WHEN FANDOM GOES OVER THE LINE
Experts say that people seek out fan culture because they're looking to make social connections.
AMC has felt the wrath of The Walking Dead fans this week.
After the series recently wrapped up Season 6 with an epic cliffhanger - a new villain kills one of the heroes, but viewers won't know which one until Season 7 arrives - fans and critics revolted, with The Daily Beast calling the plot decision "trolltastic" and The Walking Dead many viewers vowing to stop watching the show entirely. A Reddit post entitled "F--You TWD" has over 2,500 comments from fans discussing the finale, and Walking Dead showrunner Scott M. Gimple has planned to make amends.
"I do want to do right by this audience," he said in a media call this week, according to Variety. "I hope to win back or assuage some of the anger."
Fans seem to have more power over content now - just think of the overwhelming influence of San Diego Comic-Con these days, or how social media has amplified the importance of good word-of-mouth. But is it possible to become TOO invested in something?
For example, Big Brother Canada viewers weren't happy when the show's live feeds went down this past weekend. While some fans joked that they felt restless or confused, others seemed to take it personally.
"Guess what @Global_TV?" Ava Harlow wrote on Twitter. "Because @BigBrotherCA decided to pull down live feeds for 3 days, you've just lost a chunk of viewers!!"
At what point is fan behaviour considered too extreme? Is it when your buddy takes a day off of work to play the newest entry in the Call of Duty or Assassin's Creed franchise? Or could it be when Ohio's Anthony Bordell drops $500 US on a Donald Trump tattoo for his upper right arm?
Sometimes you've got to ask the tough questions. Is this devotion to your favourite TV series/sports team/video game having a negative effect on your life?
"Well, people get squirrelly around the term 'addiction,'" says Oren Amitay, a Toronto-based registered psychologist. "To me, for the definition of addiction, I ask these questions: Is it something outside of your control? Is it having a negative impact on you or your functioning? Using that definition, if people are binge-watching like that, I would say yes [they're addicted]. Because if they're taking time off work, if they're isolating themselves and not looking at what's really around them, they're becoming engrossed in this fantasy.
"A lot of people know far more about these celebrities than they know about their neighbours, friends and family. So, to me, I don't mind applying the term 'addiction' in that regard."
Amitay has also been following research on video game addiction, and he predicts that the next edition of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which psychologists use to diagnose patients) will include gaming.
But it's not just about craving an escape from reality. Amitay has found that 'superfans' are really just embarking on a search for belonging.
"We're social animals," he says. "This is why it's so compelling. Our brains are wired from our cave people days to want to connect with others, to share experiences, and to feel part of something bigger than ourselves. That's the way we are, and that applies to when fans are so engrossed in sports, like 'MY team.' Or, 'WE won.' No, you didn't win. You did nothing. People talk like that, and it gives them a false sense of purpose, of connection, of validation, and that's the human condition."
Cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken, who has investigated fandom in studies with Netflix and research at MIT, agrees that a lot of modern fan behaviour stems from people wanting to be social.
"In the old days, this kind of fandom used to be people living in their basements and not bathing enough and being obsessive about something that kind of took them out of the world," he says. "And more and more, as fandom becomes more social, and as people become more caught up in the storytelling, this kind of fandom actually takes them into the world. It takes them into social communities; it takes them into the creation of fan fiction, which they share with the world. There's been a big change."
Aside from identifying with characters and meeting other fans, McCracken says that people enjoy taking ownership over certain titles and second-guessing creative decisions - like what happened with The Walking Dead this week, or with The X-Files years ago, when creator Chris Carter received a message telling him that the X-Files fan community decided to write new scripts for Seasons 6 and 7 to clear up discrepancies.
"That kind of put everyone on notice," McCracken says. "These superfans weren't just admiring the shows - they were taking ownership of them, and they were demanding that the showrunners pay attention. Which is what every showrunner is trying to do now."
Some researchers believe that the word 'superfan' shouldn't even be used.
Henry Jenkins, a media scholar at the University of Southern California who has been studying fandom for over 25 years, says that the term is a media construct and doesn't originate from the fan community itself. In his opinion, the word seems to imply competitiveness, when real fandom is more about collaboration. Plus, most people switch between titles instead of becoming blindly obsessed with one thing forever.
"For most fans, they move through a variety of relationships, with a variety of different forms of media," says Jenkins. "What's stable is their relationship to each other."
For example, if you've cleared your schedule to blitz through the new Assassin's Creed game this week, it doesn't necessarily mean that you're fanatical about it. It means that you identify with a particular community.
"The person who takes a day off work to play a new w video game is probably a gamer, not necessarily simply a fan of that particular game franchise," he says. "And being a gamer, they want to be on top of wan the things that the t gamer community is taking about and participating in, so that they can belong more fully the gaming network."
So, it's all about connection. Commiserating with other jilted Walking Dead fans on Twitter is what makes us feel human.
"There have been people who have been isolated who call themselves fans," Jenkins says. "But to my mind the defining trait of being a fan is that your interest in media extends to your social life, and connects wit with you other people - many of whom you would o not have known if you were not a fan."