Fandom in the Social Media Age – Conclusions, Part Three

Fandom and the Changing Landscape

Fandom is always a grass-roots thing. It is nearly impossible to manufacture a fandom for a new show, comic, movie, book, etc. Fandom generates from the audience finding that content, connecting with it in a very personal way and then seeking to evangelize about that content with like-minded individuals (other fans) or new recruits. Fandom in its early stages, from my experience is all about finding more people to love the thing, so that thing continues to flourish and thrive.

Early on I stumbled on a real issue for our fans — what they were to be called. Generally speaking, fans find the perfect group identity — “Doctor Who” fans became ‘Whovians,’ “Star Trek” fans are ‘Trekkers/Trekkies,’ even “Harry Potter” fans had identity as ‘Potterheads,’ or even more specifically by the Hogwarts House with which they most identified. Our fans couldn’t quite come up with a name — Calling themselves ‘The Hundreders’ is just nonsensical, so they looked for identifying clues in the show… Delinquents? After all, the kids sent to Earth (the show titled ‘Hundred’) were all prisoners/juvenile delinquents… but then, what about the Grounders? But that felt divisive, rather than inclusive as well. They looked to the writers for guidance, but we weren’t very helpful either. While other show fan groups had identity, our fans felt they lacked one. Thankfully, the debate waned over the months, and I think everyone agreed that a group identity wasn’t necessary… at least, not right now.

It may seem a trifling issue to an outsider, but group identity is really important in fandom. It’s a badge of honor, a way of telling others ‘I love this thing and I want to associate myself with it, even if it is merely by taking on this label.’ I see it in Twitter bios all the time — Whovian. Browncoat. Gleek. Gladiator. (That last one is for “Scandal,” of all things). A group identity isn’t a requirement, and there are just as many shows without a name for the fans as those that do, but it certainly allows fans to coalesce around that identity far easier.

If you want a sense of some of the most devoted fanbases for TV shows right now, I found this article at TV.com highly amusing and mostly valid, given it was written last year.

The way that fans are able to connect and interact with each other today is a miracle compared to even 10 years ago. Of course in the stone age of 20 years ago, if you wanted to find fans of far flung TV shows, like “Doctor Who” (and yes, 20 years ago, you were a complete oddball if you were a Whovian) you had to hope you could find a local club/chapter or travel to a convention to find others of your kind. I once got a pen pal after writing to a club newsletter and connecting with another fan in Virginia who was also a fan. We were pen pals for years, finally met about 8-10 years after our correspondence began (through the MAIL!) Today, it’s as easy as tweeting “hey, anyone like #the100?” and probably a dozen people will pop up in your feed. Or on Tumblr, say “Hey I just started watching this show…” and hashtagging it appropriately and others will find you and you will find blogs of others. So easy.

This ability to find and connect with others means that fandoms spring up far more quickly. The fandom for “The 100” was pretty small throughout the first season, and didn’t really find a footing until the show finished the season and was headed to Netflix. The old formulas still apply — one person will convince their immediate friends to try out the show and either succeed (in which case, they can get together to watch) or fail (in which case, they go online to find like minds). It was easy to see the sparks begin to really fly and the blaze to grow, once there were artists in the fandom to create fan fiction and artwork.

Fan fiction has been around forever, it seems, and yet we are now in an age where you don’t have to write your fan fiction and hide it from the world — you can share it, have others read it and comment on it! You can take requests from people for situations and characters you want to read about, whether within the canon of the show or far, far outside it — mixing and matching romantic pairings to your liking, resurrecting dead characters and giving them perpetual life, and crossing over between shows, and the latest trend in fan fiction, creating alternate universes for the characters to experience whether it is present day high school to another show entirely (A fan fiction where Clarke, Bellamy, Octavia and Jasper are in ‘Glee’!) The possibilities are endless in fan fiction, so long as there are fans to write it. Within the last couple of years, Amazon and others have found ways to monetize fan fiction. A publisher/author sanctions fan fiction in some manner, allowing the use of the copyrighted characters/story/etc to be used for that purpose and be sold. It’s a limited area, but not completely out of bounds, given the origins of “50 Shades of Grey” from “Twilight” fan fiction.

The Fandom Life-Cycle

I’ve always been interested in the evolution and longevity of fandoms. Some show fandoms slowly peter out over time, but others burn forever. Managing social media for ‘The 100’ gave me a front row seat to the early stages of fandom and allowed me to discover how it developed to where it is now. I’m sure someone has actually done this before, but contextualizing it for myself really helped me understand my own past being in various fan groups as well as how that fandom acts.

Fandom is a bit like a hive-mind at times — it’s a collection of vastly different people oftentimes but they are all drawn together by this one specific show. The differences between people make it fun, but also provide the most danger and conflict — what feels like a perfectly reasonable thought or action to one person could be construed as offensive or out of line by another. And don’t even get me started on what constitutes a ‘spoiler’ and the window within which something can be considered such. (For the record, it appears to be the amount of time until there is a new episode). The hive-mind of fans can be a powerful force, and often it can be a majority or a highly vocal minority of fans that can really overwhelm the uninitiated. Fortunately, I am familiar with the ebb and flow of fandom and was able to weather most of the sturm and drang with minimal psychological damage (at least, as far as I can tell).

