It’s easy to write off fandom as a passionate if slightly silly appreciation for a person, group or subject matter. But left to grow in the unchecked recesses of the Internet, toxic fandom has the potential for destructive real-world consequences that mirror political or religious extremism.
Fandom and fan culture in principle are relatively benign and enjoyable things. At all layers of investment, they provide everything you could ask for in a community centered around a traditional culture:
- Common interests: no explanation needed.
- Sense of belonging: a sense of camaraderie and acceptance from like-minded peers.
- History: the continuity from a pool of shared knowledge.
- Fashion: a costume, uniform or outfit that indicates and celebrates membership.
- Language: a visual, textual or spoken set of symbols, words and mannerisms.
- Artwork: any manner of artistic output that’s inspired and influenced by the subject of interest.
- Products: themed merchandise from tees and caps to duct tape.
- Events: gatherings both formal and informal that incorporate all of the above. These can mark certain times, honor more long-held traditions or be inspired by similar events in other regions.
Each of these factors gives a would-be fan any number of things to latch onto and explore upon “entering” the culture. There’s something for everyone in the sense that some fans will choose to geek out over the technical minutiae like sports stats, the creators’ life, production notes and such, while others are drawn to the greater energy that defines the group.
If we start to move away from the idea of fans and fandom as a means of uniting around and celebrating something, fan activism is one more step towards bringing the “magic” of that culture into the real world and one aspect of fandom rooted in actively driving change with respects to:
- The Subject Itself: examples would be petitioning to say, bring Family Matters to Netflix, stop Ben Affleck from becoming Batman, or change plots in a given story.
- The Industry: fans of a given industry might seek to drive change in how the industry that surrounds their favorite things functions such as equal pay for female athletes.
- Society: For one, the Harry Potter Alliance uses “elements of our favorite fictional universes as metaphors for making sense of complex, contemporary issues,” and encourages fans to contribute their talents and skills toward changing society and the world.
The last case is notable because it repurposes the passion, talent and connections formed from the original fandom and applies it to a different context. In a similar vein, the 501st Legion is a costumed group of Stormtroopers (villains from the Star Wars franchise) that also does charity and volunteer work.
Whether you call it toxic fandom or fan-aticism (our coining), this aspect of fandom is where strong views boil over into the real world and pair the same desire to directly effect change of activism with the threatening, destructive, physical and potentially illegal behaviors of extremism.
“Fandom is a pure and precious thing, and no one should feel conflicted about being invested in a pop-culture figure or property,” explains a Wired article on toxic fandom across different fields. “If you express that investment by being a worse person, though—treating appreciation like warfare, demanding dogmatic purity tests, attacking people, or seeing yourself as some kind of a crusader—than it’s probably time to take some time and re-assess things.”
While toxic fandom grabs the most attention with singular events that expose that aspect of the culture in all its ugliness, they all appear in a larger context of other moving cultural and political parts.
- Sports: Soccer hooligans can either be a toxic presence at a game regardless or be steered towards political ends.
- Music: From Beliebers and One Directioners to the man who tracked down a Jpop star from IG photos, toxic fandom has the potential to harm regular people, fans, and creators alike.
- Fiction: Sci-fi is particularly visible culprit with “old guard” Star Trek and Star Wars fans being hostile to new diverse fans and developments.
- Gaming: GamersGate similarly underscored misogyny and backlash against diversity from fans against those the industry (we won’t get started on the bile found among gamers).
- People: Even outside the entertainment world, there are legions of fans of famous people that will defend their name such as with entrepreneur Elon Musk.
This list of fields and examples within each are certainly not exhaustive, but in all cases, we can see that in all cases, situations frequently are boiled down to tribalistic “us vs. them” dynamics.
Where we’re going with this
We see that fandom can offer an uplifting common ground for people to unite, share and create around (and even do good), yet it also has the potential to turn sour, producing the same zealot-like devotion we’d see in extreme political, religious and criminal groups like gangs.
While we’re sure most readers are huge, even massive fans of certain things (even if you wouldn’t want to admit it), we know there will always be people who take things too far and worse, they’ll take it offline into the real world. This matters because as industries like professional sports, gaming and tech fields continue to make strides in certain directions, by and large that are more inclusive, large moves like that will cause friction with disgruntled so-called “true fans”.
We’ve been quite fascinated with the depths we’ve plunged thanks to the role tech and social media has influenced our world. The use cases have generally turned out pretty negative. But that’s not to say we can’t find the silver lining and utilize all this technology for something great. It’s time to align the right incentives.