(Had I known this series of blog posts would be this long, I’d have picked a shorter name for it. Also, the Roman Numeral is for you, Bernie Su.)
If you have managed to read everything I’ve written on this topic so far, congratulations! You have successfully cured your insomnia! Okay, hopefully it isn’t that boring. After all, you are still reading it…hey, why is that? Don’t answer. I might not actually want to know.
When last we met, I was yammering on about the Fandom Life-Cycle. I got about halfway through, saw I was at 3300 words in the post, and decided I’d finish it up here. And I will. I’ll also be spinning out into a couple of other areas once we’ve finished this life-cycle discussion: Anatomy of a Fan(Girl) and The Raising of the Bar.
The Fandom Life-Cycle
Last time we talked about the Introduction and Growth phases of the Fandom Life-Cycle, arguably the most heady and exciting time for any fan group. Those phases cover the timeframe when the fandom is forming and new people are joining in constantly increasing numbers. The amount of time this covers can vary for each fandom — some run much shorter cycles than others. Some fandoms last weeks or months, while others can last decades. I think it’s fair to say that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories (and the character) have been through the cycle several times — as Sherlock is revived in popular culture a new flock of fans become enamored, and the cycle picks up and begins again. That’s one of the beautiful things about fandom — it can be constantly renewed and refreshed, if the passion exists in someone to revive it.
Once a fandom experiences a period of sustained growth, it will eventually level out. This is the Maturity Phase. That doesn’t refer to the ages of the people in the fandom, merely that the fandom has reached a level of saturation, and it is maintaining its numbers, but not gaining many new fans. Those who have found the fandom and enjoy it have stayed, and are continuing to enjoy it. Maturity can also be a great time, but it can also lead to great apathy – the fandom is so comfortable and established, it doesn’t work as hard to recruit new members, or the inability to find new fans leads existing ones to simply enjoy the fandom. Evangelizers fade out. The Artists and Critics are still around, generating content, but the creative fuel that the fandom is supplied by, the original content, is either gone or fading. Maturity sometimes happens as a show is still on the air, but fans have dropped out for one reason or another — the audience stays pretty stable and consistent but doesn’t grow. More often, Maturity is reached once a show or book series ends. Once the material that was the basis of the fandom has dissipated, there is less to hold the fandom together. It is from here that the fandom enters the last and often the saddest phase, Decline.
Let me tell you about the Decline Phase. It’s dark and depressing. It’s almost as bad as the Introduction Phase in terms of fans feeling like the lone voice in the wilderness. Many fans have moved on or are in the process of losing the passion they had in the first place. I personally experienced the Decline Phase in a fandom in 1989. This was the last year “Doctor Who” aired episodes until it was rebooted and revived in 2005. While there were fits and spurts of new content trickling in over the years in the form of original novels and radio plays and the (failed) TV Movie on Fox in 1996, the fandom was in major decline. It had already been difficult to find fellow fans in the 80’s, now it was nearly impossible.
But then something happened — the Internet. As people began to really connect with one another (circa 1995) on the internet, it became easier. And the fans who still had a deep passion for this show kept the small embers of hope alive that it would return. Ten years these embers burned, until finally, Russell T. Davies in his infinite wisdom found the way to revive the franchise. And once David Tennant replaced Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor, the fandom was back in a new life-cycle.
That’s the beauty of the life-cycle — from decline can emerge something new and fresh. Fandom is immortal, and like a Time Lord, it regenerates itself, sometimes with the reviving of something old and dear, often with something new and different.
Like any sports fan who has up years and down years for their favorite sports team or the fashion mavens who watch styles go in and out of favor, fandom has similar emotional ebbs and flows — and boy is fandom emotional.
Anatomy of a Fan(girl)
Let’s get this out of the way first: This doesn’t just apply to females. Yes, I included the ‘girl’ in parentheses above, but because “fangirl” is a term which already conjures certain images and impressions. I want to dig deeper than the proverbial fangirl, because honestly, there are many different types of fans.
There are casual fans, of course, but every fangirl and fanboy worth their salt knows they are just poseurs. They don’t REALLY love the thing you love. They like it, sure, but…no one can understand how you feel about this thing. Okay, maybe the thousand other fangirls/boys you find online, maybe they understand…
Picture a fangirl. What does she look like?