The Introduction Phase

The Life-Cycle itself follows the natural life cycle of any organism or group — There is the Introduction, the spark that starts a fandom. In our case, it’s ‘The 100.’ No show = no fanbase. (Note: I am well aware of the books on which ‘The 100’ is very loosely based. There certainly could be a fanbase for the books, but for the purposes of this demonstration, let’s assume there isn’t, since that is a typical scenario.) Once the show premieres, the fans begin to pop up, one by one.

The are the Early Adopters.

The early adopters are the canary in the coal mine. By their actions and words you can start to see where you will draw most of your fans. The fanbase for ‘The 100’ cropped up mostly from the CW’s core demographic — women ages 18-34, with outliers on each side of the age range and gender. The pilot, which is generally acknowledged even by Jason, is very likely the worst episode of the entire show, which isn’t great for creating a fanbase. Early Adopters tend to be able to see past the deficiencies to give the show another chance to impress. Generally, I give a show four episodes beyond the pilot if I find it interesting. If after 4 I’m not invested, I cut it loose. Two exceptions: “Fringe” I gave 6 episodes to, because I actually loved the pilot, and once they figured out what they were doing after 6 episodes, I knew I’d be a lifer. More recently, “Gotham” I have been giving a very large allowance of episodes. It is only at Episode 14 I have begun to really waver. It’s the first episode I have been dragging my feet to watch, because I’m just not sure I want to continue on with it.

For ‘The 100’ it is generally accepted that if you can get through the first 4-5 episodes of the show, you will stick with it. The first three are rocky, but the show begins to take shape at episode 4, moreso with episode 5, and by 6, the show is pretty well on its way. That’s a lot of good will, but the Early Adopters are the ones who make it through those episodes and start recruiting others to watch the show.

This leads to the second group in Fandom: The Evangelizers.

Most people in a fandom exist in at least one category and more often multiple categories. The Evangelizers and the Early Adopters are generally the same people, the difference is that The Evangelizers are the ones drawing new people to the show. There are plenty of Early Adopters who continue to watch but aren’t recruiting more viewers. The Evangelizers are the ones going on social media and shouting from the rooftops that they love this Thing and other people should really try watching this Thing, because they think new people will love it too. These are the fans you want to nurture and support on social media the most. They are the ones putting extra time and effort into building the fanbase.

Throughout the Introduction Phase of the fandom, it’s chaotic. Fans haven’t coalesced, they exist in pockets, but as more people begin to watch and more pockets form, the more likely they are to go on social media and talk about the show. The main benefit of social media to fandom as I’ve said before is the speed and ease with which fans can find each other and really converge into an entity — THE FANDOM. In the past, this process could take years, sometimes even occurring after the show is long gone (original ‘Stark Trek,’ ‘Firefly’) and sometimes the fervor of a fandom can even resurrect the dead. Now of course, the fandom is almost immediate. A show exists, the fandom exists, virtually simultaneously. The question is whether your show will have the ability to grow.

The Growth Phase

The fandom exists, but is still in a delicate state. If the show’s quality falls, it can kill a fandom quickly, before it ever really takes root. The Early Adopters and Evangelizers lose interest and fall out. The fandom falls apart.

But if you can sustain the interest in the show by providing great content, the fandom will enter the Growth Phase. This is where you start to really gain traction. Most of the growth of ‘The 100’ fandom happened after the show arrived on Netflix in the U.S. and premiered its 2nd season, which just happened to be the same day. Let me remind you of this chart:

The100Writers Twitter Followers

The100Writers Twitter Followers

While it’s true that we picked up a lot of followers to the Writers’ Room account after I took over running it, the largest spike of followers happens on that line between early August and late November. Hmm, let’s parse that… oh, yes, that would be October 22nd, the day it hit Netflix and Season 2 premiere. From that moment, the fandom had fully entered the Growth Phase. The show had been picked up for another season. Fans had reason to invest time and energy into the show, since they knew there would be more of it. That can be a huge decider for a fanbase. If a show gets canceled it could enter Cult Status, the ‘canceled too soon’ syndrome of many shows, that are beloved long after they’re gone. Or, it could just vanish, almost as if it never existed. I tried to find a good example of this and came up with “Heroes,” the NBC show, but ironically, it’s coming back years after its cancellation.

In the Growth Phase a few other types of fans emerge. The Artists and The Critics.

