Saturday, June 17, 2017

On Fandom and the Internet

Prepare yourself for a treatise on the changing nature of the entertainment industry based on societal changes brought about by the internet:

I've always been a nerd.  If any reading know me personally, they know this to be true.  From an early age, I had attachments to certain forms of popular expression.  For me, it was the Muppets, Hitchhiker's Guide, Saturday morning cartoons, and Little Women.

Each generation appears to be attached to things that represent a shared experience.  It transports each of us to a time when we were of a certain age, or believed in a certain thing.  The power of He-Man, the magic of the Care Bears, that Smurfs were good and Gargamel was bad.  

That seemed to open up once the internet came along.  College was the first time I had regular access to the internet.  I remember my sister and I reveling in the weirdness that was chat.  You could talk to anyone, anywhere, and you had no idea who they were, and they didn't know you.  It gave my sister the opportunity to flex her creativity with the truth.  

However, before too long, I discovered that web pages existed everywhere that were devoted to people's favorite pop culture.  I discovered treasure troves of facts and pictures and stories about Rocky Horror Picture Show.  I still can shout callbacks with the best of them, despite not studying for years.  I even went to live showings out of state, which I would never have known about before the internet.  

Then I discovered Monty Python sites, and greedily devoured that trivia like Garfield with a piping hot lasagna.  Then Mel Brooks.  I still know so much useless information.  

All of my far flung obsessions were available, and I could find the people who shared them.  So, that's my first interaction with a fandom.  While I considered my interests a bit not in the mainstream for my age and location, it wasn't all that unusual.  Some people knew what I was talking about.

My college fandoms faded, and I have been really into different shows or games or other expressions of pop culture in the meantime.  However, it was never as strong as that first brush with RHPS and the internet.  Then, it happened.  Like standing on a high point in the middle of a lightning storm, I decided to watch a show with my daughter.  

Not this one.  I'd seen that long ago.

Be serious.  I was all over that like white on rice.

I liked this one so much, I had a gif.  But also not it.

Say it with me...

I think we can all agree that it was a natural progression.  Also, I seem to have a type (of tv show at the very least).

Getting to know this show, and the cast and crew involved in it, has led me to think about the changing nature of the entertainment industry.  In brief, I'll lay the theory out here, since I've already spent so much time talking about the dark ages of the internet.  I may turn this into a paper of some kind at some point, if no such work already exists.

1.  The more entertainment options that are available, the more a product has to have a strong link with its audience.  It seems like the entire model for the entertainment industry has shifted to captivate the consumer.  It's not enough to have an audience, you must have a fandom.  Fandoms are pushing to bring back shows, keep their shows on air, not to have their favorites killed off or replaced, or who gets chosen for new roles.  As more people have the ability to communicate directly with the creators, creators can gauge the audience for a show or the impact a change can have.  Beyond that, fandoms have successfully bankrolled shows, in a backwards kind of Field of Dreams scenario.  They're here, so you may as well build it.  

2.  Fans expect a more personal connection with their stars.  I think this evolved two ways, but both are connected to the internet.  

Conventions became a thing.  Conventions have been a thing, however, they have started to expand faster than Garfield eating that scalding lasagna.  It went from comic to sci fi, and then you started seeing actors show up*, and then it became normal for a actor to be there because he was famous or had a tie to some sci fi movie.  It still exists mostly under the sci-fi heading, but the convention doesn't have to revolve around the theme.  

Then I found out that these chuckleheads in Supernatural have their own conventions.  (Yes, I'm guilty of watching these on YouTube, and yes, I want to go.)  Both actors and attendees profess how profound and moving these experiences are, and have led to the actors creating several non-profits with the support of their fans, which they call the Supernatural Family.  Fans have the option of not only meeting their favorite actors, but also having limited physical contact and conversations.  

The second aspect of this is that so many individuals are building up a sort of fandom or following on a smaller scale through producing their own materials.  YouTubers, bloggers, and podcasters, have become major earners with potentially millions of followers and now have access to promotion on mainstream media outlets, books being published, and merchandising.  The entire idea of this seems very egalitarian.  The people choose which programs and or people will become popular and, in return, the social media star profusely thanks those individuals for following and asks them to "like, share, and subscribe."  It's a mutually beneficial situation, wherein a follower feels a strong connection to a performer since they are in a way responsible for and integral to that person's fame. Also, returning to the previous point, social media stars are beginning to tour and be booked at conventions, adding to that idea of creating a personal connection to their idol.   

3.  Fandoms create automatic peer groups.  Back in the day for me, it was all that inside information, those tiny little factoids and finding a similarly minded group of people.  It's like belonging to a secret club.  Whovians, cumberbitches, browncoats, family.  Once fandom exists, Instead of liking a thing and then finding people who also like the thing, it seems like it has become a shortcut for finding people with similar interests or values.  Watching this show with my daughter, and descending into the depths of this fandom with her, we have established a sort of short hand that excludes people around us, but intensifies the feelings of closeness between us.  I'm not trying to say it is bad or wrong or anything.  It definitely seems more efficient in a lot of ways.  

As a theatre scholar, I find it interesting that what entertainment is becoming is so much more like theatre.  The reason I fell in love with theatre was because you are in the room with the performers, and if they are doing it right, they are giving you something tangible, and by experiencing this art with them, you're giving right back to them, and it's some kind of magical thing.  That's what I see in Supernatural.  Through social media and conventions and scavenger hunts and calling their fans family and staying on the show despite possible other opportunities, they have created what appears to be one of the most committed fandoms in history.  

Next time, the phenomenon of shipping.