Avatar: The Last Airbender ended in 2008, but in 2015 it still has a thriving fan community. Though the show was targeted toward children ages nine to 15, most of the people who participate in the fandom nowadays are adults. At the end of the series the characters Suki and Sokka ended up romantically linked. The vast majority of fans disagreed with the creators’ decision on this front. They thought that Sokka would have made a better match with a character called Toph. The relationship was nicknamed “Tokka” by fans, and since the creators of AtLA did not have social media accounts, the fans mostly ranted to each other on Tumblr and in forums about this injustice.
In 2012, a 27-year-old created Fan and Boomerang, a Tumblr blog devoted to the characters Suki and Sokka. After a year of running the blog, the owner had to create a post explaining why she shut off anonymous messages, explaining, “I started out this blog trying to be ship friendly, but apparently other shippers cannot play nice. So after a year of receiving messages like the ones posted below, I have lost a massive amount of respect for the tokka ship and many of the shippers.” The screenshots she posted included messages that didn’t just tell her that she was rooting for the wrong couple. The predominant sentiment was that she should kill herself “for supporting such a crappy ship.” The most chilling post, said, “Guess who found out where you live bitch? You’re gonna fucking die and the whole fandom will celebrate.” All of this occurred because she went against the grain and thought that a fictional character should end up with one person instead of another.
In some ways, it’s easy to see why this sort of behavior happens online. Drs. Lynn S. Zubernis and Kathy Larsen, authors of Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls and Fandom at the Crossroads agree. Zubernis says that online anonymity, “invites people to forget social norms and sometimes to be more comfortable with attacking others.” But this sort of behavior doesn’t happen exclusively online. It sometimes seeps its way into real life.
Fandom, both online and in real life, can be a wonderfully collaborative experience. It’s amazing to find something you love and want to know every detail, but it’s even better when you find another person, or even a whole community, that shares your enthusiasm. Zubernis says, “Tuning in to Supernatural every Wednesday provides an emotional satisfaction that can be comparable to hanging out with good friends.” Often times, the secondary creation that occurs in fandom brings many people as much joy as the original work does.
For all of this collaboration, things can and do go awry, mostly because of disagreements from within the fandom. Fandoms disagree on all sorts of things. When books are made into movies, fans argue about what elements should have been dropped from the adaptation. During TV shows’ midseason breaks, they argue about how certain plot points should be resolved when the show comes back. And, most of all, they argue about shipping, or which characters should end up together. Zubernis says, “The entire community can see these interactions, which leads to infighting between groups of fans emotionally invested in seeing mutually exclusive outcomes for their favorite characters and show.” Even if there are just a few disagreements within a fandom, once people start to take sides, fan spaces like Tumblr and Reddit can seem like war zones.
This isn’t just happening online. Olivia Dolphin, a volunteer coordinator at the fan convention GeekyCon and co-founder of FantasticFandoms.com, told me that conventions are susceptible to the same cliquishness that is abundant in online fandoms. People first meet online, become friends, and then finally meet in real life at conventions. “I think it’s harder now [than it was in 2007], with everyone being so comfortable on the Internet, to go to a conference alone and make friends,” Dolphin says. This means if you don’t do any prep work and network online beforehand, you may find a fan convention a pretty lonely place even though you’re surrounded by people with common interests.
Even if you’re all set up to meet your online friends, it may not go as planned. Some people may be more reserved in real life than they are online, but some people aren’t. There can be issues with respecting boundaries in the convention space. When people meet in real life for the first time, even if they’ve known each other online for a long time, there can be a disconnect. One person might be ready to hug and kiss, but those same behaviors could make another person incredibly uncomfortable. “It can be tricky to navigate, especially when you get a bunch of enthusiastic, passionate nerds running around a hotel for a weekend,” Dolphin says. This stems from the same problem as online entitlement. Sometimes fans just don’t recognize that others interpret their own experiences differently.