The Artists are the fans who are so inspired by the show, they are compelled to create their own art, whether it is visual, written, even aural! These are the fanart creators and the fan fiction writers. Their love of the show feeds their creativity, and gives them license to play in the world that the show has created. Until the last few years, these artists might have feared copyright infringement issues, but studios and networks have come to understand the value of fanart and fan fiction to the success of a show. We encountered the issue surprisingly early of fans wanting to purchase merchandise. The writing staff submitted design ideas and suggestions to the studio, but as of yet, no major brands have signed on to produce anything, despite the demand from our fans. Fortunately, in the new landscape, there are plenty of sites where designs can be created and produced and sold. WBTV has very smartly partnered with Cafepress to evaluate fan designs and authorize them for sale, taking a small cut of the profit and allowing the fans to profit as they sell these items to other fans. What an amazing new world — no longer are marketers dictating what should be made and sold — fans are!

The Critics can be a force for good or ill within a fanbase, usually both. There are the professional critics, of course — TV critics who publish reviews and recaps for the masses and amateur critics, who post their own analysis and reviews of the show. Critics are incredibly valuable as well for helping to draw new fans of the show, and if you happen to have very well known and respected critics love your show, it’s a Godsend. The downside to The Critics usually comes from the amateur branch. This is where the dark underbelly of a fandom brews (and every fandom has one). These are The Dark Critics.

The Dark Critics are fans who, for reasons known only to them, watch the show, but can’t seem to find anything they like about it. It’s one step removed from hate watching, because these fans actually do like the show… but an outsider cannot for the life of them understand why. The Dark Critic picks apart the show to minute detail – looking for gaffes, errors whether they be scientific, logic, continuity. They sometimes disguise themselves as the Social Justice Fan, but it isn’t with the same goal of improving the show, but rather to tear it down. These are the people you need to be able to identify and AVOID AT ALL COSTS. They are toxic, and can draw you in to endless debates without any hope of convincing them they are wrong. They don’t care. They won’t admit defeat, they won’t change their minds, and even if you can prove them wrong, they’ll just move on to some other defect they find in the show to exploit and blow up. Almost all of my missteps in social media came at the hands of the Dark Critics, who I either didn’t identify early enough or got lured into the conflict, like a trap. They are wily, and willing to do anything to prove their point. I’m sure there’s a psychological study in here somewhere of why these fans are the way they are, and if someone ever wants to do that study, I’d love to see the results.

Let’s be clear, The Dark Critics aren’t just critics posting negative reviews. Negative reviews are fine, and completely understandable. But most critics post the negative because they love the show and they just had a problem with this episode or this character — they are generally positive and like the show, and are just showing their disappointment or disapproval of story, not wholesale condemnation of the whole enterprise.

There’s another group of fans that are there all throughout the Growth Phase, and frankly they are the majority…the silent majority. I call them The Wallflowers.

Online they are known as Lurkers — they are the fans that enjoy the show immensely, and might even tweet now and then. They might even be Evangelizers within their social circle, but they generally sit on the sidelines and just enjoy the show for what it is. They are the fans who buy merchandise, but don’t produce it. Who read fan fiction, but don’t write it. They follow the writers and or the actors but don’t tweet at them much if ever. They are the heart and soul of the fanbase. These are the ones you forget are there, because they aren’t visible, but don’t forget them — they ARE there. I probably only interacted with .5% of our total Twitter followers — The other 30,000 of them had to be there too though, just watching the show and reading our tweets. They are the ones I appreciate just as much as any Evangelizer, and they tend to reflect the fandom that is just happy to have the show to watch, and don’t get involved in any inter-fandom conflicts that might erupt. In truth, I identify with this crowd, because I’m usually a part of it. I’m the kind of fan who loves a thing but doesn’t go up on a mountain top to preach the gospel about it. These are my people, and I love them.

One of the greatest moments of working on the social media came from interacting with a fan who was very much a Wallflower. The fan sent a private message to the Tumblr account indicating that he/she was a depressed teen, who had found some comfort in watching the show and thanked us for it. I could sense from the tone of the note that this person was someone prone to self-harm, and it alarmed me. I felt an obligation to reach out to this fan and tell them that they could contact us any time they were feeling down, and we’d be there for them. They thanked me for that too. It was profound to feel I had helped someone or at least made a small impact on their life that particular day. It isn’t often we can say that, and this job gave me that opportunity. For that, I will be eternally grateful.

This is the kind of fan that represents a Wallflower. There are so many disaffected, cut off teens, and they all find each other for solace on Tumblr. Because of that Tumblr is a very tricky place to navigate, and everyone is warning about “triggers” and violent content that could disturb some less well-adjusted people. It certainly made me aware that there are a lot of teenagers out there experiencing severe depression and isolation. It worried me greatly.

I have more to say about this and other societal shifts at another time (Part 4? ) But there were things I experienced while managing social media that significantly changed my world view.

The Growth Phase can last months or years, depending on the longevity of the show. Shippers will ship one couple, then another. Fans will join and drop out, some maybe rejoining. A lot happens during the Growth Phase. Frankly, I can’t really discuss the last two phases in relation to ‘The 100’ specifically because it is still very early in its life-cycle.

But I will discuss them generally…next time. Yep, there will be a Part 4: Maturity and Decline of Fandom and the future of social media and fandom.

 

Posted under analysis

This post was written by Shawna on February 9, 2015

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