The two pieces you quoted are more than a little sketchy, but I don’t think they really change what the author is trying to say regarding consumer entitlement. Art consumers (and for that matter, consumers of any kind) are entitled to an opinion on the products they consume, but creators are -not- required to listen or cater to them. Even if the whole world thought the ME3 ending was crap, it’s Bioware’s decision whether to change it or not.

    “The customer is always right” is a policy that creators/producers can adopt or not at their discretion. A customer invoking that mantra to a creator’s face is simply wrong, and just comes out as whiny and spoiled.

    Consumers can criticize, cry, do whatever they want within the limits of legality and morality. They can even expect the world to revolve around them for all anyone cares. Stepping out of those limites with death threats and the like, however, is definitely not ok, and I don’t understand how anyone could disagree.

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    • Of course the creators are not required to do anything. In fact, that is the most baffling part about the author’s original and follow-up post. What practical difference is there between a fan that says “I want X” vs “I demand X”? Nothing. They are literally the same, with equal (read: zero) amount of moral weight to the creator. We can say that the latter approach presupposes some sort of contractual obligation… but it really doesn’t, and no one legitimately believes it to be so. It’s a rhetorical tactic, like any other, not some ridiculous notion of “entitlement.”

      “Some people really do believe”… no. If they did, they would sue in court. Instead, they write the most effective words they can on the internet because, astoundingly, creators with “artistic vision” seem to care a whole lot about “whiny” consumers of their media.

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      • There is no difference for the producers between a “I want” and “I demand”. The difference is in the mind of the one doing the request/demand. Sure, some may use it purely as a rhetorical tactic as you say, but I’m sure that others, or even some of the same people, believe that producers are obligated to cater to their customers’ wishes.
        Maybe morally instead of legally, and this would explain the lack of lawsuits. Or many other reasons, really, but if someone can get into such a weird mindset that they believe in such obligations, we can’t expect much rationality from them any more.

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  7. “as long as Twitter continues being a platform basically dedicated to consequence-free instant abuse, I don’t know what the solution is.”

    I do. It’s punitive fines and/or criminal convictions for the management and/or owners of Twitter and of the ISPs and other intermediaries that serve and promote it. That might be unrealistic in the U.S., where freedom of expression enjoys quite specific legal protections of its own but it can and will happen in most of the rest of the world.

    The big tech companies have had a good run for a couple of decades but it won’t last forever. You can see the tide turning.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, it’s pretty absurd when someone can turn around and create another anonymous Twitter handle and continue spamming hate without consequence. I have never been sold on the “real name solves everything” approach – just browse your Facebook feed sometime to see how much of deterrent that is – but this laissez faire approach is a bit ridiculous, year after year.

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  8. I mostly agree with the article. I’m sure quite a few people would prefer Romeo and Juliet or Odette and Siegfried to get together and live happily ever after, too. Annie Wilkes is a great allegory for what lies when fandom entitlement is reduced to the absurd, and beyond her loom Rushdie and Solzhenitsyn and every tragic instance of artistic freedom subordinated to What Is Good For The Audience.

    Artistic intent as a weasel idea, though? Intent is the basic essence of art. That’s all art really is. You can place and sign a urinal like Duchamp and by that act choose it to be art. You can crowd-create art like Koblin and Echelman (or, heck, Yoko Ono) but the intent to set that up as art is what redeems it as art. Art has something to say, even if it tries to say that nothing’s worth saying, or it exists to rebut or deny a certain way of saying things.

    Just because intent makes art valid does not spare the artist from criticism. Their idea can be banal, or sloppy (e.g. plot holes), or derivative, or technically wanting, or whatever. There is plenty of lousy art or art that just doesn’t do it for you. The difference between saying ‘this sucks and we think you could express your point better or find more interesting statements to make’ and ‘We do not like what you are saying, change it to make us happy, we pay and we demand’ is the difference between critique and coarse entitlement.

    I don’t know whether any of this really does apply to media products like video games which tilt so heavily to the commercial rather than artistic. Probably, often, not. Those products are already quite compromised, and their aim is mostly to please. I do think that if a video game creator does stake out an artistic vision, though, it should receive the same consideration.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sullas: The difference between saying ‘this sucks and we think you could express your point better or find more interesting statements to make’ and ‘We do not like what you are saying, change it to make us happy, we pay and we demand’ is the difference between critique and coarse entitlement.

      If I hire someone (“an artist”) to make/paint/create a song/play/whatever and I do not like it, I have all the right to say change it or I will not pay for it whatever “artistic vision” that person can claim, that is something that is my right, what to do with what is mine. If I do not like ME3 ending I will say “change it or I will not buy any other games from you will anyone call me entitled?
      What I say is that those same person enjoyed the free publicity and overhype, unfortunately nothing is free.

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    • If games, books and movies are merely products, perhaps they should come with mandatory warning labels like other products. It’s already common practice in fan fiction communities to require trigger warnings if a given work has content that is likely to cause an intense negative emotional reaction (e.g. major character death); perhaps mainstream art could stand to borrow this practice.

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  9. It seems like anytime someone doesn’t like some aspect of something, it becomes “broken”. While there are definitely people who get too worked up about stories that disappoint them (note to the sad fans of the world, if you don’t like the way a story ended then stick it to the man and write a better ending), I must have missed the rash of artists being murdered by overly passionate members of their fanbase. Otherwise, it’s just some tweets or whatever. We must truly live in a wondrous age of peace and harmony if getting aggressively tweeted at is cause for concern.

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