It’s a difficult thing to wrap your brain around, unless you have been to this place of insanity — and most fangirls/boys will acknowledge that their intense fervor is a kind of insanity. Just imagine that from the time you wake up until the time you fall asleep the majority of your day is spent talking about, writing about, watching, reading, thinking about this particular person/place/thing/show/book/movie/sports team/website. Broadly, we’ve probably all experienced this at one time or another about a crush, a person we became infatuated with, but fangirls/boys seem to do this all the time, and over and over again.
They love to love. Passionately. (We’ll leave the haters for now, because honestly, I’ll never understand someone who devotes so much of their precious time on this Earth hating on things. Unless it is Nazis. Feel free to hate on Nazis as much as you like.)
I love this cartoon, because it applies very broadly to all types of fandom. That last stage though? That could go one of two ways… Sure, the ‘Gratitude’ Phase represented here exists among the healthier of the fan set. But it could also go this way…
Obsession occurs because our neurotransmitters keep getting pinged. Let’s get a clinical definition of obsession:
At first, like all addictions, obsession is intoxicating. It fills us up, and what a relief that feeling is (especially if we felt empty before). But even if we didn’t feel empty, obsession makes us feel potent, capable, and purposeful.
But also like all addictions, with time obsession unbalances us. We often begin to neglect parts of our lives we shouldn’t. If allowed to become too consuming, obsession causes us to devalue important dimensions of our lives and tolerate their atrophy and even their collapse. But even if our lives remain in balance, if the object of our obsession is taken from us, as my patient’s was from her, we find ourselves devastated, often convinced we’ve lost our last chance at happiness.
Yep, that sounds about right. But, don’t get me wrong — for fangirls this obsession isn’t always bad. In fact, it can be really great. Consider this from the same article:
Obsession, when made to serve us, can bring out our most capable selves, motivating us to find the creativity and ingenuity to solve incredibly difficult problems. Obsession, in short, can lead us to greatness.
The key here is in controlling and managing the obsession. A majority of fans are perfectly capable of doing this, but every once in awhile you find some that seem to have lost perspective. Sadly, it is that image that plants itself in many minds, as teenage girls and boys who are excessively hormonal and most likely to latch on to obsession, due to the neurotransmitter buttons that keep getting hit (endorphins and dopamine, primarily) and causing good feelings that give fandom the reputation that helped you conjure up that image of a young girl, holding a homemade sign and screaming her fool head off.
I can say a lot of these things because I have been a fangirl. About genre television, about musicians. Here’s my high school locker:
…or my bedroom wall…
No, you can’t see the Cosplay pictures. So, take it from me, I know what a fan is — they aren’t all crazy. They aren’t all dressed the same, most you can’t even tell looking at them that they’re fans. They come in all shapes, sizes, colors and ages. Anyone is a fan. Everyone is a fan.
The difference between a casual fan and a fangirl is in the passion. A casual fan enjoys the content they are consuming, like a great meal at a fine restaurant. They appreciate it, maybe even love it to a degree. The fangirl is like an over-eater at the Bellagio Las Vegas buffet. They will consume and consume seemingly without end. Do they love it and appreciate it? Oh yes, they do, but they must have ALL THE THINGS. When they become fans of a show, they can’t just watch and enjoy. No, they must write about it, create art and gifs, write new stories… They want to live in the world as much as they can and savor all of it. There’s nothing wrong with either path, provided that the fan manages their expectations appropriately.
The Raising of the Bar
It used to be simple: You’d write a book or comic, create a TV show or a film and the fans would come and accept what you give them. Because you’re the creator, you’re the boss, right?
Well, times have changed…sort of.
This is an effect of social media. It used to be that if you wanted to hear what a fan thought about your work, you’d wait for them to write some fan mail sent through the postal system. Or you’d read a review in a magazine or maybe on TV. It was still a closed system. Social media has changed that.