Perhaps the most striking story Dolphin told me was that of Brad Ausrotas. He presented a panel about Severus Snape at GeekyCon this summer. As we’ve covered before, Snape is a contentious character in the Harry Potter fandom. Many people view him as a tragic romantic figure, but Ausrotas’s presentation contended that Snape was a toxic character, one who failed to move past childhood grudges. He argued that Snape should not be a beloved character. “He started getting death threats from Snape enthusiasts,” Dolphin said. “They basically told him that he is not allowed to ‘bully’ a fictional character.” Ausrotas wasn’t speaking against Snape from behind a username on a blog (though he did post his argument on Tumblr); he was speaking out as a flesh-and-blood person. Because of this, he was searchable, and threats in that situation are more dangerous and real than when they are coming from one stranger on the Internet to another.
Fans don’t just bully other fans. When the Naruto manga ended last year, there was an enormous backlash against the creator. The protagonist, Naruto, ended up romantically linked with the character Hinata, but a large group of fans had wanted him to end up with a different character, Sakura. When that ended up not being the case, they accused the author of taking bribes from the NaruHina fans, claiming the ending isn’t real. According to Naruto fan and Minerva contributor Katy Mastrocola, “Disgruntled fans started spamming the Twitter accounts of the author’s assistants.”
When a fan threatens a creator, they forget who gave them the material they loved so much in the first place. Without Masashi Kishimoto, Naruto fans wouldn’t have Naruto or Sakura or any of the characters that they spent hours of their lives discussing and dissecting and creating fan works for. Some feel if they spend these hours creating, they own a little bit of the fandom. But that doesn’t mean they own the original property. If a creator doesn’t see things the way a certain group of fans does, they don’t owe them a tailor-made ending. At the beginning of a series, many creators become deified and fans heap praise onto them. If the series progresses and fans become skeptical of the direction, the fan–creator relationship can become more complex. “Loving the show and loving the creator doesn’t mean that he gets a free pass from the fans,” Larsen says. “As with our relationship with any ‘god’, it’s fraught and complicated and full of ambiguities.”
This fan–creator disconnect is something exacerbated by the Internet because it gives a false sense of transparency. When authors and producers are on Twitter, it gives them a chance to interact with fans, and it gives fans the impression they know the creator. Zubernis says, “The one-sidedness of that dynamic is often unclear to many fans. On the surface, celebrities appear to be… sharing openly with fans. In reality, of course, that presentation is usually carefully constructed and crafted to create a particular impression.” So when a creator favorites your tweet about how Character X and Character Y should go on an adventure to Candy Mountain, it doesn’t mean they’re actually considering it, but Zubernis thinks that this sort of interaction “tends to inflate fans’ sense of their own influence.”
Of course, fans and creators do have a relationship in that, if fans stop paying for a creator’s work, the TV studio might cancel their show or the publishing company might decide their next book isn’t worth publishing. This forces creators to walk a fine line: do they tell the story they really want to and risk making their fan base upset, or do they cave and go out of the way to make fans happy even if it’s not the work they want to create?
When it comes to interacting with fandom, Zubernis and Larsen have a unique perspective. They are fans, specifically of the long-running CW show Supernatural. But both have PhDs, and part of their academic work takes an intellectual and critical look at what it means to be a fan. There is a line between fan passion and fan entitlement, but Larsen thinks that line is wobbly. “A passionate fan might very well feel that her passion entails a certain amount of ownership of the text and I feel there’s a lot to that argument,” she says. “On the other hand, producers can and have argued that the text belongs to them and they reserve full rights over it.”
It’s when the passion spills over into contentious arguments with other fans or creators that this becomes entitlement. The Internet just exacerbates this. Before the Internet, people wrote letters to producers, but nobody except the addressee read them. But with the Internet, these letters are open to the entire fan community, which allows controversial ideas about shows and books to gain momentum, even if they originated from a single person. Ideas can become universally accepted within a fandom, and Zubernis says, “The perceived accessibility of writers and production people on social media has, in a sense, encouraged more of what looks like entitlement—if the person is ‘right there,’ why not ask?”
From the outside, a normal person might think of fandom as loners writing and reading porny fan fiction in their basement by the light of their computers, and from the inside fans will rhapsodize about the creativity and inclusiveness fandom provides. While the unbridled enthusiasm of fans can seem weird from the outside, fandom has the potential to be a positive place for people who otherwise consider themselves outsiders. The catch is, fans have to be aware of the problems and be proactive in making their fan space a welcoming one. As Albus Dumbledore wisely put it, “We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.”
Featured image via the Avatar Wikia.