As you can see from the various tweets, a lot of demands and complaints get sent to the creators and/or showrunners constantly. It’s a stream of abuse, prayers, and yes, compliments too. For some, it can be overwhelming. Julie Plec has certainly had her fair share of fandom “feedback” — “The Vampire Diaries” fans are some of the most vocal, concerned about which characters should be put together romantically, what characters should live and die, even what kind of stories they should be telling. And TVD isn’t the only show that gets this kind of fervent attention. Worse, is if a showrunner engages these fans to explain decisions… some fans just can’t accept those decisions.
In the tweet to Jason Rothenberg the person is probably mostly joking, but it reflects an attitude among some fans — Give me what I want. Now. You will do our bidding. They often insist that showrunners bend to their will. In cases where showrunners have listened too closely to fans, it can backfire — very often what fans say they want and what they actually want/need are very different. Of course, most of the time a story decision isn’t predicated on what the fans want at all, but it doesn’t stop the fans from thinking they have influence. If you did what they wanted, you are a saint. If you did something they hate, you’re the devil. Doesn’t matter whether you even know they said they wanted it or not, you will be glorified or demonized regardless.
There is a positive side to this kind of immediate feedback — that is, knowing when your show is generating the right kind of emotion in the fanbase, or when they are so turned off, so apathetic and losing interest that the show needs to change directions. This can be challenging, given how far ahead the show is in production by the time early episodes air. It can make those changes like turning the Titanic around in the ocean. If the majority are excited, scared, pleased and happy with the story, it’s a great feeling. Even negative feelings are better than no feelings at all.
A few of those demanding fans like to hold a specific threat over the show — Do what I want or I will stop watching your show. They are so engaged in the show and feel such a part of it, that they lose sight that their viewership alone will not affect the writers one whit. It’s only when droves of fans leave (enter the Decline Phase) that the writers will sit up and take notice. Of course by then, it might be too late.
So, it’s important to know what your fanbase is saying, but it will always be far more important that the creators of content stick to their storytelling guns. Follow the story and the characters where they lead you, not where the fans want you to go. Ultimately, the creator must be happy with the work they create, even if it means you lose a few fans along the way. In this, social media is a like a siren song — it can be tempting to want to please your fanbase and give them exactly what they want. But that way lies madness. They will never be satisfied, and now you’ve told them that you will do as they say.
One thing I will say about the interaction of fans and creators is that there is a stronger desire to give the audience a great story with surprising twists. We are living in a glorious time of TV (I’d dare call it the Platinum Age, since the Golden Age has already been set in an earlier time). TV shows are richer, more interesting and diverse than ever before in the history of the medium. Because of that, viewers have watched hundreds and hundreds of hours of story in tv and film in their lifetimes. The expectations for a story are now higher. The audience is highly intelligent and intuitive about story. They know when you’re tapdancing to postpone events in the story and just filling up time. They also know when stories ring false. You have to consider how your story plays week to week as well as how it plays when it is “binged” in a few sessions. Binging on TV content is a new normal, and it is accelerating the rate at which people consume content. It isn’t just that they consume it faster, they now consume more, because they can. As they watch more TV and films, they become smarter and even more intuitive about story moves. Go back and watch some “older” TV from the late 70’s or early 80s — Magnum P.I. or even Hill Street Blues, which was considered very advanced and groundbreaking for its time. I bet you can predict what will happen in the stories more than half the time. Why is that? Because those stories were successful in their time and have been replicated over and over since. Subverting expectations is as important as meeting them. Even better is to exceed them, but that is a high bar to clear, indeed.
For all of the content consumed, even by us as creators, it makes us all smarter. It pushes us to take risks with our stories, and ask ourselves, ‘what if the obvious thing didn’t happen?’ or, ‘if this obvious thing does happen, how can the fallout be different than we expect?’ The pressure of fans demanding great story is terrifying to some degree, but to another, it is exactly the kind of catalyst many creators need to build amazing characters and stories. Audiences demand more, and so we must do everything we can to satisfy, without pandering.
Believe it or not (and you probably do believe it by now), there’s a 5th and final part coming — an Epilogue. We will wrap up all this chatter once and for all. It takes a personal bent, my personal experiences and how I feel about the whole thing. You know, if you’re into that.
Posted under analysis
This post was written by Shawna on February 13, 2015